State of El Salvador’s game development industry – 2017 Blue&White Edition

When I got into game development in 2011, there wasn’t such a thing as “game development industry” in El Salvador. At that time, there were only 2 or 3 companies that worked on anything related to game development (be it development of complete new IPs, or mobile advert games for clients and such). Now in 2017, there are more companies working on things related to game development, but I still can’t say that counts as a “salvadoran game development industry.”

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Why I am reluctant of calling it a “game development industry”? Well, according to the Wikipedia definition, the game development industry “is the economic sector involved in the development, marketing and monetizing of video games,” and long story short, if all the studios in our country closed tomorrow, the salvadoran economy would not be affected at all. That’s not the same as other countries like Chile, for example, where money coming from game development amounts up to $12M and they employ around 350 people (based on numbers from 2016).

Despite that, I think it will be interesting to share this information, so people can get a grasp of how things are doing in our country, since this information could be useful to somebody.

As a retrospective, back in 2010…

I dare say that’s the year where game development really started here. At that time, there was one company called InEarth (that no longer exists) making games for mobile. I am not entirely sure who owned the company, and details are so vague I don’t even know if it was a Salvadoran company, so I can’t provide more information about it. For that same reason, I am not including it in any future statistics, but at least you know it existed at some point.

And in 2011…

There were two companies. One was mine, the one I’ve described a lot in previous blog posts. The second one was called MindBlock, and on the same year, MindBlock released their first mobile game, titled PestFest.

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[MindBlock’s PestFest]

Fast forward to 2017…

I think it’s easier to write the different information in categories, so things are more organized.

Number of companies:

Depending who you ask, the number of companies will vary. According to the government, there are 13 companies, including seven companies the government helped create using an annual contest for a grant (more about that below). However, in reality there are ten companies. One  of the (supposedly) 13 companies closed, and other two companies were created just to fulfill a grant requirement (again, more about that below), and then owners gave the rights to their respective games to their employer’s company.

There are also a couple of independent (non-companies) groups that have made or are making something.

On a side note, the government grants:

Basically it goes like this: it’s a yearly competition where individuals or companies submit a project, business plan and playable demo to enter a contest. Two selection rounds later (one to review the game itself and the other one to review the business plan), winners are selected.

For game development, the grant began in 2013 (the “animation” grant was launched the previous year, I think), and they would provide $30,000 in funding. The same amount was given away in 2014, but the next two years they raised the amount to $55,000. The money must be used to develop the game, hire two interns, a project manager, project director, (from last year onwards) a producer, and also to travel to events to promote the game. All of these are mandatory and are not subject to negotiation. Also, while the rules state only those with game development experience can participate, in practice that experience can mean anything from “I worked in Half Life 3… which was then cancelled” to “I made a ludum dare game once.”

If you enter as a company, you’re all set, but if you enter as an individual, you have to form a company before getting the money. Based on the amount of prizes given so far, there should be seven government-created companies, but sometimes individuals employees of an established company, so the price ends up going to their employer’s companies (as I wrote four paragraphs above). This sometimes results in the same company getting grants for two or three projects. Although it is not illegal, I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s ethical.

As for the funds themselves… the government grant is given in two parts (three in 2015, and it was a disaster). The first part is given as soon as you sign the contract after you win (November/December that same year), and the second one is given “when the government can” after you’ve depleted the first part, and this means you can be left to work without funds for months (the average is four to five months… repeat this twice and you get the disaster that was 2015). Also, you have roughly ten months to either finish the game, or have something playable to get additional funds somewhere else (almost nobody has finished in that ten months period).

It is only fair to take a look at the results this grant has produced so far:

Number of games funded by this grant since 2013: 14

Number of games finished and sold, or available for purchase/download: 9

Types of companies:

Another clarification: I am only counting those that either have released at least one game, are actively working on at least one game, or are actively working on something related to game development (I don’t count companies that haven’t released anything yet, or have their first project in development, as said projects may never be finished).

Half of the companies don’t focus solely on game development, but rather opened a “game development mini branch” because they won the government grant once or more. Out of the ten companies, two are branding and graphic design companies (Clan Studio and Three Art Media), one comics/animation company (Demencia Studio), and two mobile apps (not games) companies (Kadevjo, CityLabs). All (or most) of these are companies (except for Kadevjo) opened their “games mini branch” after winning the grant.

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[Demencia Studio at a local showcase]

Moving on to the companies that have game development as their core business. These are companies that focus exclusively on game development in one way or another.

Infinite Software is the biggest one, with a team of around eight people, if memory doesn’t fail me. Ironically, a team of that size would be considered small in developed countries (on a side note, maybe any of the hybrid companies mentioned above has a team larger than 8, but their games branches are usually smaller than 8 people). Infinite Software opened in 2015, working on their own IPs, but after the second year they opted to do work for hire. Right now they make gamification of apps, educational games or brand-related games.

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[Infinite Software at a local showcase]

MindBlock began as a 3 men studio and released PestFest in 2011, but is now a one-man studio. Unfortunately, PestFest is no longer available, and the company is currently on hiatus, though the guy is currently working on a game that should be out “when it’s done.”

The Domaginarium, that’s mine, and as you know from my previous blog post it’s now also a one-man studio. I develop story-driven original IPs.

ArtCode is a school + studio, meaning  that they are a game development school and do work for hire (though their core business is being a school). They opened in 2013 and courses have been slowly gaining traction.  On a side note some of their students have made their first games that can be downloaded from the Google Play store (but many haven’t, which is unfortunate). This is also a small team (only a handful of people).

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[ArtCode Academy]

Ludus Games is a one-man company, created in 2014 thanks to the government grant. It began making english-learning games, but now it’s a games agency, though it has deals with Microsoft and Sony (as well as Nintendo, according to the Facebook page) so he can “lend” console development kits to people working with him (though, as far as I know, he offers no FQA support, though, meaning that certification is something devs must do on their own). Developers can hire him (as an agent) so he takes the games to events to look for a publisher. According to the website, Ludus also does marketing and localization, but I don’t have examples of work from the company in those two areas.

I’m pretty sure at least 2 more companies will be formed thanks to the new government grant that will be given out this December, with a former winner becoming the third winner.

Number of released games:

To me, this is the less favorable part, because, as a country, we have so few games released, compared to other LatAm countries. Please note I am not counting “jam games” nor mini games made for experimental purposes (meaning games made to see “what it’s like to make a game and/or publish it for free on Google Play to see what happens”).

As I said before, Infinite Software is the biggest one, not only in team size but also in portfolio. They currently have around nine released mobile games, that you can see here (Elude: Galactic Mercenary, shown on their website, is not out yet).

ArtCode, from its work for hire branch, has made two games (no links, unfortunately, since they are not available to the public).

As I said about MindBlock, the company is currently on hiatus, and it’s only game, PestFest (for iOS) is no longer available for purchase.

Likewise, the first game by The Domaginarium, SteroidS (a small PC arcade shooter), was beheaded and killed with fire, and is no longer available. On the flip side, the company has Enola, a horror adventure game for the PC partially developed with the 2013’s government grant (the game was 40% done when we won the grant), and The Nightmare from Beyond, another game partially developed with the 2015 government grant. Both are “mid-sized” games. Granted that The Nightmare from Beyond is in Early Access, but I am adding here (rather than in the “games in development” section) simply because it’s available for purchase.

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[The Nightmare from Beyond]

Before turning into an agency, Ludus Games released two english-learning games: Battle Of The Spells (re-titled “Aprende Inglés Jugando”), for mobile, and another one that was sold to a local kids museum. Both games were developed thanks to the government grant.

Another company that got into game development thanks to the government grant, Clan Studio, using the “Stonebot” label, has developed two games with funds from that grant (they have won the grant three times so far, in November 2013, November 2014, and December 2015): Agent D.O.G., a mobile tap to shoot that plays just like the “House of the Dead” on rails arcade machine (developed with the November 2013 grant, and released in late 2015), and Stereo Aereo (developed with the 2014 grant, released in late 2016), a small rhythm arcade game for PC and Xbox (I understand there’s a PS4 version in development, but I have no information about that).

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[Stereo Aereo]

ThreeArt Media, another company using government funds (you start to see a trend here), has made Agartha: The Hidden Land, for iOS. This app was developed in 2015, but it was very short lived because it was removed from the AppStore. I am not entirely sure if it’s going to return.

CityLabs also a government grant winner, released two iOS games under the “Glitch Interactive” label. One of them was developed with the grant (won in 2015), and the other one was developed independently: Orbit Drop and Vikings Raid. Among the “hybrid companies” I’d say CityLabs is the one that has managed to balance clients work (mobile apps) with their own mobile games, because they aim to make games within their constraints (focusing on small, manageable), and have managed to make two games in a time frame of approximately 18 months.

Kadevjo has three mobile games and one “entertainment” app. One of them, Chomp Kings, was also developed with government funds they won in 2015. While Chomp Kings should have worldwide appeal, Mexicanazo might only appeal those familiar with mexican food, and Guanapolio is definitely aimed at the Salvadoran market.

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You may see Demencia Studio, from the previous section, is not here. That’s because they haven’t released anything yet, and their project is still under development. Also, I am not counting projects from InEarth, the company from 2010, because I don’t have enough information to know whether or not it was Salvadoran or not.

According to this, El Salvador has produced 25 games in total, between 2011 and 2017. Out of those 25 games, three are no longer available.

Games released by independent non-company groups:

As I mentioned above, students from ArtCode have released small games as well. I don’t count them as part of the previous section because these games were mostly experimental, “just for fun,” and, for that same reason, have no monetization strategy: Icecape, SV Bandits, Fleeing Time. I’ve also heard about certain groups in other parts of the country, or in local universities, but there’s no information about them online, so I can’t report on what they are doing.

There are also playable demos and prototypes made by people who wanted to take a shot at the annual Gamedev Hunger Games, I mean, annual government grant contest. However, I am not including those in this list because they were just made to try to win the contest, development was not continued, and are not available to the public.

Games in development:

This is where Infinite Software’s Elude Galactic Mercenary belongs. This is being developed using the government grant they won in December 2016. This game is nearly finished, and should be out either later this year, or early next year.

Demencia Studio (using the “Derby Hat Games” label) also won a government grant in December 2016, and they are currently working on a game titled Nano Squadron, a shoot them up type of game using a StarFox perspective. Save for some concept designs, a couple of teaser trailers, and turn table renders, there’s no public information about it.

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[Nano Squadron video demo]

Likewise, Clan Studio (again, using the Stonebot name) is developing the game corresponding to their third government grant (December 2015): The Last Friend, a 2d sidescroller beat them up. Development on that game has been completely hush hush since early 2016, so there’s no public record on the project’s current status and release date.

From my previous blog post, you know that, in The Domaginarium, I am working on a small game. I didn’t mention what kind of game it was, though: it’s an untitled point and click game that should be out early next year.

ThreeArt Media’s second game, also being developed with government funds is a mobile game titled “Shinobi: Spirit of War.” For the lack of a better “jargon” to describe it, I’ll say it’s a “dodge” game where you move left or right to dodge falling objects while trying to catch power ups. I don’t have an estimate release date for that one either.

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[No Shinobi screenshot, so I added Agartha]

There might be other games that I don’t know about, specially from independent groups that might become companies in the near future. Also, please note this list doesn’t include work for hire jobs, since they are not public information and are usually protected by NDAs, so there might be more games in development by Infinite Software or ArtCode.

This means there are at least five games currently under development in El Salvador, and the number will possibly raise next year since the next government grant contest will take place this December.

Hopefuly, most, if not all, of these games will be moved to the “released games” category when I write next year’s report. If not all of them are finished by then, at least I certainly hope none of them gets cancelled.

Education:

While I would like to report there’s been a huge growth in education for game development, that is not the case. Although there is a University that teaches game development, their study plan lacks a lot of things, and teach many things that (at least from my point of view) are not in line with local industry needs. For example, there are classes related to recycling computers, local networking security, web design and such. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found myself going through the process of recycling a computer. I simply deliver it to a company that does that. Likewise, I don’t do web design, I simply use the online website builder, or download the trial version of Adobe Muse (or any other website editor).

There was also another school that had a couple of game development courses, but their courses never gained traction, so they are now focusing on graphic design and illustration. Other universities have 3D modeling classes, and a couple of Unity courses, but that’s it. When it comes to education, ArtCode is still the place to go (although many opt for online tutorials, which is also a good option).

Data summary:

The “game development industry” in this country is currently a mixed bag, since only half of the companies are “purely game development” companies; the rest being hybrid companies that make games as part of their work. The problem with hybrid companies is that they usually take a long time to finish games because they are side projects, since their actual work (for clients) is the one paying the bills. This issue is more significant when you see those long development times are usually for small arcade-like mobile games either distributed for free or sold for 99 cents, or PC games sold really cheap on Steam and other storefronts, not mid-level games that aim for a $20 or $30 price tag.

On the other hand, you see hybrid companies like CityLabs and Kadevjo managing both branches just fine, since they develop and release their games in a matter of months, not years.

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[Wachaki, one of the independent groups I’ve mentioned so many times]

Independent groups working “just for fun” are a completely different animal, though. These are guys constantly making mobile games with zero budget. I see a possibility any of those independent groups will eventually succeed.

As a matter of fact, Infinite Software started as a couple of brothers making games on their free time, and publishing them in the Google Play store. “Yada-yada-yada” they are now the biggest company in the country. Granted that they are developing Galactic Mercenary using government funds, but their company was not born thanks to said funds.

MOAR pseudo-industry problems:

There are mainly two reasons why the industry hasn’t really taken off: none of the games has been a huge success, and there’s only a small number of released games (the average being only two games per company). In general, I think these issues are related to four main issues:
1. Some companies can’t focus 100% on their games because they must work on things related to their core business (be it animation, branding, mobile apps).
2. Lack of experience in game development and marketing. Getting the money from the grant is useful, of course, but it’s not so useful if you don’t have enough experience making AND selling games as I said in the section about the grant, you don’t really need to have experience to apply for the grant).
3. Making games that are too large in scope for the team size/experience. To be fair, I think I’m the only one guilty of this. Looking at the games shown here, the majority don’t aim for somewhat-complex games.
4. While people here lack game development experience, they have coding skills, art skills, 3d modeling skills, etc. However, we all lack videogame marketing skills, so we have to learn as we go, and experiment as we go (or get someone from abroad that already has experience). This makes the “selling” part of game development harder.

While the ongoing support from the government through that grant is good, because it should help “kickstart” new projects and companies, it’s not without its problems. On one side, there’s a trend to work towards the grant (more in the next paragraph). Besides, some companies even apply on a yearly basis, and some of those will even apply to both videogames and animation grants (and win, resulting in very well funded companies). On the other hand, the money delays that can force developers to work without funds for up to five months, and sometimes teams and even forced to rework their strategy because they can’t hire external freelancers (music composers, audio guys) due to the lack of funds, and sometimes they will even lose the chance to attend events for the same reason. For example, due to these delays when I was working with grant funds, I lost the chance to attend Game Connection and GamesCon last year, something that completely ruined the plans I had for The Nightmare from Beyond; also, a team I know has been waiting 5 months for the second half of the money, and this delay caused them to lose the chance to attend Indiecade.

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[Icecape, a free game made by an independent individual]

This trend to “work towards the grant” and “game development subject to winning a grant” is very common. When I say “work towards the grant” I mean teams start developing a game, not with the goal of “finishing that damn game” and publish it on any distribution platform, but rather they do it with the sole goal of applying for the grant. As I mentioned before, many games are made to be submitted to the grant, but development continues only if the grant is won.

This trend of the grant being the ultimate goal, and actually publishing a game being an apparently secondary goal, is causing a lot of harm. Again, this is where I think the “small groups working with no budget but with a lot of drive” will save the day.

In closing:

In many words, this is how the sort-of-industry is looking. I’d dare say we have some really good things going, but way too many bad things happening at the same time, including some cultural problems that will take some more time to be corrected. Overall, I do think we are doing pretty bad, from the limited number of games to the extremely long development times (in most cases). However, new generations are entering the arena (mostly thanks to ArtCode), so there’s a big chance things will improve in the near future.

And, in many words, this is the state of El Salvador’s game development industry as of now. Congratulations if you reached the end 😀

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~ by nemirc on October 3, 2017.

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