Made In Australia: Melonhead Games

Global game jams are a hotbed of creative, driven and passionate indie developers, so it should come as no surprise that the foundations for many games are laid at these events. However, sometimes you get the double whammy, where a collective of developers decide that that they want to take making games to the next level, which was exactly the case for the Adelaide-based studio Melonhead Games. Prior to the 2018 Global Game Jam, the Melonhead team comprised of nine TAFE and Uni students, however in the early stages it was never a serious venture – at least from a career perspective – it was more a creative outlet for those involved. As members of the team started to gravitate towards the idea of turning game design into a career, those whose career goals didn’t align with that direction chose to move on. Thanks to the government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) program, which helps small businesses get their feet off the ground, the team has been able to turn a dream into a fully-fledged company, with the team operating out of Game Plus in Adelaide, a shared workspace that accommodates many creatives.

The Global Game Jam in 2018 would prove to be more than just a gateway to a new frontier for the remaining quartet – it would set the wheels in motion on their first project Rooftop Renegade – a sci-fi speedrunner. Since then the team has dropped from a four-piece to a three-piece, with Patrick Webb (27, Designer), George Martin (24, Programmer) and Alex Ferrabetta (27, Artist) focusing all their energy into making Rooftop Renegade the best that it can be.

Indie game studio or Early 2000s rock band? (Image credit: Facebook)

For many indie studios just starting out it’s tempting to put everything outside of the studio on hold and throw everything you’ve got at making the best the game you can. However for some it simply isn’t an option, and this is the position Melonhead finds themselves in, with only Patrick Webb currently working full-time on the project.

“I started with the NEIS program, which kept me financially stable for 9 months as long as I kept focus on the business,” says Melonhead’s designer.

“My partner is extremely supportive and thanks to that I can put a lot of effort into both working on the game and building up my own experience in running a business. It’s taken a lot of sacrifice to get this studio going but we all believe in what it can be and what we’ve learnt along the way.”

Both Martin and Ferrabetta admit that they would love to dedicate all their energy to Melonhead Games, however they understand that in the infancy stages of the company it’s simply not financially viable.

“While we are still growing, I am only able to do this part time as I need to work other jobs to earn an income,” says Martin who works as a Community Support Worker and Mentor at The Benevolent Society, as well as occasionally as a tutor at Flinders University.

Although it’s not directly game related, Martin explains how he uses his position to foster any potential game designers.

“Part of my role there is running an IT social club called The Lab for children with Autism. Through this I can encourage and assist any who show interest in learning game development to pursue that passion.”

First day at Melonhead Games HQ (Image credit: Facebook)

Ferrabetta, on the other hand, works at a University and has used his experience in developing websites and marketing collateral to the benefit of Melonhead Games.

“It’s been hugely beneficial for Melonhead as a lot of marketing techniques are applicable across the board whether you’re marketing degrees or a video game.”

One of the perks of being an indie dev is the autonomy and control that it grants you. Webb acknowledges that while it’s a boon to be able to determine your own working hours, it is easy to feel guilty when you’re working from home where distractions are aplenty.

With all of Melonhead’s members relatively new on the scene Webb admits that the biggest challenge so far has been learning the ins and outs of industry from scratch, without having worked at another studio or released a game prior (commercially).

“Starting as an indie has been an amazing journey, and it’s required so much learning on the job. I never imagined going into this that we would be running a business while creating our games.”

However, despite the team’s lack of industry experience, Webb explains that the team can call upon their network of experienced developers for assistance.

It is an interesting dynamic to have with one person working full-time and two part-time, so it begs the question as to how, if any, conflicts are handled. Does Webb who works full-time have the final say? Or does the team share all the responsibilities? Unsurprisingly the team prefer to talk through their options and any issues that are raised, although in the end they are each accountable for their own roles.

“The best ideas come together when we take from everyone’s individual experience and knowledge,” says Webb.

“That being said, we all have our own roles we’re responsible for, so when there is a complete impasse the person most responsible can be the tiebreaker. It mostly comes down to trust and fostering a comfortable team dynamic.”

We all have our own roles we’re responsible for, so when there is a complete impasse the person most responsible can be the tiebreaker

– Patrick Webb

Webb, Martin and Ferrabetta all came through the Game Art side of the Advanced Diploma of Screen and Media at TAFE South Australia before completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Digital Media) at Flinders University.

“The Advanced Diploma gave us all a good understanding of game asset creation and some fundamental game design principles,” says Martin. “University then allowed each of us to specialise further into a specific aspect of game development that interested us.”

While all three may have shared the same academic pathway, they each had different reasons for wanting to pursue video games as a career.

For Ferrabetta it’s all about the artistic side of game design; making the players feel something.

“I’ll play a game over again if it evokes something from me, generally how it looks or makes me feel.”

Martin, who grew up playing video games with his twin brother, loves the social aspect of video games, revealing that he prefers playing MMOs or co-op games because he can play them with other people.

“I’ve always found enjoyment in games and have made many friends from across the world through playing them,” says the youngest member of Melonhead.

“I decided to get into game development so I could create games to provide that enjoyment to others. As a Developer I enjoy the challenge and problem solving that comes along with creating gameplay mechanics.”

Webb, on the other hand, believes that video games are the next great art form. Games these days have so many moving parts and when they all come together it’s like nothing else.

“I think there’s so much variety and potential for the medium, we’ve come a long way from the arcade days. Then again, we’re still big fans of arcade-style games!”

Melonhead Games hard at work on Rooftop Renegade (Image credit: Facebook)

When it comes to inspirations and influences, Webb reveals that if he becomes immersed in something then it’s likely to inspire him in the future, citing music, books and games as examples.

The team’s earliest video game memories vary somewhat despite the similar age bracket. One of Ferrabetta’s first memories is playing the Nintendo 64 with his father and sister. He admits that even to this day he and his sister still play the Nintendo consoles together, while father and son get together and watch Games Done Quick speedruns.

Martin recalls going to his neighbour’s house as a kid and playing Crash Bandicoot with his brother. Furthermore, Martin’s father used to play text-based adventure games with the twins, with George teaching himself to read so he didn’t have to wait for his father to read the story and options to them.

Surprisingly, Webb reveals that he grew up in a predominantly anti-gaming household.

“We had a family computer that I could sometimes game on, but that was rare.”

“RIVEN was a highlight for me, although my best memory is the day mum brought home Game Boy Colors for me and my sister. We had Pokémon Blue and Red, and there was an accessory pack with a torch for night time play. The look on my dad’s face was priceless, he knew exactly how we were going to spend our school nights after lights out!”

Before studying video games, Webb, Martin and Ferrabetta all dabbled in different areas. Webb tried his hand at a number of game development courses but none of them stuck. He admits that after working for over a year in a seafood wholesale factory he decided that he was ready to take his career seriously. Both Martin and Ferrabetta flexed their academic muscles in other subjects before switching to game development.

“I originally studied mechatronic engineering,” says Martin. “I wasn’t really enjoying it except for one of the courses that covered 3D modelling, something I had dabbled with in high school. I’ve always had a passion for games so it was the next logical step for me.”

Ferrabetta studied web development and digital/print media before getting into game development.

“I wanted to become a texture artist for films and the only course I could find that offered this as a subject was game development.”

Rooftop Renegade’s heroine Svetlana

While game development courses teach you the tools you need to create games, they very rarely touch on the business side of the industry. It’s for this reason that a lot of indie developers, not just those starting out, struggle when it comes to the financial component of running a studio. Webb reveals that for the most part the studio has been surviving on self-funding, however recently the studio was awarded funding as part of the South Australian Film Corporation’s Games Innovation Grant.

“We were lucky enough to get it on the first round, so we’re looking forward to showing how much it can help development, hopefully increasing the fund for the next round of developers,” shares Webb.

Webb also reveals that the team were unsuccessful with securing an Epic Megagrant. “We weren’t as business minded back then as we are now. We’ll likely go for that again with a more focussed pitch.”

Despite all the challenges that comes with being an independent studio, the members of Melonhead have experienced a number of memorable moments.

Martin and Webb both recall watching a speedrunner play their Rooftop Renegade demo during the Australian Speedrunning Marathon at PAX Australia.

“Watching people get that invested and knowing that enjoyment comes from something I’ve had a hand in creating is amazing,” says Martin. “Realising that people were donating to charity while seeing speedrunners play our game was a really nice moment,” adds Webb.

For Ferrabetta, he just loves getting feedback on Rooftop Renegade, knowing that it can only benefit the game in the long run.

“I come from a customer service background so I get a kick out of being accommodating, watching the players and getting direct feedback. It’s something I always want to be a part of until the end of the journey.”

Melonhead Games at PAX Aus circa 2019 (Image credit: Twitter)

There’s also been some crazy moments that at the time were super stressful but upon reflection give the team a bit of a laugh.

“I remember a few days before AVCon 2019 we had a bug crop up in the game that seemingly at random completely broke the multiplayer party mode,” smiles Martin. “Those few days leading up to the event are a blur as I had to knuckle down and find the problem code. Once I found it I had it fixed in minutes but was a crazy time!”

Webb recounts several times where the team’s event preparation (or lack thereof) has come back to haunt them.

“Leaving AVCon right before the forklifts came, getting lost carrying computers around a carpark, or rushing to a rental shop in Melbourne to grab TVs right before they closed. It seems like we’ve never quite managed a smooth event experience!”

AVCon seems to be a hectic time for the entire team, with Ferrabetta sharing a story about AVCon 2018 where he was balancing uni work during the day and Rooftop Renegade at night, saying that the majority of that time is a haze.

“The photos are good though,” he laughs.

As our conversation shifts to the South Australian games industry landscape, Webb tells me that SA games industry is full of potential, however the majority of talent is held back by financial or business-related struggles.

“We need more recognition from the state (and of course federal) in order to take it further though,” adds Webb.

Despite this, Webb says that SA-based developers are incredibly supportive of one another and that without the help and support they have received Melonhead wouldn’t be where they are.

When it comes to what the federal government could be doing to better support the industry, Webb believes that helping studios reach financial viability would be a good starting point. More financially secure studios means more Aussie-based game dev jobs and more Aussie-made games.

“I’ve seen too many studios have to pack up just because they couldn’t afford to get their game out the door,” says Webb. “I do think this change is coming, more interest is heading our way and places like New Zealand are providing great examples of how support can be given.”

Watching people get that invested and knowing that enjoyment comes from something I’ve had a hand in creating is amazing

– George Martin

As a relatively new studio, the team has some parting words for any budding game dev looking at getting into the industry.

“Start your marketing ASAP,” says Ferrabetta.

“It can be as simple as a Facebook page or an Instagram account. The more often you post, the more comfortable you’ll get with people seeing your work before it’s finally released to the world. It’s also a great way to develop a community and keep them engaged before release.”

“It’s the business side of game development that gets in the way of creating great games,” adds Webb. “If you can get someone with marketing, business or financial experience on your team, you’ll have a huge advantage.”

Martin’s advice is more pragmatic, stating that there’s always something new to learn or improve on from any experience.

“Put some time aside to practice and learn about the new updates to the software you use, or any new tools to improve your workflow.”

Outside of game development, the team like to relax in different ways. Ferrabetta loves building Lego, trying to learn the Ocarina of Time soundtrack on piano and being a ‘helipcopter parent’ to his dog Butters. He also confesses that he makes a mean lasagne. Webb likes the finer things in life and is simply fulfilled by seeing Snapchats of Butters (I mean who doesn’t love doggo Snapchats?). While Martin reveals he enjoys live action roleplay and tabletop role-playing games.

Butters getting in on the team meeting (Image credit: Melonhead Games Twitter)

So with a studio up and running and a game on the way, surely the sky’s the limit for Melonhead Games?

“Our current goal is to get Rooftop Renegade out there and begin work on our long list of unique game ideas,” says Webb.

“At the same time we’ll be aiming to keep a steady stream of contract work coming in to keep the lights on until our game development can keep us financially stable. We’re really excited about the next few years and the games we can bring to our community.”

Early in our conversation, the Melonhead team excitedly spoke about the future and how they can’t wait to get to the stage where they can bring on creative and passionate talent. It reeked of confidence and self-belief. But it’s this attitude that will hold them in good stead. With that and the amount of enthusiasm the Melonhead Games team exudes, I have no doubt that they are a team watch in the years to come.

For more information on Rooftop Renegade check out our in-depth interview with Melonhead Games.

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