Something unexpected is going on in the distanct land of Malta.
Despite being a home to just 450,000 inhabitants the island nation is proving that it can play host to an up-and-coming game development hub.
Five hundred game makers are currently plying their trade in the Mediterranean country, and by the end of the year 20 game studios will already be operating there, proving a populace comparable to a mid-sized European town can very much contribute to the global games industry.
Malta may not be poised to become the next Canada, but it is set to punch above its weight and establish itself as an attractive place to set up a games studio.
So how has Malta built up a blossoming hub surrounded by the Mediterranean sea?
THE MEDITERRANEAN DREAM
The answer to that does have something to do with Malta’s universal benefits, and the very thing that attracts scores of holiday makers to the country every year.
“It’s a beautiful country,” offers Nick Porsche, founder of Dorado Online Games, who came to the country after working with Big Point just over three years ago.
“There’s a good work-life balance here. It’s inexpensive, English-speaking, and there’s pretty much blue skies all year round. In fact, it’s almost bathing weather most of the time. It’s the Mediterranean dream really. My family never really considered moving on after we moved here.”
But blue skies and beautiful beaches alone aren’t the foundation of a meaningful game industry, which is why the support from the Maltese Government and related organisations has served the country’s developers so well.
Malta Enterprise, for example, is a national development agency responsible for promoting and facilitating international investment in the Maltese islands, and it has in recent years put a tremendous effort into both supporting developers based locally, and attracting studios from all over the globe to make a home there.
“We try to build on the experiences and the competences that we have acquired over the years,” explains Mario Galea, chief officer at Malta Enterprise, of the logic behind Malta’s commitment to games development.
In the past maritime and aviation, ICT, life sciences, and pharmaceuticals have all benefitted from national support, and now it is the turn of the games industry.
“In Malta there are a number of ICT businesses; there is software production, a big number of iGaming companies – about 400 – the filmmaking industry including post production, editing and sound editing, and you have the advertising industry, so we thought that the next level would be the production of digital games, where we can capitalise on the experiences and the skills that Malta has built up,” Galea explains.
“We want to attract some companies in this area, because there is exponential growth worldwide.”
BUILT TO LAST
As such, Malta Enterprise, in collaboration with educators, government and investors, is seeking to attract studios and service providers to the country, hoping to build a sustainable industry that can employ 1500-to-2000 people; an impressive goal for such a small country.
And so it is that grants, financial incentives, administrative support and business assistance are available, with Malta Enterprise able to call on experience running back to the 1960s to help studios local and distant establish a presence in the country. And it can do so fast, able as it is to move a developer from business plan to functioning studio in as little as two weeks.
As a result of such efficiency, in around three years Malta’s game industry has already grown exponentially, in that time moving from almost nothing to its current state. And it seems local studios are convinced by the support available.
“The local industry is being recognised as a melting pot of both foreign and Maltese stakeholders, which range from individual indie developers to small indie studios and even larger big-budget companies,” states Stephen Caruana, MD of Maltese mobile-focused indie Pixie Software.
“Now, the authorities are proactively seeking out the industry for feedback and consultation, and schemes and incentives specific to our industry are starting to be introduced,” he continues.
“An excellent example of this would be the Malta Digital Games Fund, which was set up to support the creation of locally-developed digital games."
Caruana goes on to reaffirm the fact that while such support is a recent trend, it is one that has made a significant impact in just a short time. And he is not alone in his optimism about the difference Malta Enterprise and its partners can make.
“Definitely, there is a strong commitment from the Government, and there are very good people working to assist and help wherever possible in Malta,” says Porsche.
“I found it particularly easy to set up a business here in Malta from an organisational point of view.”
A SAFE BET
Another asset of Malta in terms of its relevance to game developers actually comes from an often-maligned related sector. As Galea mentioned, Malta has already proved itself in the iGaming space, known elsewhere in Europe as ‘real money gaming’, or, in lay terminology, the gambling games sector. With 400 iGaming companies based on the Maltese Islands, a considerable ecosystem exists, and it is one that games makers can tap into.
“We can rely on Malta’s strong iGaming sector, that has been around since over ten years; we share a lot with them, even if they don’t know it sometimes,” suggests Nilsen Filc, CEO of local games maker Puzzl, and former iGaming sector employee.
“We can and do build bridges with them, as they use some of our technology, have a great marketing knowledge and a strong online presence.
“They have teams for translation, QA, legal, analytics and data mining – and a lot of smart people accustomed to coping with addictions of players.”
Furthermore, says Filc, Malta can boast of robust and capacious bandwidth linking it to the world – an important tool for any studio.
The iGaming sector does bring Maltese developers a challenge, in that they must strive to stand out from their peers in the world of real money gaming.
“Quite ironically, Malta has a sizeable footprint in the global online gaming and gambling industry, so as a Maltese game development start-up, one of our most prominent challenges is to define ourselves as part of a separate, emerging industry,” confirms Alan Duca, co-founder and lead game programmer at 5 ¼ Games, one of Malta’s most recent start-ups.
“We’ve discovered that this is more difficult to do than it sounds.”
The double-edged sword that is Malta’s games makers’ relationship with iGaming isn’t the region’s only challenge. For there is another that will be familiar to even the larger of the world’s industry hubs, and that is the matter of talent. Fortunately, that is something the Maltese authorities recognise, and are presently moving to change.
“We need to increase the talent in Malta,” acknowledges Galea. “We need to get people more ‘on stream’ in the labour market. We are working very, very closely with the government university, with private universities and the government and private vocational schools, in order to ensure that more people come on the labour market.”
At the moment the country’s games industry can comfortably employ 500, but Malta Enterprise wants to ensure that there is more talent available, especially for companies keen to scale up.
“We want companies to be able to grow,” asserts Galea, who also highlights that the national labour cost is, relative to the quality of the workforce, relatively inexpensive in Malta.
As a result of the talent challenge education is key to Malta’s collective plan to build a bigger games industry. The University of Malta is as a result offering a Masters degree in games, and in 2013 the educator established an Institution for Digital Games with a view to better to deliver world-class postgraduate education and research in game studies, design and technology.
Elsewhere on the country’s islands other games training is on offer, and it is apparent that local developers are satisfied with the early results.
“The quality of graduates from informatics-related courses offered locally has been consistently high, and I’ve also been in contact with young students who have been lucky enough to be able to enroll themselves in these new game development oriented courses,” states Duca.
“I can confidently say that things are indeed looking up, so much so that we have taken up one such talented student into our team.”
Elsewhere, €6 million is being invested in building Malta’s own ‘Digital Hub’, itself partly funded by the EU.
“The aim is that it will create a cluster; a cluster between three types of digital game players, and I mean both in the sense of players of games and in the sense of stakeholders,” Galea says of the local games hub.
“These will be companies foreign or local that can take a more or less permanent lease on the Games Hub. Then there will be working stations for smaller companies on a touchdown basis, for example to allow incubation. The third part will be for gamers, so people can come and enjoy gaming and see the industry of gaming. We want those three to work in parallel.”
As the Maltese game industry grows, so does the community surrounding it. The country has its own IGDA chapter, co-run by Porsche, and as more studios establish themselves a critical mass is being reached that can only served to bolster the abilities of local teams, and their ability to attract global talent.
“If you take in account that Malta is an island – sooner or later you will stumble upon other game developers, and not the ones you’d expect,” explains Filc.
“Interestingly we have a good ratio of key people and veterans from the game industry in Malta. The English and German sectors are well represented, with people coming from Bullfrog, Psygnosis, Rockstar, Big Point, EA, Disney or Sony to name a few.”
Such optimism is presently a near universal trait of Malta’s studios; most of them being small-to-mid-sized and focused on mobile and web. Between them they are fiercely committed to taking Malta’s game development scene above and beyond what outsiders might think is possible on a gathering of islands in the Mediterranean, and they all predict one thing; growth. In a short time span much has been achieved, and it is a trend that appears to be accelerating right now.
“Every time I look a little deeper at the games industry in Malta I discover one or two new companies here that are just starting out,” states Porsche.
“And that’s the major theme here. We see lots of start-ups and small units that operate with an international view, working with freelancers and so on, and they are always improving and growing.”
Looking forward, it’s hard to predict anything but good things for Malta’s ambitions as a games hub, especially considering its size. As Malta Enterprise continues to work with foreign firms looking to set up or invest in the local games industry, it equally supports local entrepreneurship, and is founded on tirelessly enthusiastic teams from the area.
“I am very excited at the future prospects of the Maltese game industry,” concludes Caruana. “Despite currently dealing with teething problems, I think we are doing well. Looking at all the hard work and energy being invested in the different projects, it feels like Malta is on the brink of making a big name for itself within the international game development community.”
So fascinating is Malta’s games making story, Develop is set to revisit the islands soon to bring you more on the studios pushing their homeland into the limelight.
Those interested in learning more about the nation’s game industry can start by contacting Malta Enterprise, which will undoubtedly be happy to help.