Pixie Software's Stephen Caruana on working in the new Malta game development scene

Overcoming challenges of a game industry in its infancy – Part one

[Stephen Caruana is managing director of Pixie Software, an independent game studio based in Malta, focusing on casual games for mobiles and the web.]

Until just a few years ago, the digital game industry here in Malta was virtually non-existent. Since then there have been tremendous strides in the development of this sector, aided by significant support and investment from the government. However it is still in its infancy.

At first this might make the prospect of establishing a new development studio seem a little bit daunting. Nevertheless, setting up and running Pixie Software has been a very interesting experience so far.

True, being one of the first local game development companies to set up shop here in Malta, it has been a bit of a bumpy road. However most of the challenges were not as bad as one might expect. What might initially appear to be a show stopper can turn out to be relatively simple to deal with if one adapts to the situation.

This two‐part series will highlight a few of the main hurdles encountered in such a scenario and what we have done to overcome them. Although the arguments in this series are set within the context of a small island country, parallels can easily be drawn between Malta and a city or region which is just starting to develop a local digital game industry.

Hurdle #1 – Skills gap

One of the major challenges in such a situation is finding good talent to join your team, and we have observed this issue manifesting itself mostly in programming roles. However this is not due to a lack of programming skills. In fact Malta boasts a very high standard of education, especially in the ICT sector.

Furthermore since Malta is a very popular offshore destination for ICT services, local professionals gain a lot of valuable experience by being constantly exposed to a variety of clients and industries from across the globe.

The issue simply lies in the lack of game‐specific skills and experience since the local industry has not been around long enough. In response to this, academic institutions at all levels have been providing game‐oriented courses, but it takes time to bridge this skill gap, both in terms of the quantity of individuals completing these courses and the time it takes to gain some experience in the field.

Bridging the gap

Although this may seem to be a big problem, it is simply one of those things one needs to adapt to. When it comes right down to it, the issue is not really all that bad.

The way we have approached this in the short term is to give people the opportunity to develop the right skills on the job by providing the right support. A good programmer is a good programmer, and the ability to adapt to new technologies and environments is part of the core skillset of any ICT professional worth their salt.

In fact you will find that when given the proper guidance and support, most people will happily take the initiative and go the extra mile to develop themselves into better assets to the team.

The positive impact that this professional growth brings about far outweighs the effects of the initial compromise for providing such an opportunity.

As a longer term solution, we have been working hand in hand with academic institutions to communicate to them the kind of skills we are constantly looking for so that the training being provided is in line with the necessities of the industry. The effect of this, although less immediate, is more impactful and permanent. After almost a year we are starting to see some very positive results.

Hurdle #2 – Limited access to financial frameworks and incentives

The local government has been putting a lot of effort into stimulating, supporting and expanding the game industry in Malta. A national strategy has been launched to expand Malta’s strong ICT industry into a digital gaming hub. Still, one can understand and appreciate that such a strategy takes time to implement.

Although incentives and resources are steadily increasing, they are still very selective. It is not always easy for smaller companies with limited resources to apply or even be eligible for such schemes, financial or otherwise. This is the same as with any other industry or situation… investment is always in those entities which are perceived to be of lesser risk, especially when trying to jump start a new industry and lay a solid foundation for the future.

Furthermore, the limited number of available schemes means that there is very little diversity in the kind of benefits they offer. For example, whilst an established company might find great value in a tax refund scheme, an early start‐up might benefit more from a cash grant or soft loan.

Go in through the window

Initially this might look like a waiting game where one just needs to sit tight until something more relevant to one’s situation becomes available. However, there is a lot you can do to speed up this process and see it through the transition.

Our approach has been to reverse the roles for a little while. Instead of passively sitting idly by waiting for schemes and incentives to come our way, we have worked towards turning ourselves into the incentive. By creating work and generating interest in the industry, the government and other institutions can see the strong potential for growth and invest even further in this market.

Although this might sound like a chicken and egg problem, one must remember that although game‐ specific frameworks might not be immediately available, one can recourse to lots of other generic benefits. There are many business incentives, grants, schemes and support mechanisms which are aimed to promote businesses in general, and these are probably simpler to attain.

These are run‐of‐ the‐mill infrastructures which are in use constantly and are made available to many different industries.

However this is not something a company can undertake on its own. We have had to work with other entities within the game industry to make this a collective effort to advance the sector forward and demonstrate that there is indeed a strong market potential. Perhaps such collaboration comes more naturally to a small island country such as Malta where, contrary to popular perception, our small size is not necessarily a disadvantage.

This will be the focus of the second and final part of this series where I will be discussing how Malta’s small size introduces some slightly unique social aspects to all of this, and how these have been leveraged to help grow the local game industry into a more mature one.

[Interested in contributing your own article for Develop’s readers? We’re always on the lookout for industry-authored pieces on development-related topics. Email craig.chapple@intentmedia.co.uk for more details.]

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