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Artisan CEO will "accept" criticism after opening new studio in Saudi Arabia

The French company has expanded into Riyadh with help from the Saudi government, with studio co-founder Mario Rizzo claiming the region is "deeply misunderstood."

Chris Kerr

October 26, 2023

5 Min Read
A screenshot from Astria Ascending showing a vibrant party of adventurers

Artisan Studios, the French indie developer behind Astria Ascending and Super Neptunia RPG, has opened a new studio in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and is prepared to accept any criticism that might now come its way.

The company has opened what it describes as a "regional development studio" with support from Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Investment (MISA). It claims the new branch will be the "largest foreign-owned game development studio" in the region and represents the first time an indie developer has been permitted to establish a foothold in the country.

"The studio aligns with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's (KSA) efforts to create high-value jobs and provide local talent with international gaming experience. The studio reflects the Saudi government's commitment to diversifying the economy by attracting companies that are leaders in their sector with exciting new investment opportunities," reads a press release.

"The expansion grows Artisan's development capabilities and expands into publishing its titles. Artisan will use this new studio to grow its global footprint and become the first independent console game developer in the MENA region. Artisan wants to collaborate with local artists from across the region to create new IPs to export globally."

Discussing the move during an email Q&A with Game Developer, Artisan CEO and co-founder Mario Rizzo said the company was able to establish the Riyadh studio after being invited into a program called "Ignite" by MISA, allowing it to secure the business license needed to operate in Saudi Arabia as a foreign-owned company.

Rizzo says that partnership came about after he was invited to Riyadh to speak at an IGDA event last November by Nine66, which is part of the Savvy Games Group owned by the Saudi state-backed Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Notably, PIF is chaired by Saudi Arabia's deputy prime minister and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud, who has been accused of allowing human rights activists to be tortured and faced allegations over potential links to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Recently, PIF has invested in major studios including Embracer, EA, Nintendo, and Take-Two.

It was at that IGDA event that Rizzo was introduced to MISA, eventually providing Artisan with a pathway into the territory. "The role of MISA is to facilitate everything you need to setup a foreign company in the Kingdom. It’s also important to keep in mind that foreign companies normally cannot setup in the KSA without Saudi ownership. This is why you have not previously heard of foreign game studios setting-up in the KSA," explained Rizzo.

Rizzo said Artisan is unable to discuss the terms of the deal it signed with MISA, which is an official branch of the Saudi government, but said, "the fact that we plan to staff 200 developers in Riyadh over the next few years indicates the size of investment we plan to make in the region."

Artisan boss says Saudi Arabia is a "deeply misunderstood part of the world"

When asked whether Artisan had any doubts about establishing a studio in Saudi Arabia due to concerns over human rights issues in the region—including the criminalization of same-sex relationships, discrimination against women, and the incarceration of protestors—Rizzo said those factors are something he "carefully considered" when he first began visiting two years ago. After spending time in Saudi Arabia, however, Rizzo feels the country is a "deeply misunderstood part of the world" that is "rapidly changing at a rate that most of my colleagues in the west would not believe."

"The KSA in particular is quickly adapting to reach their goals for Vision 2030 and 63 percent of the country is under the age of 30. After traveling to Riyadh over a dozen times and meeting the local people here (and local indie game developers) who just want to create and tell their own stories, I decided I would accept this criticism because I wanted to be a part of building the gaming ecosystem," he said.

"I believe that western companies entering the KSA can be a force for positive societal change and can help shape the future of the region. This is what we are focusing on as a studio and I believe giving voices to the developers in this region will lead to a more diverse global game development industry. I accept that some people will not agree with my choice and I acknowledge and accept that."

As for how Artisan intends to be a force for positive change, Rizzo said the Riyadh studio will enable it to attract and train local talent to provide a platform to "new voices."

"Our goal is not to attract the same western AAA talent to Riyadh that we could just hire in London," he added. "I want to train the next generation of creators from the region whom I hope will one day go on to build their own studios and create their own games. That is how an ecosystem develops and we want to be a part of building that."

In the long-term, he expects the Riyadh studio will be ready to build and release its own RPGs in a few years and said Artisan plans to have exchanges where developers from Saudi can visit and work with its teams in France and Canada to "better facilitate their integration into our studio culture."

About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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