In-depth | Employment

Developing a gaming future

By - 25.04.2019

Kosovo’s young game designers opening up a new industry.

A board game bar may seem like an unexpected location to meet up with a computer game developer. But Agnesa Belegu does not see it as a contradiction.

“Perhaps the first game that I designed was a board game,” she says.

For the 25-year-old, both forms of games are an opportunity to provide a different world, to be creative and to stimulate the imagination — although computer games, she says, allow all of that to be taken to a new dimension.

“In games you have agency, that’s part of the game,” she says. “In the digital ones you have agency in a world that doesn’t exist — it’s amazing how [designers] put it all together. Basically, when you are developing a game you start to bend the rules of our existence.”

The 25-year-old is arguably the face of the gaming industry in Kosovo, and is certainly one of its early pioneers, pushing the fledgling industry forward.

Agnesa Belegu, one of Kosovo’s first computer game designers, believes that the game development industry has huge potential for the new generation. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Having studied at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA) in the U.S., Belegu returned to Prishtina in early 2017 to set about her dream of initiating a game development industry in Kosovo.

She founded a Gaming Department at ZombieSoup, a Prishtina-based software company dealing in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and as part of a small team of initially just three people, developed two small scale VR games and three mobile games. Simultaneously she helped the team of Kosovo-based professional gamers community XPortal to launch.

“For us it was important to put Kosovo on the map, as much as we were able to,” she says. “Perhaps not too many people saw [our games], but if you search ‘Kosovo games’ or something similar, those games appear.”

Today, she works mainly as a freelancer on game design and “app gamification” — introducing gaming principles into apps to increase engagement — and has contributed to globally popular games such as EA Sports’ basketball game NBA Live 2018.

"Games have given me the tools to express myself and my history, heritage and background — what makes me. That is very powerful."

Agnesa Belegu, game designer

But Belegu’s passion is to help build a truly established game design community in Kosovo. To that end, she has joined the mentoring team of a new program called JuniorGeeks. Run by the Innovation Center of Kosovo (ICK) and launched in February, Junior Geeks is a club for 15 to 18-year-olds to learn more about technology, coding and entrepreneurship.

As a mentor, she will be helping to show children from around Kosovo how to make games and the first steps they can take on their own gaming journeys.

“We are waiting for that creativity [of youth] to burst somewhere,” she says. “For me, games are extraordinary for this. They’ve given me the tools to express myself and my history, heritage and background — what makes me — and to approach other people and evoke a reaction; that is very powerful.”

Interest in this sector has been steadily growing in recent years, with data suggesting that an increasing number of people in Kosovo are looking to turn game design into a business. According to data published on Open Data Kosovo’s Open Businesses platform, just one business was registered in the field of computer game publishing in 2012 whereas there were 63 active businesses last year.

In the same period, the number of employees working in computer game publishing has grown from two to 103. The numbers underly that the vast majority of such businesses are still tiny, just one or two people trying to make a go of things in a sector that is still in its very early days.

“We’re not yet an industry. We’ve just dipped our toe in the water — it’s really cold,” Belegu says. “We’re not accustomed to that climate. But it’s OK, because it’s important that people have approached the water.”

Pursuing a passion

Given that the industry is effectively still getting going, it is perhaps unsurprising that most game designers in Kosovo get into it initially more as an experimental hobby than through structured, academic curricula in universities or government funded programs.

Such is the case for Lekë Sahatqija, an engineering graduate who went on to become an indie game developer and owner of the gaming company Blackout Softworks.

Sahatqija started developing games during his university lectures in France in an attempt to make learning programming fun for him. Later, he and a friend started discussing it while drinking, and they came up with the idea of developing a game together — looking back, he says it was one of the most fun experiences he had at university.

Lekë Sahatqija started developing games for fun in his university lectures — now he’s set about making a career out of his passion. Photo: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0.

When he graduated in 2016, he still saw his future career moving in a different direction, successfully applying for a job developing software for the travel industry in Nice and London. However, months of delay while he waited for a visa meant he lost the opportunity and had to start thinking about what else he could do.

“I was left at home for seven to eight months, because they kept delaying my visa fortnight after fortnight, and meanwhile I started to develop games,” he says. “We are not limited in this sense. You don’t need a visa to publish your software somewhere in the world.”

He made the decision to continue to establish his own business, thinking to himself, “I mean, why not do this thing with games?”

To begin with, Sahatqija says that most people didn’t take him seriously, but over time he has noticed that this perception has begun to change.

“When I started to work with this as a hobby, I would tell people and they’d say, ‘What are you doing? You have a master’s degree in engineering — why are you working with games? Go find a real job!’” he says. “Now, when I tell people about it, they’re fascinated. They are hearing about it. They see it as a career.”

“Even compared to last year, when the general response was, ‘Oh how nice,’ this year it’s, ‘Oh I’m doing it too.’"

Lekë Sahatqija, game designer

And it seems to be infectious, with Sahatqija saying that more and more people seem to be getting into game design.

“Even compared to last year, when the general response was, ‘Oh how nice,’ this year it’s, ‘Oh I’m doing it too’ in many cases,” he says. “This makes me happy.”

Belegu faced a similar reaction to begin with, added to by commentaries of how people thought this was something for boys. But she has also perceived a change in reaction over time.

“As soon as you mention games, people don’t take you seriously; that is our mentality,” she says. “Now game developing, as it has evolved, is a different concept. You notice that people have started to ask questions about it: ‘Wait a second; what is this gaming industry?’ A while back [the reaction] was: ‘Games are for children.’”

She also says that in recent times Kosovo’s institutions have shown some initial curiosity — although little more than that.

“We have seen interest,” she says. “The Ministry of [Education, Science and] Technology came to visit us, to see what we’re doing. They were impressed, but there was no initiative on their part.”

Rooting the industry

Despite a general lack of institutional support at present, both Belegu and Sahatqija are convinced that the industry has a lot of potential, particularly when the majority of the society in Kosovo are young people; according to Kosovo Agency of Statistics projections, 42% of the population is under 25.

At the moment Belegu states that one of the most important issues to deal with is the lack of exposure of the industry. She explains that there is a need to talk about this industry until people understand it and see it as a profession. “I think people are afraid, and they don’t know that there is a future in it — especially in Kosovo,” she says.

But currently, the relatively small community of game developers in Kosovo is scattered. Everyone is doing something different on their own.

Belegu is therefore focused on contributing to the exposure, identification and consequently unification of this community, so that a first generation of Kosovo game developers can be created in the near future.

To this end, alongside ICK, she is preparing for a new training course that is to be launched this year on game development and design. “It’s an entry level training for people who are passionate about games and want to start making them, or already are but don’t quite know where they belong in the sandbox,” she says.

“Things have gotten much easier for passionate developers who want to develop careers in the industry.”

Lekë Sahatqija, game designer

While Belegu’s vision for the industry’s expansion is structured through developing a coherent first generation of game developers, Sahatqija highlights the need for interested people to set up their own game development businesses and show that they can be successful. He points to the example of Croatia — which today boasts some of the leading game development companies worldwide — and the positive impact that this can set for countries such as Kosovo where the industry is still nebulous.

“Things have gotten much easier for passionate developers who want to develop careers in the industry,” he says, adding that technological advances have been so great in recent years that this should no longer be a reason to hold people back.

“Why [do] outsourced [work] and make products for someone else to sell, instead of making them here and selling them all over the world?” he says. “We are not limited in this sense. We don’t need visas to sell to America or Europe. You just put it on [online game platform] Steam and you’re good to go.”

However, he says that people have to be realistic about the initial scale of their endeavors when first starting off.

According to Sahatqija, to be stable and sustainable in the Kosovo market, game developers need to target the mobile phone gaming market, which requires less budget, dedication, time and energy, and therefore the risk is lower. This way, he says, those starting out can aim to create capital until they secure some sort of financial sustainability to move on to developing computer games.

Belegu agrees that people shouldn’t get into the gaming industry thinking that it’s a way of making a quick buck.

“People must be educated to see games as the proper means that they are,” she says. “Firstly, they are not a means for financial profit, and secondly, they can be, but they are not a credit card; you can’t input a game and take money out of it.”

Identity and agency

Much has been made globally about the role of computer games on a societal level, particularly when it comes to violence. Prominent psychologists have long claimed that there is a strong correlation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior.

There is, however, also a developing school of thought that this reaction is simply one of the latest in a long line of “moral panics,” that have variously included the proliferation of comics, TV and pop music.

Belegu prefers to focus on the flipside of the coin: the positive impacts that games and the gaming industry can have — whether on players or on the game designers themselves.

“We are not yet thinking within this [wider] context, because we are still in the phase of exploration,” she says of the game industry in Kosovo.

“The more access to games is increased, the bigger the percentage of marginalized people who play the games, and they also demand to be represented."

Agnesa Belegu, game designer

She emphasizes that those who are passionate about the industry should first start by designing their own idea of a game and learning the tools, but she believes that over time developers will naturally start to think more about the wider context in which they’re making games and will start pushing forward progressive ideas through their games.

“Indie game developers and established companies have started to explore these things,” she says. “The pressure has increased, and so has access to games, consequently they’ve become current issues.”

Ultimately, she believes that with a greater diversity of those involved in the gaming industry, an evolution in the issues tackled in games will naturally follow.

“The more access to games is increased, the bigger the percentage of marginalized people who play the games, and they also demand to be represented, they also want a piece of their identity in the game,” she says.

In many ways, this is reflected in Belegu’s own game industry journey, since designing games has been for her a form of expression that is often inspired by her own personal experiences and the topics that drive her. “For me,” she says, “[games] are not an escape from reality, rather they are an augmentation of reality.”  

For example, her Master’s thesis, “Child No More,” was an adventure game inspired by her experiences during the war in Kosovo. The game, which has not been released to the public, elaborates the “innocent bystander” concept — coming from the perspective of a non-hero and exploring what war can do to a child.

In “Child No More,” the gamer plays in the shoes of the animal companions of a child in a war setting and has to decide between different choices in order to complete the mission and survive. These choices, such as the simple reaction of growling at a threat or distracting the child in a situation where it’s crucial to keep quiet and not be seen, determine how the character of the child evolves. Ultimately different approaches impact the extent to which the innocence and naivety of the child is maintained.

Sahatqija also believes that game development can be linked to broader issues of identity, and suggests that Kosovar developers should produce games that have their own identity.

He points to the example of Polish game developers who managed to achieve worldwide success with 33 million copies sold of the series of games called “The Witcher,” which are based on traditional bedtime story books in Poland; for Sahatqija, there is no reason to believe that Kosovo developers cannot achieve the same result, they simply need to work hard toward it.

Belegu agrees that unique games that are related to the roots of Kosovar society would be popular in the Kosovo market on one hand, and on the other could promote and share Kosovo’s culture, heritage, identity and social context to a wider foreign market.

This, she believes, could not only give Kosovar gamemakers agency, but the development of different themes through games could start to bring people closer together, and foster better empathy and understanding of people in different situations to their own.

She gives an example of how games could help Kosovars to share with others the isolation of Kosovo’s young people from the rest of Europe given that it is the only country in the region in which visas are still required in order to visit the border-free Schengen Zone.

“Imagine what such a thing could do for a Kosovar who has been raised in isolation, if it [helped others] to feel what it’s like to be raised in isolation,” she says.

Given that these are still early days for Kosovo’s game designers, many of these considerations are for the future. But there are early signs that a growing game design industry could help a new generation to break free from the constraints that may attempt to hold them back. In Belegu’s words, to “bend the rules of our existence.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.