Brjann muses: Visiting the developer scene in the Middle East

Hi all, thought I’d write once in a while about game-related stuff. And now is a pretty good time to start, since there are so many things happening. I’ll try to keep the reader perspective in mind, so that you’ll actually find it interesting (toe-nail clippings etc will have to go elsewhere). Here we go!

In May I visited Kuwait to lecture on game development. It’s not the first time I speak publicly, so I wasn’t that nervous about my speech – but it was the first time for me to visit the Middle East, and I arrived armed with lots of preconceptions and a fair bit of apprehension. I really thought it would be very strict. My thoughts when stepping out on the tarmac, shocked by the 35°C heat wave (and this was in the evening!), went along the lines of “For how long will I go to jail if I forget myself and toss a cigarette butt in the street?”, “What’s up with the scarves and burqas – what decides when women wear one or the other?” and “Wonder which hand they’ll lop off first if I stare too long at someone?”.

I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I’m usually comfortable everywhere. But I had this paranoid notion of the Middle East being a bit arbitrary – if you’re unlucky, you get caught in a Tintin-esque situation with “your papers not being in order” or the like. It’s typically Swedish, I guess… the worst thing we can do is offend anyone.

I went home five days later, awestruck and humbled, and with my head filled with new ideas and views.

Cosplay in Kuwait

Kuwaitis are nice. Here’s BatSuperVampireMan.

There actually was a reason behind the trip. When we had just released SteamWorld Dig for the 3DS in August 2013, I received a tweet from Muhammed, a Kuwaiti guy who loved the game. (And on a side note: it’s always a bit mindblowing when someone from a faraway country plays your game. Early on we actually received a digital postcard from a researcher in Antarctica who played Dig a lot.) He asked if we could meet up at GamesCom in Cologne later the same month.

We were both going anyway, so we did. I was expecting to chat with the guy for a couple of minutes and then duck out of there – I always feel a little awkward when people praise our games to my face. It often doesn’t turn into a real conversation, but rather a one-sided affair. I usually try to quickly ask something about their playing habits or the like, so that we don’t grind to a halt after the initial pleasantries.

Well, the quick chat turned into an hour or so over coffee and refills. Muhammed was there with Yousif and Bazel, his partners in crime at Fikra (www.FikraEvents.com), a small outfit that arranged videogame fighting tournaments (Street Fighter, etc) and the like in Kuwait. It was evident that Yousif was in charge, smilingly talking a mile a minute about the gaming scene in Kuwait, the inertia of the system and the lack of government support, and how they were exploring ways to expand their events.

I was quite impressed by the guy – sort of a gaming-industry Gandhi, being very optimistic in spite of his uphill battle – and in a moment of enthusiasm I offered that one good way could be to bring in lecturers from other countries. Whereupon he invited me to speak at their next big event. I never thought it would materialize, just one of those things you toss around. But one day in January I got a formal invitation to speak at the GX event, and then it was simply a case of putting my (ticket) money where my (broad) mouth was.

Kuwaiti shopping mall

Endless and luxurious: Kuwaiti shopping malls

To a Swede, Kuwait is a very strange country. For one, there’s no tax. And then there’s a guaranteed minimum wage of about US$3,000 per month for Kuwaitis, whether you work or not. We have a hard time wrapping our skulls around concepts like that, but the oil pays for it all.

And although you spend fortunes on the most extravagant luxuries, food, for example, isn’t very expensive. No wonder the Kuwaitis come across as so easy-going, so infinitely relaxed. It’s easy to imagine that, with such a system, a country could quickly deteriorate into lazy chaos. And I noticed that no one looked like they were about to collapse from fatigue. If anything, the abundance should come with a warning label: “Too much of this life can’t be good for you”.

On one of our trips through Kuwait City, we passed a huge, marvelous glass-and-steel building, and I couldn’t help asking what it was, thinking it must be the opera house or similar. “It’s the diabetes hospital”, came the answer. Apparently Kuwait is world-leading – if that’s an achievement – in diabetes per capita. And you can’t help but wonder what will happen the day the oil runs out. Hello taxes, goodbye citizen salary. Talk about brutal awakening. I hope and believe they’re smart enough to move onto solar power by then – and that they’ll export that instead.

Fikra wanted me to lecture on game development. They explained that I’d better keep it general, as there are no established Kuwaiti game developers. This initially caught me a bit by surprise; in Sweden, playing games and making them have gone hand in hand for a long time. So I put together a quite general lecture from our perspective on game development, what you need to succeed and so on, and expected to speak to a rather small crowd.

But when my lecture started there were some 300 listeners in the audience, and more kept piling on. I asked quite early on how many of them were in game development, and sure enough – there were less than ten hands in the air. What were all these other people doing there? It wasn’t until afterwards I was told that this was the first time a developer or publisher had ever lectured in Kuwait, so for local gamers – and they have a lot of spare time to play games, believe me – it was quite an extraordinary event.

Speaking to the masses.

Speaking to the masses.

How could I be the first guy ever? Kuwait is a pretty open country, people are friendly and video games have been played for a long time. Why were there almost no developers and no events? The main explanation is likely linked to the censorship of games. Violence is fine, but if a game alludes to sex at all, it is likely to be banned. GTA V was one game that wasn’t allowed in Kuwait. Also, the censorship is apparently quite arbitrary – some games seem to slip through, others can be banned after having been on the market for a while, and so on. Your parents are not likely to encourage you to take up a career as a game dev.

The lecture turned into a very fun two hours. I believe I was meant to speak for an hour, but I got sidetracked in so many ways. I enjoy talking to crowds, it’s a great rush, and this was a particularly cheerful audience, so it just kept going. But the best part came afterwards, when the devs themselves came forward and asked for hands-on advice. Quite literally, the first question was “How do you go about making a game?”.

They were dabbling in graphics and programming and had ideas, many of them wouldn’t admit publicly that they’re making games – and they lacked methods for it. We sat and talked for 2-3 hours over coffee and cigarettes. They had great, quirky ideas and I felt really useful. I showed them the game design doc (a good starting point for any game idea) for our coming game SteamWorld Heist. For dramatic effect I mentioned that no one outside the office had seen this doc up until that point, which galvanized the exhilarated mood.

Some of my new-found friends.

Some of my new-found friends.

Much of the rest of the time I was hustled around Kuwait City by my buddies at Fikra. It was a remarkable experience. It was near impossible for an Icelandic Swede to stay outside, but I didn’t have to – the malls and houses were so huge and air conditioned you could even feel a light breeze. And I was humbled when my preconceptions were put to shame. Everyone was relaxed, women dressed more or less the way they wanted and my papers were in order. I may exaggerate, but I believe many of us Westerners often come equipped with a completely misplaced notion of cultural superiority. I was almost trying to spot signs of disharmony, for example an equivalent to the way we Swedes tend to look down on beggars and homeless people, but I saw only kindness wherever I looked.

I hope to be back for next year’s event, to see how my fellow developers are progressing. Steady drops of water will eventually hollow out the stone beneath it, and I hope Fikra can push their boulder past the pinnacle of their Sisyphus mountain. When it starts rolling by itself, there’s no stopping it.

/Brjann