At 22 years of age you’d think most people would be making the most of their youth; travelling overseas, pissing their future away on buying smashed avo or building a massive HECS debt thanks to a degree (or two) you’ll probably never end up using. I mean it’s such an iconic age that Taylor Swift wrote a song about it. When I hit 22 I’d only recently moved to Melbourne, hoping that my rockstar journey was about to start thanks to the nu-metal bangers I’d written (spoiler alert: it didn’t). Then there are people like Jackson Frew, who at 22 is the owner, CEO and sole employee of Sydney-based video game development company Amelus Digital, a studio that specialises in custom-made video game experiences as gifts as well as mobile gaming titles. Furthermore, Frew taught Game Design and Level Design for a semester at North Sydney Tafe. Not bad for a 22-year-old. Suddenly my drop-C palm-mute chugging doesn’t sound so impressive.
Frew and I met by pure happenstance at PAX Australia, and it was during this chance meeting that Frew introduced me to Amelus Digital’s revamped HEART2GAME service – a service that is dedicated to creating games as gifts. It could be for a loved one, such as a marriage proposal or anniversary present. It could be a birthday gift for a friend, or you could simply want to thank your neighbour for feeding and walking your dog while you were sinking $3 Bintangs in Bali for the past two weeks. Whatever the occasion, Frew can tailor your game to suit your needs thanks to a range of package options.
The genesis of the HEART2GAME concept is both heart-warming and somewhat relatable, with the service being conceived because Frew was scrambling for a two-year anniversary present (relatable) for an ex-girlfriend at the time back in 2015.
‘I ended up making this cute two-minute game which shows little animated characters of us walking through a museum with photos of us on the walls. It was very basic, but she really loved the gift’, Frew reveals.
‘Later on, I was telling this story to my parents and my step-mother encouraged that I actually do this as a service. I didn’t do much about it at the time because I was still very much focused on making new games, but when 2017 rolled around, I decided that it was in fact, a good idea, and so HEART2GAME was launched’.
Impressively, Frew designs all of the games himself, outsourcing things like environment and character art to contractors when he needs to. While some of these assets are reused in games, having a framework that is easily adjustable helps keep the cost affordable.
So how did a 22-year-old go from college graduate to founder and chief operator of an independent game development studio that builds custom-made games as gifts?
Frew’s voyage into the corporate world as a business owner begun right after he finished his Higher School Certificate in 2014, when he launched Amelus (pronounced ‘Am-Eh-Luss’) Digital. The first game developed under his business moniker was Snake Boogaloo, a game made with the GameSalad engine as he was still learning the ins and outs of Unity.
But like most developers, Frew’s passion for gaming – both creatively and from a consumer viewpoint – comes from a lifetime of playing games. However, despite creating Macromedia Flash animations from the age of eight, building platforming games using premade scripts, and releasing an iOS game as a fourteen-year-old, Frew wasn’t sold on the idea of developing games as a career. It wasn’t until he watched a movie about indie gaming that he was convinced that game development was the path he wanted to take.
‘I didn’t know until I was about sixteen that I wanted to get into video game development as a professional career’, says Frew.
‘I got bored one night and watched Indie Game: The Movie and it hit me – game development was the path I wanted to take’.
Hello, is it me you’re looking for?
Frew has been able to hone his craft thanks to a proactive mindset, developing and releasing games as often as he could and being open to feedback – whether it was good or bad. Furthermore, the academic side of Frew’s training was studying Game Design at the Academy of Entertainment, a course he describes as an interesting experience.
Despite a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed, the early days of Amelus Digital were tough-going financially for Frew, with his father Scott helping him make ends meet for the first year.
‘I can’t ignore the fact that I was very privileged to receive some funding from my father to get the company started, and in the first year he was helping me make ends meet’, admits Frew.
However, since then Amelus has been self-sufficient and Frew couldn’t imagine it any other way.
‘I don’t have any investors or shareholders, and frankly, those who know me well know I’d much rather keep it that way’.
The impact Frew’s father has had on his career is monumental; not only did he help Amelus keep the lights on during the first year, but he’s also the reason Frew was exposed to video games, with father and son bonding over everyone’s favourite digital marsupial, Crash Bandicoot, and a host of other games.
‘When I was about two, my father introduced me to Crash Bandicoot on the first PlayStation’, reveals Frew.
‘It was my favourite game at the time and still stands as one of my all-time favourites. I grew up playing a variety of video games with my father, especially racing and fighting games, in which he would regularly kick my arse’.
I don’t have any investors or shareholders, and frankly, those who know me well know I’d much rather keep it that way
PACIFIC MACHINE in action
It’s obvious that Frew’s father is a role-model for Jackson, with the Amelus Digital founder revealing that he probably would have walked the same path as his old man and thrown his hat into the IT industry if it wasn’t for game design.
While Amelus Digital was getting its foot in the door, Frew worked as a quality assurance engineer at iasset.com. He also did some QA work at 3P Learning before spending two months with Chaos Theory Games, the Sydney-based team behind the mobile game Owls and Vowels.
Mobile gaming is where Amelus Digital would make a start on their development CV, with a number of games published that are no longer available due to a lack of quality according to Frew. Surely, such an experience is a rite of passage for all bourgeoning indie developers?
Amelus Digital’s third game, Cubed, was their first title to be given a global feature by the App Store, something that helped the game achieve more than 5,000 downloads.
‘It was an incredible feeling seeing that there were over 5,000 downloads on something that I had made, especially coming from the fact that my previous ones only accumulated around 500 in their lifespan’, admits Frew.
However, Frew’s current magnum opus is Pacific Machine – a game described as having an intense dystopian narrative that was shaped by the players in a weekly vote.
‘It was my most ambitious mobile project as the game itself is presented as a basic reaction arcade game’, says Frew
‘When it was first released, the narrative would progress in a weekly update, and each week, the players would donate their earned in-game currency to vote on the next decision made by the main character’.
Despite the game’s development being a stressful couple of months, it was also very rewarding for Frew.
‘Honestly, being the person behind that whole system for 500 active players who tuned in every week just to see what happened next was an incredible feeling’, he says.
Although the game’s narrative has wrapped up, the series is something Frew plans to continue in the future, with a number of ideas being mulled over. But as a solo developer Frew doesn’t want to spread himself too thin, so it’s one thing at a time, with HEART2GAME being the company’s primary focus at the moment.
Frew reveals that the majority of sales in HEART2GAME’s services have come from outside Australia in recent time. With this is mind, Frew admits that while he’d love to get localisation for HEART2GAME eventually, it’s something that would require specialists to achieve.
‘Hopefully in the near future I can bring in some people to help grow Amelus to be the large and prosperous company I dream of’, Frew states.
FLINGSHIP – another one of Amelus’ mobile games
While in a way, all developers create games for people – fans of particular series and gamers in general – HEART2GAME adds a personal touch that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, with a service that is one of a kind.
‘I was recently made aware of an article a few years back that was promoting a company that was selling custom games for thousands of dollars by big name designers, but that’s not really the target market I’m going for’, Frew explains.
‘Sure it’s big money, but I’m not trying to cater just for those who can afford to drop a couple thousand dollars, I want to provide a service at a more affordable price point so as many people as possible can enjoy that experience’.
Which brings us to HEART2GAME’s raison d’etre: seeing people happy.
‘The main part of why I wanted to do this was because I love making people happy’, says Frew.
‘I know how that sounds like I might be lying but I genuinely mean it. That feeling of giving that perfect gift to someone and seeing their reaction, I want more people to experience that, and that’s why HEART2GAME exists’.
Frew recalls the first order he completed, admitting he was worried the customer was going to hate it.
‘The first time I delivered a project I actually got sort of teary-eyed because I was so stressed out that they weren’t going to like it, but they LOVED it’, reveals Frew.
He admits that receiving the response emails is the most rewarding part of the project.
‘That feeling is honestly the best, knowing I’ve made something that has brought happiness to a family or couple is amazing. There’s nothing like it’.
However, it’s not always easy to turn a customer’s request into a memorable experience.
‘The order form provided asks for as much relevant information about the recipient so the game dialogue to suit them better’, says Frew.
‘Sometimes the information provided can be hard to fit in to a relevant context in the game without making it too much of a “reach”. The dialogue still needs to sound natural’.
The first time I delivered a project I actually got sort of teary-eyed because I was so stressed out that they weren’t going to like it, but they LOVED it
If you believe the industry prophets who preach that Games as a Service are the future for gaming, then Frew has got in on a good thing. However, while HEART2GAME technically fits under the GaaS label, Frew doesn’t believe that his service is true to the GaaS definition.
‘GaaS seems to be defined as mass-produced games, including subscription fees and microtransactions’, states Frew.
‘I don’t know where HEART2GAME falls under that, and I sometimes get worried it can mislead people using that definition’.
As for GaaS, Frew agrees that they are the future, but insists they are still trying to find that sweet spot where they cater to all players.
‘I think a great example of GaaS is Warframe’, says Frew.
‘I come back to that game once a year, and every time I see it as the perfect GaaS model. I don’t see it as predatory, like it’s TRYING too hard to get me to spend money and it uses fair incentives to get players to buy some premium currency. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t spent a cent on that game’.
Waframe – a shining example of GaaS done right
One of the biggest challenges Frew has faced since starting Amelus Digital has been getting the company’s name out there. With a myriad of games, dev studios, initiatives and services all vying for the media’s attention, it’s easy for smaller and upcoming studios to get lost amongst the noise.
‘In the early days I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me’, says Frew.
‘I certainly didn’t have a list of contacts available to hit up for a new release. But over time you get better at pitching, you network, and meet new people which leads to opportunities, such as this!’.
Despite this, the HEART2GAME brand has slowly been building, featuring in major outlets such as Kotaku and PC World. It feels like it’s more a case of when rather than if the HEART2GAME service will take off. While Frew was at PAX Australia this year, it was more about behind the scenes meetings than a booth presence.
‘I don’t even know if HEART2GAME could fit into PAX Rising, seeing as it isn’t specifically a “good”’, says Frew.
‘I was certainly able to talk to some people about HEART2GAME which lead to some interesting opportunities. I’d like to give H2G a much larger presence in 2019’.
While Frew is happy events like PAX draw big numbers and generates exposure for local devs, he believes the industry should be working harder to hosting events outside of Melbourne – and not just Sydney either. Furthermore, like most local talent, Frew believes the government should be doing more to support the video game industry, but isn’t hopeful given the government’s recent response to the issue.
At 22 Frew is still learning and improving the skills required to succeed from both a development and business side, and one piece of advice he has for young developers is not to bite the hand that feeds you.
‘This saying gets thrown around a lot, and is paraphrased a million times over, but basically, “the industry is small, and people talk, so don’t be an arse”’, Frew states.
‘I strongly relate to this lesson because in my first two years of game dev, I was an arse more times than I can count. But it was never out of malice, just ignorance. I don’t necessarily want to cover all of my mistakes as, “oh, I was just young”, there are many other factors in play (including my own upbringing). Fortunately, the people I have been an arse to were patient with me, and gave me the ability to learn and improve from my mistakes, which made me into a much more empathetic and self-aware person’.
‘With that, I engage with young individuals in the same manner, and I encourage others to do the same. The local industry is very quick to “cancel” someone for their behaviour, which is fair for someone who is older and should know much better, but we do need to give space and a level of encouragement to younger developers to improve themselves as people. In the long run, it’s much better than just shutting them out. With that, certain behaviour, regardless of age or experience, does warrant shutting out, such as intentional racism, homophobia, and sexism’.
That feeling of giving that perfect gift to someone and seeing their reaction, I want more people to experience that, and that’s why HEART2GAME exists
The brothers Frew
Frew has come a long way in his short development career and he knows his family are extremely proud of what he’s achieved so far – he couldn’t have done it without the support of his parents, his brother Harrison, girlfriend Nikki and best friend Nelson. But at 22 years of age, Frew has the development world at his feet, and it’s no surprise that he’s got big plans in store for the future of Amelus Digital and HEART2GAME.
‘Amelus Digital has many things in store for the future of the MACHINE franchise that made its debut earlier this year’, Frew proclaims.
‘I’m working hard to bring Amelus Digital and its titles to a larger stage in the future, and I hope to one day give back to the industry that has given so much to me’.
‘As for HEART2GAME, the service will continue to grow and expand what it offers, including available game types and narratives, and improving customer processes to deliver an experience as efficiently as possible. I want to spread love and appreciation as far as I can through video games, and explore different ways that can be achieved’.
If there’s one thing we love as consumers of games it’s innovation and taking risks in the process. Frew can be applauded for both. He could have easily carved out a name for himself as a mobile game developer, instead he challenged and believed in himself, and as a result he took a leap of faith with a concept that is still foreign to the industry. Whether HEART2GAME takes off and establishes itself as household name is still to be decided, but at least Frew had the courage to try something new, and as they say, it’s better to try and fail than to fail to try.