Developing nation: Colombia's evolving indie scene
Glitchy Pixel's Italo Capasso lays out the perks and pains of working in a nascent scene
Three years ago, Glitchy Pixel (Diana Pacheco and Italo Capasso) won Square Enix's Latin America Game Contest with Poltergeist, an iOS and Android puzzle game that put players in the ethereal shoes of a restless spirit and charged them with clearing a house of those pesky living people. While Square Enix passed on a proper release for Poltergeist, the two-person studio remade the game and retooled it for other platforms. To date, it has been officially launched on the PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation Vita, and as of earlier this month, the PlayStation 4.
Today, Glitchy Pixel is just one of a number of Colombian studios making a mark well beyond their borders. Efecto Studios is one of a handful of studios collaborating on the Early Access hit Ark: Survival Evolved, and Brainz Games' Mark of the Dragon is Gamevil's answer to Clash of Clans. As Capasso told GamesIndustry.biz last week, Colombia is an emerging market with an emerging development scene to match. Even when Glitchy Pixel entered the Square Enix contest, Capasso said there were very few developers in the area. Now he likens the local scene to the vibe of the '90s shareware market, where even the "big" players are operating on a similar level to the smallest indies.
"Before, people were very secretive. There were companies that said absolutely nothing about their game development process, how to work with an engine, or whatever."
"I think there's been a lot of cooperation from the government and a lot of communication between all the developers," Capasso said. "We're just two people, and there are some companies that have 30 people working for them, but we still communicate with them. We're all trying to help each other."
It wasn't always like this. Years ago, Immersion Games was the biggest name in town. The studio was trying to establish itself in the AAA console space, and produced a number of widely released PC and console titles like CellFactor: Psychokinetic Wars, Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia, and Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring. It's no longer around, a fact Capasso says the current scene should take some lessons from.
"Nobody knows anything about that company because nobody said anything about that company," Capasso said, adding, "Before, people were very secretive. There were companies that said absolutely nothing about their game development process, how to work with an engine, or whatever. It would have been scandalous if somebody wrote a blog post saying 'This is how we made this game.' That's getting better, but we still need to work that out and work as a team."
Call it hubris or simply a case of too much, too soon, but Immersion's ultimate failure was a significant setback for the Colombian development scene. While the company is gone, many of the people involved in it are still around, and according to Capasso, are wiser for the experience.
"Being selfish, being closed off, feeling above everybody. It was a bad thing... We can't forget that being selfish and vain is what brought everything down."
"When they lost everything, they understood they were doing everything wrong, and they changed their tune," Capasso said. "Being selfish, being closed off, feeling above everybody. It was a bad thing... We can't forget that being selfish and vain is what brought everything down."
This time, Capasso said holding on to that newfound sense of humility will be key for the continued growth of the scene. So far, he likes the way the development community has reshaped itself in the wake of Immersion.
"Everybody's trying to make something different, and nobody's dissing each other," Capasso said. "Nobody's saying, 'That's the wrong approach,' because nobody knows anything. The core concept here is that we all support each other. That's very important; we try to help on all different levels. We try to get the best out of each other."
If the Colombian scene is going to grow, that camaraderie and collaboration will have to help offset some of the disadvantages. For one thing, distance is an issue. There's a lot that can be accomplished remotely online, but Capasso said the expense of getting to big events like Gamescom and GDC is prohibitive for particularly small developers like Glitchy Pixel. And while there are South American events like the Brasil Game Show, they either aren't quite as big as GDC, or may be too consumer-focused for his needs. There are also other, trickier issues to solve.
"We need more talent," Capasso said. "We need more specialization."
"Everybody here is playing by ear. Nobody in Colombia has ever had formal training in any aspects of game development."
In Colombia, Capasso said engineers, artists and programmers learn the basics of their fields, but not how to apply those skills to game development.
"Everybody here is playing by ear. Nobody in Colombia has ever had formal training in any aspects of game development. For us to have that specialization and mentality for game development, we need mentors. We need people who know."
That lack of training can be seen in the local scene's turnover. Capasso said many studios fail almost as quickly as they start up, as too many developers lack a fundamentally sound business strategy.
"If you're going to go free-to-play, you need to know what free-to-play means," Capasso said. "You have to understand economies and monetization and all that stuff. And if you're going premium, you need to understand what that means. So many companies are trying to do everything and end up doing nothing. They start and in less than a year, they stop existing. So we need more stability. I think we're going in the right direction. We just have to be very careful. We have to stop being so crazy."
While some of these insights can be extrapolated to the Latin American development scene as a whole, it's important to note that "Latin American development scene" is incredibly broad, covering vastly different creators working in entirely different markets.
"We have similarities of course in some aspects of the culture and language, but each country has its nuances. Each country has a different story."
"It's like talking about the European development scene," Capasso said. "That doesn't make much sense. You'd rather talk about the British development scene, or the German scene, the Netherlands, Sweden... We have similarities of course in some aspects of the culture and language, but each country has its nuances. Each country has a different story."
For example, he said Argentina has a thriving indie scene fueled in part by successes like Daniel Benmergui and his IGF Nuevo Award-winning Storyteller. In Colombia, the focus is "a more business-like approach" emphasizing monetization and production techniques.
While Capasso would like to see the international press eventually begin differentiating between the different corners of the Latin American scene, he accepts the current reflex to use blanket terminology. After all, when the press talks about the emerging Latin American scene, it boosts interest for everyone involved, Glitchy Pixel included. Besides, he knows it's only temporary.
"As the industry gets better here, those differences won't be a problem and instead will be proof that Latin America is a very diverse region with many points of view and approaches to game development," Capasso said.