Christchurch’s Game Development Scene

Jackson Wyndow

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Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of Wellington being coined the “creative city” when so much more happens outside of it. Christchurch, for instance, has a small yet thriving game development scene, and although it’s not quite on the scale of Auckland, it’s definitely not one to look past. There is a lot of talent and skill in the Christchurch gaming scene, not only at a practical level of actually creating games, but also on the academic side. From small independent developers making games, to big companies hired by Disney, a lot of games are regularly put out by this city.

The Realities

Located in Christchurch City is the EPIC (Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus), a building made after the 2011 quakes to host local businesses. One of the businesses this building hosts is CerebralFix, a company that not only  makes their own original games and software, but also does client work for big names like Disney.

The EPIC also houses the meetups for the Christchurch GameDev. Held once a month, game developers meet for presentations on new techniques and ideas in game development, but also to network and talk to other game developers about what they’re working on (the free pizza also helps to draw in a crowd, I’m sure).

I met Ian Shepherd at one of these meetups. This one in particular was about the hidden tricks of the ‘Unreal 4 Engine’, which the gaming sensation Fortnite runs on. It definitely wasn’t a small event either, the room that the presentation was held in was packed to the brim.

Ian has been making games on and off for 11 years now, working on a few things straight out of university. Part-time he works on Starport Delta, “a space station builder strategy title” at Cloudfire Studios. While the game was previously going to be published independently, they took it to the Penny Arcade Expo, better known as PAX, where some interest  surrounding the game was generated.

Christchurch has also put out the co-op puzzle game 39 Days to Mars, made by studio ‘It’s Anecdotal’. The game won awards at the Play-By-Play for innovative games, and has been praised by critics for its creative puzzle design, although it did fall short in its length. It is also currently being released on the Nintendo Switch.

The Foundations

Source: The University of Canterbury

Even for those wanting to get started, Christchurch already has a special foothold. The University of Canterbury is one of the only universities in the country to teach game design as a course (along with the Yoobee School of Design), allowing those interested in game development to take it on at an educational level. .

Launched in 2018 under the Bachelor of Product Design, the degree in Applied Immersive Game Design teaches students with an applied focus on real and experimental technologies to make games.  This teaches both the technical side of programming, and how to create experiences that people will enjoy.

But the course also strays from the rhetoric of viewing video games as just pure entertainment. The degree is strongly linked to the Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand (HITLab NZ), which uses game technologies and Virtual Reality (VR) for real world situations, such as training pilots, helping people with disabilities, and researching human-robot interaction.

Game development in this area is incredibly important for a variety of reasons. As I wrote in my previous article, many games lack true accessibility features, and HITLab, through its research on games, is helping move towards a solution to this problem.

New Zealand as a whole

Source: New Zealand Game Development Association

With the majority of New Zealand game contributions being exports, a recent 7.7 million dollar grant to HITlab NZ is hoping to retain local talent, as there is currently a skill shortage limiting companies (see the above graphic).

To put Christchurch in the wider context, New Zealand is actually quite unique in terms of game development, especially in its promotion of women. Furthermore, current 2019 estimates point towards there being about 660 full-time employees in the game development industry, compared to the 550 in 2018 (above). The current revenue of New Zealand developers is $143 million, overtaking Australia with $118.5 million.

There is a big push on diversity in game development here in New Zealand, especially in terms of girls in games. The Girls Behind the Games campaign, started by Dunedin-based studio ‘Runaway’, is one such example. What they do is pretty obvious, promoting female voices in the gaming industry, as “47% of gamers are women and yet women only make up 22% of the game industry itself.” Even Jacinda Ardern likes what they’re doing a lot.

The scene is clearly thriving here in Christchurch, even if it isn’t obvious. The EPIC Centre hosts a huge game company and regular meetups, and small developers are producing games that are getting recognized worldwide. As the industry grows at an immaculate pace, hopefully we will see Christchurch grow with it, and make its own stand as New Zealand’s “creative city.”