Friends from the outside
But with government assistance is out of reach for many developers, others are stepping in to fill the gap.
Mike Foster is well-versed in the potential of Mexico’s developers. He’s an account manager for Sony working with studios like Xibalba in Latin America – particularly studios in Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara. He recalls Sony’s first outreach to Latin America back in 2007: “At the time, the development industry was still very young there. Actually, it is still young, but at the time, the games being made were Flash games and iOS had just come out. We really liked the passion and excitement we saw for gaming and wanted to help these guys get onto console.”
Sony developed an Incubation Program for the region. Studios and individuals were given development kits on loan so they could learn to use the tools.
“There were no expectations of a game at the time. Our goal was to help create this development community that would have the skills to be PlayStation developers and be ready for the next iteration of consoles, PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4. The program was never a funding program or a publishing program. It was just designed to give these guys a jump-start, so to speak,” said Foster.
With 2008 came Jonathan Blow’s Braid and the indie boom that followed. Like much of the rest of the world, Mexico found itself with a game development culture learning new engines on new technology, like mobile platforms. Eight years after arriving in the region, Sony and Foster no longer have the same need to nurture an industry in its infancy.
“We no longer need to provide kits to allow developers to “train;” they are ready to go! So now we are looking for teams that have really awesome content or just great game ideas that we feel the team can deliver on,” he said. He’s found no shortage: Sony is currently working with over 20 studios in Mexico. That makes Mexico the company’s second-largest territory in Latin America after Brazil.
“I am sure that number will continue to grow as more of our Mexican developers find success in console development and other studios become aware that this is an option,” said Foster. For the most part, the original incubation program has been retired, replaced by more general developer relations for a more mature development community.
Starting from nothing
One of the studios Foster works with is We The Force in Saltillo, Mexico. The team there is working on its first console game, Randall. It will hopefully be out sometime in early 2016, and for the team it’s been a long time coming.
Cesar Ramirez Molina, chief executive of We The Force, left an art direction job in Toronto, Canada in 2011 to return home and start developing games. For the first couple years, his team mostly handled outsourced art and web design for Canadian companies. Slowly but sure they moved into advergames, then mobile games, trying to save up enough money to make Randall.
It took a trip out of the country to E3 before they managed to get their idea off the ground and onto consoles. Molina managed to meet with someone from Sony at the trade show, and a week later We The Force had a dev kit and a plan to release on PS4. Molino credits Mike Foster and his team with making the process straightforward — he showed off their mobile games and a pitch for Randall, and Sony was eager to get them aboard.
It was a much better experience than We The Force has had finding support in its home country. Molina has found the Mexican government to have little to no interest in technology, and cultural grants and other funding sources seem entirely out of reach. Investors, he says, are more interested in infrastructure — they’re scared of investing in technology or games.
To Molina, that lack of support extends far beyond the technology sector. A nearby town exemplifies the problem, as he explains: “The people there cut cactuses, and get wax out of them so they can sell it to the car companies. The process of doing that is super hard. They have to cut it, and they cut their hands. They have to put it in ovens that are really hot. They sell it for super cheap, and that’s basically their only work. There’s just one school in that small town, and the government doesn’t really care about it.”
Visiting that town provided Molina and his studio with inspiration for Randall. It’s a game about a man who stands alone against a corrupt monopoly, one that encourages the populace to enslave themselves to its requirements. Randall can control their minds, and in doing so gain their powers. He uses those powers both to make his way through the world and to wake people up from their voluntary slavery.
It’s not the most subtle metaphor for a country that’s well-known for corruption at the top of the chain.
But Molina isn’t pessimistic about the future of game development in Mexico – he’s eager for the future. Even recently, he felt like his studio might be one of just a few making games in Mexico. Now We The Force is doing what it can to foster the industry’s growth, trying to create a program of its own to nurture new developers.
“We’re trying to teach people about games, trying to start a school so we can teach them that there’s something they can do. Not only these small town, in the cities too, because development here is not as huge as it is in the States and other parts of the world,” said Molina. “It won’t have any big degree, like ‘I graduated from the University of We The Force,'” he added with a laugh.
Instead, participants will learn to make their own games from scratch, learning art and programming with the studio’s help. “Right now we have two people who are learning. I showed it to a University, the program we want to do, and they were really excited. But first we have to finish our game.”