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Portugal: The rise and fall of a video game industry

Even though the video game industry is rapidly shifting away from physical goods and expanding into digital realms that know no boundaries, the game industry still doesn't exist everywhere.

Mike Rose, Blogger

September 24, 2013

8 Min Read

Even though the video game industry is rapidly shifting away from physical goods and expanding into digital realms that know no boundaries, the game industry still doesn't exist everywhere. Take Portugal, for example. The game industry in the Western European country is still in its infancy. But rather than expanding as more game developers sprout up, Portugal's game scene appears to be just as invisible as it ever was. There's a bigger picture here, though: The Portuguese game industry was becoming a force to be reckoned with up until a few years ago when it started crumbling. Those studios that are still around are now picking up the pieces. Paulo Gomes is CEO of Bigmoon Interactive Studios, and he's watched the Portuguese game scene pop up, show promise, expand, wither, and then all but die -- in fact, he's been an integral part of attempting to keep it afloat. Before 2004 there was no Portugal game development scene, he tells me, and most computer science graduates in the country were software developers and university teachers. "In 2004, the first Portuguese studios began with e-Works and Move," he explains. "e-Works split into RTS and Ignite Games in 2005. In the same year, the majority of the game developers, game professors, and students created the Portuguese Game Developers Association (APROJE) in 2005." It was as part of the APROJE movement, a movement that Gomes helped found, that the first game development training courses began to pop up in the country, and Portugal even got its own game conferences, albeit rather small affairs. gameinvest.jpgThe GameInvest team in 2012 2006 saw the founding of GameInvest (again, with Gomes involved), a company that offered investments for start-up video game studios, and for a short time, the Portuguese games scene seemed about to finally kick off. "Many game developers started, like Seed Studios, Camel Entertainment (today Camel101), MadPuppet, Bigmoon Studios, and even GameInvest with an internal dev team," notes Gomes. "With all of this in movement, some employees and investors left GameInvest and created other studios, like Biodroid. We could say that we had a revolution."

The revolution winds down

Gomes himself left GameInvest at the end of 2008 to start Bigmoon, using his 10 percent share of GameInvest to give himself and his new team a real chance. Bigmoon started its mission to be as big as BioWare, Naughty Dog et al within 10 years, and has been chopping and changing between original releases and work-for-hire for the last several years. Bigmoon has been fairly successful in its goal, too -- the company now has additional studios in India and the U.S., has released numerous notable ports and titles of its own, and has been handed the keys to develop the next installment in a certain third-person shooter franchise (details to be revealed to the public later this year). But while Bigmoon has managed to drag its way through Portugal's recent economic crisis, a good portion of the games industry in the country has not. Move, GameInvest, Seed Studios, MadPuppet and many other game studios have now closed down, while other studios are still fighting for survival. Even the APROJE is no more. "Fortunately, many other small companies have started after with the closure of the first companies, working as indie and developing only for mobile and digital," Gomes says, picking out studios like Battle Sheep and Nerd Monkeys as the most notable up-and-comers. Even web game giant MiniClip has MiniClip opened a studio in Lisbon, Portugal -- so Portugal's game scene isn't dead. At least, not yet.

On the up and up

The aforementioned Nerd Monkeys is an interesting case. The Lisbon studio was founded by Filipe Duarte Pina, originally co-founder of the now defunct Seed Studios, and his team is about to have another go at the Portugal games industry. Nerd Monkeys' first game Detective Case and Clown Bot in: Murder in the Hotel Lisbon is currently up for preorder -- and Pina is well aware of what he's going to be up against. "What exists right now in Portugal can't yet be called an industry," he tells me. "There are two or three medium-sized studios with 30 or 40 people and lots and lots of tiny independent developers doing mobile based games." Pina believes that the Portuguese game industry currently has no chance to thrive, because all of the potential talent in the country has now moved away to other countries. "It might be due to the lack of good leadership or interesting projects," he adds, "but also, after a few years of working here with the economic recession and low wages, most people try to get a better deal abroad. We have Portuguese developers working everywhere who started here and then moved out." The rise of the digital market has given plenty of other game industries in other countries a boost, and Portugal is no different -- but Pina doesn't believe there is any sort of indie studio revolution on the way to his country. Flying Turtle Software is another Portugal-based indie trying to make a name for itself. The team recently released platformer A Walk in the Dark, and has found that most games coming out of Portugal are being met with low success. "But I've started to see companies that are able to self sustain themselves and make game after game," the studio's Paulo Silva says. "I would say that we have a good potential to be a successful industry, but we are not quite there yet." So what is it like being a new studio in a low-key part of the industry? Is it difficult for Pina, Silva et al to get themselves worked up without support from other studios around them, or do they see an opportunity to put Portugal -- and their studio -- on the map? "This is an interesting question because I have been in this situation before, but this time it is a little but different," Pina explains. "Three years ago I was working on Under Siege as producer [at Seed Studios], and we were leading the charge as the first studio to get a game on PSN and PS3 in Portugal." "Nobody did that before us and nobody has since, and we got ourselves on the map with that one," he continues. "We were all over the news and it was quite a ride, that unfortunately ended with the game coming out when PSN was attacked." Now Pina is tempted to do it all over again, except this time around he's working out of Lisbon, where most of the country's smaller studios are all based (Seed Studios had been based in Porto, all by itself with barely any other studios around it). "To explain how different it is, just last Friday I went for drinks with around 20 people from different companies and studios," he says. "So, in short, yes, it is difficult to get pumped when you don't have that many people working around you to look up to." Pina mentions a group called The Lisbon Studio, a collective of individuals and small companies that works on comics and illustrations for Marvel, Darkhorse, Boom! and many others. Nerd Monkeys is officially part of the group, and all the better for it -- "a work day is always extremely rewarding since we get input from all sources," he says. And Silva reiterates the point that being part of such a small community means that everyone knows everyone else, and each team finds itself equally enthusiastic about the projects coming from their friends around them.

Where Portugal is headed next

Pina says that Portugal houses some fantastic artistic talent, cheap office space, and some glorious sights and sounds to boot -- but that the economic crisis is still hurting game development. nerd monkeys.gif"It is almost impossible to get a loan from a bank and many good talented people are leaving the country because they feel insecure here," he notes. "We also have what we call the 'desenrascanco,' a Portuguese made-up word that we use a lot, and is used to describe how we are able to solve anything in the weirdest ways always at the last minute and on the darkest hour." There have been plenty of "darkest hours" for the Portuguese video game industry, but there are also plenty of people who are working hard to put Portugal on the video game map. "Not only game studios but individuals, universities and organizations," Pina explains. "You have the SPCV [Sociedade Portuguesa de Ciencias de Videojogos] that holds an annual meeting with developers invited from other countries. You have lots of game jams and small events to gather and make games. We also have our first big festival dedicated to visual effects, games and art called 'Trojan Horse was a Unicorn' in the beautiful location of Troia, south of Lisbon. In short, people are working hard to make things happen." But, adds Pina, Portugal is still missing that big hit that really throws the country into the limelight. "In Poland you have The Witcher, from Denmark you got the Hitman series, from Sweden Battlefield, Germany - Crysis, Holland - Killzone, Spain - Commandos... big and small, they have all somehow got noticed for some great game or breakthrough. We have not." "That is what we are missing. Even if it is a smaller indie game, we have not yet produced something worth mentioning."

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