07/17/19

Back in the game

An early level in the Danger Rabbit game.Gaming, long dismissed as a pointless, potentially perilous diversion for sexually frustrated teenage boys, has crossed into the mainstream. Having long ago surpassed the revenues generated by the film or music industries, it now seems set to take another quantum leap due to the mass penetration of mobile devices and the rise of “gamification”.
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More on that momentarily, but first a little history. Since the gaming industry began with Pong in 1972, it has worked much like the old Hollywood studio system, with a handful of well-resourced companies, called “producers”, investing large amounts over long periods of time to produce elaborate games for consoles, be it Pac-Man for Atari or Grand Theft Auto for PlayStation.

But the public embrace of smartphones and tablet computers has precipitated something akin to the break-up of the Hollywood studio system. A small team, or even an individual, can now quickly and cheaply create a game (think Angry Birds) to be played on a mobile or iPad as opposed to an expensive console such as a Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Wii.

If that wasn’t already blue sky aplenty, just as what might be labelled the “leisure gaming” market is approaching saturation (93 per cent of Australian households now have a game-playing device), gamification has promised to get several potentially larger revenue streams gushing.

Gamification involves making, say, learning activities or work tasks resemble a video game, with the student or employee who “plays” them incentivised through getting (virtual) rewards. It’s early days, but unimaginable wealth awaits the gamifier who works out a way to make workers more productive or students more receptive.

“After the GFC hit, almost all of the local studios collapsed and a lot of highly skilled individuals started to make their own games,” says Nahele Allan-Moon, the 19-year-old founder of the MoSoGa gaming studio.

“That’s resulted in a thriving indie scene, particularly in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. As with most industries, a small number of huge companies pocket most of the money, but there are also pools of cash there for smaller operators targeting niches.”

Phil Mason, 42, chief executive of Bubble Gum Interactive, echoes Allan-Moon: “The growth of online and mobile broke down the barriers, allowing anyone to create and publish games. In the four years since I started Bubble Gum, I’ve been doing exactly that, attracting $3 million in capital and employing around a dozen staff in the process.

“We’ve had a lot of success making kid’s games that work on a freemium model, whereby gamers can play for free but increase their engagement in the game through various in-app purchases.”

The gaming entrepreneurs Fairfax spoke to painted a relatively rosy picture, insisting they hadn’t had much trouble gaining access to skilled and passionate staff or capital.

When it came to government policy, all they wanted was for broadband to be rolled out as quickly as possible (just like albums and films, the trend is now for games to be downloaded rather than purchased in-store) and possibly for more generosity to be shown to those seeking early-stage capital.

“The government provides grants to games developers through Screen Australia but it could be doing more,” says Lloyd Perry, 33, a game producer at Flow Spark Studios. “The Finnish government invested €65 million ($95 million) over six years in its domestic games producers and ended up with an industry that now generates €900 million a year, 90 per cent of which is from exports.”

Unfortunately, neither the government nor any other institution can help local game-makers repeatedly capture lightning in a bottle, which, as in other creative industries, is the foundation of long-term profitability.

“A successful gaming company is built on successful games,” says Adrian Vergara, 18, the creative director of Reach Game Studios. “The issue that everyone in the industry faces is that there is no sure-fire formula for producing a commercially successful game. Most of them disappear without trace, even when really talented people produce what is, objectively, a really great game.”

But while the odds are stacked against them in a world where hundreds of new apps go on sale each day, our gaming entrepreneurs are cautiously optimistic that they will win the lottery in the not-too-distant future.

Perry’s releasing Danger Rabbit, “a Mario-style platformer with a twist” on May 18; Mason’s launching Cake Bake Blitz, a puzzle game with a Facebook social connect in June; Vergara should have Apathy, a sci-fi game, finalised by late 2014, and Allan-Moon has “some internal projects in the pipeline” that he is working on alongside jobs for external clients. If any of those games resonate with the public, their owners can expect to be LOLing all the way to the bank.

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07/17/19

ATO braces for more work, less money

Public service news: full coverageFederal budget 2014: full coverageWhere the Public Service axe will fall
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In a stinging “slap in the face for Canberra” 600 Commonwealth public servants will be relocated to the Central Coast, half of whom will come from the already embattled Australian Tax Office.

It comes as ATO bosses warn the tax office faces more work collecting Treasurer Joe Hockey’s new taxes, with fewer workers to carry the load.

Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan says the ATO’s workforce should brace for years of job loss pain following Tuesday’s budget. Unions say hundreds or even thousands of tax officials will be forced from their jobs around the country as the ATO cuts another 2100 workers in the next seven months and the tax collection agency will be plunged into “turmoil”.

The federal government will open a new building on the Central Coast to boost jobs in the region dominated by Liberal MPs, even though the nation’s capital could already be hit with 6500 or more job cuts in three years as the bureaucracy loses 16,500 positions nationally.

Accounting, information technology, professional services and legal roles could be some of the job descriptions to relocate.

Not all the 600 jobs will come out of Canberra, according to a spokesman from Treasurer Joe Hockey’s office, who said the ratio “has not been determined yet”, but others expect Canberrans will make up the vast majority.

The spokesman also said it was not yet known which other departments would relocate staff to the Central Coast.

Canberra MP Gai Brodtmann said the decision was a slap in the face for Canberra, which went against the vision of the national capital being the home of public servants – a vision consolidated by the Liberal party half a century ago.

“Today, we learn that it is also moving hundreds of public service jobs out of Canberra,” she said.

“Sir Robert Menzies said we must ‘build up Canberra as a capital in the eyes and minds of the Australian people.’ It was he who moved public servants from Melbourne and Sydney to Canberra.

“What the Abbott Government has done to Canberra in the last 24 hours is a betrayal of Menzies’ vision and a betrayal of his profound understanding that public servants make an invaluable contribution to the economy and society.”

ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja said the decision by his party would still allow all workers to choose if they wanted to relocate.

“Whilst I will always fight to keep jobs in Canberra, I have been assured that it will not be a substantial number that come from Canberra,” Senator Seselja said.

“It is important that we keep the heart of the public service in Canberra, as our city is experienced and skilled in the area of public administration and serves the government with expertise.”

An ATO spokesman said the tax office would take the lead in the relocation project, which would take a number of years to complete.

Robertson MP Lucy Wicks said the building would be built in Gosford, adding “we want this to happen as soon as possible”.

“These 600 jobs will drive even more activity to local cafes, local restaurants and local businesses,” she said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott first flagged his intention to relocate bureaucrats while campaigning in August last year.

His comments sparked fears across the public service about which departments or agencies would be targeted to help boost regional economies.

Meanwhile, in an email bulletin sent to all staff on Tuesday evening, Mr Jordan told workers 2100 jobs would have to be culled by October 31.

“This is in addition to the expected 900 exits from natural attrition and redundancies in 2013-14 and will take to 3000 the number of staff exits from the ATO since July 2013,” the commissioner wrote.

Mr Jordan told his workforce that the temporary budget repair levy, the scrapping of some tax offsets and tax concessions, fuel duty indexation, the deferral of superannuation guarantee increases and changes to super contributions would all add up to extra work for the tax office.

“In most instances the cost of implementation will be absorbed by the ATO,” the commissioner said.

Mr Jordan warned the sackings would not end this year, with more job cuts contained in the budget’s plan for the four-year forward estimates period.

“The budget papers signal further reductions in the out years,” he wrote.

“The changes to funding and staffing are significant and will require us to reassess all of our business to find where we can make savings and reductions.”

Australian Services Union organiser Jeff Lapidos said the Tax Office would not be able to manage the job losses without forced redundancies.

“A 2100 reduction in staffing will require compulsory redundancies,” the union official said. “The budget does not appear to provide any additional money to the ATO to pay for these redundancies.

“Turmoil is about to strike the ATO.”

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07/17/19

Antarctic program slashed in budget

Australia’s Antarctic program has been cut in the budget. Photo: SuppliedAustralia’s strategic interests in Antarctica are threatened by cuts in the federal budget, the Greens have warned, at a time of growing international spending on the frozen continent.
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The Abbott government has slashed the Environment Department’s Australian Antarctic program by 15 per cent to $157 million, and by 26 per cent in later years.

Despite the program cuts, the government delivered on election commitments to maintain Australia’s polar connections, headlined by air link spending, and moves to acquire a new icebreaker.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the budget cuts jeopardised Australia’s Antarctic strategic interests.

“When presence and science means everything in the Antarctic Treaty, these budget cuts put our sovereignty at risk,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.

They comes as China builds new stations in the Australian Antarctic Territory and the New Zealand claim, while Korea opens a new base and Italy plans for an expanded air operation.

Widespread pre-budget concern over cuts in staff to the science and logistics-focused Australian Antarctic Division were met on Tuesday night with a promise to maintain average staffing levels at 403.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said: “The AAD will be required to find efficiencies.”

But the spokesman added: “While the Australian Antarctic Division’s funding has decreased, significant investments are being made elsewhere to support the work of AAD and Antarctic research.”

The government met an election commitment to a $24-million Antarctic Gateway Partnership over the next three years between the AAD, University of Tasmania and CSIRO.

The air link from Hobart to the Antarctic gained a guaranteed $11 million per year, and an election promise has been met to provide $38 million for the expansion of Hobart airport to make it useable by large long-haul aircraft, including Antarctic traffic.

The government will also request tenders for an icebreaker, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to replace the ageing Aurora Australis.

Former AAD director Tony Press is preparing a 20-year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan for the government.

The departmental budget paper pushed out the plan’s delivery from July to “later in 2014”.

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07/17/19

Canberra Capitals sign Adelaide WNBL star Stephanie Talbot

The Canberra Capitals have pulled off a major recruiting coup by signing WNBA-bound Adelaide Lightning youngster Stephanie Talbot for next season.
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And Australian Opals forward Abby Bishop will decide within two weeks whether she returns to the WNBL club, or plays in Europe as Canberra looks to nail down the league’s most imposing front court.

Former WNBL rookie of the year Talbot, taken at pick 33 by Phoenix Mercury in last month’s WNBA draft, has been training in Canberra over the off-season as part of Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence Program at the AIS.

The small forward is believed to be the first player to officially sign with the Capitals for the 2014-15 season, with a number expected to follow suit shortly.

Bishop is keen to stay and superstar Opals centre Lauren Jackson is already pencilled in as Canberra coach Carrie Graf works to build a roster capable of a playoff return after a three-year absence.

Jackson revealed last week she is yet to officially re-sign, but said it isn’t a cause for concern and she has committed to a Capitals return for the next two seasons.

The 33-year-old terminated talks with Canberra about playing for them last season after they failed to meet a contract deadline imposed by her management.

The delay in finalising the Capitals’ mooted partnership with University of Canberra has put several player contracts in limbo.

“They’ve got to do up a new contract but I’m not worried, everything will get sorted,” Jackson said.

“My contract hasn’t been done so I’d imagine no one’s been done, or talked about.

“We need to get a team together. The teams I’ve been successful in at Canberra have had great players, it hasn’t just been me.

“I’m not concerned, I know Graffy’s on the hunt.”

Talbot, 19, co-captained Australia’s under-19 team to bronze at last year’s world championships, and was named on the tournament’s All Star Five team.

She is regarded as a star of the future, and in March was named in an Opals long squad of 33 for the FIBA World Championships in Turkey later this year.

Her signing will help offset the loss of Canberra-born centre Alex Bunton, who signed with Adelaide last week.

Bishop has just returned from a short stint with Hungarian side PEAC Pecs and her sister’s eight-month-old daughter she has taken custody of, Zala, will have a major bearing on her decision.

The London Olympian is contracted with Canberra for 2015-16, but Bunton’s departure means the Capitals have stepped up moves to sign her for next season.

“I met with Graffy [Capitals coach Carrie Graf] a couple of days ago and I want to stay here, it’s just a matter of if something worth my while comes up in Europe or not,” she said.

“If not I’ll be a Cap again, in about two weeks I should know.

“I’d love to stay in Canberra and that’s my first preference. I want to do what’s best for Zala and if that’s Europe well it is, if not I’ll be here.

“I got back on Friday and since then Zala’s been struggling with jetlag. It’s not easy travelling and changing places with a baby.”

Bishop said the prospect of playing alongside Jackson and Talbot, who she played a season alongide at Adelaide, is ”enticing”.

“I think Steph’s got amazing potential, she’s got lots of talent and you’ll see her develop even more under a coach like Graffy,” Bishop said.

“The team Graffy’s half put together so far, I’d love to play in a team which looks great on paper and could be even better on court.”

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