[Stephen Caruana is managing director of Pixie Software, an independent game studio based in Malta, focusing on casual games for mobiles and the web.
The following blog is the second article in a two-part series, you can read the first part here.]
Setting up a new development studio, like any other new enterprise, has its challenges. In places where a local digital gaming industry has already been established, one might find a proper infrastructure already in place. Otherwise one might have to work a little bit harder to get things running.
The first part of this series identified the skill gap and a lack of targeted financial support as two major hurdles which one can encounter in this situation and presented ways to work around them. This second and final part will consider the social aspect and its implications within a relatively small community such as Malta.
Hurdle #3 – Social perception
Here in Malta, the golden age of arcade video games in the late 70s and early 80s did not have the poetic impact one usually associates with this period. It was not until the 90s, when consoles (particularly Sony’s PlayStation) started to become more available to local households, that gaming really picked up.
So in comparison to other countries, the proportion of people who grew up around games is much smaller than those who still regard them simply as a distracting form of mindless entertainment.
Brandon Sheffield’s Gamasutra article on the term “gamer” captured this perception quite nicely:
"After the big North American console game crash of 1983, and Nintendo's subsequent rise, you got a new group of people playing games. But popular opinion was now firmly established - these things were for kids. Then these game players grew up, and they kept playing games. This was viewed as regressive - people still playing with children's toys.
"From here, you got games as villainous, creating a Peter Pan syndrome in our youth, or the 'basement‐dwelling manboy.' The impression is that "gamers" are just playing with their childhood toys. In the 90s, there was a mainstream view of the older game player as a deviant."
True, one can argue that every major country with a strong gaming community has found itself in this kind of situation at some point or another. We’re simply just going through the same process a few years later.
However, because of this delay, today it is mostly just the younger generations who are comfortable with working within and alongside the industry.
This presents a big problem when trying to start a local game industry which has to keep up with the rest of the world because the general perception is still that gaming is not a “real industry” and is just an excuse which the younger generation uses to keep playing around with games.
To make matters worse, Malta has recently seen a rapid growth in the iGaming (online betting) industry which has been a major source of confusion, especially due to the social stigma attributed to gambling.
The problems highlighted above exist simply because we had to hit the ground running when introducing the game development industry as it needed to immediately start keeping pace with international trends. There was not enough time to allow the community to catch up and adapt.
However it is very important to garner the support of the community, and therefore these problems related to social perception need to be overcome.
One of the ways in which we are dealing with this in Malta is to generate interest and increase awareness of the true nature of the industry through various activities such as game challenges, company events and academic conferences to name a few.
The idea is to constantly have something game‐related happening somewhere on the island, even if not everyone can understand exactly what these activities are all about. However the simple fact that there is some kind of regular activity serves the purpose of demonstrating to the community that this is a genuine industry which takes its work seriously just like any other.
The effects of creating this kind of awareness are almost immediate, especially within a small population such as ours, where we are observing an increased level of support and acceptance by the general community.
Small is beautiful
I’d like to end this two‐part series with a positive experience.
In most industries, companies are generally in direct competition with each other since the consumer often has to choose one brand of product out of the dozens which are on the shelf.
However given the nature of the game industry, is it really the case that one game development studio is directly competing with another such that their products are mutually exclusive? At the end of the day, are we really all competitors?
As I have mentioned in the first part of this series, it can prove to be much more productive to work together in order to promote and ensure the growth of the local industry.
In this regard, Malta’s small size has proven to be an invaluable asset, despite being perceived as a possible disadvantage. The country now boasts a strong albeit, small, community of game development professionals, and we are helping each other out in whichever way we can.
Be it by giving newcomers a step up, or even through the sharing of experiences and resources, we are all pulling the same rope and working together to help the local industry grow. After all, this is in all our interests. Organisations such as the local IGDA chapter can really help to encourage and foster this kind of environment.
Obviously, I am not implying in any way that we share “trade secrets”, or are so gallant that we step aside from any incentives just to make way for one other. After all, this is still business and yes, in this regard we are in direct competition. But the attitude with which this is done goes a long way in motivating further growth and promoting new investment in the industry. It is all one big cycle.
Although there have been quite a few challenges in setting up a development studio within a local industry which is still in its infancy, none have been insurmountable. The number of game companies which have been setting up shop over the past year are a testament to this.
I hope that the experiences I have shared through this two‐part article series will help those facing a similar scenario to draw parallels between Malta and their local digital gaming community.