Region Focus: Israel

Region Focus: Israel
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

April 22nd 2013 at 10:00AM

Develop talks to the studios leading Israel's game development sector to prosperity

[This feature was published in the April edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Ask almost any urban Israeli today about the nation’s business strengths, and you’ll likely hear about its prowess as a technology and hardware hub.

Outside the country’s borders, blinded as many are by the light cast from Silicon Valley, it would be easy to assume such comments ware just grandstanding on behalf of enthusiastic locals.

But consider this. It was in Israel, at natural interface outfit PrimeSense, where the depth sensing technology behind Kinect was conceived and created. Quite simply, one of the fastest selling pieces of gadgetry of all time was born from Israel.

It’s also the place where Google recently established one of its most ornate offices yet, in the same Tel Aviv skyscraper that houses a vast PayPal base and areas dedicated to influential tech companies like semiconductor specialist Broadcom.

VCs in the region appear devoted to funding Israel’s hardware businesses, and the country is very much thriving when it comes to tangible technology. As a result, Israel’s games development sector is starting to establish itself, after years near dormant, cut off in an era before digital distribution.

“Israel is strong with effective development processes and technology,” explains Guy Bendov, CEO at casual and mid-core games specialist Side-Kick.

“Since Israel does not have a base history in console development, most studios started developing to Facebook or mobile, and oriented toward casual and mass-market games. Couple that with a strong technical background, [and you’ll see that] most studios grow based on a strong analytics system and data driven design.”

“The games sector in Israel relies on the vast experience in high tech industry Israelis have,” offers Nimrod Dweck in agreement. Dweck is a producer, game designer and ‘marketing ninja’ at social studio eMaginarium. He also sits on the board of GameIS, a community and NGO games association that links together the country’s industry.

“We have a great high-tech scene over here,” he reiterates. “The VCs are experienced, the developers know how to work well under tight schedule and budget and we know how to approach international markets.”

UNBOXED CLEVER

That background has long served as a stable foundation for Israel’s games development industry, but there was one problem. Back when the games business was committed to PCs, dedicated hardware and boxed products, Israelis that did try their hand at making games often found themselves isolated from the publishers and service providers that took boxed releases to the international market, and realised the local region didn’t have the size to justify triple-A development.

Then digital distribution came along.

“Although Israel is an Eldorado for technology start-ups, it was never the same for the content development companies,” explains Jeremie Kletzkine, director of business development for PrimeSense and the related 3D sensing framework OpenNI, and co-founder of GameIS.

“The distance from targeted markets and cultures was always a competitive handicap. The Israeli studios are now taking advantage of new distribution/ad channels and platforms, such as Facebook and the mobile ecosystems.”

Quite simply, the dawn of digital distribution was just what Israeli developers had been waiting for, and, coupled with the new accessibility of development tools, games developers based in the country were finally poised to spring to action from their long-standing high-tech launch pad.

“The traditional ecosystem of platform makers, publishers and studios did not make sense in the past for Israelis,” confirms Side-Kick’s Bendov.

“A lot of would-be studios and people turned to the high-tech sector, due to its growth and financial backing.  Financing, in general, was going only to scalable business propositions and content was not one of them.”

But now, bolstered by the same platforms that have fuelled the progress of the global indie games scene, Israel’s developers are now poised to join the ranks of the most well regarded industry hubs.

“Since the introduction of Facebook gaming and later Apple’s App Store, barriers have gone down and the overall market grew, opening more opportunities for local studios,” says Bendov.

“Success today is heavily dependent on data and analysis, and Israelis fit perfectly into that line of thinking.”

THINKING BIG

Additionally, says Gil Klein, SVP advertiser at the Tel Aviv headquartered Matomy, which offers developers distribution, advertising and monetisation services, Israel’s past experience before the arrival of digital distribution has fostered a timely strength in a sector long forced to think globally.

“Israel is a tiny market,” confirms Klein. “Most of the population is located in major cities, and the size of the populated areas is about the size of the state of Rhode Island in the US. We don’t have game stores and game conventions like in many other European countries, and every studio that is looking to succeed must look overseas from the early planning stages.”

The result is a globally facing mindset that currently serves Israel’s studios well. It’s a case of a challenge creating a strength, but one the Israeli games sector is today founded on.

A knock-on effect is a the establishment of a relatively tight community of developers in Israel, where GameIS serves as meeting point and melting pot for many of the country’s most proactive studios.

“The community has had a big impact – from the GameIS organisation to the self-organized events, which allowed gaming to take center stage,” states Almog Koren, founder and CEO at Israeli company Scoreoid, which provides the likes of cloud storage, leaderboards and achievement services to developers.

“Just in the past month we had a Google event here talking about gaming and a Facebook event covering gaming. Both events had major newspaper coverage, and gaming has become more accepted within the Israeli business and high-tech community.”

Clearly, the world’s big players are now not just recognising Isreal’s technological expertise, but its games and content industries too.

THE POWERS THAT BE

Yet, like any games industry hub, however successful, Israel has its challenges, and many agree wooing the attention of the government is particularly tough.

“There is currently no real government interest in the video games development sector, and it’s not even considered an after thought,” says Guy Ulmer, GameIS board member and software engineer at electronics design outfit Cadence.

“It is as if the decision makers are not even aware what a multibillion dollar industry this is. The funny thing is that investment in the ‘traditional’ high-tech industry goes without saying.”

The reality appears to be that the Israeli government has nurtured its high-tech industry with fervor, albeit with less recognition for games makers.

“There have been talks in the past, but in reality nothing has changed,” offers Scoreoid’s Koren. “Overall this is one of the biggest pain points in the Israeli games industry, and having government support can have a big impact. When you look at Ireland as an example there is a lot that can be done.”

“But it’s important to note that the government also invests in traditional art and media,” suggests Ulmer, whose company is now trying to make something akin to that investment happen for games.

HIDDEN TALENT

Israel’s games developers are faced with another challenge; one of staffing that will strike a chord with studios globally that must compete with giant hubs like that of Canada.

“With the lack of big local studios, finding talent with proven experience in game development will continue to be challenging,” states an otherwise optimistic Niv Fisher, co-founder of Israeli indie SpikySnail, which has targeted Xbox Live Arcade with its Splatters series.

“I have more than a few friends that had to relocate to Europe or North America to get to work in the games industry. They are immensely talented but just didn’t have any local studio that could use their talent.”

Israel’s games developers hope that, as their ecosystem grows and gains momentum, soon it will be them that are welcoming staff from overseas. And as such, some remain positive about Israeli’s committing to stay within the local talent pool.

“There are many talented individuals in Israel, and working in the game industry is something that is very appealing for many of them – we have a thick layer of nostalgic folk who grew on commodore and PC gaming here,” explains ‘Goldy’, studio manager at prolific developer and client work specialist Playful Shark.

“You will find exceptional talent here in all game development related fields.”

And the future generally looks bright for Israel’s games industry, as VCs continue to show interest in the region, and the efforts of GameIS and the rest of the community of developers ripple out across the country.

As giant organisations like Google continue to attract the talent and resource that is the final ingredient needed for any fledgling dev hub to flourish, Israel’s ambitious games makers could soon see themselves rub shoulders with those already center stage in the international games industry.

The last word, however, must go to eMaginarium’s Dweck, who finds a positive result in a challenge not just for Israel in its entirety, but much of the world.

“I think that living in Israel makes you looks at things a bit differently,” he suggests. “Maybe it’s the stress from living under the threat of terrorism and war on our borders – Hizbollah, Hamas and now the horrible civil war in Syria – that makes your mind run wild and seek some refuge. I found out that the imagination offers peace and quiet, and for me designing games is the most relaxing thing there is. I want games to promote peace and happiness, and make people feel good even though it feels that sometimes the world gone a bit insane.”