Has Spain awakened from development slumber?

Has Spain awakened from development slumber?
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

August 26th 2011 at 10:00AM

After years of dormancy, a new wave of indies have emerged

Speak to any Spanish developer with enough years behind them, and they’ll reminisce affectionately about the country’s golden era of games making back in the 1980s.

It was a period of much prosperity, but the debut of the 16-bit machines sounded a death knell that would see the Spanish sector contract for many years.

Now, however, the nation’s reputation as a development centre with international relevance is returning.

It started in March 2009 when the video game sector was recognised by the Spanish government as a cultural industry, and several associations and trade bodies such as ICEX, Dev, Doid and AACIE have been created to represent and support developers there.

The development scene is expanding, and studios based in the European country are gaining confidence.

A NEW DAWN

“Spain has over 120 studios, most of them of small or medium size, doing games for all existing platforms,” confirms Ivan Fernandez Lobo, founder of the Spanish games industry conference Gamelab, and president of The Academy of the Arts and Interactive Sciences.

“These numbers have been constantly increasing over the last decade, as have the quality of the productions.”

Indeed, the global success of titles like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow by MercurySteam, Invizimals by Novarama, and the iOS version Battlefield Bad Company 2 by Digital Legends shows that today, Spain is very much back on the global game development map.

“Currently, the Spanish games industry is waking up from a long, lethargic slumber,” suggests Gerard Fernandez, VP and general manager of mobile gaming giant Digital Chocolate’s Barcelona studio.

“Spain has always had developers with great potential, consisting of very talented and creative professionals, but as our government and other supporters – like investors, banks, VCs, business angels and so on – were not giving the right support to the industry, many of those talented professionals had to migrate to other countries to develop their career. Now, thanks to some private initiatives of some selective developers, we are now back on the road.”

Certainly, Spain’s gaming public have a voracious appetite for buying games, and according to some sources the Spanish market represents the forth largest in Europe in terms of sales today. Yet despite this, only around one per cent of those sales correspond to consumption of titles developed in the country.

“These are still very poor figures, compared to other countries of the Euro zone, and are not representative of the quality and true potential of our development industry,” offers Juan Tamargo, COO of Madrid studio Bitoon.

‘Potential’ is presently an eagerly used buzzword for Spanish game development, and collectively studios there are moving to assume responsibility for making probable success a reality.

GETTING NOTICED

“In the last couple of years we have seen an increasing support by the government, especially thanks to the efforts of some members of the Spanish game development community that have worked hard to raise awareness in our country and to give video games the recognition they deserve,” says Diana Diaz Montón, co-fouder of Madrid-based localisation specialist Native Prime.

The Academy of the Arts and Interactive Sciences, headed up by Fernandez Lobo and created in 2010, is the result of all that hard work. In fact, so successful has the Academy’s work been that it now courts the support of the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

“Furthermore, the ICEX – the Spanish Institute for Foreign Exchange – is providing continuous support for companies that attend trade events and is organising different activities to help our companies expand,” adds Diaz Montón.

However, some Spanish companies admit that the government and related trade bodies could do more to support the development sector as the game development industry there strives to increase in size and re-establish its footing on the global stage.

“There is still a lot to be done here,” says Randall Mage, CEO of Málaga localisation specialist Localsoft, of support for the industry.

“Video games need to be seen as something serious; something that could create wealth in the country and boost the industry with specific aids. This is not happening at the moment, although some progress is being made as we speak.”

The present size of the Spanish development scene may make it hard to get recognition, but its relative smallness is also a strength. With intimacy comes a vital sense
of community.

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

“Being a small community, centralised mainly in two or three cities, there is a rather strong sense of community,” confirms Diaz Montón.

“Most professionals know each other and have worked with each other at different projects, in different companies.”

There’s near unanimous agreement between Spanish developers and service providers that the relationships between studios is friendly and productive, and as a result events like GDC have become a focal point for a collaborative effort to promote the output of the nation’s developers.

What’s more, the very aspects that make Spain such a popular holiday destination means attracting talent from overseas is rarely a problem for studios.

“The quality of life in the country makes it very appealing for individuals and families,” states Fernandez Lobo. “Especially when talking about creative people, Spain is one of the most inspiring places in the world. In terms of salaries, there are not big differences with other European countries.”

With some of the most affordable living in the continent, and more hours of sunshine than anywhere in Europe, it’s not hard to see why Spain makes for an appealing prospect.

There’s also been a marked improvement in the efforts of Spanish educators training home-grown talent, in part as a response to the aforementioned industry renaissance.

“The level of students from the Universidad Pompeu Fabra, UCM or URJC is becoming really impressive lately,” insists Raúl Rubio Munárriz, CEO at Spanish studio Tequila Works.

He adds, however, that as with many of Spain’s strengths, more is needed for the country’s studios to realise their full potential.

“The assimilation of that talent in the game industry is another question. Collaborations between universities and games studios are becoming more common, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Robert Figueras, director and producer of transmedia at Filmutea, which recently created ambitious transmedia project Panzer Chocolate agrees that, despite a good start, Spanish educators must offer more.

“I don’t think the well known international MBA schools in the country have any kind of specific programs for those who want to become the CEOs of the game studios and production companies of the future; and these specific programs are probably necessary here,” he says.

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

Spanish developers face myriad other challenges too. Like their global contemporaries they are fighting in an increasingly fragmented and diverse market where focus is key.

“There are many small studios in Spain, and there is an obsession with triple-A retail titles.” says García.

“Most Spanish developers cannot afford the budgets of their overseas counterparts. We should be smarter and try to be more flexible to avoid the ‘cheap work for hire’ or ‘triple-A or bust’ labels.”

Spain is also a victim of the great international brain drains such as Canada; a fact that is slowing the speed at which the country returns to its zenith. Add to that the fact that the country is suffering from a lack of locally centred publishers, and it’s clear that there is much work to be done.

“Today, most of the publishers and distributors in the country are subsidiaries of foreign companies, and most of the income from sales goes abroad, independently of the games being developed in Spain or not,” states Bitoon’s Tamargo.

“We need to be able to distribute and publish our titles internationally, without losing the ownership of our own IPs on the way.”

Fortunately for Bitoon, something is already being done.
“The most important challenge right now is transitioning from development to publishing,” confirms Fernandez Lobo.

“The lack of Spanish publishers is clearly limiting our capability to grow both individually as companies, and as an industry. We make great games like Castlevania, but we make them for big international companies that can go away with their brands and IPs at any time.”

As a result bodies like The Academy of the Arts and Interactive Sciences are hoping to guard locally made IPs in the online spaces by helping studios create their own distribution and publishing platforms.

There’s also been a drive to assist developers with the finer details of business practice, all as part of a response to the Spanish authorities apparently tough line on those starting companies.

“Building a company is hard, but if you try to create a small company the burden is very high,” says Ricardo Amores Hernández, CTO of Gijon microstudio CrazyBits. “For example, you must pay a lot of taxes every month from day one, whether you are making a profit or not, which is not a very nice thing if you follow the ‘classic’ business model; create a product, get revenue when it is finished.”

POSITIVE THINKING

There’s little doubt then, that Spanish developers have plenty of challenges to address. However, a sense of positivity prevails, and most studios and individuals based in Spain working on games development seem to be both realistic and optimistic, looking forward rather that backward.

“The Spanish software golden age of the 1980s is gone and won’t be back, so get over it,” says Tequila Works’ Rubio Munárriz, cutting straight to the chase.

“We are living a renaissance age now and must take advantage of it to move forward. Our biggest chance of success is to take advantage of our strengths, believe in ourselves, help each other, listen to others’ experience to make us wiser.”

On the matter of how best to proceed, the last word goes to Tamargo. “We need to keep maturing and growing, being able to bring and sell our very own creations and IPs, instead of relying on third-party licences, which are also good, but which prevent showing one of our very best qualities as developers, which is creativity,” says the Bitoon COO.

“There is a big hunger among local developers to make great things, and I’m not necessarily referring to huge triple-A productions. I’m talking about games that will make a difference and that shall be recalled over the years by players from all over the world.”