Helping out at home

Games Starter is another team bringing local support to the region’s developers. It’s a recent arrival to the Mexican video game industry: As an incubator and funding company for games, it may be the first in the region.

It’s currently helping three games come to market: Flat Kingdom, a stylish 2.5D platformer with music by Shovel Knight composer Manami Matsumae; Gatapult, a cat-based physics game for mobile platforms, and REalM, a surreal puzzle platformer.

Realm, by Authentic Illusions and ArborSheep

Above: Realm, a 2D surreal horror puzzle game coming soon to PS4, PS Vita, PC, and Mac.

Image Credit: Authentic Illusions

Alejandro Garza Cuéllar, the chief executive of REalM co-developer Authentic Illusions, has been pleased with his team’s experience with Games Starter so far. He met them (and Mike Foster) at the 2014 Latin Game Conference in Authentic Illusion’s home city of Monterrey, Mexico.

The 2014 conference had a last-minute addition: A space for local indie developers to show their games. “We saw an opportunity to get our game closer to the public. So, after a few hours, there were no other devs in the — literally — huge space they designated for indies, so naturally, we went to our offices for computers, screens and all the stuff we could to showcase the game as much as we could,” said Garza. That resourcefulness proved worthwhile, helping to bring REalM to the attention of both Sony and Games Starter. “Once they opened their submissions, we were quick to upload ours and pitch our game to them. Jumping to March 2015, we started working together. As an accelerator, they are funding the entirety of the development cost, as well as everything related to marketing. So far it’s been a great experience, especially since they’ve believed not only in us, but in our ideas this whole time.”

According to Garza, REalM has been embraced by the local gaming community. It’s a surreal horror game that takes inspiration from the likes of Silent Hill, Yume Nikki — a Japanese indie horror game with a cult following — and Resident Evil. It focuses not on action but on puzzle-solving, exploration, and pure survival. The team is aiming for truly challenging puzzles — Dark Souls challenging, as he puts it. And that’s working out so far. “We’ve had great reception in the events we’ve been. In the Campus Party event that was held this year at Guadalajara, we had some chairs and the game on a big screen, and people were playing the game for hours! The build we had there comprised seven puzzles, and some solved them all in around three to four hours. That’s three hours they were there, writing in their notebooks, arms or wherever they could, to write hints and solve the puzzles,” he said.

That sort of local attention is particularly important to Garza, as it speaks to an industry that’s finding its legs: “What makes me optimistic about it is that there are lots of great indie studios in the country that are showing up with awesome games, and that they are starting to get the attention they deserve.” He brings up Randall, Flat Kingdom and GameCoder Studios’ Attractio, as well as games that are better known, like Heart Forth, Alicia and Kerbal Space Program. “There is a real community of developers that is growing. Not only that, but there is even a new company, [Game Starters], that has surfaced with the goal of strengthening it, so I am very positive about the future of our industry as developers.”

Attention: an international currency

Kerbal Space Program, from Squad

Above: Kerbal Space Program, available now on Steam.

Image Credit: Squad

Kerbal Space Program is certainly one of Mexico’s big game development successes. It has a player base of over a million, and it is up for a 2015 Golden Joystick Award as Best Indie. Its developers at Squad recently attended the White House Astronomy Night. While there, they announced a public campaign for a girls-focused video production contest. It will highlight women involved with space travel, astrophysics and space exploration.

But Kerbal Space Program’s producer, Miguel A. Piña Sabido, hasn’t found that success translates to much attention or interest at home in Mexico City.

“We’re practically unknown down here, and the first thing the gaming community down here says when they learn about us is ‘wait, Kerbal is from Mexico?’ Our fan base here may be small, but they are passionate as they are proud,” said Sabido. “But there’s not so much we can do on the industry side of things. Government support is flaky at best, and while we do our best to attend DevHR [a game development conference held in Colonia Juárez, Chihuahua] every year, we find the general gaming industry in Mexico to be insular.”

Wryly, he added: “It’s surreal in the end. We can go to PAX and get greeted and stopped every 10 feet, but I guess it is pretty indicative that from our metrics — there are more KSP players in Japan than in Mexico.”

Burning the midnight oil

Despite Kerbal Space Programs’ success, much of Squad’s team still works on the company’s original focus: digital and interactive services, including marketing, for major international clients.

Studios like We The Force offer similar services in order to try to get — or keep — their games funded. Cosmogonia does the same.

Based in Zapopan, Mexico, Cosmogonia is something of a local indie dream team. Co-founder Martín Meléndez Olivera explained: “The team that now forms Cosmogonia worked in some of the highest profile games to ever come out of Mexico, including a successful mobile game and a console party game using the biggest Latin American license. Thanks to the large amount of resources available at our disposal, we had the opportunity to iterate constantly and hone our skills.”

That came to a screeching halt in 2013, as the studios fell one by one to financial difficulties. “All the projects we were working on were put ‘on hold.’ Tired of the mismanagement issues and the enormous amount of wasted potential of the development teams, we started to outline how would we run a company, built and managed by the team in charge of making the games,” said Olivera.

Once it came together, that team included over a dozen developers, artists and production staff. They’re working together on BitUp, a side-scrolling hack-‘n’-slash with a focus on exploration and collection. It’s backdropped by a gorgeous world in a style the studio calls “cubist-impressionist.”

Cosmogonia expects to release BitUp on PS4 and PC sometime in Q1 2017. In the meantime, the studio is keeping itself busy both developing the game and providing outsourced game art for other studios. It’s a balancing act that could easily overwhelm the team if not carefully managed. But according to Olivera, its one they all understand how to handle. Third-party projects do sometimes take up a good chunk of Cosmogonia’s time, but teams are often able to hire additional staff to fill out the projects and keep their own development continuing apace.

Trusting in the crowd

Chihuahua, Mexico’s Lienzo took a different approach to funding: They took to Kickstarter.

Having previously worked in mobile, advergames, and educational projects, the studio wanted to create something more ambitious. Something that might have lasting impact. That project is Mulaka, a game inspired by the Rarámuri, known in the running world as the Tarahumara. The Rarámuri are admired and emulated by runners around the world for their long-distance running skills.

Weapons from Mulaka, by Lienzo

Above: Weapons from Mulaka, being developed for PC

Image Credit: Lienzo

Lienzo sought to leverage some of that fame to tell the stories and myths of the people behind the running technique. The studio is working with stakeholders to ensure that the game treats its subjects well, and it plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to NGOs that help the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Tarahumara, many of whom deal with crushing poverty.

The Kickstarter, though, didn’t get funded.

Adolfo Aguirre, marketing, PR and community manager at Lienzo, believes that it was still a very worthwhile effort. “Even though our Kickstarter campaign wasn’t successful, without it we couldn’t have reached so many people. It allowed us to reach many channels and it was an enlightening experience, to be honest. Not getting the funds was very rough, but we knew that we were on to something after looking at all the positive reception that we achieved without even having a game demo to show,” he said.

The game saw coverage from many Mexican outlets, including Atomix and LevelUp, two of Mexico’s major gaming sites. Aguirre credits the concept to a degree, but he also thinks the novelty of a locally developed game contributed.

“The game development scene in Mexico is very tiny and the industry is taking its first steps still. … This doesn’t mean that there aren’t talented studios or worthwhile projects in the country, but the number is very small and so far none have achieved the success of some of the most prominent indie studios worldwide. There are very good things being done by talented people in Mexico, but unfortunately you have to look deep to find them,” said Aguirre.

Like We The Force’s Cesar Molina, Aguirre has little hope for investment. “Businessmen in the country and investors aren’t familiar with the gaming industry and aren’t interested at all in it. Almost the entirety of jobs in our area belong to the manufacturing and food industries. It’s very tough to explain to these businessmen the size of the industry and the scope of the projects.”

But for Lienzo, there has been some unexpected good news. Conaculta, a government agency dedicated to arts and culture, has provided some funding for Mulaka. According to Aguirre, it is enough to sustain a few months of development and put together a playable demo.

Hunter's Legacy, by Lienzo

Above: Hunter’s Legacy, coming to Steam.

Image Credit: Lienzo

While they’re working on that, Lienzo has also announced a second game: Hunter’s Legacy, a platformer now up on Steam Greenlight. It stars a well-armed feline cast that will be part of a connected universe of games. It’s a less ambitious project in some ways, but one that the team is excited to work on. So far, the community response has been equally enthusiastic.

One success story isn’t enough

Alonso Martin had much more success with Kickstarter when funding his game, Heart Forth, Alicia.

Based in Mexico City, Martin is a filmmaker and developer with a keen interest in storytelling: “I grew up playing with animation software instead of video games. My mother wasn’t too keen on buying me games or consoles because ‘they were violent’. Everything I animated sucked, of course, but in retrospect that kick started me into playing around with the notion of storytelling: I made a ton of animations about my dog escaping lava pits, going through stock-photo landscapes and so forth.” Later, Monkey Island 2 and other Lucasarts titles cemented his interested in games as a storytelling medium.

It’s that interest in storytelling that really made Heart Forth, Alicia, stand out to its fans, along with its gorgeous pixel art. It’s a Metroidvania, a genre that doesn’t traditionally tend to include complex stories. Martin plans to buck that tradition, and he’s bringing his filmmaking talents to bear on the problem with a yet-unexplained element of real footage.

For the problems of the game development industry in Mexico, he’d like to see more of the country’s would-be developers embrace crowdfunding. After the success of Heart Forth, Alicia’s Kickstarter, which brought in over $232,365 of its $60,000 USD goal, he gave talks about crowdfunding as a viable option for financing. He found limited interest, however, and believes that people in Mexico may still be too reluctant to leave more traditional models of funding behind. He also thinks that many lack the financial privilege to be able to take advantage of any such opportunities.

“The minimum wage per day is $4.2 dollars in the better parts of the country. This means people have to take two or more jobs to even attempt at maintaining a dignified living. It’s not easy to simply ‘save up’ and drop your day job so that you can dedicate yourself to making a game to Kickstarter,” he said. “Now imagine you have a family to support, rent to pay, light/phone/gas/water bills, tuition fees, food, etc. Tragically, it’s practically impossible for certain people to be game developers, even if they really want to and are committed enough.”

For the same reasons as many other developers in Mexico, Martin isn’t sure if there’s much for the local industry to be optimistic about. Between corruption, low income and scarce opportunities — as well as a lack of government interest — the challenges ahead are considerable.

But he believes there may be opportunities for success: “We need to focus on making products that are targeted toward a global audience, we need to meet the standard of quality of the global competition, and we need to establish working connections with industries elsewhere. If we do that, good things will follow eventually. There already are a few games performing well on first party platforms, and there’s another handful of projects in the making that are looking promising. We just need more people with that mindset and with that determination.”

Reasons for hope

Developers may have more support coming for their efforts to build up the local video game industry. Based on the ESA’s experiences in Mexico, it sounds like the government may well be starting to take an interest. Half a dozen government agencies sponsored parts of the Video Juegos MX program, including the Ministry of Public Education’s Digital Cultural Center and the National Council of Science and Technology.

Jon Berroya is certainly hopeful. ESA’s lobbying in the country is focusing on raising the industry’s profile and showing off the economic opportunities it could offer. “We’re already beginning to see some positive signs from the government. For example, we recently learned that PGR has established a cyber-crime division within its Specialized Investigation Unit for Crimes Against Copyright and Industrial Property,” he said. Online infringement is a problem for game developers around the world, and Berroya is encouraged to see the Mexican government already stepping up to work on the problem.

Beyond that, there’s a growing foundation of support for game development in Mexico, between international organizations like the ESA and Sony and local groups like Games Starter. With that and the dogged determination of studios like Lienzo, Cosmogonia, Xibalba and so many others, it’s clear that the industry has momentum.

Whether that momentum can overcome the challenges ahead remains to be seen. We The Force’s Cesar Molina thinks it has a good shot, though. His studio is building ties with others, and things are changing for all of them. When he looks at Mexico’s video game industry on the whole, he’s hopeful: “It’s starting to grow, and it’s going to be cool.”