Founded in 2001, Big Ant Studios is arguably Australia’s most prolific developer of sports-related video games on console and it is a proving ground for entrepreneurial game makers. Located just a stone’s throw from the Yarra River in Southbank, Melbourne, the company surivived its ill-fated first title as well as the ‘bushfires’ of the GFC by capitalising on opportunities not pursued by global games giants such as Electronic Arts (EA).
Founder and CEO Ross Symons spoke to Dynamic Business about the secret to Big Ant Studios’ longevity, his ambitions for its growth and the key challenges it faces including increasingly time poor customers, political ‘hostility’ and the brain drain of talented developers.
DB: What experiences led you to found Big Ant Studios?
Symons: My video game journey began in childhood and later spun into a gig as a technology writer, with my first article published in 1979. I wrote various articles on programming and game design for PC magazines, which also featured my listings – the pre-disk/tape mode of distributing computer programs, listings included source code instructions, often pages long, that people could type into and execute on their computers.
I also used a photocopier to self-publish game listings through local newsagents and authored some books on coding and games for computers such as the TRS80, Commodore 64, and BBC Micro. While it was very rewarding and great fun to be writing during what I believe was the ‘romantic period’ of games development, it wasn’t profitable enough to pursue as a career.
So, in the mid-to-late 80’s I switched to become a ‘serious’ programmer and left games behind. From programming robot-lathes and working on the mail systems of the Telecom network Viatel, through to operating an Australia-wide wireless data network, I was involved in a multitude of industries.
I always planned to return to video games but knew it would have to wait for the right time and that I would need financial backing. In 1999, I was involved in public listings for a number of tech companies, which provided me with the capital and knowledge neccesary to return to my passion in a bigger way. Sony PlayStation was going gangbusters at that point, so it was the right time too. I founded and personally funded Big Ant with a view to making my dream game – loosely based on the film “Running Man”, “Third Strike 25 to Life” revolved around a TV show where inmates battle to win their freedom. Amusingly enough, Big Ant did make that game but we never got to release it. (More on that in a moment!)
DB: What is the company’s core service and its USP?
Symons: First and foremost, Big Ant is a game development studio with a focus on sport games for console and, when it deepens the player experience, we deliver mobile content in support of our titles. We are also very much a tech company. Unlike most studios, we write our own engines (i.e. the platforms on which all our games run). Consequently, we’re able to specifically target areas of sport, rather than just general game requirements.
We have developed Stadium Tech, Player Tech, Crowd Tech, and even Grass Tech for our games. This tech is unique to us – and thus not present in any other game by a competitor. Due to this level of specialisation, we’re able to execute key areas of sport well, both in terms of performance and cost. We can offer sports licensors a high-quality outcome with one of the fastest development cycles, from start to finish, of any independent games company in the world, all at a lower cost as we are reusing our existing technology.
DB: How would you quantify your company’s success?
Symons: I see success as the growth in our catalogue of titles as well as the licenses we have procured – and continue to procure. We have shipped more sports-related console titles and sold more units than anyone else in the history of Australian video game development. Plus, the number of titles we are working on currently, and the quality of those licenses involved, is accelerating.
We are working with some of the biggest sporting licenses in the world and gaining respect across the globe. Don Bradman Cricket is our latest title, and we are also working on a Rugby League title, as well as an unannounced sports game that will have global appeal. In the past, we have worked on everything from AFL through to sports of interest outside Australia such as our Lacrosse title, released last year.
DB: What challenges have you faced at you company’s helm?
Symons: The GFC was a big one. It resulted in a great contraction in the number console titles being produced globally, with publishers making bigger bets on fewer titles. This meant there was intense competition for licenses and work-for-hire contracts. Most large Australian developers did not survive the GFC and it was increasingly difficult for Big Ant to get its games published.
Apart from the GFC and escalation of the AUD, the rise of mobile gaming has certainly been a large impact, although I consider the rise of the Internet itself to be our biggest competitor. Console games take time to play, and our target demographic are becoming increasingly time poor. We have to provide even richer and deeper experiences than ever before to maintain our price points.
DB: How did Big Ant Studios survive the through the GFC?
Symons: In strict financial terms, deciding to stop working on US titles and instead focus on Australian titles as the Australian mining sector took off around 2008-09 – and with it the Australian dollar – was the single biggest reason we were able to survive the currency crisis and the GFC.
DB: More generally, what has fuelled the studio’s success?
Symons: Deciding to concentrate solely on sport titles is the biggest factor in our success. We chose sport because of the lessons learned from “Third Strike 25 to Life”, which took three years to make but never saw the light of day! It wasn’t a sports game and it didn’t make it to market because no one wanted to back it. As the marketing budget rose to surpass the development budget, it was deemed too risky a venture by all concerned outside of Big Ant.
That experience caused us to look at sport. Why? Because it is universal and renewable, the rosters are ever changing and fans demand updates – every year allows for a “sequel”. We set about doing all of the sports that the bigger game publishers found just too small, and that is what we do to this day, buoyed by our our existing engines, which allow us to more rapidly create new games around their respective sports.
DB: Post-GFC, is Australia’s game industry in good shape?
Symons: The local industry has never been in a stronger position. Those who have survived the ‘bushfires’ of the GFC and AUD escalation have emerged stronger and smarter than ever. Those who sprung from the ashes are doing extraordinarily well. The local industry is far more collaborative than competitive. The exception, both locally and internationally, is when it comes to attracting and retaining atlent. We have lost an abundance of talent to overseas studios, where there tend to be greater opportunities for young developers to gain experience and work on major ‘blockbuster’ properties, and I see this is set to heat up and become a major issue.
DB: After 16 years with Big Ant, what keeps you motivated?
Symons: In global terms we are a small independent developer that, while punching well above our weight, cannot yet achieve what the EAs of the world produce. Our goal is to match EA with the major sporting franchises (FIFA, Madden) and take on even higher profile franchises – and we can see it happening. Each game we make gets us closer. Just as in sport itself, it’s our desire to compete and our will to win that drives all of us at Big Ant.
DB: What key lessons have you learnt at the company’s helm?
Symons: Here are the three big ones…
Firstly, focus on what you can do extremely well until you approach perfection and make sure what it is you are good at can be applied across multiple opportunities.
Secondly, capitalise on opportunities not pursued by bigger players. Just as Big Ant services many of the sports games that are too small for EA, I see large corporations across many industries growing beyond markets, leaving gaps and niches that can be very profitable for smaller, agile players to fill.
Lastly, before starting Big Ant I never understood how hostile the political environment in Australia was towards new technology in general, and game development in particular, and it’s especially true now. We can still make things here in Australia, however, it will likely be more than a struggle – the rewards are great but it’s going to be tough.
DB: Finally, any advice for start-up founders in your industry?
Symons: A number of Big Ant staff that have gone on to do great things, netting in excess of AUD$100 Million, but they all have one thing in common – they did the hard yards working at a larger studio, understanding that it is teams that make games and all the things that go with that. My advice to youngsters is to get your ‘apprenticeship’ and learn what it takes to finish a game – I have seen so many great games sit nearly done but unfinished, like grapes dying on the vine not bottled.