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In Colombia's game market knowledge is power

As a nation of under 50 million people, Colombia is moderately larger than Canada (about 36 million) but its game development scene is substantially smaller. While Canada has seen major studios and indies alike making their presence felt on a global scale, Colombia's just getting started. Alejandro Gonzalez, co-founder and CEO of developer Brainz and the former president of the Colombia chapter of IGDA, estimates that there are around 50 studios in total in his country, including "guys who are at a day job and working on their games at night or on weekends," about 10 companies that are doing some work with international publishers and a smaller tier of about 20 studios that "are really active and are fully devoted to making video games."

Colombia's game talent hasn't had much international recognition yet, but that's starting to change. Brainz itself has forged a partnership with Germany's Flaregames to create a mobile RPG, the Steam Early Access hit Ark: Survival Evolved had much of its artwork designed by Colombia's Efecto Studios, and Finnish developer Silvermile looked to Colombian studio Teravision for help with its Oculus Rift game Flushy Fish.

Gonzalez believes Colombia's game developers have what it takes to bring the country to the next level but it's early days. Brainz, for example, only just started making games in 2010. Success breeds success and it's just a matter of time before Colombia can climb the ladder.

"I think it's a matter of paying your dues. I guess to some extent it's the same way a company in New Zealand lands a $15 million project. You have to have a very good reputation and you have to have a track record... So the first time, probably, the publisher would say [to an unproven studio], 'Ok, give me a finished game,' and they'll potentially distribute it and if the numbers are good they'll provide some marketing dollars... Then another one will say, 'Ok, I'll work with you and I'll give you a marketing guarantee of $50k or $100k.' But then the next time, I'll say, 'Ok, I'll work with you, but I'll need you to fund half of it.' Next I'll say, 'I need you to fund full development,' and now we're talking about $1-2 million projects," Gonzalez notes.

"At that point, you make a game that's fully funded and it's out there and it has a decent marketing budget and it has decent figures, the playing field evens out with potentially any good developer around the world. At the end of the day, publishers have the same issue of finding great partners to work with and I don't think that they care too much where that partner is as long as they're great. Reaching that level of greatness is really hard."

Using Finland's booming game scene as an example of what a small country can do - and Colombia's population dwarfs Finland's 5.5 million - Gonzalez points out that if a few former ex-Rovio developers want to start a studio and get funding, they have instant recognition.

"If companies like us manage to get out games that have broader success and are top 100 grossing in mobile or they're charting a lot or have a lot of visibility, to an extent of what Efecto did with Ark, and have, like, bigger success cases, that automatically starts a forward traction that is really great for the whole country. That's the point that starts pushing a lot more attention to local developers and even to the point where you can say, 'Ok, I'm ex-Brainz, that means that I know what I'm doing just because the company I work for knew what they were doing.' It's that kind of traction I think that gives that forward momentum. Unless you have those kinds of successes, it will still be really hard every time a local developer sits in front of a VC or a publisher," he continues.

Importantly, in Canada and Finland, those countries' governments have been very supportive of their growing game development communities. Gonzalez and his colleagues are hopeful that Colombia will follow suit. In fact, the Ministry of ICT (Information Technology and Communications) in Colombia has already taken an interest. Within the last couple of years, the government hired some foreign consultants to properly evaluate its game development presence and ranked the various studios from 1-5 with a 5 representing a top tier global game company. Ultimately, every studio fell within the range of 1-3.

"After they did that categorization they made many recommendations. One of them was making a process of knowledge transfer between companies so that level three companies could pull level two companies up in their curve much faster and so on and so forth," Gonzalez explains. "So they just opened these grants. It's not huge. $500,000 to push three companies to transfer know-how to six companies. So each of the tier three companies have the chore to work in the prototyping and pre-production and prototyping product with two smaller studios and walk them along.

"These smaller companies tap us so that we can transfer know-how to them. And we can work with them and we can oversee their product and we can try to give them a little bit more of a reality check in different areas from our experience in game design, our development and business development. And if the product already has certain market potential we can from the business development perspective help them along, help them make the right connections, or even use our advisory boards to actually knock on some doors for them."

Brainz, which now totals 30 employees, has learned a lot since its founding and has had some early successes. Its first two titles were self-published and the company learned a lot in the process. Audio Ninja, co-produced by Cocodrilo Dog, was a runner-up game of the year in different countries in Latin America in 2013 and editor's choice for Apple in a dozen or so countries. Vampire Season was also an editorial pick for different occasions in the US, like Halloween, for example. "That kind of gave us very good bearings about the market and it also showed us how hard it was in this shift from paid apps to free-to-play... We're kind of seeing how it became a very steep hill if you wanted to self-publish in terms of the funding and the expertise that you needed," Gonzalez says.

As Brainz grew its expertise and team size, the studio entered more fully into co-productions, first with Gamevil and more recently with Flaregames. It even started building out its own technology platform. "After [we made] Mark of the Dragon [with Gamevil] we noticed that we needed to have a much more robust technology and platform for ourselves. So we started working on a project called Brainstorm, which is like a services platform that does all of the piping and all of the underlying tech... it's super robust. We built Evercraft on that and we're currently building our new game on that as well," Gonzalez notes.

To build out the technology, Brainz got help from a hybrid public/private organization that promotes innovation in technology in Colombia's second-biggest city, Medellin. As the Ministry of ICT has noted, the transfer and sharing of knowledge among game studios is critical to the nation's growth in gaming, so the fact that Brainz had accumulated a wealth of expertise and knowledge was a valuable thing indeed.

"They liked our project and offered us some funding if we transferred our know-how into Medellin, because it has a growing video game ecosystem. So around 8 months ago we opened a second office in Medellin just to focus on the tech part and it's been pretty good so far... We've managed to transfer all of the development and all of the know-how back into technology and in infrastructure development for video games to Medellin," says Gonzalez.

The Ministry of ICT has had a smaller fund in place for a few years as well. "But it was kind of flawed from my perspective because it was funding video games with the Ministry of Culture but they didn't have to have a business sense at all. So they catered to these start-ups that are making their first or second game and they gave them like $50k or so. It kind of helped but it also had a negative side effect for companies [who weren't learning about business]... So we've been working with the Ministry of ICT trying to recommend a reality check," Gonzalez adds.

Educating Colombia's game development talent and encouraging an atmosphere of camaraderie and knowledge sharing will be key to the nation's growth in the global games market. The local IGDA chapter started attracting a lot of potential from hobbyists and newcomers into the industry by creating a community which now has over 4,000 members in a Facebook group. Gonzalez says they hold events 3 or 4 times a year where they have meet and greets, conduct academic events and generally share learnings with each other.

And while it's true, as Colombian studio Glitchy Pixel told us a year ago, that there's not much in the way of formal game design training in the country, education for game developers has been improving overall.

"Many of the top universities have started to create special interest groups, classes dedicated to video game history, video game design, and video game development. There is a public school called SENA, which is like a technical level school, not university, and they've had a couple game design programs. They have a video game development program... and they have a computer animation and modeling and art program, which is really successful and I think that many of the students have benefited. We've hired plenty of artists that have grown from this kind of technical education and have been really good," Gonzalez says.

Beyond sharing knowledge and educating up-and-coming developers, the Colombian game scene does something pretty unusual: studios actually collaborate on aspects of projects just to help one another. "Many of the companies in the community, especially the companies that make a living out of video games, have seen that collaboration is really important," Gonzalez explains. "So there's a lot of knowledge transfer amongst companies, which is pretty healthy. So, for example, between Efecto, Teravision, or Brainz... If a company wants a sparring partner in any area, be it game design or development or art or even if they're short of resources or one of the companies have some resources that are practically unused we do a lot of collaboration between us... that has helped a lot."

The final piece of the puzzle for Colombia is that the Ministry of ICT is also supporting ProColombia, an export agency that will help Colombia's entrepreneurs, including those in games, attend trade events and spread the word about the country's growing game scene. ProColombia is exhibiting this week at Gamescom, and in October, the Ministry of ICT is hosting Colombia 3.0, an event in Bogota that saw 15,000 attend last year and looks at entertainment verticals like animation, music, media, software development, and video games of course.

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