Will Games Become Brazil’s Next Big Export?

Brazilian game studios working on major league projects like Horizon Zero Dawn signal a rise of game development in Latin America.

One of the best-selling games this year, Horizon Zero Dawn wowed players with tough battles against giant killer robots. While digital chrome-plated dinosaurs are not a typical Latin American export, these majestic metal monsters were made in Brazil.

“Brazilians are discovering that we can make really high quality games here,” said Thiago de Freitas, CEO and founder of the game development studio Kokku, who was charged with building 3D models of the robotic beasts.

When Horizon Zero Dawn shipped in February, Kokku became the first Brazilian studio that worked on a major current generation video game. They likely won’t be the last. Around the country, others are following in their footsteps.

Thanks to recent incentives by the Brazilian government to promote the exportation of games, the future looks bright for game developers in Brazil.

Played But Not Made

This scenario was almost unthinkable until now. Though Brazilians are passionate about playing video games, notoriously high import tariffs nurtured a culture of knockoffs and counterfeits.

In one famous example, the arcade game company Taito of Brazil opted to make imitations of American pinball tables when faced with outrageous import taxes. Williams Electronics’ fabled Black Knight table became Cavaleiro Negro at the hands of copycats.

These practices set the scene for a place where games were played but not made.

“Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to be a game developer, you had to study and go abroad. There were no companies here,” said Paulo Luis Santos, vice president of Abragames, the Brazilian Game Developers (BGD) association for game studios.

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However, these days game development in Brazil is rising. More than 45 universities offer classes in game development, and the BGD website lists 83 professional game companies creating games in Brazil. Kokku, the country’s largest studio, employs anywhere between 40 and 90 developers depending on current needs.

Incentivizing Game Development

Part of this turnabout happened when the Brazilian government began incentivizing game development. The BGD export program, for instance, pays for Brazilian game creators’ admission into key industry networking events, including the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and Gamescom in Cologne, Germany.

Kokku’s Freitas is a networking pioneer in the export program. Without the funding, his company would have never had the chance to build ferocious robots in Horizon Zero Dawn. After establishing a good rapport with Guerrilla Games, the game’s lead developer studio based in Amsterdam, Kokku was asked to collaborate on the project.

In Freitas’ view, the deal not only helped to establish his company, but planted a seed within the fledgling Brazilian games industry.

“We are learning to become better developers from the biggest companies,” said Freitas. “If someone leaves our company and founds their own, they will take what they learned with them, and know how to make great games.”

Agency of National Cinema (ANCINE), another program opening doors for Brazilian gaming greatness, promotes contests for burgeoning developers. The program selects the most promising games, providing funding in exchange for a potential return on the profits.

Last year, the studio Mad Mimic was awarded funding through a local state agency in São Paulo. Recently released on Steam, they developed No Heroes Here, a four-player battle royale to defend castles by blasting medieval enemies with cannonballs.

Before entering the contest, the freshman studio was somewhat adrift, dithering among several projects without making much progress.

“This was the first time making a game,” said Luis Fernando Tashiro, CEO of Mad Mimic. “We had no deadlines. This process helped us get organized.”

In addition to easing the financial stresses of running a gaming studio, the ANCINE contest compelled Mad Mimic to grow from amateurs into professional developers. The contest required them to create a game design strategy, establish proper deadlines and write a business plan.

Contests like these encourage young talent to reorient themselves toward advancing the Brazilian game industry. Even those who don’t win are driven toward professionalism.

As a result, Brazilian developers are gaining visibility in the international gaming industry. In October, 300,000 Brazilian gaming fans and major game publishers like Sony and Microsoft gathered at the Brasil Game Show in São Paulo, compared to a turnout of 68,000 at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.

“The whole market has their eyes open to Brazil,” said Freitas. “They consider us a very creative people. We have creativity in our blood.”

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