Building the Italian games industry with the Cinecittà Game Hub

Mauro Fanelli

Last month IIDEA – the trade association for video games in Italy – announced their latest plans to put the Italian games industry on the map.

During a press conference in Rome, IIDEA announced that they were launching a video game accelerator programme at the Cinecittà Game Hub. The primary goal of this programme is to offer up to 10 startups €60,000 in pre-seed funding (with funds provided by the Lazio Regional Government and the Ministry of Culture) and – perhaps more importantly – hands-on mentoring from industry experts.

The 10 qualifying startups will develop an advanced prototype, which will then be pitched to publishers, gaming platforms and investors – gaining them access to the international market.

The ultimate aim of the accelerator is to prepare startups with the skills required to achieve success in the international market, and, they hope, finally bring attention (and much needed support) to the Italian games industry.

The accelerator began this month, and will continue for the next 12 weeks. We spoke with Mauro Fanelli – co-founder, creative director & CEO of the independent development studio MixedBag and former vice president of IIDEA – about the accelerator, and what he hopes it might mean for the country’s industry as a whole.

“The Italian games industry is a bit behind the curve, compared to the UK,” notes Fanelli. “We are probably 10 years behind as an industry. “We have some very big developers, like Ubisoft Milan, that have been around for more than 20-30 years. But the smaller developers started around 5-10 years ago. I actually started my own studio about eight years ago.

“Initiatives like this serve two purposes to me. The first one is that we give money to the startups. It’s public money, so it’s basically a grant. Nothing will be recouped on that, it’s not equity investment, it’s basically free money from the government. So they get money, they get mentoring… and that’s probably more important than the money in this case. Because the teams that we’re incubating are really small, really new in the business, so they absolutely need some direction.

“The other thing I think is very important with this initiative, is that we’re sending a message to the Italian gaming industry, because it’s the first time that something like this has been done. And what we’ve seen is that we had this kind of waterfall effect on other initiatives. Since we announced it, two other Italian incubators announced that they’ll open this year. So this is a very, very positive effect.”

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

Perhaps the most encouraging thing to come from the accelerator is the Government support. As we’ve seen in the UK, Government funds and tax relief can certainly provide a huge boost to the industry. Having passionate and talented game creators is one thing, but they’ll struggle to make an impact without sufficient support.

“We’ve lobbied the government for a long, long time. You know, we always talk with the government, but we started talking with them about the tax credit around five years ago. We are always in touch, and we’ve been lobbying them for forever to get support for the industry. It took a lot of time for us to actually get recognition.”

And I’m sure you’ve already guessed one of the reasons why the Italian government is starting to invest in the games industry. The period since March 2020 has, of course, been a hugely transformational time in so many ways – with the sudden boom in gaming revenues being one of the few bright spots.

“It’s a bad thing to say, but COVID definitely accelerated everything. Digital entertainment got a huge boost from COVID. It definitely put us on the map as an industry, because before video games were not a priority. It took years, but everything really accelerated in the last 16 months.

“It’s definitely a big change. We’ve seen from talking to the government, it’s different than before, and it’s definitely a lasting change. This first measure we have right now, it’s really important to us, but it’s a small amount of money compared to other industries.

“You know, getting four million Euros to support that prototyping side of the industry, it’s not a lot of money for now. Also for the tax credits, it’s five million euros – just to give you an idea on cinema tax credits in Italy, it’s 465 million euros this year, and will be probably almost double that for the next year. So the amount of money is a lot bigger for cinema and TV production. For games, it’s very, very small, but it’s the beginning of something.

“So what we are doing right now is asking the government to raise the ceiling, asking for more money to support the industry because I think they were surprised. The government was actually not sure that there was enough demand from the industry, but for the first level fund, they actually exhausted the whole allocation in less than two hours. They had to close down everything because they received too many applications for the fund, and it probably will be the same for tax credits when they open it.

“It’s positive for us, because if we have a lot of people applying to get support from the government, they get a clear signal that there is a lot of demand from the industry. So what we’re doing right now is asking them to actually raise the money that we put into the industry, because it’s definitely needed.”

CATCHING UP

A large part of what Fanelli is pushing for is the introduction of support schemes that are already in place elsewhere in the world, in order to allow them to compete internationally.

“In the UK, you have a lot of measures. It’s the same in France and Germany. Every country has their own kind of measures. Not having them in Italy… The problem is that it’s difficult for you, as an industry, to compete internationally if you don’t get help. But I think we’ve had very good feedback from the government. I think they’ll keep investing in Italy.”

So, assuming this accelerator is a huge success, prompting similar programmes and further growth in the industry. Let’s assume that the future of the Italian games industry is as rosy as we’d love it to be. What kind of games would come out of this culture? What makes a game distinctly Italian?

“Yeah, that’s an interesting question,” says Fanelli. “I was thinking about this. Because, you know, with Japanese, UK or American games, you can see specific characteristics sometimes. You can really see, ‘okay, this is probably a game that’s been produced in say, Japan.’ You have distinctive traits.

“For now, I think that in Italy, we don’t really have distinctive traits – for now. But I see some patterns, actually. There is a lot of creativity in Italy, you know, we grow up, usually in beautiful cities, beautiful countryside, we are exposed in a passive way to a lot of arts and design. You’re in this kind of setting, full of arts and creativity everywhere. And at the same time, you have a lot of design – the car industry and the fashion industry is huge.

“We’ve seen that there is a lot of creativity, and usually it’s not really well supported. In games you can be very creative, but you need to actually need investment and the right mindset to really make a product. Turning art into a product, it’s bizarre. We are still in the process of pinpointing what an Italian game is, from an art or design point of view.

“At the same time, we can see that we have some game genres that are popular in Italy. We have racing games, the Moto GP games, made by Milestone, and we have Assetto Corsa, which is made in Italy (by Kunos Simulazioni). So you know, everything that’s racing, we have a lot of good expertise on that. At the same time, we have horror games. I think horror and racing games right now are probably the two most popular genres that are being made in Italy.”

TIMES ARE A-CHANGIN’

With the right support, there’s certainly potential for growth here. With the right support, the Italian games industry could be a major contender a few years down the road. After all, while it might be behind countries like the UK and elsewhere, the Italian industry had already come a long way over Fanelli’s 20-plus-year career – from his earliest days as a journalist right up to today.

Fanelli founded Alternative-Reality.co, one of Italy’s first gaming websites, in 1997. Following that, he founded the indie development studio MixedBag in 2013, has been the developer representative for At the same time, we can see that we have some game genreIIDEA for the last four years and won outstanding individual contribution to the Italian Games Sector in 2021 at the IVGAs.

“I’ve been around for over 20 years in different roles,” notes Fanelli. “Because when I started, I was actually a journalist. So I have a bit of a double perspective about what the industry was back then.

“Two decades ago, there was not really an industry in Italy. Ubisoft Milan was around making Gameboy games, and later Wii and WiiU games, but it wasn’t much of an industry back then. Right now, I’m seeing that we are building an industry, which has been really accelerating in the past four years. I think in 10 years, it will be a lot bigger than now.”

It’s that long history and experience that makes Fanelli so passionate about helping the industry grow, and why he seems so excited to help guide the 10 chosen studios from the accelerator. Now that games are in the spotlight, and attracting government attention, he seems keen to ensure that the future leaders of the Italian industry are able to learn the lessons of those who came before them.

“I think this is a very, very good opportunity for the industry. You know, it’s the first round, so I’m also a bit scared, because it’s the first time that I’m actually mentoring someone in an official way. I always tried to mentor smaller teams if someone asked me for help, I always try to be helpful, but this is the first time that I’m doing this kind of work. So I’m a bit scared!

“But at the same time, I really think it’s a very, very good opportunity. I really hope that the startups that we will be mentoring will try to get as much as possible from the programme. It is super intensive, actually, because we only have three months.  So I really hope that they will try to get as much as possible from the programme.

“But I know [the studios] are not just there for the money. The grant is quite generous for the industry, it’s very big compared to other initiatives like it. It’s probably one of the highest grants that there is around. But at the same time, I really want to stress that the mentoring part probably is more valuable – because the video games business is difficult.  When I started, I didn’t know anything about that, so it was really tough for me. I had to learn a lot of stuff and I made a lot of mistakes back then. So I really hope to help them avoid those same mistakes.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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