Dunedin's 'indie' game makers break the mould

Natural History NZ branches out into computer games

Wellington may be the "Hollywood" of the New Zealand games industry thanks to Sidhe Interactive with its burgeoning list of arcade-style titles based on US movie franchises, but "indie" developers in Dunedin are out to break the mould with new gaming genres.

Dunedin documentary-maker Natural History New Zealand is branching out into the computer games market.

General manager John Crawford says the company has engaged a team of five games developers and will work with contractors to develop games for personal computers and smartphones.

It is working on its first two titles, which it hopes to sell online early next year. They will be "meaningful" games, designed to educate as well as entertain, one of which is skewed towards women.

"We've done a lot of research and the business plan stacks up quite well and we have done some consulting with some overseas experts. There isn't a lot of product around that tends to fit that gap, and what there is tends to be quite successful."

NHNZ is one of the world's largest independent documentary producers, employing 120 staff and contractors. It produces about 60 hours of programming a year for channels such as Animal Planet and Discovery. Current projects include a six-part series on dinosaurs, due to screen next year.

"With an in-house computer graphics team and thousands of hours of footage coming into library each year, we've got ample resources for gaming developers to tap into," Crawford says, noting the global computer games market has doubled in size over the past four years to value $50 billion. "It is a natural extension of our business.

The games unit is being overseen by Tim Nixon, the former chief executive of Dunedin games company Straylight Studios. It went out of business April, with the loss of 18 jobs, after the economic downturn scuppered a capital raising.

Fellow Dunedin games company Clocktower Games, meanwhile, says it is hopeful of recouping the development costs of its game, Casebook, which went on sale a year ago. Gamers play the part of a detective's sidekick, moving through photorealistic scenes and interviewing suspects to solve a "whodunit".

Chief executive Graham Hambleton says US retailers WalMart, Target and BestBuy bought 21,000 copies of episode one of the game and Casebook will soon go on sale in Russia and Italy. Clocktower sells the game direct online, for US$5 to $7.50 an episode.

Episode three will go on sale next week and Clocktower is in discussions with publishers that may help distribute Casebook.

"We are reasonably happy with where we have got in terms of critical success and initial buy-in, but we think to get better sell-through we probably need some help from publishers," Mr Hambleton says. "When our guy goes to talk to someone he only has one game to sell, when they go they have got 30 games to sell. "

Casebook was designed primarily to showcase the graphics technology of parent company Areographics, which uses photographs to create navigable 3D "virtual" environments.

Clocktower is in discussions with Microsoft and Sony about using that technology to develop photorealistic driving games, Mr Hambleton says. "That is really the opportunity that Casebook has provided."

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