Interview: Ralf Muhlberger, of SAE Brisbane


21 Oct 2015



Interview: Ralf Muhlberger, of SAE Brisbane

21 Oct 2015

We recently caught up with Ralf to about the local gaming scene, and the advantages of study.

Ralf Mulhberger is the coordinator of the games department at SAE Brisbane. We asked him a few questions about learning game development in the city that spawned Fruit Ninja and Ty the Tasmanian Tyger.

We recently caught up with him to about the local gaming scene.

Brisbane has a tremendously large number of successful game studios. Do you think there's a particular reason for that?

That's a great question, and has a number of dimensions to it. One, of course, is social. When there is a strong sense of community, new businesses often emerge and clusters form, gaining critical mass. 

Brisbane and Melbourne have long been the main two cities in Australia for games development, going back to the 1980s and 1990s when a bunch of studios opened. 

The theme for the World Expo in Brisbane in 1988 was ‘Leisure in the Age of Technology’, and this was undoubtedly an inspiration for the local games industry pioneers opening new studios in the 1990s. 

The relatively weak Australian dollar in those days meant that there was a lot of work for hire opportunities for Australian developers. Australian Universities were very strong in computer science, with the University of Melbourne and The University of Queensland, for example, commissioning their first computers in 1956 and 1958 respectively. 

The strengthening of the Australian dollar around 2007/2008 shifted the international market unfortunately, and Brisbane studios were hit harder than Melbourne. But once you have a base of experienced people, industry can grow back, and that is what we're seeing now, particularly as digital distribution means developers are no longer as beholden to the AAA studios and their physical software distribution networks. 

Do you think there are unique advantages of studying game development at Brisbane SAE?

SAE is a very interesting institution, in that it is completely focused on creative media, and has a full complement of the various skills needed to create games. Studying at SAE means that you work alongside animators, audio designers and engineers, film makers, graphic designers, web and mobile technologists, and Bachelor of Games Development students who specialise either in games programming or games design. These areas are also complemented with a stream of study in cultural and media studies and professional skills that contextualise the creative work. SAE Brisbane is one of the largest of SAE's 53 international campuses, so there is the critical mass I mentioned earlier that helps give projects the momentum they need to succeed. Students are also very well supported by our nine full time games department teaching staff, who represent both design and programming, bring AAA and indie experience to the Institute and have the education and research qualifications to ensure academic rigour.

Do students have access to views and lessons from industry experts? Is it possible to, say, intern with Halfbrick as part of a design degree?

Absolutely. SAE is all about hands-on learning in real-world environments; that’s what sets us apart. Internships are actually a compulsory part of our Bachelor of Games Development in the final trimester, and we work actively with the local industry to help our students secure the most rewarding placements with companies such as. 

Most of our staff have worked in the games industry, some are still finding time to make games and many are well connected with local and national movers and shakers. 

We also invite professional games developers to attend exhibits of student work and occasionally sit in on class presentations and pitch sessions. Our weekly ‘What I Really Do’ seminars are a great way for students to hear first-hand from industry experts willing to share their insights and experiences in gaming. This seminar series is also open to the public, giving aspiring gamers a great opportunity to connect with students, staff and industry experts – and provide real insight into the realities of a gaming career. We also publish videos of the session online.

Interestingly, Halfbrick was actually founded by Qantm College graduate Shainiel Deo in 2001. SAE acquired Qantm in 2004 and SAE’s alumni now make up a large part of Halfbrick’s workforce.

How strongly is student collaboration encouraged during undergrad? Do you work to promote the games designed by your students?

We focus very heavily on getting students working together in team environments, just as they will after graduating. 

Our studio teaching modules and final portfolio project are critical to this approach and together make up half of the overall degree.  

In a games design studio module, for example, we’ll get the games design student developing the gameplay for their game, a games programming student working on key coding, an audio student creating the audio assets and an animation student making characters, all working together as a development team even though they are in different studio classes.

In the final project, students from different disciplines are actually in the same class and form direct interdisciplinary project teams. We push very strongly for the games developed by these students to be published, and that is part of the assessment requirement. 

We’re seeing some great success with this approach. Recently, a team of our students were featured on Twitch and given the greenlight on Steam for their game Dyadic. That’s an amazing achievement and one that will stand them in great stead professionally. 

There are other students around the country who have continued working together after collaborating on their final project at SAE, including the guys who founded Pygmy Tyrant - Trent Naylor, Willis Smith, Dhani Wong and David Coonan. 

What are some of the skills a student might learn during their degree that they didn't realise would be important?

There are a number of soft skills that students learn, such as the importance of networking, of their public presence on social media and blogs, of cultural and media awareness, and of building up their portfolio.

For the games design students, one of the most interesting insights is that games design is a form of User Experience (UX) design, and a lot of their skills, particularly play testing and analysis, apply beyond the design of games. 

We also teach serious games. Recognising that games can be used to have an impact beyond the entertainment space is something that students tend to find interesting and challenging, as validating that impact is complex. 

For students in the games programming specialisation there are a number of areas where we go quite a bit deeper into tech than they probably would have anticipated, such as biometrics and sensors for affective computing in games development.

Separate to that we also ensure that our students are brought up to speed on the various behavioural skills necessary for success, such as time management, pitching ideas, presenting their work and ongoing updates and working in groups.

How do you cater for the divide between students who want to join existing studios and students who want to strive out and make their own games independently?

The studio teaching model, which is problem-based and incorporates plenty interdisciplinary work, really caters to both of these groups. Students learn to work as part of a team to an existing brief, as well as creating their own briefs. Further down the track, in studio work, they learn about monetisation and business models. It is very important, even when working in an existing studio, to understand how employers make their money.

There has actually been quite a shift here with more students expecting to go into indie studios or starting their own, rather than starting in AAA studios. Our shift to a strongly studio based teaching model supports this very well, and there is a lot of industry support for it too.

Read more:,interview-ralf-muhlberger-of-sae-brisbane.aspx#ixzz3pFdO158Q