Making Games in Peru, 3: A Game of Risk

In strictly economical terms, there shouldn’t be a Peruvian gaming industry. The right conditions aren’t there: skills are hard to acquire, financing is not readily available, and much better financial returns can be secured by looking elsewhere in the economy. There are so few incentives, and so many counter-incentives, it would seem rational people would turn to other things to earn their livelihood.

Yet surprisingly, not only is there a gaming industry here in Lima, but as I’ve pointed out earlier in this series, it’s been around in some shape or form for over two decades now. In that time, people have been finding their way around many of these structural barriers and out into an international market where they’re slowly carving a space for themselves.

Players at a local Art+Games exhibit in June

Players at a local Art+Games exhibit in June

The reason why this has been possible stems from the dual nature of video games as both computational and creative products. Games are software, but they’re not any sort of software: unlike a word processor or an e-mail client, a game is not a means to an end, but an experience in itself. Games can be crafted as meaningful experiences similar to movies or novels, and they become extensions onto which their creators project themselves. As I keep having conversations with local game developers in Lima, I keep hearing references they make to their “passion”, to having grown playing games since a very young age and thinking “I want to do that”. For many young people especially, being able to work in the gaming industry is very much a personal realisation. It’s not about the money, but about fulfilling a long-held dream. And when it comes to working on their passion, strict economics don’t apply as easily.

These dreams usually go hand in hand with some vision of the kind of games a developer wants to create, or even a very specific concept they’ve been playing around with in their heads for months or years: games that revolve around personal experiences, games that represent technical accomplishments, or games that reminisce some personal favourite from their childhood. Given the resources to do so, everyone has some personal concept, some “dream game” they’d devote themselves too, thus living out the ideal form of the indie dev – someone who’s been released from material concerns, free to pursue a creative vision for its own sake without having to worry about such things as marketing, funding or analytics.

However, more often than not it’s also the case that these same people find themselves unable to work on their dream games. Making games is hard, making games for a living harder still. And making games for a living with the environment working against you is akin to playing a game in Hardcore mode: enemies are tougher, health potions are few and far between, and you don’t get any extra lives. Just as with people who like playing games in the highest difficulty setting, you can’t help but wonder why they even bother, and whether the game is still any fun.

One of the hardest things is finding the talent with the necessary skills to work on a game. It’s already hard, for example, to find programmers, or software engineers in the local market. But even more so, because of how scarce they are, the best ones are highly sought out by large corporations to work on enterprise software customisation, or on infrastructure management. To draw them away from these usually high-paying jobs is quite the challenge. And even still, most software-related majors don’t focus on, or even contemplate, programming for games: there’s very little training available, for instance, on image manipulation and processing, graphics optimisation or artificial intelligence. The situation becomes graver still when it comes to game design skills, for which training has been largely unavailable. It’s only been in the last couple years or so that there’s been a sudden boom in the educational offering related to game development: at least five new training programmes have appeared in the last few years, spanning anywhere from twelve months to five years, and that count doesn’t even consider the multiple individual courses and shorter programs available from multiple institutes and academies around Lima. So while the situation has improved, the talent pool with the skills necessary to making games is still small. And the talent that’s out there is largely disconnected from each other, making it hard for people to meet others with whom they might be able to collaborate.

Another big challenge in fulfilling the visions of local developers is securing the funding and resources necessary to sustain the development process. Being a much less developed technology environment, venture capital is not readily available in Lima as it might be in places such as the Bay Area, or even other cities in the region such as Sao Paulo or Santiago. Most game studio projects are bootstrapped with personal funds, placing a huge burden of risk on the backs of would-be entrepreneurs without the promise of quick or massive payoffs. People starting up a studio or a game project are essentially buying themselves some time in order to realise their vision, but will often run into trouble as funds start to run thin and projects take longer to complete than expected, finding themselves in a position where they need to make tough choices: should they keep going or call it quits? Should they put their visions on hold while they look for third-party projects they can work on to raise some cash? Should they go out to the market and find a job for a while, with the promise of coming back to their games at a later time? For many projects this can turn into a cycle of making some progress on an independent game, then turning to third-party projects or advergames for a while to buy some more time to work on the indie project. As time draws on and technologies change, it can later become the case that some of the early components of the game need to be updated or remade, thus drawing the development process even longer.

What it comes down to in the end, one way or another, are different approaches to understanding and dealing with risk. To work on games is a risky proposition for many reasons: the payoffs are uncertain, the opportunity costs are high assuming one has the skills to do so, and one must even confront various forms of social stigma for wanting to work on games. The local industry is little known, and despite the recent educational boom around the medium, it is not uncommon to hear stories from people who had to give up on games because their families or friends would consider them to be wasting their time on something that was child-like. People who choose to work on games assume various forms of economic and social risk in doing so, and it’s that high level of risk that also works to drive people away from working on something they might otherwise love to do for a living. Those who remain tend to do so because they’re driven by a passion, a vision, or both. Many of the people I’ve interviewed have told me that while they may not be becoming rich by making games, they’ve been able to make a comfortable living out of something they never thought would be accessible to them. And perhaps because of that, the Peruvian gaming industry is beginning to emerge as a growing community, where people and groups are slowly discovering each other’s existence and realising the burden of risk becomes much more manageable among many.

Eduardo Marisca graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from the Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) in Lima. After being trained rather clasically as an academic philosopher, he has done research and teaching on subjects related to the philosophy of technology and media, and the social impact of new technologies. Current research interests include emerging business models in the knowledge economy, especially as related to developing countries; hacker culture, ethics and economies; and how learning works in virtual worlds and its implications for building citizenship; amongst others. He blogs regularly (in Spanish) at mutaciones.pe, and can be found on Twitter as @piscosour.

Posted in Research, Thoughts