In-depth | Croatia

Game On

By - 12.02.2019

Croatia’s developers driving region’s gaming industry forward.

In a time of mass emigration, abandoned fields, and factory facilities that appear ghost-like following the war and subsequent privatization efforts, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that Croatia has a functional economic branch beyond tourism. However, relatively new players have been staunchly opening up new avenues in the Croatian economy, inspiring hope that things could become a lot better.

IT and gaming startups, such as the Vodnjan-based Infobip and Zagreb-based Microblink, have become genuine global giants in their fields, while the Rimac company from Sveta Nedelja is often referred to by world media as the leader of the automotive future.

Beyond technology, the creative industry is developing as well; directors from younger generations, such as Dalibor Matanić and Hana Jušić, are bringing home awards from reputable film festivals, while young filmworkers mature within large international projects such as Game of Thrones or Star Wars, the producers of which are increasingly choosing Croatia as an ideal location for shooting due to tax incentives.

Legal ground for new industry development

One of the key factors in supporting new audiovisual authors, but also in marketing Croatia as a lucrative filming destination, has been the government-backed Croatian Audio and Visual Center (HAVC), the central place for financing movies and related activities in the country. This year, for the very first time, HAVC will invest in the gaming industry, a propulsive creative branch that has been increasingly supported by the Croatian Chamber of Commerce in recent years.

The move comes following recent amendments to the Law on Audio and Visual Activity, which now also includes the gaming industry within its text.

MEDIA desk, a subprogram of the EU’s Creative Europe fund, has provided funds for game developers in Europe to co-finance their projects since 2014, although the Croatian branch has been better known for financing movies.

However, the head of MEDIA desk in Croatia, Martina Petrović, points out that the gaming industry is one of the fastest growing segments of the country’s creative industries.

Martina Petrović, head of MEDIA desk in Croatia, believes that the quality of video games in Croatia isn’t questionable. Photo: Private archive.

“The quality of games created in Croatia is not questionable, since Croatian gaming companies simultaneously compete for the attention of the audience in the world market, the growth of which is followed at the same pace in terms of quality level, constant development of existing technology, as well as the continuous introduction of new solutions,” Petrović says.

Recognizing the importance of cooperation between these two creative sectors, as early as 2015, Petrović organized a get-together for game developers and filmmakers in Zagreb. This event inspired the legislative change that enabled the Croatian state to financially support game development through HAVC, although it is still unclear how much will be allocated from the domestic budget.

MEDIA desk, meanwhile, has a budget of 3.75 million euros at its disposal.

Petrović, whose role is largely around networking and providing financial advice to those in the creative industries, explains that possible subsidies could amount to between 10,000 and 150,000 euros, and can cover up to 50 percent of total costs. Some conditions include that the costs must relate to narrative video game development and the game must be intended for commercial use, but funding can be given regardless of the playing platform or expected manner of distribution.

Explaining the road to success for the development of a game, Petrović says that a story needs to permeate the entire video game, and must not only serve as its introduction or conclusion.

Professional gamers from the region may soon become real eSport stars. Photo: Courtesy of Infogamer.

“I honestly hope that we can soon commend the first Croatian video game co-financed by MEDIA,” she says.

The Croatian gaming miracle

Those familiar with the industry suggest that at this moment, there is no more sensible investment than the one meant for the gaming industry, because 2018 was a year of tremendous success for Croatian developers. The most famous domestic studio, Croteam — best known globally for its Serious Sam series — celebrated its 25th anniversary, and also helped to develop the PC game S.C.U.M., an authentic Croatian gaming miracle that is well known even outside of gamer circles.

Just a few hours after S.C.U.M. — which was developed by Gampires — became available for the relatively affordable price of less than 18 euros, it became the most viewed game globally on the Twitch streaming service; in doing so, it surpassed Fortnite, the biggest and most popular game in the world that had more than 200 million users last year alone.

The Zagreb-based S.C.U.M. authors sold 650,000 copies in five days, earning around 9.5 million euros. Only a few days later, they surpassed a million sold copies, and that number has only increased in 2019.

Upon publication, S.C.U.M. became the most viewed game on the Twitch streaming service, and a total hit in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Gamepires.

The recently held Reboot Infogamer fair in Zagreb attracted more than 80,000 visitors in a 20,000 square meter space, with the central pavilion reserved for Croatian game developers. S.C.U.M. obtained an honorary position, with a space decorated in the style of the prison that the characters are escaping from in the game.

Walking through the pavillon that was packed with mainly young people, it was difficult to differentiate the fans from the authors of some of the most popular games in the world.

As was the case with Serious Sam, S.C.U.M. also came to life in an apartment in Zagreb conquering the world by surprise. “I recently entered Gamepires from a gaming-dedicated magazine,” Tena Žigmundovac, their PR manager said, while testing another game. “Where the original team is concerned, they were taken aback by all this. They had a phase of a frenzied search for a bigger business space, employing people… for the first few weeks I was working from home, because we simply didn’t have anywhere to sit.”

Žigmundovac was one of numerous Croatian gamer women tearing apart prejudices about games as entertainment for men, self-confidently recommending the best weapons and strategies to visitors trying out the game, and sharing their amusement at the fact that in S.C.U.M. one may find one of Croatia’s favorite drinks — Pelinkovac.

“We also support one small domestic craft brewery by adding their products to the game,” she said, noting that video games have opened up a new kind of “product placement,” which had largely been reserved for movies and TV shows. “In the future, we see this as a wonderful platform for promoting Croatian products throughout the world, to mutual benefit.”

An ideal career

With the growth of the gaming business in Croatia, the need for a workforce is also growing as the industry opens doors for people skilled in jobs that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. The Zagreb-based private higher education institution Algebra recently launched its two-year MA study program for game development.

The first to make a profit in this segment of education was Machina, another Zagreb-based game development academy, established in 2013.

Lovro Nola is one of the actuators of Machina, a game development academy that has been operating in Zagreb since 2013. Photo courtesy of Machina.

“Machina was created by my colleague Nikola Jokić and myself, with the initial idea to design video games for clients,” says founder Lovro Nola. “Unfortunately, we soon realized that the main obstacle in this process would be the lack of professional staff, which we rely on for the development of program codes, graphics, music, and all the other things necessary to create a game.”

This problem was also recognized by colleagues from other companies. “As soon as we became aware of this, all the other things were arranged quite naturally,” he says. “I have always loved to help out, to mentor and educate people, and when I managed to link that love [with] video games, I created my ideal career.”

During five business years, Machina has educated some 500 people, particularly experts in the programming language C++ and Unity programmers, as well as artists responsible for drawing and 3D modelling. They also offer educational opportunities for other jobs in the video game industry, such as audio design, script writing, and game design.

Encouraged and motivated by the wave of success, they also started the first eSport academy, dedicated to educating professional players, although it has been slower to take off than they had hoped. “Despite our best intentions and preparations, the response to this service on the market wasn’t what we had expected,” Nola says.

The main problem, he says, stems from the fact that eSport is still perceived in the region as a hobby, and not a job.

“When we add to this a larger amount of hours needed to train a person for the career of an eSport player, we reach a simple conclusion that most people interested still see no possibility of developing their own careers,” he says. “The situation will improve when professional teams are established, when it is promoted in the media, and when parents understand that being an eSport player is not a crazy dream of a child, but a genuine career.”

eSport players are less known in the region but are becoming increasingly respected worldwide. Photo courtesy of Infogamer.

It may sound like a far-fetched dream, but judging by the large attendance at the finale of the A1 Adria League held at InfoGamer, where hordes of spectators loudly cheer for competitors on computers while their clashes receive comments on a live broadcast, it seems that professional players from the region might soon reach the status of world eSport stars.

In terms of profit and popularity, globally, eSport players are getting close to traditional sporting heros. This is recognized also by organizers of traditional sports competitions. Recently an eSport driver competed against a former Formula 1 driver in a real-life racing arena — and won!

The global map of the gaming industry

State universities have also recognized great potential in the gaming industry.

Dean Franka Perković from the Zagreb-based Academy of Drama Arts told K2.0 that the institution has applied to the European Social Fund for more than 500,000 euros, with the aim of establishing a new two-year MA program in game development. The application for the new interdisciplinary study program has been made jointly with the Faculty of Architecture, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Faculty of Electronics and Computing, and the Faculty for Organization and IT.

These institutions have already worked together on organizing workshops for game designers, working alongside the Cluster of Croatian Video Game Developers (CGDA), Machina and the Sisak-Moslavina developmental agency.

Professor Davor Švaić from the Editing Department within the Academy of Drama Arts, who is set to be the main development initiator for the intended new study program, says that the development of one of the projects initiated in these workshops continued after the workshop itself. “With mentorship from colleagues at the Caiteia Games company, students presented this project during the annual InfoGamer event,” he says.

Švaić believes that if everything goes according to plan with the funding application for the new study program, they will be looking to enroll the first students in two or three years. “Until then, we would initiate programs for partial qualification, or lifelong learning programs,” he says.

Reboot InfoGamer, held in Zagreb, attracted 80,000 visitors to a 20,000 square-meter space in 2018. Photo courtesy of Infogamer.

There is general agreement that the Croatian game industry has grown enormously in the past few years. In 2017 alone, the 22 gaming industry businesses registered with the Croatian Chamber of Commerce earned an income of 153 million kuna (20.6 million euros), which amounts to 50 percent more than in 2016, and it is likely that when data is available for 2018 it will show that significantly more again was earned last year.

A booklet used by CGDA in 2016 to present the Croatian game industry quickly ran out at fairs held in places from Seattle and Shanghai; soon a refreshed, significantly expanded version, will be published, complete with some 30 companies and small businesses that are working on games in Croatia.

Machina’s Nola asserts that in terms of numbers alone, the Croatian video game industry is far stronger than the industries in Slovenia, Austria and other nearby countries, although is still behind Serbia and Romania. “However, Croatia is far ahead if we take into consideration the reputation and media exposure of our games,” he says, before emphasizing the significance of the Dubrovnik-based Reboot Development conference, which attracts the biggest names in the industry year on year.

In light of the announcement that Fortnite’s creators have bought Novi Sad-based company 3lateral, it seems that the region could soon become one of the most important places on the world map for the gaming industry.

“Even though there is space for growth, the Croatian video game industry is genuinely known and respected worldwide,” Nola says.K

Feature Image: SCUM