This week I opened Steam on my desktop to be greeted by a sight I’d never seen before: a celebration of PC games made in New Zealand, with discounts of up to 70%.
Unfortunately, that sale ended pretty quickly, but it did inspire me to get in touch with Chris McFarland, a Kiwi who curates the collection and the developer behind the Tallowmere series, to find out a little more about the New Zealand games development scene.
“Since starting the list in 2015, hearing of new games to add has mostly been from digital word-of-mouth in the NZ game dev Slack channel,” he tells me. “I don’t always catch new releases right away, but if I hear of a NZ studio releasing a game, I try to check it out and add new titles when possible.”
The recent Steam promotion did give his Tallowmere games a bit of a sales boost, he tells me, and other developers in the community have claimed similar. But before now the list has been more of a slow burn. “It’s been a low-key list — cool to stumble upon, but not really something consumers are actively reaching out for and seeking,” he continues.
“New Zealand is a small country. But, having seen Steam promote other similar ‘Made in Country X’ sales for other countries before, it’s cool New Zealand has had its turn now!”
So, are there any characteristics that make a game distinctly Kiwi in feel? “I don’t think there’s a distinct trend amongst games made here,” he says. “Each game is its own thing, being born from different studios creating different styles of entertainment from different walks of life.”
Indeed, McFarland’s three favourites from the collection all feel very distinct from each other: Path of Exile by Grinding Gear Games, Mini Metro by Dinosaur Polo Club and Bloons TD 6 by Ninja Kiwi.
Is the New Zealand gaming community close-knit? McFarland mentioned the regular meetups arranged by the New Zealand Game Developers Association in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
If you attend, you’ll find “a good mix of professionals, hobbyists, and students” alongside some regular gamers. “It’s fun to break away from the computer screen and meet like-minded folk in the flesh.”
But it’s mainly social, and there’s not much direct collaboration between developers. “Solo devs tend to solo, and companies tend to keep to their companies,” he explains. “There’s a lot of sharing of knowledge, which is great,” he continues, but not that much direct working together due to the stickiness of employment, contracts and so on.
And what about gamers without the know-how or will to make a game themselves? “GP Forums still lives on, but the likes of Gameplanet, NZGamer, and VGNZ have gone away over the years,” he says. “I would say Reddit and Discord tend to be where people hang out now.”
Of course, just because you’ve never considered making a game before, doesn’t mean you can’t, and McFarland has plenty of advice for those who want to learn the ropes.
“If you’ve got a computer, you can make a game,” he explains citing the myriad game engines available — Unreal, Unity, Godot, and GameMaker to name a few.
You don’t have to go it alone, with art, modeling, animation, sound effects, music and writing all needing creative input. “But if you’re going solo, programming is a must,” he says.
“Making everything work can be a challenge, but it feels rewarding once the hard yards have been put in,” he says. “It’s certainly okay to make a game as a hobby — not everything has to be a commercial endeavour!” But if you do want to make things a bit more professional, McFarland recommends looking at tertiary institutions like the Media Design School.
“Ultimately, whether you’re doing this for fun, profit, or both, the game you make (or help make) needs to be exciting, cool, and playable,” he concludes.
“A game doesn’t necessarily need to be 100% original — it’s okay to use an established genre — but tweak things, and give things your own spin and polish to make it your own. Be creative, and entertain the world!”