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Making game development global again

Meet the Syrian and Iranian developers making an opportunity of Donald Trump's travel ban - with a little help from Unity

The international video games industry owes a considerable amount to the efforts of immigrants from countries like Syria.

Companies like AdMob - founded by Syrian Entrepreneur Omar Hamoui, and later acquired by Google for $750 million - have helped reshape the conventions of game publishing as we know it. Steve Jobs' own biological father was a Syrian emigrant to the states. On taking that journey, Abdulfattah 'John' Jandali unknowingly set events in motion that would lead to Apple's reinvention of how we play, make and distribute games.

Beyond games there are numerous other examples of Syrian people who have helped better the world through technology, empowered to do so through freedom of travel. People like Sirin Hamsho, a Hama-born engineer who today resides in the United States, and has helped revolutionise renewable energy through her work with wind turbines.

Technology is, of course, progressed by collaboration, and cooperation happens most readily when people can get together. It's the reason travelling to other countries - be it for a single meeting or a new life - is so often the catalyst for technological change. That's why most in the games industry go to conferences all over the world; it's a chance to understand distinct approaches, secure contacts, form alliances and spark collaboration.

"It's a breaking point in my life, where I can move to a better position and change my way of thinking about the future"

When Trump's long-promised travel ban became a rather chaotic reality, numerous games makers suddenly found their potential severely jeopardised. Suddenly, every US games conference was off the radar of hundreds of developers. No GDC, no E3, no nothing. Studios needing to take a couple of days to attend a meeting with a US publisher had the rug pulled from beneath their feet. Chances to meet new staff and find new partners were thrown into disarray.

That inspired Unity Technologies to conceive the 'Unity Without Borders' initiative, which sought to bring 50 developers to the Unite Europe conference in Amsterdam last month. After a selection process, Unity would handle and cover travel, accommodation, visas and anything else needed to afford games makers limited by Trump's ban to engage with the free exchange of ideas that is the founding spirit of almost any game convention.

Meeting the developers brought to Unite as part of Without Borders, it is clear they greatly appreciate the opportunity. That, perhaps, should be obvious, but there is a sense on the show floor that the effort is about more than one middleware-specific company conference.

Ziad MollaMahmud is a man with many skills. By day he is a .NET developer for web applications, while also doing 3D modelling work in the architectural space. A Syrian based in Turkey, he has in recent years embraced game development, acquiring a taste for AR, which he has explored through modest projects of his own conception.

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Ziad MollaMahmud believes that travelling to Unite Europe could be a 'breaking point' in his life

"This is a very, very good opportunity for me," MollaMahmud says of his success in visiting Unite Europe as part of Without Borders. "It's a breaking point in my life, where I can move to a better position and change my way of thinking about the future. I believe coming here will have a very good effect over me and my future."

That's not to say MollaMahmud is new to being overseas for his career. He estimates that he has visited some 13 countries during his 20-year career, but with the outbreak of Syria's civil war - and long before the impact of Trump's presidency - the ambitious developer started to realise global politics would limit his professional potential.

"It's not only Trump. There's a lot of restrictions on Syrian's travelling and doing other things, and that makes it very hard"

"After the Syrian war started a lot of Middle Eastern countries placed travel bans on Syrians, just because of their nationality," he says. "I was travelling before - without any visa - but after the war they all started to do these travel bans, and I couldn't travel to the Middle East. It's not only Trump. There's a lot of restrictions on Syrian's travelling and doing other things, and that makes it very hard."

Those restrictions - whatever their source or motivation - continue today, and in many other ways that also prevent developers from collaborating. Many Iranian and Syrian studios keen to apply for Without Borders were faced with limitations on web access that impeded their submissions for the initiative. There's a logic to the internet making face-to-face meetings less relevant today, but when the web you can access is restricted presence at real-world events is all the more important. And that was, Unity says, what inspired the Without Borders initiative.

"In some of their communities - especially in countries like Iran and Syria, where they can't move around as much - they don't have a lot of access to a lot of game developers or creators," says Elizabeth Brown, Chief People Officer at Unity, who has been pivotal in implementing Without Borders. "Coming to a conference not only fuels inspiration, but establishes skill sets, sparks ideas and builds networks. They don't always have access to a local game development community, so they rely on international conferences to feed them and develop their creations and businesses. When they are limited from going to those conferences, they are super limited. That's as creators, but also as business owners. Some of them are making their living by making games."

For Brown, this isn't just a matter of providing those with a passion for games an exciting opportunity; it is about helping developers put food on their tables. Often, that is incredibly limited for a developer restricted to just their home country, market and development community.

"We don't have anything like this in Iran," explains Amin Shahidi, as he glances around the main expo hall of Unite Europe, smiling. Shahidi is team lead, animator and game designer at the Tehran-based studio Black Cube Games, and he's at Unite thanks to Without Borders. "We don't have these kind of networks," he continues. "So in Iran, all the movement of developers is very limited, or even blind. So this kind of event - and the moment of being here - is very, very cool and very, very helpful."

"It shows us that people actually care about us," adds Ali Boroumand, a game developer at Dutch studio Ferox Games, and a former colleague of Shahidi's. "We're all humans, and we're all pretty much the same people. So it's very heart warming to think that, even in hard times, people see game developers as game developers. We're all game developers, and it doesn't really matter where we come from. We're all trying to make good games.

"We're all game developers, and it doesn't really matter where we come from. We're all trying to make good games"

"But before this, we had to rule out contributing to any conferences or studios inside the United States. We couldn't contribute to anything there, and that's probably a loss on both sides. And beyond the travel ban, there are quite a few other United States restrictions, mostly on money. Selling games outside of Iran is hard for us."

Boroumand makes a very important point with regard to what Iranian developers have to offer the rest of the global games development community. Restricting developers' opportunity to travel doesn't only harm the game industry in their home countries; it equally detracts from the nations they would otherwise be visiting. Collaborating is at least a two-way process, and the learning, inspiration and innovation it engenders rarely passes only in a single direction.

"Syria, like anywhere, has talented people who can bring a lot of things to games development and all technology," suggests MollaMahmud. "But we need a chance to open the window and say 'we are here, you can do things for us, and we can do things for you'. We just need a chance to elevate ourselves and do something not just for ourselves, but for all those that make games. We can help your games when we can travel to you freely."

Equally, there's an obvious creative opportunity for any studio looking to bring distinct aesthetics and approaches to the global market.

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Ali Boroumand (L) and Amin Shahidi (R) worked together while living in Iran

"Iran has quite a long history," says Boroumand, who is presently based in Sheffield. "The Persian empires have been around for a few thousand years, so Iranian art and Iranian culture is pretty rich in that respect. Games of Iranian art and Iranian influence can bring something to the rest of the world, definitely; something that isn't often seen."

There's an irony to all this, of course. Trump's travel ban has afforded the Unity Without Borders teams an opportunity to visit a conference they may never have seen had the US President not targeted the various nations blacklisted. For MollaMahmud, however, the irony of opportunity born from limitations runs a little deeper. Buoyed by his experience of attending Unite, he can be remarkably optimistic about a situation that had s dramatic impact on his life.

"The war, I hope, will finish soon. Then a lot of people will come back to Syria, and help build our country from scratch"

He believes the horrific Syrian war, which broke out just a couple of years after he returned to live in the country, offers an ultimate example of the potential opportunity hardship can bring game developers.

"After the war is finished - and I hope that is soon - I believe there will be a very good opportunity in Syria for all kinds of business, including game development and software in general," he considers. "The war will leave a country that will have to start from scratch. Now there are millions of Syrian refugees outside of Syria. It's really bad to be a refugee, and I believe a lot of refugees are ready to seize the opportunity - having learned many new things - of heading back to Syria."

Forced displacement is no better than placing mandatory travel restrictions, of course, but in a strange, counter-intuitive way, migration from conflict could represent what freedom to travel can bring in terms of advantages.

"The war, I hope, will finish soon," MollaMahmud repeats firmly. "Then a lot of people will come back to Syria, and help build our country from scratch. I always say that Germany after the second world war, for example, started from scratch, and they have built a very good, very beautiful, respected country. Then more of us can make successful games."

MollaMahmud isn't suggesting that the development of a healthy national games industry justifies a war; not at all. For one, there are more important things than the games industry to consider when a country emerges from conflict. But if Syrians can pool the experience gained through their peoples' diaspora and establish a game industry to rival Germany's, it would contribute a great deal to that renewal and rebuilding.

Movement of people can push technology like little else, for the benefit of everyone involved, regardless of their home or country of origin; Apple and AdMob are proof of that. War will likely exist forever, but its horror doesn't preclude it from being used to inspire positive movements large and small.

Nobody is calling for the forced displacement of people for the benefit of the game industry, of course. But based on the enthusiasm and appetite for learning of every Without Borders developer at Unite Europe, it's apparent that supporting thoughtful freedom to travel benefits us all.

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Latest comments (1)

Farhang Namdar Lead Game Designer Larian Studios 4 months ago
Good job guys! Keep up the good hope and keep developing! Always nice to hear about Iranians making games :)
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