Fighting for funding and exposure, video game developers gather at Athens’ first expo

Maria Kazantzi, Nickolas Spilanis, Athenia Rouben and Vagelis Kakioris play Moribund, created by Traptics, at the Grow Games Expo 2017 at Technopolis in Athens.
Photo by Bridget Peery

Story by Cody Mello-Klein ·

ATHENS, Greece – Four figures hunch in front of a television at GROW Games Expo – Athens’ first showcase for Greek game developers – silhouetted by the light from the screen. They can’t take their eyes off “Moribund,” a violent, multiplayer brawler developed by local gaming company Traptics.

Two of the four players are still alive. As they guide their digital warriors around the arena, now slick with blood from the bodies of fallen players, the remaining two combatants shout and swear after every gunshot or brush with “death.” There can be only one victor.

In the end, one will launch a harpoon straight into his competitor’s on-screen body. All four groan and cheer, as a new champion is born. A few seconds later someone asks, “One more match?” And the battle begins again.

Over the course of this weekend-long event, Greek games industry hopefuls gathered to show off their creations – and play them. Organized by Gifted Hellas, a Greek for-profit group founded by gaming community organizer George Kazamias, GROW hosted 28 developers – 20 devoted to video games and eight to board games – for an event that’s in many ways a first of its kind in Greece.

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The 20 video game developers assembled at GROW reached into every genre of gaming  – from Happyland Entertainment’s mythological arcade title “Sons of Icarus” and eNVy softworks’ die-to-win puzzle game “Death & Beyond” to Lucid Ferrets’ hectic naval fighting game. For these developers, every game – every innovative design choice and every unique artistic choice – was a rejection of the idea that there’s no space for Greek game developers.

“We want to show [gamers] that they can have a different experience than the one they usually have playing those [big] games and that people in Greece are able to create those games,” Kazamias, 39, said. “We want them to understand that we have an opportunity here, in terms of technology, in terms of exposure.”

But exposure isn’t the only problem for Greek developers. With a population of around 11 million, Greece is a small market. Talented programmers, artists and designers are leaving for more opportunity in Cyprus, the United Kingdom and America. And veteran studios like Aventurine SA, the developer of the 2009 massively multiplayer “Darkfall,” Greece’s most successful game, are closing their doors.

However, thanks to state funds made available for game companies, industry-specific communities like the Corallia Cluster Initiative supporting developers, and at least two new conferences, the Athens Games Conference and GROW Games Expo, the industry is starting to gain a foothold.

The only thing missing is funding – something woefully absent in Greece, where investors shy away from video game development in the wake of a financial crisis that has even stalwart traditional companies shuttering their doors.

“There isn’t anything like funding, especially for video games, in Greece,” said Mike Papagathangelou, 26, designer at Traptics, the team behind the self-published 2016 multiplayer “Moribund.” “There are very few companies that have managed to get [it].”

The good news is this is steadily changing as startups, especially those focused on tech, have begun to raise Greece’s profile as a possible investment. This growth extends to gaming too. The Corallia Clusters Initiative, a Greek organization that focuses on helping and stimulating industry-specific innovation ecosystems such as gaming, has started to lobby the government for recognition of the industry.

“The state has understood that gaming is a growing market,” said Julia Phoca, manager for the gaming focused gi-Cluster at Corallia. “Gaming is quite an important segment of the creative industries.”

Over the next four years the Greek state, following the precedent set by countries like Canada and Poland, aims to invest close to 10 million euros, or around $11 million, in game developers who are registered as legal entities or companies. Developers who fall under this category can apply to receive state-funded grants ranging anywhere from 50,000 euros to 1 million euros, or roughly $56,000 to $1.2 million.

But many developers in Greece are still operating as independents, or indies, which means very little of this money is available to them. Without financing and with rising taxes, it can be difficult for developers to hire qualified people who are instead looking for jobs abroad, especially with development costs as steep as they are. Depending on the project, creating a game in Greece requires anywhere from $90,000 to $500,000, and that doesn’t include money for marketing and promotion, which can double or triple the cost.

“The capital we’re capable of providing is far below what these developers need,” said Georgios Kasselakis, 32, partner at Greek VC group Openfund.

Funding and exposure: These are challenges that game developers face regardless of location. Without money, they can’t dedicate their time and effort to developing games, which means funders are less likely to invest because they think the developers are hobbyists and not professionals. It’s a vicious cycle.

The three developers at Traptics, Papagathangelou and programmers Alex Panayiotou and Kate Mataraga, both 26, have known each other since high school. They were able to shift to full-time development in 2014 after their second game, “Hunters of the Dead,” sold 23,000 copies across Steam and bundles.

“We didn’t start seriously or professionally. We just wanted to see how this whole thing works,” said Papagathangelou. “But we started seeing that this was actually something that we could do for a living.”

They won a competition to earn one-third of an incubator space in downtown Athens with two other startups, but it’s enough room for two desks and three computers.

Developers like ViRA, a team focused on making virtual reality experiences, don’t have the luxury of full-time work. They fund their games with money earned through freelance virtual reality projects with corporate partners like Hewlett-Packard. It’s through those projects that ViRA is funding its first game: EasyCheesy, a VR multiplayer game of cat and mouse.

“If we had a lot of money in the bank like [wealthy, duck-billed Disney character] Scrooge McDuck, we would only be making games,” said Christina Chrysanthopoulou, 31, art director and game designer at ViRA.

Like the rest of the economy, the game development community in Greece is caught between inward-focused development and outward-oriented growth. It’s a trend that, according to Georgios Anastasiadis, economics professor at the American College of Thessaloniki, is quickly changing the way the Greek economy operates.

“[Greece is] a small country that’s not an exporter…small countries usually export half their income,” Anastasiadis said. “There’s a current restructuring of the economy to focus more in exports; it’s becoming outward-oriented.”

Christina Chrysanthopolou, art director at virtual reality developer ViRA, calibrates the team’s VR headset for play testing.
Photo by Cody Mello-Klein

One of the oldest developers still operating in Greece, Tenebra Studios, which was founded in 2006 and in 2015 released “Evergrowth – A Trip to Adulthood,” has already embraced this trend. Its next project is the upcoming 2017 horror VR game “The Duchess of Plaisance,” based on Greek history but told through a globalized technology like VR.

Tenebra Studios’ early decision to look outside of the country and work with partners like Sony gave it the opportunity to grow outside the Greek market. And the team at Tenebra Studios is still dedicated to helping the community here, working with the joint American-European New York College to educate the next generation of game developers.

“If you make games only for the Greek market you are doomed from the start…so you have to open up. [The community] will never grow unless you export it,” said Thanassis Georgoulis, 32, chief executive and lead programmer at Tenebra Studios.

The tension between local and global community-building is at the heart of Greece’s development community. But together, the community is starting to figure out how to grow while still maintaining its identity. In a development community as small as this –  in Greece there are only 114 developers who have released a total of 163 games compared to 1,900 developers currently in America, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2017 report – collaboration and education is necessary for the scene to grow. Especially considering that most of these teams only have four to five people.

“Things are starting to change as the whole scene is starting to mature and realize that without a plan and mutual support there is no hope for further growth and betterment,” said Konstantina Bethani, 32, chief marketing officer and creative director at Tenebra Studios.

DragonTale, an indie developer of five people that officially formed in 2016, is very much the new kid on the block, but like all the developers mentioned here, they aren’t going anywhere.

Founder and game designer Zafiris Panagiotidis, 39, actually came back to Greece in September of 2016 after four years away because he sees what games can do for the country.

DragonTale artist and concept designer Dimosthenis Serketzis, 30, displays some early concept art for “Planetworld.”
Photo by Ellie Williams

“We should be the little stones that build and get the country out of crisis,” Panagiotidis said.

Moving forward the local games industry can be a significant factor in Greece’s economic recovery. But games are more than just an economic salve; they’re a potent form of therapy for both developers and gamers, returning a certain level of control to those who feel like they’ve lost it. With a few lines of code, game developers can become gods in a universe of their own making. For a few brief moments, players can feel like they truly understand the systems and mechanics at work in their lives.

But the economic ramifications of a successful entry into the worldwide games industry, which pulled in $91 billion last year, according to the New York City market researcher SuperData Research, cannot be underestimated.

The worldwide games industry is an economic behemoth, with $91 billion in earnings last year, according to the New York City market researcher SuperData Research. With high-profile events such as the recent expo and the Athens Games Festival set for later this year, developers are hopeful that the Greek government will come around. Games are too powerful to ignore.

“Games have the power to change lives. They have the power to educate,” said Panayiotidis. “They have the power to give joy to people when there isn’t any.”

 

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