Melbourne is many things. It’s often voted as the world’s most liveable city, it’s referred to as the sporting capital of the world, it’s got the best coffee on the globe, and it’s home to many of Australia’s brightest video game talents. Those last two have more in common than just fuelling the development of many of Australia’s impressive games, with Carlton-based studio Route 59 Games’ debut game Necrobarista not only being about coffee, it’s also set in Melbourne.
However, while the release of Necrobarista may still be couple months away after the studio delayed the title from its initial August 8 date earlier this week, the journey to Necrobarista’s launch began many years ago, with Route 59 Games founders Kevin Chen, Joe Liu and Ngoc Vu all studying games design at RMIT in Melbourne. Although they all attended the same university there was a couple of years between them. Vu was first to graduate and worked odd jobs while often attending IGDAM meetups (International Game Developers’ Association Melbourne) hoping to network and get a foot in the door of the industry.
Meet the key players from Route 59 Games
It was at these meetings where Chen approached Vu, who was drawing on the side, and proposed that she should come do some character design work for a project that Chen and his then roommate Liu were working on.
“I had a couple meetings in Kevin and Joe’s living room talking about alchemy and how good Fate Stay Night is until we had a plan for a short prototype to see if it would work out”, says Vu.
“We called it Little Moon and submitted it to Freeplay where it won best narrative! We were then contacted by Film Victoria to put in an application to their production fund and we started fleshing out the project from there.”
With all the wheels in motion the team soon realised that they would need a writer for the project. Interestingly, the team took a unique path to find the ideal writer instead of going down the more traditional route, and it was on the Lemma Soft Forums where they found Justin Kupier, one of the team’s writers.
During its early days the studio was based at the RMIT Activator space in Carlton but has since moved to working remotely, with the team growing from the initial trio of Vu, Chen and Liu to a crew of 12 people. Vu has high praise for RMIT, who she says helped the team understand what it took to get a business off the ground and helped the team get into the meat and potatoes of their industry – developing games.
Having worked a variety of jobs such as at her uncle’s bakery, McDonald’s, scooping Vietnamese rice cakes with her aunt, Boost Juice, as a barista and Myer’s online fulfilment centre, Vu is now reaping the rewards of all her hard work to get to where she and the Route 59 Games team are today.
Melbourne born and bred, 27-year-old Vu is a self-confessed Netflix addict and as such doesn’t spend as much time as she would like playing video games. Some of her favourite games include Persona 4, Majora’s Mask, Animal Crossing and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Outside of video games Vu enjoys spending time doodling on her iPad, doing pottery classes with her girlfriends, watching cooking videos on YouTube, all while trying to take care of herself.
“I’m living the classic millennial lifestyle where I’m considering just living with dogs but having more space for my anime figurines is the ultimate goal”, laughs Vu.
A screenshot from Little Moon
Vu, who has been a part of the industry for five years now, reveals that playing Tetris on her dad’s PC is her earliest video game memory, but it was playing the Nintendo 64 and Sega Master System with her cousins that really opened her eyes to the power of video games.
“We would go and mess around in my uncle’s Majora’s Mask save for hours.”
“I always admired games and the way they would bring people together. I was always kinda shy but being able to talk about games with other kids got me some pretty awesome friends in my childhood.”
For Vu, she loves how games can elicit a range of emotional responses from the player.
“I’m bloody amazed at how multisensory games can be”, says the Route 59 Games co-founder.
“There are multiple ways to tease out an emotion out of players be it through music, visuals, environment or sequence of controls. The ability for games to react with your presence, to the degree that it can, is what excites me the most.”
When asked what she would be doing if she wasn’t a game developer Vu is unsure at first.
“I wrote in my primary school graduation yearbook that I’d be a lawyer but high school debating pretty much ensured that I wasn’t fit to defend anyone”, Vu laughs.
“I also took a semester in accounting but I absolutely couldn’t imagine myself doing that either. I guess I would have looked into social work? I would love to know more about how I can help people in difficult situations and circumstances.”
I always admired games and the way they would bring people together. I was always kinda shy but being able to talk about games with other kids got me some pretty awesome friends in my childhood
Route 59 isn’t the only studio that Vu has worked for, having done short contract with Samurai Punk on The American Dream. However, aside from this short stint, Vu has spent her five years with Route 59 Games, revealing that she couldn’t have asked for better colleagues.
The studio’s debut full release Necrobarista has received copious amounts of praise from players and members of the games media that have had the chance to play the visual novel at conventions, such as PAX Australia.
Such was the impressiveness of Necrobarista’s premise, the studio signed a deal with Chinese publisher Coconut Island. It’s because of this support that the team is able to work on the game full-time, without the stress of working part-time jobs for rent and bills.
“They’ve really helped with giving us funding to hire for specialised roles as well as handling a lot of Necrobarista’s marketing in China. I think it’s fair to say we wouldn’t be here without them.”
With the financial support received from Coconut Island, Film Victoria and RMIT the team is able to focus full-time on the game, allowing the team to expedite the game’s development.
Vu reveals that one of the highlights of Necrobarista’s developments was the day she showed the project to the Duke of York.
“He was touring the RMIT Activator space checking out start-ups and we had a quick chat about speed reading. I gotta be real though I was absolutely starstruck.”
Currently it’s all hands on deck with Necrobarista, however Vu reveals she does have some passion projects that are simmering away on her hard drives, and despite Route 59 Games’ penchant for visual novels, Vu hopes that one day the team can develop an RPG.
“I wanna make an RPG so people would stop asking if I’ve made one yet”, smiles Vu.
With Necrobarista being the team’s first major release, Vu admits that there have been some challenges along the way, with the game’s eye shader causing one or two problems.
“It took a good chunk of the year to figure it all out how our eye shader was gonna work, on top of streamlining production and making bespoke engine tools.”
With the game releasing on numerous platforms you would expect a few hiccups along the way. However, Vu explains that choosing to go with Unity made things a lot easier from that perspective, revealing that the biggest challenge is certification.
“The game needs to meet a list of requirements for it to launch on each console’s respective storefront so we’re working on making the build as stable as we can get it.”
Necrobarista launches Q3 in 2019
As a young dev team, Route 59 Games has had to do a lot of learning as they go, although Vu admits that they have had a lot of help from experienced Aussie devs, something the team is super grateful for.
“The hardest thing was probably figuring out how the games industry operates or what the process was with stuff like finding a publisher or who to go to for funding etc.”
As for the workload, Vu and the Route 59 team believe that the way to operate is to have a realistic workload and not to overburden yourself.
Despite Australia’s dev scene being a tough space to operate in financially, Vu believes that we’re heading in the right direction when it comes to funding accessibility but admits that it’s hard to find a positive when connecting the industry’s growth and Australia’s economic environment and resources.
“I can’t say much for actionable items for the government to take away but I think the main goal for a prosperous future in Australian game dev comes down to talent retention”, says Vu.
Route 59 Games at PAX Aus
“I see so much great talent leave for overseas because they don’t feel supported or valued making games in Australia which is a bloody shame. I can only hope I can sustain and hopefully grow Route 59 to make great contributions to what we have here”.
Since joining the industry back in 2014 Vu has learnt a lot. The most important lesson she’s learnt is that effective communication is one of the key elements towards being successful. Vu also says that it is important to plan ahead and know your target audience.
As for her parting words to upcoming developers she says to seek out local dev community and make friends. Most importantly, ‘keep making what you’re passionate about’.
If there’s one thing that is evident from my chat with Vu, it’s that her passion for video games creates endless potential for her career to thrive. Hopefully both Vu and Route 59 Games can help take Australia’s dev scene to new heights in the years to come.