In what is perhaps the greatest demonstration of Iceland's plans to play a leading role in the future of game development, the country's president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson took the stage at the inaugural Slush Play conference in Reykjavik this week to speak to developers and investors about its place in 21st century storytelling.
"We are a nation of storytellers," said Grimsson, kicking off a two-day event that focuses on virtual reality and gaming. "We are a nation that has statues of poets, writers and storytellers, not generals and presidents. We are a country that loves storytelling, so how can we transform traditional storytelling into an era with new technologies or virtual reality? Can we be players in this new world?"
For the past two decades, the country has been something of an outlier within the games development community. Despite a thriving indie development culture, Iceland's longest-running success story remains with Eve Online developer CCP Games - a studio that found its footing making a complex and often unforgiving space war for a relatively small but passionate fanbase.
But the Icelandic president hopes the country's influence in games will continue to expand beyond this. "In the early years of my presidency, in the final years of the last century, many of us were discussing when we will be able to transform this tradition of storytelling into this new world of technology," said Grimsson. "Without the creativity and the ideas and the poetry of using this fascinating new medium there will be no success."
"Iceland [is] a fascinating laboratory because of this centuries-old tradition of storytelling, and the creative processes of people from different places coming together"
Grimsson's emphasis on creativity is in part the result of the 2008 financial crisis that decimated the country's economy and forced many of its key players to begin thinking outside of the box. Iceland, Grimsson noted, is a laboratory for creative thinking.
"Not only is Iceland a fascinating laboratory because of this centuries-old tradition of storytelling, and the creative processes of people from different places coming together - but it is also a fascinating laboratory because the financial crisis, the crash of the banks, tested the young generation of our country beyond perhaps what any generation of creative people have been tested. Either you left the country or you used your creative abilities to do something new. So they come in to the second decade of the 21st century hardened, and wiser after having been through this storm that is still affecting many countries in Europe."
It's a sentiment echoed by CCP Games' chief executive Hilmar Veigar Petursson as his company begins to take the necessary steps to turn its early track record building virtual worlds into a new way of approaching games development in the future.
Petursson has an ambitious proposition that could take "100 years" to fulfill. "Our company goal is to make virtual worlds more meaningful than real life," he said. The developer is experimenting with virtual reality to meet its goal, having introduced the Oculus Rift-led Valkyrie earlier last year. CCP Games is now toying with the technology even further in a new (albeit still very early) demonstration of what can be achieved through VR. The focus this time is on the effects of VR on human perception, employing the virtual reality headset to convince its wearer they have created a fireball in the palm of their hand. "Your brain makes your hand heat up," said Petursson, describing its effects. "We've been doing some crazy experimentation on that front."
But with the call for experimentation in VR, former Atari chief executive David Gardner has asked investors and developers alike to exercise caution in these early days. Gardner is currently head of London Venture Partners, one of the only investment firms to focus solely on games development, and maintains a "cautious excitement" about the new tech.
"VR is uncomfortably stuck between hobby and large business - unless you are lucky enough to sell Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion, it's going to be hard to make a company all that big," said Gardner, adding that consumers will be much less forgiving of visual and technical issues in VR than on other platforms because it relies on immersing its users. "Casual games on iOS don't have to look amazing, but [VR does]. This is an uncomfortable thing. Adding incremental VR to existing 2D products [is a short term solution] and there is going to be a lot of pain to go through until we get to a healthy cycle."
Regardless of these potential issues during VR's earliest days, Iceland's president maintains the country is the ideal place for this experimentation to take place and succeed, because at the heart of games development is a theme that has continued throughout Iceland's history. "If you take away the technology its essence is storytelling," he said.