Quest for Success: Box Knight and the Australian Videogame Industry

Box Knight

At the Australian videogame company House House, the legend goes that an employee one day posted a photo of a goose in a group Slack discussion, along with a pitch to build a game around the animal. The staff agreed that the idea was funny, but turned to more serious ideas for their next project. Yet the goose honked around in their minds. Eventually, House House got to work on what would become Untitled Goose Game, a stealth puzzler set in a British town in which players control one such troublesome waterfowl. Released in late 2019, the game became a hit on multiple platforms and sold more than 1 million copies before the end of the year, going on to win Game of the Year at the 2020 D.I.C.E. Awards and topping the Family category at the same year’s BAFTA Game Awards.

Meanwhile, in Adelaide, staff members at We Made a Thing Studios were in awe of a homemade helmet made of cardboard. From those humble beginnings grew Box Knight, an action role-playing game that its creators describe as ‘a mix of The Office and Lord of the Rings’, in which players control office workers who hack their way through hordes of creatures to reclaim their workplace from dark forces. Leading Box Knight’s game and narrative design is award-winning writer and producer Tom Phillips, who says:

We were working on [web series] Lucy and D.i.C in the deep, dark months of [the visual-effects process] and were trying to keep a good, positive culture in the office […] showing off all the week’s work and making sure the team got around each other.

But one arvo I walked past one of our employees who had fashioned an empty carton into a knight’s helmet, and he was just standing there in the middle of the office […] I remember just being struck with the silhouette and [thinking], ‘There is an idea there.’

Phillips sat down with director and VFX supervisor Jeremy Kelly-Bakker to come up with the game concept. On the spot, Kelly-Bakker drew a sketch of the titular Box Knight. ‘We immediately kind of fell in love with it,’ says Phillips.

The sketch provided the foundation for Box Knight’s art style, and influenced every aspect of the game’s design. The project received funding from the South Australian Film Corporation’s Games Innovation Fund, which is designed to support the state’s games industry. Box Knight successfully moved through stages of development throughout 2021, a process that involved testing the game with players who signed up for early access. Box Knight is on track for release in 2022, and its creators hope it will join the ranks of games made in Australia that level-up in a big way.

Traditionally, games produced by the industry are broken down into categories based on budget and studio size. At the high end are Triple-A titles, multimillion-dollar games from major studios such as the Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty franchises; the industry then scales down to the work put out by medium and small studios, and, finally, ­by independent publishers who make their own games.

Triple-A titles made in Australia include entries in the BioShock and Borderlands franchises – which have sold more than 34 million and 60 million copies respectively – but a majority of the games produced locally come from smaller studios without an army of staff or the price tag of a Bugatti. Australian game studios have a strong pedigree in this category, as indicated by the success of Adelaide-based indie outfit Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight, an action-adventure game in which players control a knight who explores a world inhabited by bug-like creatures. The project began on Kickstarter, where the developers managed to raise A$57,000 (smashing through their initial goal of A$35,000); Hollow Knight was subsequently released in 2017 on PC before making the leap to consoles a year later. Positive reviews, a gorgeous art style and addictive gameplay drove the title to over 2.8 million sales by early 2019; a sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong, is currently in development and a release date is expected to be announced soon.

Also coming out in 2017 was Sidebar Games’ Nintendo Switch release Golf Story, a popular 8-bit-style sports role-playing game that regularly sits in the top ten most downloaded games in the Nintendo store. On the mobile game front, the arcade hopper Crossy Road, made by Melbourne-based studio Hipster Whale, has been a fixture on smartphone screens since 2014, while Brisbane’s Halfbrick has dominated mobile gaming for two decades with Fruit Ninja, Jetpack Joyride and Monster Dash.

Australian studios can now find a pathway to success on their own terms and produce engaging games that captivate players all around the world. A hit can come from anywhere: productions no longer need to adhere to traditional formats like platformers and first-person shooters, and a game about a bothersome goose can compete with a blockbuster Triple-A title. Can a knight in used cardboard do the same? Destiny awaits.