From left to right: Max Howard-Martens, Mickey Treadwell, Lisa Blakie, Connor Bridson form the full-time team at Atawhai Interactive.
Three years ago, they were four friends who dreamed big in a karaoke bar. Next week they will launch a video game demo to thousands of people.
At 30, Mickey Treadwell is certainly no longer the kid from Dunedin who thought he was meant to play games, not make them.
“I didn’t realize it was possible until well after college,” he said.
He was working in a shared office building when he realized that his neighbor, Runaway Play, was not just a Dunedin-based video game studio, but a success. He returned to college to retrain as a developer.
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It wasn’t as easy as knocking on the door of a studio for a job. He said he became a tech support assistant at Education Perfect and then had a fateful karaoke session with Lisa Blakie, Connor Bridson and Max Howard-Martens.
“We realized, oh, we kind of have it all [the skills] we have to create our own studio.
Their studio, Atawhai Interactive, was “really just four friends who love making games”.
In 2021, they won a $36,000 grant and became four of 80 people to get state-funded jobs in video game development.
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The money came from the New Zealand Center of Digital Excellence, an organization which secured $2.6 million from the government to create a billion dollar gaming industry in Dunedin.
Sixteen studios were launched and five others received a financial boost. The problem was that at least 80% of employees had to be based in Dunedin, said CODE chief executive Tim Ponting.
Thirteen of the studios would travel to Melbourne International Games Week 2022 in October, where they would showcase their prototypes in front of major publishers like Sony and Nintendo, influencers and investors, and thousands of dedicated gamers.
Treadwell said their demo of Toroa – a wholesome adventure game based on an albatross (toroa) trying to find its way home – was at a stage where publishers could pick it up, opening them up to the resources needed to complete the game.
“Money is only part of it…several hundred people a day will probably walk by, maybe try the game, find bugs and give feedback.
“Seeing people play it…we’re definitely excited.”
Networking was critical to success and how quickly a game could get to market, Ponting said.
While the government had funded studio grants, that wasn’t enough to make a game from start to finish. It would take nearly the entire two-year budget to fund just one big indie game, Ponting said.
He said CODE aims to create a sustainable industry in Dunedin. Some of the funding went to local education programs, teaching children that – contrary to what Treadwell grew up thinking – they could make their own games, even from Dunedin.
They also held workshops and mentorship programs, and tried to support as many budding developers as possible, even if they didn’t receive a grant.
Ponting said top locations won grants, and it was an added bonus that in two years Dunedin had become one of the most diverse places in the world to work in the industry.
Of all the studio heads in the city, 70% were from diverse backgrounds, with 9% being Māori or Pasifika and 40% being women.
More than 40% of developers were also women, more than double the international average.