Philip Mayes was a programmer at Krome Studios when the Global Financial Crisis hit the Australian games industry. Projects were cancelled, studios closed, talented people left, and the sector felt like a wasteland. In the decade since, Mayes co-founded Mighty Kingdom and helped grow the company with a slate of enduring games. In 2021, Mighty Kingdom went public and was recognised in the Australian Export Awards as a leader in Creative Industries.
But all those achievements aside, what Mayes really wants is for Mighty Kingdom to play its part in helping to foster a sustainable Australian games industry that could survive another cataclysmic occurrence. That’s part of the reason behind the creation of the annual Mighty Kingdom Graduate Program, which opens up on 30 November 2021. Mayes sees it as an opportunity to create meaningful pathways for gamedev graduates, who can then take the best lessons of Mighty Kingdom out to the rest of the industry.
With the program in its fourth year, Mayes continues to hope that development studios across Australia will follow their example – IGEA and Mighty Kingdom even put together some guidelines for the industry last year.
That’s not the only thing on Mayes’ mind when it comes to the local industry, however – in a conversation with GamesHub, he spoke about what steps the sector needs to take next, above and beyond the federal and state rebates coming to effect next year, as well as leading by example when it comes to studio culture, and building a trusting relationship with your colleagues.
Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.
On the Mighty Kingdom Graduate Program
GamesHub: Tell us about the inception of the graduate program, and the catalysts that kicked it all off
Philip Mayes: ‘So I moved over to Australia from New Zealand, way back in 2005. And when I started in the game industry, at that point there were dozens of companies at all different scales operating. I was lucky enough to work on Star Wars games and Spyro the Dragon and a whole bunch of different things.
And then when I started Mighty Kingdom in 2010, what we saw was a big gap. Like, a lot of the people looking for talent, for people with one year, two years of experience. And so one of the things I thought we could do with our position was provide that experience for people, and we created the graduate program as a way of building that pathway into the industry for people who are graduating so they can get that one year on their CV, and then they can use that as a springboard into their career in the industry.
Although the original intent was to have them, you know, come through Mighty Kingdom and then go elsewhere, the talent was so great all of them became Mighty Kingdom employees at the end of it, and that kinda set the tone.
But we also wanted to send a message to the industry to say that we can’t just sit back and go, ‘there’s no talent here’ or, ‘oh I wish I could find this, I wish I could find that.’
You have to invest in actually growing that talent and actually building these pipelines, particularly when it comes to changing the face of the industry. I found that through the graduate program, you’re getting a far more diverse pool of candidates, than what you’re getting if you’re hiring, just from the industry.
We often talk about when you’re hiring someone with five years experience, you’re hiring from a version of the industry five years ago. And so we were like, ‘Okay, we need to start building the mids and the seniors of tomorrow, and we need to do that through this through this lens.’
And then the last one is to just set that example for others in the industry to say, ‘it’s not that hard, you can do it.’ There’s a lot of great talented people out there, and I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t an aspect of getting our pick of the cream of the crop. But it was always about building those pathways into the industry for people who wouldn’t otherwise get that stuff.’
So it’s been a really worthwhile investment for Mighty Kingdom, obviously.
‘Oh, hell yeah. We’ve got no plans to slow down. Everyone who has come through it has been great. We’ve had 32 people go through and most of them are still with us – there’s only a few who’ve gone on, but they’ve gone on to great things. Kirsty, one of our programmers is now working at Sledgehammer, and Harrison, another programmer, went out on his own and is finding a lot of success, taking away a lot of the things that he learned with us.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? There’s a lot that you can figure out about game dev by theory or by watching YouTube videos or practising on your own. But the act of being in a studio and doing things in a production environment where you’ve got those deadlines, you’ve got those pressures, you learn so much so quickly.
The thing that would hurt me the most is if someone left the games industry. That would be the worst outcome. But if they leave and they go somewhere else, I always like to believe that they’re taking the best bits from Mighty Kingdom to where they’re going and those best ideas circulate around the industry. You often see it when you bring people in, they bring the best of where they come from, that just pushes us all to get better.’
I know that Mighty Kingdom has quite a few remote workers across Australia, but the grad program is very specific to Adelaide – you want them to relocate, they need to be on deck in Adelaide. I’m guessing the environment is a big part of the learning process?
‘Yeah, I’d say that remote working: It works. It’s great. Everyone’s doing it. But it requires a particular type of person to make that successful. And we found that’s a lot easier when you’ve got a lot more confidence in yourself and your own ability and your ability to manage your work. For our juniors or our graduates, coming in and expecting them to perform in that environment without those touchpoints that you get when you’re in person – it’s a tough ask.
It was a bit of a tough call, because it makes it harder. When you can hire from anywhere and work from anywhere, it feels silly to have something that is specifically located. But we found that each of the years of our graduate program, those cohorts, they formed such really, really strong bonds together. And they’ve become friends inside the office but outside as well and there’s a lot to get from that experience. These people that you started this program with will go off and have careers elsewhere. And that becomes the network that you can leverage as you look to springboard your career.
The whole part of the program where it’s not just about generating value for Mighty Kingdom, we have to create value for the graduates as well. Having them all together, that’s the way we can deliver the most value to them, they can get the most benefit from the program, they can learn the fastest that they can push it skills the fastest.’
On other studios adopting Graduate Programs
So you reckon this program would work just as well and be just as beneficial for any other gamedev studio in Australia?
‘I think so. It takes a mindset, though. You need to be the sort of studio that’s willing to take the time to invest, because this is not a way to find cheap labour.
It costs us a lot to have – we have a whole training department now, but even in the early days, our leads were spending a significant part of their day working alongside the graduates and helping them not just develop their technical skills, but their soft skills as well, teaching them things like: How do you work as part of a team, especially a large team? How do you give and receive feedback in a respectful manner? How do you deal with all the pressures that come from working in an environment where there are expectations or deliverables? That’s a big investment from us.
So you need to make sure that you’re the sort of studio that sees the value and the upside at the back of that, and is willing to make that commitment. Because if you think you can just have a junior come in and sit at a desk, and that’s it… Nah. You need to do the work to get the reward.
We like to hire and develop talent across a multi-year horizon. We like to think about someone’s career, not just how they represent today. You need to understand the journey that this person is on. You’re not hiring a programmer, you’re not hiring an artist, you’re hiring a person and you need to understand that they can help give you a perspective you don’t currently have. And you need to have a studio that’s set up to capture that and allow that to be expressed.
I’d say that there’s a lot of studios in that 15-20 employee range that would fit quite easily.
I know that will then create some pressure on us, because now there are other people are competing for talent, but that’s what we want, right? That’s what the graduates want. They want to be fought over. They don’t want it to be Mighty Kingdom or bust. I’d love to see a situation where someone who’s graduating has got like three or four offers coming in, they get to pick the studio that they want to go to.
That forces us all to be good. That’s the vision of the industry I want to see.’
It seems like the temperature in the education and training market is always basically: plenty of places to learn, not so many places to go after that.
‘Yeah, this is an industry that’s got a very low barrier to entry. There are a lot of ways that people are coming out of uni and forming little teams and getting things to market and learning a lot that way. That’s still a valid path. And there are training orgs that will help seed fund that as well.
But there are always more people looking to get into this industry than there are jobs. That’s about to change, because we know with the federal tax rebate coming in, there’s just going to be more people in this industry. You’ve seen the success of Playside recently – they’re opening a studio in the Gold Coast. There’s growth happening and that talent has to come from somewhere. There’s only so much poaching we can do to each other.
Some of that can be served by bringing people in from overseas, some of it can be served by luring people out of VFX, but we need to be making sure that the pipeline of talent coming in from the bottom has got a place to go and we’re not just skipping over the juniors just to look at the seniors and the mids – you gotta make sure that everyone is benefiting from the growth.’
On the future of the Australian Games Industry
So from your position and from your experience, how do you foresee the industry reacting to the government support, where do you think we’re going to go from here?
‘It is a really interesting pivot point. Essentially the economics of the industry of changing as of July 1st next year, which makes us a very attractive destination for people to park projects or to set up studios and that’s super exciting.
If we look at the experiences overseas you’ll see a rebalancing time. New guys will come in, and you can imagine if an EA sets up shop next door, they’ll have a big fat chequebook, so there’ll be some disruption, and then it’ll settle down.
So I’d expect that there will be a rapid expansion in the industry. There’ll be a few people who are pulling the hair out, there’ll be a few people who are rubbing their hands together, But collectively it’ll be for the benefit of the whole industry.
The drum I like to beat is: let’s just make sure that the successes don’t all just funnel off overseas, let’s make sure that there’s an avenue for that stuff to stay in Australia. So when that contraction does happen – which could happen at any time, maybe not for the next 10-20 years, but it will happen – we’ve got these strong robust companies here in Australia, that stay in Australia, so we don’t go through the pitfalls of last time.’
Speaking of growth and expansion, something I’ve noticed is companies setting themselves up specifically to tackle concepts like the metaverse and blockchain games. What’s your take on these trends?
‘They’re two very opposite things. Probably the easier one for us to talk about is NFTs, because as a publicly listed company, that’s something that we won’t look at. There’s just a huge regulatory risk around that and it doesn’t make sense for us.
When you think about our capabilities as storytellers, NFTs don’t really enable us to tell better stories. It doesn’t actually add much to what our core skill set is. There’s a lot of hype of that in that space at the moment – I’m still yet to see what that use case is that makes me go ‘Ah, yup. I get it now’.
There’s a lot of critiques and things flying around from both ways, there’s the environmental cost – it’s a challenging one. So I’m not gonna put my toe in there.
When it comes to the metaverse that’s a little bit clearer because we’ve got a couple of players that are jostling to be the place – you’ve got your Epic with their vision, you’ve got Facebook/Meta with theirs.
For us as content creators, we always need to be thinking about ways to deliver your content to your audience on the appropriate platform that they’re looking for it on. And if there is an audience on the metaverse, and they’re looking for the type of content we create, then yeah, sure, we would like to explore that stuff.
We’re always looking at what’s around and any ways we could add value to it. And it’s still very, it’s still very early on the metaverse side. We haven’t really seen who’s going to come out as the winner there, or who’s gonna come out as a dominant player. Whoever it is, what we do know, is that once people get past the productivity thing, they’re gonna start going, ‘Okay, cool. How do I have fun?’ And that’s when the game developers come in, and that’s when they shine.’
Knowing that we’re at a point of growth, what would you do if you had the power to create new ways of supporting the sector? What is the next step in your mind?
‘I think that there’s a lot of attention at the moment going into the rebates, and particularly what you’re seeing happening in Queensland. They accelerate growth, because they help reduce cost, essentially. But what that’s really doing is either de-risking a project or allowing you to invest more and scale up a project.
That’s fantastic, but you need to be over a certain size to be able to access that benefit and so there’s a bar every studio has to clear before they can start realizing the benefit.
So what we need is to have the support that gets people up to that bar. And that can come from a state-level around grants or match funding that allows people to come into the industry.
I’d say grant funding is great for getting people to switch into the industry and start trying things. Once they’ve proved something, match funding is good at helping them scale up to that next level, which then allows them to get access to these grants.
So that’s what I think is missing at the moment, some more grassroots funding – Victoria is very good at that. But we want to have not just a top-down approach, you have to have a bottom-up approach as well. You need to think about the whole lifecycle of a games company, making sure that there’s appropriate support at every level.
The flip side of that is on the investment side, making sure that there’s a community there that understands what game companies can do, knows how to value them, what the risks are, so that they can confidently invest in the sector and know that there’s some robustness around the economics and the business side of things.
I would say Australia is fantastic at creating games, it’s just an incredibly creative space. We’re not that fantastic at commercializing, at least, that’s not a skill set that everyone has. Providing support and assistance for those people who have a great idea, and just need to be able to take it to that next level would be great as well.’
On fostering a positive and effective creative culture at Mighty Kingdom
People who work at Mighty Kingdom are often pretty vocal about how ideal it is at a workplace. What sort of lessons do you think other studios – or companies in general – could take from the way you do things?
‘There’s a lot of what I would call ‘unchallenged assumptions’ around how businesses should be. And once you start to understand what was underpinning those decisions, you can start to pick them apart and you can start to replace them or something else.
There’s a lot of: ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’ But why does it have to be that way? Don’t be afraid to imagine something different and experiment. And if it doesn’t work, just be like, ‘yeah and that’s why it’s that, let’s not touch that one.’
It’s always good to have a goal or a vision in mind. What do you want your studio to look like in the future, and are the actions you’re taking today moving you towards that? Or are they, pulling you away from it?
I have a very clear view of what I want the industry to look like, and what I think it should look like in terms of the people who are allowed to be creators in this space, and who are allowed to have a voice in this industry. And I see that I’ve got an opportunity to make that happen through what we do at Mighty Kingdom.
And so rather than just be like ‘gee it’d be nice if someone else solved this’, don’t be afraid to solve that yourself.
Ultimately, we’re a creative industry. And we know that creativity doesn’t happen on a clock. And so you need to give people the space, outside of work, to be themselves and to think about things. These flashes of brilliance can come whenever and you can’t just sit someone at a desk and go, ‘be brilliant.’ I mean, some people can but not everyone.
And so it’s just respecting that people have a life outside of Mighty Kingdom. And what sorted at the start–you’re dealing with people, they’re not units of production, they’re not interchangeable. When you’re putting someone onto a project, they’re not just bringing their skills as an animator, they’re bringing everything that they know, and they believe and what they’re passionate about all of their journey and their life, and you want that to express itself through the characters they’re creating, through the stories they’re telling. And when you start to realize that, you start to deconstruct some of the structures that you think are important.
The other thing I’d say is to build your company around trust. If you show your staff that you trust them to deliver the things that they say, and give them the space to do it, then they will do it. It’s when you try and control or direct or try and take ownership of every problem that people disconnect. They need to be part of the journey, not just a passenger on a train.
We’re all here because we choose to be here. We’re going to increasingly move to a space where people have a lot of choice about where they work, and why they do it. And you want to give them reasons beyond a salary to be at your company. I mean, it can be a bigger salary but that only gets you so far.
We’ve had a lot of people come to us from the visual effects industry, who get paid quite well. But it’s such an intense job – they work ridiculous hours, and then they crash and then they take three months off to recover. And it’s like, Why does have to be like that? Why can’t we just work four days a week? Why do we have to work five? When did that get decided? And when you start experimenting with this stuff, and you see how people respond to it, make sure you measure it and capture that data.
You start creating a value proposition that isn’t just about finances, it’s about all the things that you can do. What could you do with an extra 52 days a year to yourself? That’s something that’s interesting not just to Mighty Kingdom, but to society. So yeah, there’s got to be a massive net benefit there.
So just be bold. Have a vision. Don’t be afraid to chase it. And don’t be afraid to experiment.’