Culture

Global success of Cult of the Lamb showcases Australian video games development talent

There’s a whole marketing industry out there trying to persuade the world to buy Aussie lamb. But our latest international success story is a bit more digital – not to mention eldritch – than meaty.

Cult of the Lamb, a video game about indoctrinating cute animals into your dark sect and then sacrificing them for greater power, has topped the sales charts on release (temporarily overthrowing the latest Spider-Man game on PC) and has hit more than a million units sold in a week, according to its publisher.

“It’s been pretty crazy!” says Julian Wilton, one of the three core members of the game’s Melbourne-and-UK-based developer, Massive Monster. Wilton first met fellow founders Jay Armstrong and James Pearmain on a forum dedicated to internet-based flash games over a decade ago.

“Ever since we started on this project we’ve been blown away,” he says. “We’d be like … what the hell’s going on? Is that number real?”

Game developer Julian Wilton at ACMI in Melbourne.
Game developer Julian Wilton at ACMI in Melbourne. “I hope we can keep the indie spirit strong.” Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP

Though less popular for larger developers like Sony, Rockstar or Ubisoft, Australia is home to some of the world’s more successful indie game studios, with a string of international hits from smaller teams over the last few years. Melbourne, in particular, has a thriving game-developer scene, thanks to a combination of state government funding, tax incentives and a generally more creator-friendly vibe. Over 44% of studios are based in Victoria, according to a 2021 survey from the Independent Games and Entertainment Association, as well as more than 57% of the workforce.

“There’s such a creative energy, there’s so many cool studios,” says Wilton. “I think having that community of developers that are on a similar level to you is great inspiration; you can talk shop, compare contacts, they can help you out, you can help them out. It’s very community.”

Like many Australian game developers, Massive Monster credits their state’s investment in the industry for helping them achieve international success, with the team receiving $40k in funding from VicScreen and Creative Victoria to polish a demo to the point where they could pitch it to their publisher, Devolver Digital.

“Australia’s a really small segment of the market,” says Wilton, “so having publishers is really quite useful for Australian developers”.

“Given the relative population size, I think aiming for the international market is inevitable,” says Tim Dawson, one of the Brisbane-based developers behind last year’s hit Unpacking.

A room from Unpacking, a video game by Brisbane-based developers Witch Beam.
A room from Unpacking, a video game by Brisbane-based developers Witch Beam. Photograph: Patrick Lum/THE GUARDIAN

“One of the great things about digital releases is we can sell our games all over the world, so it’d be a waste not to leverage that.”

Why precisely Australian games are going big internationally is difficult to determine, Wilton says, though he ascribes some of it to “weird ideas” born from smaller team sizes.

“I hope we can keep the indie spirit strong,” he says, “because that’s where [Australia] thrives … I feel like that’s where we can compete.

“By having these smaller teams, you have to really come up with these ideas that are so important, that resonate with people. Whereas if you have a really big team the ideas might get diluted or standardised.”

Dawson agrees. “Because we share culture with North America and the UK [and] yet are also outsiders, Australian and NZ devs are well positioned to come at concepts in fresh and off-kilter ways that can be an effective way to punch through the noise,” he says.

Successful ideas so far include the goose-simulating slapstick of Untitled Goose Game, the meditative zen of sorting objects and moving house in Dawson’s Unpacking, and the brutal, challenging exploration of a dead and emptied world of insects in Hollow Knight – to say nothing of Cult of the Lamb’s strange, cute-but-creepy mix of community management and vengeful crusading.

Cult of the Lamb could hit more than a million units sold this month, according to its developers.
Cult of the Lamb could hit more than a million units sold this month, according to its developers. Photograph: Massive Monster

Dr Marcus Carter, director of the University of Sydney’s Games and Play Lab, believes the success of Australian games internationally is the result of a “solid foundation of talent and creativity”.

“It’s clear that Australian games are imagining a much wider audience of players with a much broader conceptualisation of what play can look like,” he says. “Who would have thought moving house could be so fun?”

Recent announcements in games funding have focused on federal-level tax offsets for international companies spending large amounts of money, but Carter and his colleague, Dr Mark Johnson, also of the University of Sydney, think many successful games are now coming “from smaller-scale, bottom-up productions” with roots in the “quality of Australia’s game-development education”.

“Insofar as the Australian games sector is doing well, it’s doing so on the back of indies and creatives, rather than major investments or state support,” says Johnson, “but the hope is always that the former might lead to the latter, by proving the viability of the field”.

“Financial support and government interest is important, but other facets – cultural rather than economic – all take time to slowly evolve and develop. It’s an Australian game-making culture that really needs to start coming into its own.”

Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game Photograph: PR Handout

Dawson is cautiously optimistic about the likelihood of further government investment in the sector.

“I think the states that invested effectively in video-game development are reaping the benefits, and other states are taking notice,” he says. “It feels like there are more conversations happening.”

“The dismantling of the federal Screen Australia fund when the previous government came into power was a blow, but with its recent return, I’m hopeful for the future of Aussie indie games.”

Carter agrees with this assessment. “I think that these recent successes show that Australia’s game-development industry is worth investing in,” he says, “and the investments being made by state and federal governments are worthwhile.”

Despite his own game’s success, though, Wilton has one big regret.

“I’m upset, I’m upset,” he laughs. “I can’t believe we shipped without a koala skin!” he says, referring to a dropbear-themed cosmetic option for the game’s exceedingly adorable animal followers.

“We’ll have to patch it in,” he says. “It’s definitely on the list.”

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