By Steve Wright
The opening of ACMI’s Game Masters exhibition had a lot of great talent behind it, from local developer and now CEO of Firemint, Rob Murray, right down to international legends Tim Schafer and Warren Spector. Each "Game Master" at the opening press conference seemed to have their place; Spector was the wise old veteran, Schafer was the funny one and Murray was the homegrown success story.
As Schafer and Spector both talked about making games out of love, Murray was there to point out some obvious truths -- as CEO of Firemint, he also made games to make money and keep the company (and his employees!) going. Murray's succeeded in that, too; since Firemint was founded in 1999, the company has developed over 30 games and employs close to 60 staff.
We were lucky enough to have a chat with the Melbourne Game Master just after that opening press conference ended.
Stevivor: Entrepreneur or not, that must have been pretty amazing sitting in a panel with Warren Spector and Tim Schafer. Is the gamer inside of you geeking out a bit?
Rob: Oh, totally! Yeah. I love those guys.
Stevivor: Have you had a lot of interaction with them, so far?
Rob: Yeah, it's been great! In fact, the questions the press have been asking are so interesting so far; we started talking more about some of them after the panel, and I'd like to go and continue that conversation.
Stevivor: So, you're learning things from the old masters? Or, are you teaching them some stuff?
Rob: It's a bit of both, isn't it? Our game industry is always changing, and we're all trying to keep up with the same trends. It's nice to see that no matter how successful you are, we're all doing the same thing. We're all trying to learn the same thing.
Stevivor: Actually, looking at gaming in the past little while, you've actually been more successful than they've both been…
Rob: (Laughs) Well, we're on top the trends right now, I guess.
Stevivor: With your recent acquisition of Infinite Interactive, and then being picked up altogether by EA, do you consider Firemint to be Melbourne's biggest gaming success story?
Rob: Yes, we do. I think that EA has a huge presence in Melbourne now. We share an office with Iron Monkey, who was also picked up. We've just got so much access now to some of the best talent in Melbourne.
Stevivor: Do you still consider yourselves to be an indie studio?
Rob: Now that we're part of EA, It think we should drop the indie thing a bit, but yeah, Firemint was an Indie studio. Different people think indie is a different thing; early on, Firemint had some success in work-for-hire. We had a cash-flow and some would say you're not indie if you can pay your bills. We had all the same struggles as an independent, just with more people. The transition from indie to not is a slow one. As long as you're still making the decisions and setting your own direction, I feel you can consider yourself as indie.
Stevivor: Is there still a stigma on mobile games as being too easy, or too casual, or not as credible as a console game?
Rob: I think that's all changing. I felt really strongly, early on, that there was a stigma doing mobile games as we were on these little Nokias with tiny screens. We still had the same skillsets as the regular games industry, though. The stigma was there until the iPhone came along and I think it's going away with the success of the iPhone and the iPad and so on. I love that casual games now are starting to be viewed as legitimate artistic works in their own right. We're also getting wide market acceptance; it's awesome to be on the bus and see someone playing your game.
Stevivor: In my research, I discovered Firemint was behind an old favourite of mine: Star Trek: The Cold Enemy. Is there an old Firemint game that has a special place in your heart?
Rob: Probably the first game we did as a full developer; it was called Soul Daddy in LA and it was a funny little shooter. I wouldn't suggest anyone goes and has a look at it, but we were first starting then and it was our first step working for ourselves. You can't beat that.
Stevivor: Do you have any tips for Australian game developers attending Game Masters that want to break in to the industry?
Rob: The best way is just to make your own games. You have to understand the industry that you want to work in. Start out with you making games, all the time. Don’t just rely on a university degree; it's what you do on your own time that counts. It's always about trying to improve your skillsets, and not just dev skills, but business skills. Flight Control was just me doing something for fun, and that's turned into our most successful product.
Stevivor: Sounds like you like getting your hands dirty, then. Is it possible to find a good balance between being the CEO of a company and continuing to make your own games?
Rob: It's very hard to find a good balance between creativity and business once you're running a larger studio. Once you start hiring people, you ideally want someone there that's on the business end, or ultimately it's going to be you. I struggle to find times to be creative, but when I do find them, they're all the more precious. I don't know if I would have done so well with Flight Control if I'd had more time to do it. It's Murphy's Law; it's not about how much time you get, but making sure you have peak creative time. Quality time.
Stevivor: Where have you spent most of your time in the Game Masters exhibition?
Rob: Definitely the arcades. Robotron. I definitely got stuck on that and could stay there for a while. I love all the arcade sounds in the background. It's a great overload of the senses.
Stevivor: What is Game Masters to you?
Rob: This is very much a celebration of games and what impact they've had on culture. It's that idea of developers and the people behind games, and it's great that ACMI is identifying them here.
We'd like to thank both Rob and Firemint (especially Sam!) for their time on such a busy and star-studded day.