Broken Rules: Gaming in Austria

Indie gamers press play on new projects

Top Stories | Nicholas K. Smith | September 2013

In one game, cartoon monsters leap up onto colourful platforms; in another, a flock of racing birds flutter across a screen; in a third, a flying engine is guided through an ‘80s science-fiction universe: These are all the work of Austrian indie developers – small, independent companies that are making a big splash in an industry long dominated by violent first-person shooting games and complex sports simulators.

One such developer, the Vienna-based Broken Rules, is expecting to release its latest game Secrets of Raetikon before the end of the year. "We call it an aerial exploration game," said co-founder Felix Bohatsch,. "You play in the mountains and there are wild animals and strange machines."

As Secrets is still under development, Bohatsch could only tell us that the game involved flying around the Alps (the Rätikon is on the border of Voralberg and Lichtenstein, the geological boundary between the eastern and western Alps), in the same universe as the five-person company’s previous game, Chasing Aurora.

You can rotate the world

While not large, the Austrian indie gaming market is "very attractive – at least if you work on ‘games with a purpose’," said Alex Pfeiffer, a lecturer and researcher at Donau University-Krems, who teaches classes in game development.

Games often begin life as student projects. Broken Rules’ first game, And Yet It Moves, started as a bachelor’s project at the Vienna University of Technology, a two-level prototype. Three of the students from the project formed the company.

And Yet It Moves borrowed from the side-scrolling format, where a player navigates an environment by jumping over obstacles Mario-style. "The twist," Bohatsch said, "is that is you can not only walk and jump, you can also rotate the world,"

With a few flicks of a controller, a wall too high to jump over quickly becomes a ledge to walk across. The game was such a hit that since its 2009 release, it has sold more than half a million copies.


Freeze tag

Broken Rules began work on Secrets of Raetikon in 2011. At the time, it was being developed concurrently with Chasing Aurora, when Nintendo asked if they would be willing to do a launch title for the new Wii U video game console.

In Aurora, players use the console’s iPad-like controller to fly colourful birds around mountains and trees in a kind of freeze tag. Even better, you play with your friends beside you, rather than over the Internet.

But when the game was released last year, it was not as successful as Broken Rules had hoped.

It was exclusively for Wii U, which underperformed – and the market wasn’t in the mood for a local multiplayer game about racing birds.

Both Raetikon and Aurora were designed with the same physics-based engine as Angry Birds, the blockbuster of indie games.


In with a chance

Stakes are high in game development: With one game’s success, you can become a millionaire in months, said Jogi Neufeld, owner of Subotron, a shop in the MuseumsQuartier that specialises in digital game culture.

Since 2005, Neufeld has hosted a lecture series on indie game development – what Bohatsch calls a "niche within a niche" – in an effort to keep local designers up to date with the rapidly changing technologies and applications.

The continuing innovation is also fuelling an on-going debate as to whether games can also be art.

At New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the recent addition of more than a dozen games to its collection is seen as a clear yes.

Neufeld mentions a game by a Montreal-based studio called Papo and Yo, which is set in a in a magical realist Brazilian shanty town, where the player is pursued by a monster based on the game designer’s alcoholic father.

"It's not often that games have topics like this... yet," Neufeld said.

Today’s game industry is in a strange situation; top of the line games like the Call of Duty series make millions, but they are little different from the previous year’s entry; the money is too high to allow risk-taking.

"For the small developers, this is actually a good sign," Pfeiffer said. "A lot of ‘more-than-casual players’ are not satisfied with this blockbuster-based development and like to play some other fancy games. They are ready to spend some Euros and the fans even act as ‘megaphone’ to promote the games inside the communities.."

Despite the fierce competition, Neufeld is confident that today, anyone can make a hit. If he and his friends like the game, it looks slick, and it’s fun to play, he said quite simply: "You’ll get rich."

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