Made In Australia: 5 Lives Studios

Back in April 2011, the Brisbane-based Australian arm of Creative Assembly was renamed to Sega Studios Australia, a move that Sega Europe and Sega America’s Senior Vice President of Production at the time Gary Dunn said that would “not only reflect their development heritage but also the exciting new times ahead for the team.” Two years later Sega announced that Sega Studios Australia (SSA) would be closing its doors later in 2013 as a result of Sega’s restructuring efforts.

At the time of the announcement the studio was hard at work on the remake of the 1990 Sega Mega Drive title Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. Launching in September 2013 to mostly positive reviews, it would be the studio’s final release before shutting up shop and further decreasing the presence of big-name game development studios in Australia.

Mitch Clifford, who worked as an animator at SSA, remembers the day the team was called to come to listen to an announcement.

“It was something that was becoming all too familiar at this stage,” he says. However, despite the sombre prospect of being unemployed after the current project’s competition, Clifford is thankful the brass at Sega did give the team a lengthy head’s up, keeping everyone on for the following six months which allowed the team to complete work on Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse.

During these final few months, many including Clifford had one eye on the future, hoping to have work lined up in some form when SSA would cease to operate. It was during this time that the seeds of 5 Lives Studios were planted. According to Clifford, work colleague Mike Diskett sent an email asking if anyone was interested in Kickstarting a spiritual successor to Syndicate. Despite the email being sent with tongue partially in cheek, a handful of SSA team members, including Chris Conte, Dean Ferguson, Brent Waller and Clifford, jumped at the idea proposed by Diskett. Diskett had actually worked on the Amiga version of the original Syndicate during his time at Bullfrog and was the project lead on the 1996’s Syndicate Wars, so it was an IP he had of a lot of love for.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse was the last project from Sega Studios Australia

It wasn’t long before the team of five had conceived the concept of Satellite Reign and begun writing scripts, had filmed a pitch video and had put together in-engine demos in Unity. On June 28, 5 Lives Studios launched the Kickstarter for Satellite Reign, with the team hoping to raise A$530,000 to bring the game to life. However, the Kickstarter would exceed expectations, with the team receiving over A$750,000 in pledges.

Clifford admits that the success of Satellite Reign’s Kickstarter allowed the team to realise their dream and start their own studio, and if not for the campaign’s success the team would not have ended up where it is today.

“The Kickstarter was entirely what made it possible for us to start the studio and develop our first title, and we’re extremely grateful for our backers who trusted us and gave us that opportunity.”

If you’re wondering whether the name has more meaning to it than simply five people – five lives, the answer is yes. Clifford explains that the 5 Lives name comes from the fact that all five of the studio’s founders were taking a big leap of faith in their careers and lives.

“A lot of developers dream about the opportunity to start their own studio,” shares Clifford.

“We felt pretty lucky to have been able to turn one of the low points you can experience in your career (being made redundant as your workplace shuts down) into a potentially life-changing opportunity.  Plus, we felt ‘5 Lives’ had a suitably video game sounding vibe to it, like an extra life type thing.”

Since the studio’s conception, the team has grown slightly, with more talent coming on board to help with Windbound’s development. The team now sits at ten full-timers and two part-timers, with 5 Lives calling upon contractors for concept art, sound design and writing purposes throughout development.

Clifford also reveals that due to the team’s small nature it never felt beneficial to showcase Windbound at PAX Australia – Australia’s premier gaming convention.

“We’re not a large team, particularly on the art and design side. Taking a few of us out of action for that time is a good chunk of the team unavailable to help get things over the finish line.”

The founders of 5 Lives Studios

Most of the team are still based in Brisbane, only recently upgrading from their initial studio space to a larger and more fitting space. “As we grew, it got too limiting,” says Clifford, who reveals that one of their original programmers has lived in NSW since day dot, making the occasional trip to meet up with the team, something that hasn’t been possible recently due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Although the team often work out of a shared space, the team at 5 Lives are not new to working from home. It’s for this reason that the impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown measures haven’t impacted the studio as hard as others.

“We’ve always been fine with people working remotely when it’s more suitable,” says Clifford. “Of course, that’s not quite the same to suddenly having zero contact between the whole team, especially given the timing.”

5 Lives was working towards hitting Windbound’s beta milestone when the team had to go into lockdown, shares Clifford.

“Not only is communication slowed down, we only have a limited number of console development kits, so suddenly it becomes incredibly difficult for people to test changes. That’s a hurdle at the best of times, let alone when we’re trying to get things in order for a really important milestone.”

Clifford says they are fortunate that the impacts were only minimal compared to the rest of the world, with most of the team back in the office, and should they be required to go into lockdown again the team will be able to handle it effectively.

When SSA announced they were closing down, it would have been easy for Clifford and the rest of the team to look for job opportunities overseas. Instead, Clifford reveals that uprooting his life and essentially starting from scratch in a new country was not overly appealing.

“If I spent long enough trying unsuccessfully to find a job locally, then maybe I would have eventually looked elsewhere, but I know for a fact that there’s no shortage of talent right here in Australia, after having met and worked with so many amazing people.”

It was the allure of starting his own studio with those talented people that convinced Clifford that he didn’t need to leave Brisbane’s shores to continue his game dev career.

“I – like many games developers – always loved the idea of being able to start my own studio with like-minded people who I enjoyed working with,” says Clifford.

“Moving overseas just to work for a big-name studio probably would have been great for a while, but I knew that eventually I’d want to be able to have the freedom to do my own thing. That’s probably the biggest reason why I jumped at the opportunity to Kickstart our own unique project with Chris, Dean, Brent and Mike. Opportunities like that don’t come by often – if ever – so it was a simple choice.”

We felt pretty lucky to have been able to turn one of the low points you can experience in your career (being made redundant as your workplace shuts down) into a potentially life-changing opportunity

So how does working for your own studio compare to working for a mega-company like Sega?

“Working at Sega wasn’t all that different to many of the other work environments I’d been in,” answers Clifford. “While every studio has its own unique vibe, its character is defined by the people who make up the team rather than the project you’re working on. You care less about the sign on the building and more about who you’re spending every day with.”

SSA wasn’t the first time some of the founders of 5 Lives Studios had worked together, with Clifford revealing that Dean Ferguson was his boss and the one who hired him for his first job at Krome Studios in 2007.

“It was a close call too because I had just accepted a job at another studio called Auran when I got the call to have an interview at Krome,” says Clifford. “At first I said “thanks, but I just accepted another offer,” but shortly thought better of it and called them back. Things would have been very different for me had I not done so!”

Over the years leading up to 5 Lives Studios the team has worked across many studios, including THQ, Pandemic, Rockstar, Bullfrog, Team Bondi and more. Clifford divulges that he was made redundant while working at Krome Studios as a result of the global financial crisis. Thanks to some savvy contact-making skills while at Krome, Clifford secured a contract at Team Bondi, helping finish off the development of LA Noire. Clifford would find his way back to his old stomping ground in Krome (although they weren’t Krome anymore – they were KMM) to assist with the tie-in game for Happy Feet Two. After the game was completed the team disbanded and many found a new home at SSA.

According to Clifford, the game dev scene in Queensland has changed a lot since his journey began, explaining that a lot of developers were working at larger studios, whereas now the industry is full of smaller teams working on smaller and unique projects. Despite this change, the teams in Queensland are all supportive of one another and regularly catch up for a few froths when time permits.

As for the Australian games landscape as a whole, Clifford believes it is heading in a more promising direction compared to a decade ago.

“I see a lot more potential for it to stand on its own now, bringing in international investment when it makes sense, rather than it being the only viable way to produce a game.”

Satellite Reign in action

Clifford says that the Australian Government could do more to help alleviate some of the uncertainty when it comes to running an indie studio, and while there is financial assistance available in the form of State Government grants, Clifford says that it simply isn’t enough to go around.

“The federal government recently announced a $400 million package for Australia’s entertainment industries, but it doesn’t include video games development at all. It speaks to a strong lack of understanding by our government as to what exactly the games industry is and how much it’s worth globally.”

Despite the lack of federal support, Clifford believes that the Australian games industry will manage and continue to thrive. However, he does acknowledge that if the government ever did choose to support the games industry, then the level of success could be “enormous”.

Releasing Satellite Reign in 2015 was a huge achievement for the studio, however Clifford reveals that the moment they hit their funding goal for the game’s Kickstarter was one of his career highlights.

“That was the moment that everything became pretty real,” he exclaims. “Like, we were committed to this course of actually starting an independent studio and developing a brand-new game, and we were calling the shots. That was equal parts exciting and scary.”

After a successful Kickstarter campaign for Satellite Reign I had to ask why 5 Lives didn’t go back to the crowdfunding well with Windbound, after all, it would give them total creative control over the project.

The truth is though, according to Clifford, that while Kickstarter campaigns are a great way to raise funds without giving away the farm, they are also a huge commitment – especially for a small team like 5 Lives Studios.

“Kickstarting Windbound was something we discussed on a number of occasions,” shares Clifford.

“There was certainly an element of timing and luck with Satellite Reign, being the right thing at the right time. Video game successes still happen on Kickstarter, but not at the rate they used to, so it felt like too much of a risk.”

“In the end we opted for partnering with a publisher as a means to have a stronger launch campaign than we otherwise would have put together ourselves

The team celebrating a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013

Publishing deals with major companies are not overly common for independent studios in Australia, with most preferring to persevere with self-publishing, made possible thanks to funding grants given to studios by state government bodies. 5 Lives Studios however, decided they wanted to partner with a publisher for the release of Windbound, eventually securing a deal with Deep Silver, a major coup for the studio. But how did the deal come together? Clifford shares that the team took a prototype of Windbound they had been working on full-time for over a year to GDC in 2017. The studio had meetings with several publishers – both large and small – from all over the world and felt their chances of landing a publishing deal were promising. What they didn’t expect was how soon it would happen.

“Deep Silver in particular was very interested in Windbound and got in touch with us right after the conference had concluded – which is unusual in our experience,” reveals Clifford.

“Usually there’s a good week or so after GDC ends where everyone is exhausted and is just trying to decompress after a busy week of demos and meetings, so it was a really positive sign to have a prominent publisher be so eager to work with us.”

Financial assistance wasn’t the only reason 5 Lives sought a publishing deal, with the team learning during Satellite Reign’s development that there’s a lot to developing a game than just making the game.

“We learned first-hand how easy it is to get wrapped up in the actual development of a game, forgetting about how much is involved in getting the game into people’s hands,” admits Clifford.

Video games are releasing thick and fast nowadays, meaning that marketing your game is more important than ever. With Satellite Reign, 5 Lives Studios could utilise the game’s successful Kickstarter campaign as a marketing tool, however with Windbound not using crowdfunding platforms the studio knew they had to improve this aspect this time around.

Clifford admits that none of the team knew anything about marketing or PR. “We figured the best thing to do would be to have that handled by people who actually know what they’re doing,” he says.

With the game’s promotional aspects being taken care of, it means that the team at 5 Lives Studios could spend more time developing the game.

“It’s such a huge load off our mind knowing that the marketing and promotion is being handled by a team of people who do this sort of thing for a living,” says Clifford. “Of course, it means we have milestones and deadlines to meet, but that’s also a good way to stop things from meandering and keeping things on track.”

With 5 Lives only having to worry about the game’s development, it allowed the team to focus on bringing the game to five platforms (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC and Stadia) at launch – an ambitious goal, especially for a small team like 5 Lives Studios.

“Much of the months leading up to our submissions was spent getting all of the different platforms release-ready,” says Clifford. “We brought on a new programmer just under a year ago who had just launched a title on several platforms at his previous studio, and so was very familiar with a lot of the requirements.”

Although the team has experience working with many consoles, Windbound is their first release for current-gen consoles, so having someone with experience with submitting games for current-gen consoles was a huge boon to the team according to Clifford, who says there were several little “gotchas” that could have set the team back.

5 Lives Studios are also quick to praise Deep Silver for their assistance in getting Windbound ready for release.

“Their platform testing was really robust, and helped us iron out a lot of issues before they could have potentially caused our console submissions to be flagged and sent back,” reveals Clifford. “I believe our first platform to be submitted was for PlayStation 4, and it actually got approved on our first try, which we can credit heavily to Deep Silver’s robust testing.”

Despite taking on a hefty challenge of launching Windbound on five platforms simultaneously, 5 Lives Studios has been able to maintain a balanced work-life schedule, with the team avoiding crunch. Clifford says that outside a bit of overtime here and there, he’s never really been in a position where crunch was required.

“We’ve always been fine with giving everyone some flexibility with their working hours, with the studio generally filling up between 8:30am and 10am, and people leaving between 5:30pm and 6:30pm,” states Clifford.

“Even at the stage of doing final submissions for Windbound to the various platform holders, we still more or less saw everyone working the usual-length working day. That’s not to say there hasn’t been any extra time put in. During lockdown, it was a little too easy to let the line between work and personal time blur, particularly because every waking hour was spent at home.”

5 Lives Studios working on Windbound in the new digs

So how did someone from a small cane-farming community south of Cairns end up having a career in game development? Clifford says he moved to Brisbane to study games development (majoring in animation) a little less than a year after he completed high school.

Clifford began playing with 3D software in high school, which convinced to make the move to Brisbane to study games development. However, since he graduated games development has seen constant changes in terms of tool and technology available to developers.

“When I left school, normal maps were new technology in video games. Now we’re seeing machine learning and ray-tracing making their way into real-time applications, not to mention all of the advancements in the tools we use to create content. You’re always learning in this industry, which keeps things exciting.”

Clifford reveals that his love for video games started when he was roughly five-years-old after his parents bought him and his sister a NES for Christmas.

“I know they bought it for themselves as much as us,” laughs Clifford, who says the only game they had was Tennis, but that was enough for him to be hooked.

Even before deciding on pursuing video game development, Clifford admits that at school he would enrol in all available subjects that leaned in that direction, such as Art, Film & TV etc, and in his final year of Film & TV he was the only student who wasn’t trying to book one of the limited video cameras because he had decided to make his final project in 3D.

“Of course, with essentially zero existing 3D animation experience, I drastically underestimated how long it’d take, and was several weeks late with my submission,” recounts Clifford.

“Thankfully, my teacher was incredibly supportive of my efforts, considering nobody at the school at that point had undertaken such a task. I think that experience was a big part of what locked me onto the career path I’m on today.”

Such is Clifford’s passion for creating video games, he hasn’t really thought about what career he would have if video games didn’t work out.

“Film animation, perhaps? That’s certainly a job I could do, but the idea doesn’t really fuel a passion inside me. I enjoy animation, but it’s the process of creating games that I love. Working with people and bouncing ideas around, and then seeing it come to life. If I couldn’t do that, I honestly don’t know how I’d make a living.”

Whether it’s biz-dev, PR, marketing, or anything else that isn’t directly involved in the creation of games, it’s important to have some sort of plan on how all those things are going to be handled

When asked what is it about games he enjoys from a player and developer perspective, Clifford is conflicted.

“There’s sort of a double-edged sword with being someone who both plays and creates games,” says the former SSA animator.

“Falling into a new game that totally consumes your attention is such a great experience. Figuring out how it works, exploring, and hearing the stories – all wonderful, and not something you really experience in the same way with other mediums.

“That feeling of wonder and not knowing what’s next isn’t something you can ever really experience for the games you make yourself. By the time it’s complete, you’ve already been so involved that you never get that first-impression that everyone else gets, which is a bit of a shame.”

Outside of video games – be it development or playing – Clifford dabbles in photography, something he hasn’t been able to dedicate as much time to as he’d like to since starting 5 Lives Studios. However, the recent lockdown has provided a perfect opportunity to dip his toes back in.

“I started to look back to what sort of creative things I could do in my own time and picked up my camera again. Unfortunately, a pandemic isn’t a very good time to want to get out and take photos, so there were lots of photos of our pets until I was able to get outside and fire off some shots.”

So after 13 years since he first started at Krome Studios, what has been Clifford’s biggest lesson learned from his experiences?

“It sounds obvious in hindsight, but when you start a game studio, you don’t just have to make games – you’ve also got a business to run,” he answers.

“There are some people who love doing that sort of thing and are great at it, but that’s not why I wanted to start a studio – I just wanted to make games with like-minded people. Whether it’s biz-dev, PR, marketing, or anything else that isn’t directly involved in the creation of games, it’s important to have some sort of plan on how all those things are going to be handled.

“We sort of blundered through that with Satellite Reign, and it’s lucky that the game did as well as it did given that we had no marketing spend whatsoever. That experience has certainly informed how we’ve decided to manage things moving forward.”

I ask Clifford what advice he would offer to those wanting a career in game development, half expecting an answer in jest along the lines of “don’t start your own studio”. Instead Clifford explains that due to the drastic industry changes since he first started it’s tough to know what advice to give.

“One thing that does come to mind is to be aware of how you present yourself on social media,” he says. “Not in terms of trying to be particularly active or anything (I’m barely active at all on social media these days), but more about what you actually say and share online.”

Social media offers fans and supporters a great platform to interact with developers, whether individually or a company. Sadly however, some social media users take to the platforms to vent their frustrations, often going too far and hurling abuse, something Clifford says he loathes seeing.

“It’s disappointing how often you see someone on social media acting aggressively towards developers (or anyone, really), only to see on their profile bio that they’re an aspiring games developer. Games development is such a teamwork-focused endeavour, so it’s important to be able to get along and collaborate with others and remain respectful along the way.”

Does the future of 5 Lives Studios feature VR?

As for the future of 5 Lives Studios, Clifford believes that thanks to Satellite Reign and Windbound the team have a good foundation to build on.

“We’ve got so many ideas for expanding the Satellite Reign and Windbound worlds, and we’d love to be able to bring some of those ideas out of our imaginations and into being.”

Mainly though, the team wants to continue growing and trying new things, hoping they continue to be a part of Australia’s bright future. But what they fail to realise (or admit), is that Australia’s future is bright because of teams like 5 Lives Studios – teams who take a leap of faith and believe they can conquer whatever challenges are thrown their way.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts