The boot-shaped nation is home to a handful of successful games developers, but thanks to increasing government support and new digital possibilities, Italy could soon have the world’s attention.
Italy is one of Europe’s biggest gaming markets and, believe it or not, one of the biggest in the world. Game sale revenues place Italy at number four in European rankings and ninth compared to the rest of the world. Game sales reached over €1bn last year.
With 21 million gamers making up 30 per cent of the population, one would imagine that Italy is also home to a crowded development community. But interestingly, there’s still a lot of room to grow.
“I would define the games development scene here as an emerging one,” Thalita Malago, secretary general of trade body AESVI, tells Develop. “Besides two major studios founded in late ‘80s and ‘90s – Milestone and Ubisoft Milan – it has mainly grown mainly in the last three years.”
Mauro Fanelli, co-founder of Turin-based indie MixedBag, agrees: “Italy is historically more a consumer country than a producing one. But in the last few years, we have seen a growing presence of little and medium start-ups trying to change that assumption.”
Jacopo Musso, CEO at mobile developer Bad Seed, adds: “The video games landscape in Italy is slowly evolving. We’re still behind other big regions, but we are gaining awareness day by day. We’re even changing as a community as we are closely in touch with other studios and companies ready to help each other whenever it’s possible.
“In a way, it can be seen as a big family. Creating video games in Italy is hard but we are working harder every day to make it easier. It’s still difficult, but something is definitely changing.”
The Italian games industry is gathering increasing attention thanks to heightened activity from organizations such as the Italian Game Industry Association – or, to the locals, Associazione Editori Sviluppatori Videogiochi Italiani (AESVI).
The trade body has established annual events that attract developers and publishers around the world, as well as celebrate native talent, and it actively campaigns to improve the environment for new and smaller studios.
“Three years ago our Association launched a special program to support game developers in Italy,” explains Malago. “We support their ‘360-degree development’: they develop games; we help them develop their skills, their market knowledge and their network. In one word, their business.
“Since 2012 we have organized the Italian Game Developers Summit (IGDS), an event where studios can exchange experiences, meet potential business partners, take inspiration from international speakers, and showcase their games.”
The 2014 IGDS takes place in Milan this month, with AESVI expecting hundreds of people to attend. The summit is also held alongside Milan Games Week, Italy’s largest celebration of video games and the industry.
AESVI has also launched the umbrella brand ‘Games in Italy’, which is used to promote the best Italian studios at international fairs. Following Milan Games Week, the trade body will be taking ten developers to Game Connection Europe in Paris, thanks to support from the Italian Trade Agency.
And, crucially, the association is helping to raise awareness of funding options for studios and campaigning to have the government introduce tax relief similar to that of the UK and other markets.
The impact of these initiatives is certainly being felt, according to Michele Caletti, head of development at SBK and Moto GP studio Milestone: “When I started, a long time ago, the situation was different. Thanks to the special attention that the government and trade organizations such as AESVI are putting in it, things are improving.
“There are still some areas of improvement, but the road that has been taken is the right one. As a developer, I really appreciate this growing and thriving era that video games are experiencing in Italy.”
Alessandro Mazzega, PR and business development boss at Develop Awards finalist Forge Reply, agrees: “Institutions are realizing that games development is an important industry and Italian companies deserve the same attention already given in other countries. Tax credit and tax shelter programs are just two of the goals that AESVI is working on and we’re looking forward to the results.”
Back in 2012, the nation’s government approved a Law Decree that enabled more support for the creation and development of start-ups and other new businesses connected to technology and innovation, including games development.
Meanwhile, Digital Tales CEO Giovanni Bazzoni says the Italian Trade Agency has been invaluable when promoting and distributing his games in foreign markets, as have other government bodies and even some European initiatives.
“Some time ago, the local Chamber of Commerce selected one of our projects and awarded us with a free trip to North America to pitch it at an industry event,” he explains. “Our latest concept entered the Creative Europe Media Programme and we are going to receive some European Community funds to develop a prototype for a console game, which will help us enhance our proprietary technology for next-gen hardware.”
Malago adds: “We are working closely with government to ensure that they understand the development of a local games industry is key to promote sustainable growth and employment – particularly youth employment – as well as to create innovation, increase social mobility and attract Italy investments and talented people from abroad.”
While Ubisoft Milan is one of the only publisher-owned studios in the area, larger firms are taking more interest in Italy’s game-makers. Most publishers have distribution and marketing offices in the area.
Sony held a PlayStation Open Day in Rome earlier this year, sharing advice on how to get games published. And dialogues are well established between international publishers and Italian developers.
“All major publisher and platform holders have strong local presence, some of them run a local development studio and, in general, they’re all open and interested in talking with new studios,” says Massimo Guarini, CEO and co-founder of Murasaki Baby developer Ovosonico.
“Thanks to the international nature of this industry, it becomes quite easy to access international hubs through publisher’s local subsidiaries, helping valid ideas to reach immediate international relevance.”
Alberto Belli, co-founder of start-up Storm in a Teacup, adds: “I came from publishing and when it was retail only, scouting for good games was something really related to event and personal research. Now, all the companies here are working to find good projects from Italian studios and there is a good chance to find cool stuff in development around.
“We’re working with Microsoft Italy trough ID@Xbox and they’re helping us very much with Nero’s marketing activities, PR and so on. Indies usually don’t like publishers because of an old way of thinking. Publishers are friends, not enemies – they’re the best thing that could happen to your game.”
Expanded opportunities for indies and digital game developers have also helped highlight the talent indigenous to Italy. However, while universities are stepping up the number of games-related courses, local studios say a lot of this talent comes from within.
“Most key skills are still developed at work,” says Bazzoni, “but the widespread availability of cross-platform engines fostered a good level of expertise, supported by the strong motivation of many a young hobby developer who cut their teeth with self-published mobile titles before entering the industry proper.”
Mazzega adds: “We also have great artists and their background comes from many different kind of studies, like comics and visual arts. Traditionally, Italian concept artists and illustrators have always been achieving great results, even abroad.
“The situation about coders has been changing lately. We used to face issues when looking for talents, since a solid theoretical basis was rarely paired by specific games development expertise.”
While many of Italy’s aspiring developers are setting up studios in their home market, more have already emigrated to established development hubs around the world to work on some of the industry’s biggest games.
“If we brought back all Italian professionals around the world, we could build a real dream team and deliver something never seen before,” says Belli. “It would be great to start a new ‘Made in Italy’ venture, starting from our industry and products.”
The Italian Market
Unsurprisingly, the most popular games in Italy are football-based, with racing and FPS titles also enjoying popularity. But the output of Italy’s development scene is more varied.
Most studios are working on mobile, PC and online games, although there is a healthy contingent with a console focus. Some are experimenting with different types of games.
Last year, for example, Studio Evil won the Future of Health award with its Relive project, a motion-controlled title that trains people in CPR. Meanwhile, Milan-based dev We Are Müesli won the Bosch Art Foundation’s art game competition with its visual novel Cave! Cave! Deus Videt.
This diversity of content means competition between studios in Italy is far from heated.
“We are all competing in a global market, so we don’t see one another as rivals,” says Mazzega. “The accomplishments of one company can benefit the Italian industry as a whole, drawing the attention of players, press outlets and the international businesses.”
Looking forward, AESVI’s Malago is confident of “significant growth” in the next few years for Italy’s development scene thanks to studios’ plans to expand, the rise of start-ups and new university courses.
“What speaks in favor of Italian developers is a fine combination of technical competence and creativity, which already defines the ‘Made in Italy’ brand in many other fields of excellence such as fashion and design,” she adds. “We hope we will become the next rising star in the games industry firmament.
“Even if the support available from the government is still limited, Italy is living a generational change at all levels that we believe will benefit the development of a local games industry in the near future.”
Milestone’s Caletti adds: “We’re growing fast, and we’re very lively and creative. From Santa Ragione’s Mirror Moon, to Ovosonico’s Murasaki Baby, to a number of smaller titles, it’s all about creativity and building a strong identity. Game jams, talents, thinking out of usual schemes produces promising results. Where we’ve we lacked in terms of network – studios, universities, government – we’ve learned to gain in quality and determination.
“It’s clear that we have to create a momentum we can then ride on, and given the current economic situation it’s not easy. But we’re getting more and more ambitious, and there’s a lot of room for growing, and to make memorable games.”
MixedBag’s Fanelli adds that the small studios are the ones to watch. With the market becoming increasingly supportive of new businesses and digital opening up new opportunities, the next star of Italy won’t necessarily be triple-A.
“There are lots of interesting projects are being worked on in Italy right now,” he says. “The self publishing possibilities and lower barriers of entry really opened up the market. I think next year will be full of nice surprises from Italian developers.”
Funding the Pursuit
Developers in Italy are able to seek funding and support from two programmes.
The first is the Italian Trade Agency’s internationalization grants, which help eligible firms take part in selected international fairs in the games sector, where they can promote Italy.
Secondly, the government’s start-ups legislation supports new businesses linked to innovation and technology, as well as incubators, accelerators and private investors. There are additional measures of support available, including tax incentives, assistance in legal, corporate and fiscal activities, and more.
Ubisoft Milan’s Dario Migliavacca says that these are a marked improvement on the support initiatives of previous years: “Italy is famous for many things but not for being an easy place to do business. Nevertheless, AESVI is achieving many important goals in promoting the games industry.
“The next main objectives to reach are, as in movie production, tax credit and tax shelter for our industry. It would represent a significant step forward for our investments.”
With tax levels and the cost of living in Italy’s major cities relatively high, Digital Tales boss Giovanni Bazzoni agrees: “The Italian government has hardly ever given any form of tax relief to support the gaming industry, but we hope that will change soon, thanks to AESVI’s continued efforts and growing interest in gaming as a cultural medium and a business in its own right.”
The introduction of games design and other related courses into universities has been a recent but nonetheless welcome change in the Italian games market.
There are plenty of prime examples. The University of Verona, for instance, has been running a Masters in computer game development for years. Meanwhile, the University of Milan is introducing a new computer science and video games degree with the help of the nearby Ubisoft studio. Finally, the Politecnico of Milan runs a video game design and programming course.
And more developers are keen to help their local academic institutes introduce similar courses.
“In Turin, where we are based, we are trying with other studios to establish strong relationships with local universities,” said MixedBag’s Mauro Fanelli.
Bad Seed’s Jacopo Musso adds: “There is a good synergy between the industry and universities, most of lecturers are professional developers working in the industry.
“The ecosystem is growing and we have now more and more skilled graduates, mostly programmers and artists, able to join a development team being ready to work.”
Ovosonico’s Massimo Guarini says the link between development and academia is a two-way relationship, with studio endorsements resulting in media exposure for the studio and plenty of fresh hires.
“If you run a development studio in Italy, it’s quite common to find yourself teaching or giving lectures in some important university sooner or later,” he says.
“Universities that, thanks to their international fame, have already managed to invite for lectures international guests such as David Cage, Nolan Bushnell and Goichi Suda.”