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Making Games in Tehran: A massive market, disconnected

The first Tehran Game Convention gave Brie Code insight into an emerging industry hobbled by sanctions and restrictions

This article is the first in a series about new game developers in emerging non-Western game development communities, new games events around the world, and games events with a special focus on diversity and new markets. These criteria come directly from the work of Rami Ismail.

The games industry in Iran is saturated with opportunity. According to the Digital Games Research Centre (DIREC), 23 million of Iran's 79 million people currently play games. 64% of Iran's population is under 35, a demographic that the games industry knows how to target. This demonstrates both a distinctively large number of gamers and a distinctively large capacity for growth.

The Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation reports that 61 million Iranians are on the internet and 28 million have smartphones. Currently, most Iranian gamers are mobile gamers. Again, this demonstrates both a lot of gamers and a lot of coming growth.

July 2017 marked the first annual Tehran Game Convention. It felt like an event that had been refined over years. It was strikingly well organized, hosted 2300 attendees, and featured speakers from 14 countries covering a range of topics from scalable game servers (Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh), to expanding existing universes (Rayna Anderson), to meaning and ethics in games (Wolfgang Walk), to applying game design techniques to understanding mental illness (David Baron). The games industry in Iran is well-established and sophisticated.

"Iran is remarkably separate from the international industry. Google Play, the App Store and Steam do not sell games here"

If you didn't know this, it might be because the games industry in Iran is also remarkably separate from the international industry. Google Play, the App Store and Steam do not sell games here. Most Iranians buy their games from local solutions such as Cafe Bazaar, a store available on Android. In fact, many of the services that game developers take for granted in other parts of the world - from the Unity engine to global networked banking - are not so readily available in Iran. My Canadian and German bank cards are useless here.

This creates incredible challenges for Iranian developers, but also opportunities. Businesses like Cafe Bazaar are built to duplicate these global services.

Video games are magic

"Video games...were like magic to me", says Yasaman Farazan, a lead game designer at Acid Green Games, who is working on the mobile game Live TV Tycoon. Farazan grew up playing games like Shadow of the Colossus, Age of Mythology, Dungeon Keeper, and The Neverhood. Her mid- to long-term goal is to make personal, expressive games.

Farazan and her friends won first prize at the Iranian game development competition Level Up in 2016, for a prototype of Live TV Tycoon. They have been working on it ever since and, at the Tehran Game Convention, Live TV Tycoon won Most Innovative Mobile Game. Half of the team are women.

The Acid Green Games team at the Tehran Game Convention

As she describes her journey making games, some of Farazan's challenges sound familiar to me. Many people around her find games useless and a waste of time. Some of her community find Live TV Tycoon, a game about managing a TV station, fun, but some don't even accept it as a game.

But Farazan's other challenges are ones that western developers never face. To get feedback she attends as many competitions and events as possible, but she cannot attend certain competitions due to US sanctions, banking restrictions, or the high cost, complication and uncertainty of traveling from Iran. Due to these sanctions, banking issues and uncertainties, she cannot use Kickstarter or other existing crowdfunding platforms. And when she launches she cannot self-publish on Google Play, the App Store or Steam for the same reasons. She will launch only in Iran unless she can find an international publisher.

Sadegh Broomand, a programmer at Acid Green Games, tells me that when he started, Iran's internet connectivity was unreliable and finding game development books was rare. "Today it's easier to learn and make games thanks to free game engines and better internet connections," he says, a story I've heard from game developers in many emerging dev communities around the world. Unity, Unreal and the internet are revolutionizing and democratizing game development. However, things are slightly more complicated in Iran. Broomand continues: "But almost every game engine has banned us."

"Almost every game engine has banned us"

Sadegh Broomand, Acid Green Games

Although the EU lifted its sanctions on Iran in 2016, most game engines are subject to US sanctions. Donald Trump signed a new sanctions bill in July.

The founders of Amytis Entertainment in Tehran have been making games since 2003, and making games as Amytis since 2010. Amytis' first-person shooter Fighting in Aden Gulf was featured internationally at Unite in 2012. Farshid Naderinejad, Amytis' director of international affairs, and Shahin Haghighi, the CEO, told me that, "the people who are in this industry in Iran are the people who love games. Over all these years they have overcome these obstacles and limits. We believe that Iranian games will open the gates of the global market one day."

Iranian games inspired by Iranian culture

Mostafa Keyvanian founded Anu Game Studio with some friends in 2003 in Kashan, a small town about halfway between Tehran and Isfahan. Keyvanian grew up playing games first on Atari, Nintendo, and Sega consoles, and eventually on Playstation and Xbox. His favourite games are Super Mario Bros., God of War, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, and Inside. "[They] uniquely inspired me and affected my life as a game developer," he says.

What was missing from his childhood, and therefore from that list, are Iranian games inspired by Iranian culture. Farazan's list of favourite games was similarly foreign.

Keyvanian points out that Iran's old and historic civilization is home to many different peoples, languages and deep, rich cultures. He says Iranians have "thousands or maybe millions of ideas for making games" based on these cultures and sub-cultures. It's from this perspective that Anu Game Studio made Grandam Overdrive.

Watch on YouTube

Grandam Overdrive is a 2D platformer in the style of western platformers such as Rayman Legends but inspired by Persian folklore. The protagonist is a grandmotherly woman. The story is about her saving kidnapped children from wolves. At the Tehran Game Convention, Grandam Overdrive won Best PC Game. The game is complete, and Anu Game Studio want to publish it internationally.

At Amytis, they are following Fighting in Aden Gulf with a new first-person shooter: Infinity Soldiers, which is set in the Iran-Iraq war; more specifically, it is set in flashbacks that the protagonist Hadi, a man living in present-day Tehran, is experiencing after having developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his experiences in the war.

"Many people left themselves behind for their country, people who are still mentally and physically damaged"

Anu Game Studio

Naderinejad and Haghighi care greatly about what each individual soldier has given up to fight. "Many people left themselves behind for their country, people who are still mentally and physically damaged. [With] this game we are trying to tell a bit of this story."

While researching PTSD symptoms, effects, and treatments for the telling of Hadi's story, the team at Amytis discovered a treatment that used virtual reality. Amytis was already established as a VR pioneer inside Iran, so it is now not only working on Infinity Soldiers to educate people about PTSD, but also working on a VR project to help treat PTSD.

Opening the global gates

Mahdi Bahrami is an indie developer living in Isfahan and putting the finishing touches on his game Engare, which will ship later this year. Engare is a game about the geometrical patterns of Middle Eastern art and architecture. It's about mathematics, and, "little interesting ideas about our universe." Three of Bahrami's games have been selected by the IGF, including Engare.

If I had games like Bahrami's when I was a kid, they would be on my top games list.

Bahrami lived in Amsterdam for a few years, but in the end he chose Isfahan as a better place to make games. The obstacles for game developers in Iran are hardly small, but the daily obstacles of being a Middle Eastern immigrant and an indie developer in a western city were worse.

"In Iran I don't have to worry about those things," he says. "I feel healthier and more comfortable here and I believe that helps me to make better games." When Bahrami was in the Netherlands he collaborated with devs in Iran, and now that he is in Iran he may collaborate with devs in the Netherlands in the future.

Watch on YouTube

What do developers in Iran need to succeed? Game developers everywhere need tools, they need information about how to use the tools, and they need access to customers. And to collaborate across borders, they need reliable internet and they need international banking.

In countries where parts of the internet are either censored internally and/or blocked externally, most things can still be accessed with a little ingenuity and a VPN client or two. It's slow, but possible. And Farazan explains to me that there are ways around the banking issues as well, like collaborating with a local third-party who has rare access to an international bank account. It sounds expensive, but possible.

"A lack of uniformity and clarity leaves Iranian developers guessing as to what they can and cannot accomplish"

But finding ways to exchange information and money isn't enough. Developers must be able to use the tools and to publish what they create. The sanctions seem to be maddeningly vague: Different companies interpret the sanctions differently and enforce them differently. Google Play allows apps for Iranians as long as they don't involve the exchange of money, but as recently as last week Apple did a sweep of removing apps meant for Iranians.

This lack of uniformity and clarity leaves Iranian developers guessing as to what they can and cannot accomplish and what options are available to them. If they publish apps from companies incorporated outside Iran, is it enough? It's unclear, leaving their whole investment at risk.

Bahrami shares with me some of the successes that Iranian developers have had gaining access to tools. Unity responded to Trump's travel ban with Unity Without Borders, a program that sponsored developers from restricted countries, including Iran, to attend its Unite conference in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, the Unity website and engine were still not available in Iran. Bahrami raised the issue repeatedly on Twitter; now, Unity allows Iranians access to the free version of their engine.

But Iranians still don't have official access to the Unity website and Unity documentation. I noticed this while I was trying to work on my game from inside Iran. Progress seems uncertain with US sanctions.

Regardless, the market inside Iran is massive and is growing fast. There are thousands of talented developers and there are millions of stories to be told. I look forward to hearing where the Iranian games industry is at Tehran Game Convention 2018.

I attended the first annual Tehran Game Convention as a speaker and a guest of the Iran Computer and Games Foundation, under the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. My travel and accommodation were fully paid by the Tehran Game Convention.

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Brie Code: Brie Code and her company Tru Luv Media make video games with people who don’t like video games. Previously she led programming teams at Ubisoft Montreal on Child of Light and some Assassin's Creeds, and wrote AI code at Relic for Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @briecode or @truluvmedia.
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