Game development in Latin America faces multiple difficulties: Poverty, distance, and lack of training. These are just a few of the larger problems that come with trying to make a game in this region of the world. However, there has been growth against all the odds, and there is a clear effort to try and fix these issues. The talent and potential in these countries is unbelievably vast, and the products that have come out of it are an example of it, regardless of the shortcomings most of these studios face being independent. With some time and effort, this part of the world can become a relevant percentage of the international game industry.
The number of countries where game development is a viable career has slowly increased with time. The industry has changed from being mostly American and Japanese to include products made by studios all over the world: French, Canadian, Swedish South Korean, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish just to name a handful. This is mostly due to the technological development these countries underwent between the 1990’s and the 2010’s (Argaez). However, some areas of the world are still having difficulties getting into the market, such as Latin America, which generates only 4% of the industry revenue on a global scale (Newzoo).
Before proceeding, it must be clarified that Latin America refers to the countries in the Americas whose main language comes from Latin (mainly Spanish and Portuguese). This list is comprised of: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. Puerto Rico does not have a place in this list because it is owned by the United States, and therefore part of a country whose predominant language is not Romanic.
Many independent Latin American studios and developers have made an effort to involve themselves in the industry, some examples are:
- Sukeban Games: Venezuelan team responsible for the visual novel VA-11 HALL-A Cyberpunk Bartender Action.
- Gasp Inc: Venezuelan studio responsible for Battle Tennis, Guru-Guru and others. No longer operational.
- Squad: Mexican studio responsible for the highly acclaimed Kerbal Space Program.
- Ace Team: Chilean studio responsible for the Zeno Clash saga, The Deadly Tower of Monsters, and many others.
- Saibot Studio: Argentinian independent studio responsible for the Doorways saga.
- Matheus Valadares: Brazilian developer responsible of the popular multiplayer game agar.io
However, while some of these cases have met their fair share of success in the international market, most attempts to attract international interest has not produced favorable results.
Lack of Interest from the General Population
Latin America represents 8.6% of the entire world population -- almost twice as much as the US (Worldometer). However, while the former spends 4.1 billion dollars a year in the game industry, the latter spends 23.5 billion. This is due to lack of interest, high poverty indexes (38% of the population earns between 4 and 10 dollars per day (Oleaga)), and even higher percentages of media piracy. Almost half of the Latin American population with access to the internet illegally downloads some sort of media (Schoon).
Tobias Rusjan, founder of Saibot Studios, commented on the importance of the issue:
“[...] Yes or yes (like it or not) one has to aim to the outside because here there is a lot of piracy, it’s no place to make a living from this [making games]. If you want to, you have to aim to the outside (that is, internationally).”
Because it is so difficult to cater to a local audience, studios in Latin America are forced to introduce themselves into the international market immediately after they start making games. Carlos Bordeu, founder of ACE Team, believes that the difficulties pertaining this situation are global and not a disadvantage specific to Latin America:
“[...] when you present your first project it’s you against the entire world, and I think a small new studio formed of unknown people in the United States [also] has everything in the way [for them] to prove they are good -- and that could happen in any part of the world. The situation is so competitive, that I think it is irrelevant where in the world you are. You have to demonstrate you are better than others -- that you have something new and innovative, and in that sense it’s a more globalized competition.”
The difficulties of having success in the international game market is not exclusive to the region, but a problem every independent studio faces regardless of their country of origin. Another problem, more related to the economic status of these countries, is salary. It is very common for game developers born in these regions to move to more developed countries to seek a stable economic situation and a higher payment for their hard work.
“[...] One of the problems I see is that a lot of talented programmers and artists leave to the outside (with outside I refer to countries of the first world) because they find a “roof” [limitation] here or they get a better salary in the outside, and that’s understandable because it’s normal to get paid more outside but at the same time that doesn’t do well to the local industry because that’s lost talent. [...]”
-Tobias Rusjan, Saibot Studios
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (2008). The game that caused Venezuela's ban on violent videogames.
Aside from underpayment, there are a lot of inaccurate ideas from the general population of Latin America when it comes to video games. An example of these misconceptions is Venezuela’s ban of violent games in 2010, done to “fight” the rapidly increasing index of crime the country has been suffering during the last twenty years (McWhertor). Game censorship greatly affects studios in the country, as explained by Jose Gomez, founder of Gasp Inc:
“After 2009 the Venezuelan congress passed a very ambiguous law banning violent video games without any clear regulation of what would be considered violent, the entire local industry either left or became very much an underground business. It was too risky to be public about our work as at any point you could be accused and jailed for years. That was a huge blow to the local industry.”
Censorship is not the only difficulty caused by misinformation about video games. Family and financial support are additional issues in the local industry, as Carlos Bordeu points out:
“[...] When you move from hobby to “real life” you need an economic backrest, and that to us was hard in the sense that we didn’t count with any [economic backrest] beyond personal savings and family support; and with those [resources] we managed to extend the development of Zeno Clash to two years, looking for the best way to use the funds we had (since some people did not require it or were unsalaried and compensated in the future). Back then we were limited in budget.
[...] we were pioneers so obviously no one quite believed in what we were doing, […] they [one’s family] see that one is jumping into a career with a complicated future with no evident background and that can be complicated on a personal level.”
The lack of background mentioned by Bordeu reflects another issue with the industry of the region, which is inexperience.
Few countries in Latin America offer majors related to video games. Most only offer traditional programming courses and few in design, art, teamwork or project management. To make things worse, the few institutions that teach video game-related majors usually present outdated curricula that is not useful anymore (De Wit 48).
“[...] most developers here feel they have to build their own engines to get anything done, which is ridiculous. I honestly don’t know why is this, maybe they’re cocky? My theory is that because 80% of games people here are usually computer engineers they tend to have a very pragmatic way to approach game development [...]”
-Christopher, Sukeban Games. (McCoy)
Tobias Rusjan also mentioned the difficulties of the lack of education and training in game development in Argentina:
“When I finished high school I saw that there was an industry (I didn’t know there was one [before that]) and that helped. A lot of things I had to do on my own (learning and stuff), but I think that [getting into the local industry] helped and it also makes one to stand out more.
[...] there also may be a lack of trained people. There are good people here but we need more trained people -- more studios that teach, more companies that train. That side has also played against us.
Right now since we have grown a little, the people that get in are usually people that are already trained. We no longer train as much because we now spend a lot of time developing, so we don’t have as much time to train people. At the start we had to do it because the [economic] investment was very small and we had to produce a game with that. [...]”
The lack of proper education has forced many developers to teach themselves how to make games. It has also driven studios to spend additional time and money in training new hires -- which could have been used for development.
Fortunately many institutes are seeing the growing interest in game development and are starting to offer more classes related to it. Rusjan talks about these recent developments in Argentina:
“Here, there’s been progressively more courses and careers in respect to video games, which is good. The problem is that there is not enough experience here for there to be people that retired from the industry so they can teach. [...]
There are a lot of initiatives, places like Image Campus, Da Vinci [School] and others (I even heard they started [offering] a career on that in the UTN). It’s great that they started expanding from software [development] directly to video games. I find that really cool but it also still needs to grow up.”
Chilean booth at the GDC 2016 [Source]
Another big obstacle for Latin American developers is their location:
“International experience is scarce. Even though we do have access to jobs from all over the world, we have a lot more barriers keeping us from them. We’re unable to get internships, we have to go through lengthy applications for visas that we’re often denied, we need to learn other languages, etc. Gathering enough experience to be known in the industry at an international level is much harder over here. [...] lack of education in game development and the significant cost of having to rely on American publishers to release a video game in the international market.”
-Adrian Novell, Argentinian indie developer
Bordeu also considers this a enormous difficulty in growing as an independent developer in the region:
“[...] the distance is also a relevant problem when the time comes to show your work to thirds [consumers]. Being in Chile we are very far away from what is the “center of game development”, which is why it became a relevant achievement being able to go there, to be in the Independent Game Festival. We don’t have the closeness that other independent studios have with the medium, which made it more difficult for us.”
Being distant from the major conventions and festivals, prevents Latin American independent developers from receiving as much attention as American or Western European ones. He remarks that distance is not an issue with conferences only, but also affects integration into the international indie community:
“[...] I believe the indie industry, at least when we started, I don’t know nowadays since they are so many developers, was more of a club of known people: Jonathan Blow knows this guy and this other guy and between them they are friends, etc. All of these things generate a number of benefits when it comes to publicly showing up and talking about your game. We never had influences apart from getting there and talking to people. [...]”
Rusjan, however, argues that nowadays being so physically distant from conventions and famous indie developers is not as much as an issue as it used to be:
“[...] I don't think it [the physical distance] influences [the success of our games]. Nowadays with the internet, it [being close or far apart] is more or less the same; if there is a political problem between a country and another that’s something else but that’s not the case with us at least. The relationship of Argentina with the United States is the same Uruguay or Chile have. I don’t think distance is an issue. [...]”
Latin American Games
As a part of the industry that rarely interacts with the American and Western European sectors, Latin American games have elements that set them apart from regular games in the market --for better or for worse.
Works of art in Latin America are generally considered more open to controversial topics than the ones in the rest of the Western world. Themes such as drug trafficking, prostitution, war crimes, corruption, sexual abuse, promiscuity, poverty, mental illnesses, sexism, and racism are seen constantly in Latin American literature, cinema, and television. This is a reflection of the less “politically correct” society of the region, as well as the harsh environments that part of the population grew up in: Some artists grew up during dictatorships in the 20th century, as immigrants from (or in) another part of the world, in the battlefield of civil wars, or in slums. These influences have undoubtedly affected the Latin America game industry similar to other forms of art.
A case of this is VA-11 HALL-A, made by Sukeban Games. In the game, you play as a bartender in an economically, socially, and politically unstable city clearly reminiscent of Venezuela, the country where the game was made. The protagonist meets multiple characters from all the socio-economical levels of society and does not shy away from touching on serious issues such as racial discrimination (seen in how the shiba treat the corgi), gender roles (seen with Mario and Taylor), homosexuality (seen with Betty), disregard for human life (seen with Jamie), prostitution (most notably with Dorothy, who also resembles an underage girl to further reflect the moral degeneration of the society), police abuse (seen with Stella), terminal illness (seen during the second chapter) and poverty (seen with Jill).
Another example of games that take on risky subjects of this is the horror saga Doorways, made by Saibot Studios. Dark themes are abundant in horror games and movies from all over of the world, however it would be hard to find an American horror work that presents serial killers, torture, sexual abuse, infanticide, religion, and mental retardation to the degree Doorways does without facing controversy.
Screenshot provided by Saibot Studio in the Doorways official website.
Deadly Tower of Monsters also touches on risky subjects on fewer occasions due to the humoristic and self-aware style of its narrative. Sexism is touched upon very briefly, while worker exploitation and revolt is featured more frequently during the game. Whether these themes should be visually represented in video games (or any media for that matter) is subject to debate, but it is undeniable that the presence and lack of restraint in exploring these subjects is a characteristic of some of the games in the region.
 The word for “breed” in Spanish is the same as the one for “race”
Due to the economic limitations of the region, games made in Latin America often have very low budgets. This forces most of these teams to work with small teams, short development cycles and little to no publicity. These financial difficulties not only makes it harder for casual players to discover Latin American games, but is commonly reflected in the games themselves.
One of the most well-known issues of independent 3D games is poor performance and abundance of “bugs”. This is a characteristic that is unfortunately present in Kerbal Space Program, the Doorways saga, and the Zeno Clash series. Limitations in budget also force the games to have reduced scopes, both in gameplay features and graphical feats. One of the most notorious examples of this “low budget” development is Bad Rats, made by the Brazilian studio Invent4 and released in 2009.
Picture provided by Invent4 in the official Bad Rats website.
However, some studios have decided to compensate for these downsides by focusing on a strong artistic direction, rather than on outstanding graphics. Because the scope of these games is often small, developers have learned to instead focus on having a strong central theme or mechanic.
 Prior to its official release from Steam’s early access program.
Something present in most of the games previously mentioned (Namely VA-11 HALL-A, Doorways, Zeno Clash, The Deadly Tower of Monsters, and Kerbal Space Program) is a very unique art style, setting or idea that heavily differentiates the game from others of the same genre. This art styles are in some cases inspired by culture or lifestyle.
VA-11 HALL-A takes the idea of a dystopian city and does something unique by making the protagonist a simple citizen instead of a rebel. Even though it takes heavy inspiration from cyberpunk (especially Japanese animation), it also goes against the grittiness and despair present in most dystopian works and instead takes a rather upbeat and friendly tone. The reasons for this are explained in the interview Sukeban Games had with Fred McCoy for CF Magazine:
“This [Venezuela] is a hard place to live, there’s always a roadblock to achieve your dreams and I think there’s this pattern in our characters and stories in which they’re always in trouble, but they try to keep a smile and go on. [...] That’s how I see Venezuela’s influence in our games.”
Screenshot provided by Fred McCoy in his interview with Sukeban Games.
Doorways offers a relatively common type of game -- a first person horror puzzle experience, as seen in games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, with the inclusion of heavy Lovecraftian elements and some references to the culture of the creators:
“[...] in the last game [Doorways: Holy Mountains of Flesh] the protagonist is chasing an Argentinian, and the places one passes by are places here in Argentina (distorted, obviously). There is a lot of influence from here, like finding Mate (an Argentinian drink) or a painting with Saint Martin, things like that, references. As a matter of fact, the enemy is known as “El Asador” [The Roaster] and here we give a lot of importance to roasted meat, so it’s mostly traditional things, touches really. [...] ”
Screenshot provided by Saibot Studio in the Doorways official website. A soldier in what looks like a colonial Argentinian uniform can be seen in one of the paintings.
Zeno Clash also presents a lot of originality. Its concept of a first person beat’em up and its influence from indigenous cultures give it a very unique and surreal style.
“I believe we have dared to make games that are very distinctive in the genres we have worked on and I think that’s very valuable.
[…] In art and design we have always searched for sources of inspiration distant from the industry, and that made us have a lot of success with our first two games (Zeno Clash and Rock of Ages), but that’s something that we have also reflected in other projects like in Abyss Odyssey. Even Deadly Tower Of Monsters which is perhaps the most “normal” game we have made has been received by the press as a game that is very unconventional.”
Picture provided by ACE Team at Zeno Clash’s official MOBDB page.
As mentioned by Bordeu in the interview, The Deadly Tower of Monsters (TDToM) is also very unconventional, though in a different way from Zeno Clash. TDToM presents a world based off of a 50’s sci-fi action movie, going as far as not only taking in some of the tropes and mannerisms of the time, but to fake bad movie effects in the game (like strings levitating enemies or stop motion animated dinosaurs). This is complemented by the “director” of the “movie” doing voice over while you play -- like in a DVD re-release -- as well as several references to old B-movies. With all of these elements, ACE Team managed to make use of their limited budget to make a product that is original and fun to look at.
Picture provided by ACE Team at the official website for The Deadly Tower of Monsters
Kerbal Space Program, while not including a lot from the country it was made in (Mexico), is undoubtedly very unique by presenting the idea of a space program simulator with cartoony crazy beings (in a similar fashion to Rayman’s Raving Rabbids or Illumination Entertainment's Minions). The game is highly praised for this uniqueness as well as its methodical gameplay and attention to detail. Squad even received help from the NASA to implement asteroid landing in one of the builds (according to White).
“KSP is a concept I’ve carried with me for a very long time. It started out as a reckless teenager game where my friends, brother and I would take firecrackers and rockets, and strap wings and other things to them. As it went on, we got a little more inventive, and began trying to make two-stage rockets. It wasn’t long before we started making little men out of tin foil, and duct taping them to those contraptions. Thus the Kerbals were born.”
-Felipe Falanghe, Director of Kerbal Space Program. (Ames).
Picture provided by Squad in the official Kerbal Space Program website.
This perspective on ideas and originality is not only limited to those games specifically made in Latin America. Kellee Santiago, former CEO of Thatgamecompany (studio responsible for titles like Journey and Flower) is Venezuelan by birth, but she grew up in the United States. Even though her Hispanic heritage is limited to her Cuban father, she considers it influenced the way in which she makes games:
“I think both my background, and Jenova’s background (from China) coming together really influenced our work in a way we wanted, to make our games really globally accessible. We didn’t want to alienate anyone from that experience and I think people could empathize with that sensibility so that it feels very organic in our projects. Our games don't have a “It’s a small world after all” kind of feeling. They are really trying to actively go after people of different cultures, but they are all designed in a way that they are very inviting and I think they are successful at that.”
Jose Gomez, from Gasp Inc, also considers that his heritage influenced his work, but that it shouldn’t be what defines it:
“[...] the backstory for our games was very much inspired in somehow by the sociopolitical situation in Venezuela. There are plenty of relevant experiences to share from that. However we never made explicit or direct references, we were developing games for a global market so it was really about sharing stories that could be universal and people could understand and relate to even if they knew nothing about Venezuela.”
Overall, it appears evident that the Latin America game industry has a lot of potential for originality and heritage that could bring new concepts and inspirations to future generations of game developers, not only in the region but in the entire world. Sadly, this industry is limited by size, and lack of experience and support. While it is growing at a slow rate, much like the countries themselves, there is still a long way to go and solutions must be sought out for the specific problems it faces.
Many of the issues presented are caused by the situation of the country rather than the game studios themselves. Talented people in Latin America will leave the region because of the higher salaries in the first world, piracy will still be an issue because poverty doesn’t allow regular citizens to purchase games, and the training of developers depends on how well the initiatives in education progress. However, some things can be done to help the situation on a more realistic scale:
- Cultivate a Self-Sufficient Gaming “Ecosystem”: This proves difficult because of the high indexes of piracy in the region. However, if done right, it can greatly improve the conditions in the region, as Santiago points out.
“[...] establishing more of the “ecosystem” within the region would be really helpful. There are different limitations on technology and the fees are really high, so creating games in the way that Japan and Korea and China have done [could help]. If we can create game economies that exist within Central and South America, [that are] created by people of that region and played by people of the region, I think that’s the next step.”
- Introduce Local Events: This would unite developers and make the local industry grow by collaboration and association. Brazil has done this by establishing events such as the Brazil Gamercon, the Brazil Game Show and the Brazil Independent Games Festival and Argentina has the Argentinean Association of Development of Video Games that organized events such as the Argentinean Video game Expo. These events are not only important to bring international developers and publishers that could instruct the industry in Latin America, but to get more people into the industry.
“[...] During high school I made tons of tabletop RPGs and even then I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do in life, then in college I made game for a college event with Fernando and I loved the feel, that’s when I realized this was my dream job.”
-Christopher, Sukeban Games (McCoy)
“[…] I got to go to the Game Developers Conference and just really felt that through these different places (being born in one place, having family from another, living from the suburbs, not quite feeling connected to any one place), it was really the first time I felt that I had found my real thrive and my home.”
- Contract foreign experienced developers: This could help train neophytes and is already being done in some places, as Rusjan mentions:
“[...] We need people from the outside to come and instruct us in a lot of cases. Some companies (with enough money) do that, the problem is that they only do it for themselves.”
While these solutions won’t solve all of the issues of being a game developer in Latin America, they could help to settle a base where to grow on. However, the most important recommendation to keep the Latin American industry growing is simpler than that:
“[...] It was a hobby, we started experimenting until we reached a point where the work became more… complete. Many years later, we used the available tools to modify what would be the classical Doom and make our own game modifications [...] the more we advanced, the more we came closer to almost making our own game that would feel less like a mod of an already existing game and more like a full game [...]”
-Carlos Bordeu, ACE Team.
“[...] I see a lot of people awaiting for the miracle of receiving money instead of sitting down and looking up how games are made, something that doesn’t really require one to pay an institute. One can study, practice and make small games on their own. [...] I want to incite other teams and I think that could help the industry a lot, not only here in Argentina but on the rest of Latin America because I think there’s a lot of talent and desires, but we need a “push” [...] ”
-Tobias Rusjan, Saibot Studios.
“I recommend to take the time to find and build a support network -- whether that's a group of peers to talk regularly about your goal or projects you are working on (like a writing group kind of deal) or hiring a coach or relying on a mentor from school -- any one of those things. It takes some extra work but it's really critical, in any situation we can feel like we are alone in the troubles you may be going through with, but the truth is you are really not.”
-Kellee Santiago, co-founder of Thatgamecompany
“Make games, investigate and get involved in the community. Today there are just so many ways to do it, so many different markets and business models, plus the industry is so huge that you can pick so many different paths. Choose your own according to where you want to go, that may be mobile, indie, AAA, VR or whatever comes, as long as you are passionate and true about it you'll find your path.” -Jose Gomez, Gasp Inc
“Finish your video games, if you have an idea go right now, open whatever engine you’re using and just do it, even if it’s just squares moving around. Enter Game Jams so you can know the feel of finishing something, it will become an addiction and soon you’ll be making games all the time, and if you’re serious about this and want to make a living out of it then don’t stop making games. Experience is your most important asset and the sooner you start the better.”
-Christopher, Sukeban Games
de Argaez, Enrique. Internet World Statistics. Miniwatts Marketing Group, 11 November 2016. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Newzoo. “The Global Games Market Reaches $99.6 Billion in 2016, Mobile Generating 37%”. Newzoo, 21 April 2016. https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/global-games-market-reaches-99-6-billion-2016-mobile-generating-37/. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Worldometers. “Regions in the world by population”. Worldometers, 21 November 2016. http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-region/. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Oleaga, Michael. Latinpost. “Poverty in Latin America: One-Third of Region's Population At Risk of Falling Into Poverty”. Latinpost, 27 August 2014. http://www.latinpost.com/articles/20100/20140827/poverty-latin-america-one-third-regions-population-risk-falling-poverty.htm. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Schoon, Robert. “Online Piracy in Latin America: Half of South American Internet Users Steal Media: Report”. Latinpost, 27 January 2016. http://www.latinpost.com/articles/111879/20160127/online-piracy-in-latin-america-half-of-south-american-internet-users-steal-media-report.htm. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Novell, Adrian. Gamasutra. “Being Indie in South America”. Gamasutra, 18 July 2016. http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AdrianNovell/20160718/272813/Being_Indie_in_South_America.php. Accessed 22 November 2016.
De Wit, Hans et al. “Higher Education in Latin America”. The World Bank, 2005. Accessed 22 November 2016.
McWhertor, Michael. “Violent Video Games Now Getting You 3-5 Years In A Venezuelan Prison”. Kotaku, 8 March 2010. http://kotaku.com/5488360/violent-video-games-now-getting-you-3-5-years-in-a-venezuelan-prison. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Fred McCoy. “An Interview with VA-11 HALL-A Creator: Sukeban Games”. Creative Fluff Magazine, 12 March 2016. http://www.creativefluff.com/interviews-2/sukeban-games-va-11-hall-a/. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Ames, Adam. “Kerbal Space Program Developer Interview”, True PC Gaming, 8 August 2011, http://truepcgaming.com/2011/08/08/kerbal-space-program-developer-interview/. Accessed 12 December 2016.
White, Sam. “Minecraft in space: why Nasa is embracing Kerbal Space Program”, The Guardian, 22 May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/22/kerbal-space-program-why-nasa-minecraft. Accessed 15 December 2016.
“Conference by Tobias Rusjan about Doorways and Saibot Studios at EVA 2016” Youtube, uploaded by Saibot Studios, 29 November 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ4gcRqHoD4
Bordeu, Carlos. Personal Interview. 28 November 2016. [Available Here]
Rusjan, Tobias.Personal Interview. 5 December 2016. [Available Here]
Santiago, Kellee. Personal Interview. 8 December 2016. [Available Here]
Gomez, Jose. Personal Interview. 13 December 2016. [Available Here]