For the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Mexico’s time has come.
It’s a growing games market — the 13th globally for game revenues, according to market research firm Newzoo. But looking past Kerbal Space Program, an international indie sensation developed in Mexico, the development side hasn’t received much international attention. At least not until this year, when the ESA decided it was time to reach out to the Mexican game development community.
That outreach begins with Video Juegos MX, a competition that sought out the best developers in the country. Jon Berroya, vice president of content protection, explained why the ESA — a group whose main focus is advocating for the U.S. video games industry — decided to begin working more closely with Mexican developers.
“When we started talking about creating this contest, our goal was to provide a forum for current and future generations of Mexican video game designers to showcase their talents, and in doing so, help everyone – from school kids who dream of making games for a living when they grow up, to politicians who may not have touched a video game since the heyday of arcades – understand that our industry can create jobs and fuel tremendous economic growth if great developers are recognized and their creations are respected and protected,” said Berroya.
If it sounds like the ESA thinks Mexico’s game development community is just starting out, that’s probably because in a lot of ways, it is. The first Latin American company solely dedicated to creating video games was Evoga Entertainment, a studio that opened its doors in 2000. The first game that a Mexican company published for the mass market was Lucha Libre AAA 2010: Heroes del Ring, which landed just five years ago. Many hard-working studios hail from Mexico, and the rise of indies has helped — but most of the support structures American developers take for granted are simply not available in Mexico.
The ESA’s arrival is a step in the right direction.
The government takes notice
Video Juegos MX may have been intended to raise awareness of the industry, but it launched with the understanding that region’s developers could use a little support.
In the lead-up to the competition, organizers worked with Mexican agencies to offer workshops on the business side of the game development. ProMéxico hosted one; it’s a government agency interested in strengthening Mexico’s participation in the international economy. According to Berroya, experts covered topics like the trademark registration process, business intelligence, and video game development strategies: the sorts of resources a studio might need to turn a passion project into a business.
The competition reached out to three tiers of participants: professional developers, college students, and students between the ages of 12 and 17. The first two needed to have playable demos, while younger competitors only needed to present concepts and storyboards. Top prizes included 50,000 pesos ($3030) and full scholarships for online courses at Mexico’s Video Game Makers Academy.
Berroya came away impressed by the response: “Both the volume and quality of the submissions exceeded our expectations. We received nearly 140 total submissions. … We are definitely encouraged by the response we’ve received from the contestants, key government stakeholders, and the local game industry.”
That interest from the government is new — most developers I spoke to were dismissive of the very idea that the Mexican government might take an interest in video games. But for Ricardo Villarreal of Xibalba Studios, whose platformer MilitAnt won the Professional Developer category at Video Juegos MX, the interest feels real.
“We received a lot of press coverage even from national media and also were invited by the president’s office to attend an event with the Ppesident as a guest of honor during the week of the entrepreneur,” he said. This isn’t the first time his Monterrey-based studio has benefited from government agencies, either. “There are government programs available to promote growth for entrepreneurship and indie game developers fall into this category. We have been able to get support from the government to participate at various international game shows like GDC, Gamescom and the Tokyo Game Show, and participated for three years in TechBA, a business accelerator based in Seattle and funded by the Mexican government.”
That assistance has helped the studio show MilitAnt off at international and local game expos, and Villarreal thinks that’s one way the industry can really push its own growth. “It has given us a chance to show to the local gamers that Mexico’s game developers can produce quality games,” he said. The response to his game has been overwhelmingly positive, in his estimation, with gamers, bloggers, and YouTubers alike taking a shine to its old-school gameplay and vivid art.
With luck, this big win at the government-sponsored Video Juegos MX will help push Xibalba and its games onto the international stage.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”