When discussing foreign powerhouses of the game industry, the first thoughts go to Japan, Korea, and China. That doesn't mean that other nations aren't trying, however. At this year's Tokyo Game Show, many other countries were represented. Several random events led to me interviewing representatives of five countries in less than twenty-four hours. In the interests of international gaming relations and my own personal curiosity, I put on my "Man at Work" shirt, braved the human crush of a TGS public day, and learned a few things in the process.
Friday afternoon, I was passing by the Level-5 booth when I saw two guys standing near the entrance to the Cardboard Senki demo zone with a slightly lost expression on their faces. Remembering my solo experience earlier in the day, I promptly shanghai'd them into helping me try out that very multiplayer-focused title. It was three inexperienced guys versus a rampaging war machine; we didn't stand a chance.
But that's how I met Johan Knutzen and Shahrouz Zolfaghari, two guys from Sweden who'd come to show off their new iOS game, The Devil's Attorney. Not technically an RPG, it's a courtroom sim game with special techniques and leveling mechanics set in a parody of the 1980s. The protagonist, Max McMann, is what Phoenix Wright would be if Wright were an amoral shyster willing to defend obviously guilty clients against some frankly hilarious charges. The game concept and script were done by a man named Anders Hejdenberg, and his ability to write comic scenes shines in the banter between Max and his rival attorneys. The art was by Jay Sopp, who has worked on Cartoon Network projects in the past, and this is really obvious in the animation.
Most of the game takes place in court, as Max McMann faces off against the prosecution. Proceedings follow through almost like an RPG battle, with McMann having a variety of skills (Intimidation, Analysis, Tampering, etc.) to reduce the credibility of the lawyers, witnesses, or evidence against his client. This credibility is akin to hit points in application, and when one part of the prosecution's case reaches zero credibility it is knocked out of court. Max has a gauge that shows his own level of credibility, and this will take damage depending on what parts of the prosecution are still viable at the end of his turn. The different components of the opposition have different rules associated with them. Expert witnesses are eliminated automatically if all evidence is discredited, while each of the different prosecuting attorneys possess different characteristics that usually make them a primary target for Max's dirty tricks.
There's a fair amount of strategy required to win a case, with some skills (e.g. Ego Boost) acting to support character attacks or evidence dismissal. Using the Objection! skill stuns the prosecution for a round. Each skill takes a certain amount of points, of which Max has nine each round.
When Max isn't in court, he's tricking out his bachelor pad with the earnings from his dubious court services. Any item bought and placed in his apartment affects one of his stats -- Decadence, Vanity, and Materialism. This in turn affects which skills he learns. Occasionally a client will give him a gift after a case. After my third case, I received the most pimping hat imaginable (+1 to Vanity), and Max could be seen wearing it in every court case after that.
Getting The Devil's Attorney covered on this site would be a real stretch of the genre, but this court-room sim has definite leveling elements, fifty-some cases to undertake, and (I am told) an actual unifying story as the game progresses. It was wickedly funny and fun to play, and if I ever get an iPad, iPhone, or Android I shall definitely get it. There isn't a PC version yet, though Shahrouz said they were interested in doing that too. Their ultimate mission at TGS was to sound out the game's chances in the Japanese market, and I personally think it would go over well (always provided it has a good translation).
Friday night there was an after-party for attendees and media. While in line for the drinks, I started chatting with a guy, who knew a guy, and long story short that's how I was introduced, however briefly, to the Indonesian Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy. I followed this short encounter with a much longer talk with Shafiq Husein, PR manager for the Indonesian game development company Altermyth. In 2003, Altermyth had the honor of producing Indonesia's first 3D-modeled online game, Inspirit Arena. It was a sort of strategy game that had players collecting and deploying magic runes in order to challenge other players. According to Shafiq, the game made it into beta, but never had a full launch. The game has survived, if the sites dedicated to it are any indication. A series of comic books based on the game is now on its third volume, and the fourth volume should be out next year.
One issue that led to this unfortunate development was that of access. Indonesia isn't developed fully or equally across its many islands, and the local support for a multiplayer online title was less than optimal nine years ago. In the intervening decade, the Indonesian government has worked to provide G4-level internet access to its major cities, and the focus of the local game industry has likewise kept with the PC and iOS. Altermyth and Agaté, another Indonesian studio, were showing off various casual games for the iPad when I visited their booth on Saturday. Games like Pancipon Fishing (where the player has to catch large-mouthed goblins) and Maju-Maru (a ninja-based touch action game) are helping to raise awareness of Indonesia's game industry. For RPGamers, here's one of Altermyth's latest projects:
Pancipon Rush was running on the TV screens in the Indonesian booth. The above video was posted to YouTube in May, and the newer video I saw at TGS looked even better.
Next year is the tenth anniversary of Inspirit Arena, and it's Shafiq's hope that the industry will have reached the point where re-launching that title is doable. In any case, 2013 should be a good year for this country's growing game industry.
Saturday morning, I was the early bird trying to catch the worm. I was at the media entrance by 9 AM, even though the pressure to be the first inside was a lot less than it was on Thursday. When the doors opened early at 9:50, I went right past the Square Enix booth to see what those smaller exhibitors nearby were all about. Who I found were these guys.
Well, you can't really see them all in this picture. The guy standing with me is Sebastián Franchini, art director for Trutruka Games. Sitting behind me playing a game is Vicente Conejeros, the head programmer. The CEO and founder, Enrique Rodríguez, is taking the picture. The three of them got together to form Trutruka in 2011, naming the company after a traditional trumpet used by Mapuche people of Chile. Trutruka has been steadily expanding since its beginning, and now has twelve people working to develop games based on a love of classic '90s game design.
The company's only been around for a year and a half, but these guys have a real handful of titles under their belts already. Their first two, a pair of puzzle games named City of Ages and Mouse Hunter 3000 were for the Blackberry, but their focus has since moved to the iOS and Android. In their pamphlet for TGS, four titles were featured. Nano Kingdom and its upcoming sequel are real-time strategy games. The first one was released through Kongregate, and can be seen on YouTube now. Karkov Bros. Circus is a physics puzzle game that is similar to, but a bit more complicated than, the famous Angry Birds games. Monsterthon is a funny action platformer built around speed (similar to Sonic the Hedgehog), but set in a city full of buildings to break and transports to trample (similar to Rampage)
We should be covering one title in their list, and that's Soul Avenger. One of their newest titles, it's not even on their homepage yet. It's a side-scrolling action RPG that bears some resemblence to games like Code of Princess (which they hadn't heard of) or the Dungeons & Dragons arcade game (which they most definitely had). It's free to play, but offers prime equipment for those willing to make microtransactions.
Soul Avenger will be published by Animoca, and should be available next month.
While waiting for my last interview of the day to be available on Saturday, I wandered a bit and had a pleasant surprise. In the next booth over, Reza Rezali not only knew where my home state was, he was an alumnus of the University of Oklahoma. He certainly had the Sooner Spirit in good measure as he told me all about his work in Malaysia.
The government of Malaysia is very pro-active in its support of the animation and game industries, and with its support both have flourished. According to Reza, some forty animated films were made for the Malaysian market just last year, and his own business has been booming. He is the founder of Terato, Inc., a company that specializes in iOS and Flash programming. He chose the name while he was still in school, and says he picked it randomly from a dictionary because he loved the sound (it's a Greek prefix meaning "monstrous"). At the age of 17, he co-founded a teen network portal under that name, and founded his current company when he returned to Malaysia in 2008.
Terato has a very interesting portfolio, including both games and utilitarian apps targeted for the average Malaysian, but one of its first successes was Qalvinius, a side-scrolling action RPG released in 2008. It was one of the first generation of games in the App Store, and sold approximately 600,000 copies in its first year. It's since gone freemium (a model Reza says he prefers).
The game utilizes an analog circle pad and button setup (similar to what's now on the 3DS) on-screen. It takes about 6 hours to get to the final boss of the story, includes puzzles and minigames, as well as a multiplayer function. It's fairly impressive as it is, and Terato, Inc. has had four years since then to improve. I'm looking forward to see what RPG this company comes up with next.
The last stop on my international trip was an interview with Mr. Ahmad Ahmadi, of the Iran Computer & Video Games Foundation. Unlike the other people I interviewed, Mr. Ahmadi is not a game developer. Instead, he represents an NGO dedicated to revealing the fruits of the Iranian game industry to the rest of the world. At TGS, he did this with some very nice posters and a tin of sohan, a confection made in the Iranian cities of Qom and Esfahan. It was very, very good.
(Sohan image courtesy of Wikipedia, but that's about what the real thing looked like.)
I was surprised to find out that Iran not only has a gaming industry, but that it has a very large and quickly expanding industry supported by its government. There are two institutes of game design in the country, and their combined graduating classes of five or six hundred students go on to work for any of the hundred-plus companies currently developing for the Iranian market. At the end of June, Tehran hosted its own gaming convention that featured far more domestic than foreign product. According to Mr. Ahmadi, most Iranian-made games are for the PC, with a small percentage for iOS devices (which are hard to come by in the country). Console titles are popular, especially for the XBox and PlayStation 2, but the current political climate makes it difficult to work with or develop for foreign consoles in general. Most impressively according to Mr. Ahmadi, in the five days that the Tehran Game Expo was open to the public it reportedly recorded one million visitors.
The posters in Mr. Ahmadi's booth were for a wide range of games, with the shooting, racing, fighting, action, adventure, and role-playing genres all represented. Several of these have seen foreign release, with translations in anywhere between five and fifteen languages. Among others, there are Shaban (Shepherd), a point-and-click adventure, and Asmandez (Fortress in the Sky), a futuristic MMORPG.
Of course, I was most interested in the RPGs, and there were some interesting things to see there as well.
On the left, we have Seven Levels, while on the right there is Persian Kings. These are the latest two big games for Iran, and their developers are currently trying to arrange for foreign publication. Unfortunately, this means that I can't get any good screenshots for them as yet. I did get to see some promotional video, and one thing that really struck me about the art was the distinctively Parsi style found throughout. The corded designs on the armor, not to mention the trademark Persian beard, stand out in a genre dominated by Nordic, Greco-Roman, and Oriental styles. There are plenty of references to classic Persian architecture and culture that I could recognize as exotic even if I didn't know what they were about. Seven Levels is based on the Iranian epic hero Rostam, a man as awesome in his own right as Hercules, Lancelot, or Son Gokuu.
My talk with Mr. Ahmadi was interesting on many levels. The Iranian game industry has access to a wealth of cultural material that is entirely new to the rest of the world, and the games they develop have the potential to bring new perspective and life to the global industry as a whole. Variety is the spice of life, and it is also the lifeblood of gaming. I can only see the Persian entrance onto the scene as a good thing, in the long run.
Mr. Ahmadi is a very busy man, by the way. In the last six months he has visited industry conventions in every corner of the world. If you happen to run into him at a gaming convention, be sure to chat him up about the latest developments. And don't forget to try the sohan.
This was one experience that I really was not expecting, coming into the Tokyo Game Show for the first time. Sometimes it's easy to forget that there are more nations involved in the game industry than just the big players. The future of the industry cannot and should not be tied to any specific country, however. If video games are to keep advancing as a product, as a pastime, and as an artform then fresh blood should always be welcome. Having touched base with the four corners of the world in less than a day's time, I can say that the seeds of innovation have taken root all over. It may take some time for them to reach fruition, but I am looking forward to a time when there's more to major gaming news than just the U.S. and the Far East.