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The Brazilian Indie Game Industry. An Interview with Johnny Andrade

Brazil is the largest country in South America, featuring a diverse culture with metropolitan cities, rural favelas and dense jungles. It is also one of the top ten economies in the world, and it's the biggest tech hub in Central and South America. Yet not much is commonly known about the Game Industry in Brazil. As the Indie movement has become global, many new native Indie companies and projects are starting to appear in South America.

Ubisoft has a studio set up in Brazil (Ubisoft São Paulo), which is best known for work on Michael Jackson: The Experience. The most well known Indie studio in Brazil, Hoplon Infotainment, is best known for its work on the highly anticipated Space MMO, Taikodom, which has been in production for some time. Smaller studios have had success, such as JoyMasher, the studio that produced Odallus: The Dark Call and Oniken, both of which received positive reception.

I shot some questions over to Johnny Andrade, a Brazilian Indie Developer currently working on The GamiGami Invaders, which we will be featured in an upcoming article. We are going to make International Indie Game Developer Interviews a new part of our site, so be on the lookout for new countries that we are going to explore in the future!

How did you get into game development? What projects have you worked in Brazil?

Hi, my name is Johnny Andrade, and I'm a 38-year-old Brazilian game developer. Since the age of 13, I kind of started to mess around with hacking emulator roms, and created the first Brazilian roms translation group, as well as the first emulators mIRC channel in Brazil, back in the good old days. I've translated to Portuguese several NES games by using hexadecimal code. The games range from NES, Master System and Genesis games, and I could feel the first taste of what is somehow messing with games in a different way, away from the point of view of only a player.

The time passed and I left this hobby aside to live a little more normal life and study. At twenty-six, as I found myself to be a creative guy, and because I was studying advertising at the time, I decided to open an advertising agency. A year later, with the profits from my advertising agency, I decided to quit and do what I always wanted, which was to open a game store in my city. The shop lasted about seven years, and taught me a lot about the gaming market. Many people came to my shop just to chat, ask for opinions, etc, which made me very happy. Some of them said that I should be developing games because I understood enough about the subject. So for nearly a decade, I kept managing this games store. The atmosphere was very hostile because I had to deal with competition selling piracy in the same building, not to talk about that in Brazil, during the Playstation 2 generation, we had pirated games being sold freely on every corner.

After that time, unfortunately, the sales of physical stores in Brazil began to decline and began to be much affected by the Mercado Livre, the South American twin of eBay, and it was then that I decided to close the store. I spent some years a little depressed and not knowing what to do. So I decided to start studying game development, as some clients from my store had recommended. I pursued numerous long-term courses in game development, including a degree in Development of Digital Games at a good university, a course in which I was laureate and in thirty tests I've had acquired twenty-seven 10 grades, a 9.5, a 9 and a 7. I also studied some development platforms and made some small games in RPG Maker and Multimedia Fusion. After that, I decided to take on a more serious project that would be called GamiGami Invaders, a recreation of Galaga with many new things, an innovative game made in Flash that is to be released in a few weeks.

I am also working on this port for Unity and already have two other projects that are already being finalized. They are an infinity runner and a game called Cogno. The GamiGami Invaders has received very good reviews from those who I have presented it to, including an excellent review of the GameTraders USA website that made me really motivated.

What is the professional game industry like in Brazil? Are there any major companies or games developed exclusively in Brazil that would not be considered independent?

About this question, I would like to start presenting important data. This year Brazil was in 12th place and with a yield of only $ 1.2 billion. We are far behind countries like France and other small ones. Many factors contribute to this poor performance, such as our low per capita income, absurd rates of import taxes, skyrocketing taxes charged to domestic development companies, very rigid labor laws, etc. Because of this, I consider that the Brazilian industry of games is still insignificant on a global scale, especially when we take into account the number of inhabitants of Brazil vs capital generated, and also the low number of really relevant games developed here for the world.

We have some titles with a certain world prominence, like the recently launched Horizon Chase from Studio Aquiris, the indies Oniken and Odalus, the former Farmville, which was developed by a Brazilian indie studio and sold to the studio Zynga, but the thing stops there, and there may be one or two more examples that I have forgotten to tell. In fact, our national industry has colossal potential for development, but bumps and clashes with the corruption of the government, which imposes high tax rates, one of the largest globally, as well as labor laws that make it difficult to hire professionals, which eventually prevents studios from having many employees to grow the way that the triple A market demands. Plus, all this only serves to keeps away big world companies from coming to open branches here. It is usually quite rare, if not unheard of to see a Brazilian studio get triple A status, precisely because if this happens, it is more advantageous to the studio to be sold to some big company outside Brazil, or to change its operation to any other country that offers a lower tax burden and better conditions to operate. Drawing by me, if I ever grow to this point, I would move to another country without a doubt. Here in Brazil, the government plays against the development of technologies, and wants to profit improperly on small businesses. It is so absurd that I do not know how the worst has not occurred yet.

Here, the Government sometimes claims that it allocates funds for technology fermentation, but in most cases due to operationalization of how these funds are managed, they are illegally diverted to different sectors other than the game development one. I have some examples I could mention, but the text would be too long. They also have a law called the Ruannet Law that supposedly serves to relieve taxes on the production of goods taken as cultural, but to receive these incentives is a marathon so difficult and bureaucratic that it becomes unfeasible. In summary, the Brazilian government has been the worst enemy of technological development, mainly from the game development industry. Speaking a little about the Brazilian development ecosystem, I add that here usually each individual is taking care of his own butt. No one organizes or runs after fighting for a tax break, for example. The industry and so the devs go well unmotivated to change the situation. There are some associations that supposedly would act on this issue in favor of the games industry, but they give the impression that they only exist for suspect reasons, and for their own benefit because they do nothing of real use in fighting high taxes and other issues. As for games being produced here that are not considered independent, it's very rare and this is a very interesting question, because here it is more advantageous that a great game be considered an indie game than it is to be considered a commercial game.

I think it's something like a cheat. I take the example of Horizon Chase, a commercial game made by Aquiris Studio, a company with more than thirty employees, if my memory doesn't fails me. Horizon Chase won the last BIG Festival, which is an indie game awards festival here in Brazil that occurs in São Paulo city. As the game is considered a good commercial title, the studio has a relatively large number of employees and cannot be considered a indie studio anymore, and in addition to having received funding of ten million for the development, the game should not have been competing as an independent game, but for reasons of marketing, Aquiris Studio has been advertising the game in indies awards festivals and oddly enough, the organizers of the BIG awarded 1st place in the competition of this year to them. The game is excellent and I recommend it to everyone, but it could not be considered as an indie game and it ended up hurting the participation of other projects that were truly independent, and this fact has caused some criticism of the event. In short, being indie here is something that does not always reflect the reality of a game or studio, but we are still far from producing AAA's games.

What is it like to be an Indie Developer in Brazil? Are there any prominent Indie Developers in Brazil?

As explained in detail above, it is a very difficult and problematic area. We do it for real passion and I'm sure I can generalize this. I'll stick to my case, today I don't receive nor do I believe that I will ever receive any incentive from the Brazilian government, or even from professional colleagues, to my projects. Everything has been very difficult and I have reached here only with courage and passion. I graduated in Development of Digital Games for passion, because unfortunately my papers and diploma here haven't helped me in anything so far.

I must add that I've already searched for employment in many companies, and they rarely give chances to those who are starting their careers. They seems to only want senior developers with extensive experience and a huge portfolio of titles launched, to pay a salary that rarely matches the status of such a professional when compared to other countries of greater tradition in development. Here, one has to learn the hard way, learning alone. That's how I fell and that's how it is. Although I know that the Brazilian government and their politics are the ones to blame, as it already has been described above. So what is left to a Brazilian indie developer is mostly to continue the struggling, and maybe one day open a studio and complete the cycle and the way to achieve. This is nothing encouraging, nor easy.

As for the prominent developers, yes there is some here. I quote the studios Aquiris, Manifesto and Bighut Games as excellent references to global studios, though I do not consider them indies anymore. But in regards to the indies studios I could mention, the Joymasher studios, excellent developer of Oniken and Odalus, as well as the MiniBoss studio that developed the game Out There Somewhere, and Duaik Entertainment who developed the also excellent Aritana, and the Harpy's Feather. These three last studios are excellent examples of indie success that have emerged around the world, and got good placements in the Steam store. I am also a fan of these studios, both the commercial and the indies, and I strongly recommend their games.

In the United States video game are starting to become more acceptable as a form of art, while in Asia they are often revered. What is the cultural perception of games in Brazil?

Here in Brazil the government still treats the industry as a niche product sector. As mentioned earlier, there is a law that reduces taxes from products and services related to culture, but to my knowledge, only one studio has been eligible up till now to gain this benefit, which was the Duaik Entertainment for their game Aritana. In this case, the game itself has a strong cultural appeal and references entirely the Brazilian indigenous culture. I believe this has been a decisive factor for the game, and is why the game was considered cultural content by the judging committee of the Brazilian Government. Aside from this, there are some private initiatives, more specifically a company that decided to take the pain for themselves and travels the country to spread the games as culture.

The company travels the country leading the nationally famous Múseu do Video Game or Video Game Museum in English, to the shopping malls and exhibition parks in several states of Brazil. I'm a friend and a admirer of the curator of the Museum of Video Games, Esdras Serrano, who in addition to retro games collector, is spreading throughout the country the idea that games are indeed culture. My opinion is that yes, games are culture, and maybe the most complete form of it. In a game there is music, art, history and interaction combined. It is a complete interactive art. It is completely incomprehensible that even today there are people who do not consider them as a form of art and expression. It even has been officially confirmed as an art form. If I'm not mistaken, it is considered the 13th art, but here we still have a long way for the games to acquire the respect that other arts already have here in Brazil.

Where do you see the Brazilian Game industry in the next decade?

There are only two ways for us. Stagnate and continue as we are, with serious risks to be reduced and fall further in the world ranking, or we grow. Everything will depend on future government policies. It is something that simply does not depend on the local industry. We have proved that we have chances to grow, but it has not changed efficiently the Government's perspective. If we elect a government that decides to look at this sector with good eyes, and decides to restructure this market and reduce taxes, then we will have a very favorable picture. If this happens, the national market, already mature, will explode.

There could be more work and hirings, as it could pop up a large number of new studios. It would be like a barrel full of gunpowder exploding. We currently have manpower in abundance, but we do not have employment demand. Never in the history of Brazil there were so many universities and graduation options in the Game Development area, which unfortunately has not been valued at all by employers. I also wish a little more awareness on the part of studios to encourage, hire and help in the training of new professionals, an attitude that we rarely see nowadays in Brazil. They say that the demand for professionals is great, but this is mere advertising and a lie because in practice it is completely different and as spoken earlier, the industry here will always give preference to buy gold paying a bargain price for a professional. It is the "Brazilian way" of doing things, and in my opinion, this mentality does not go hand in hand with an optimistic outlook for the sector in the next decade. I particularly wish the best for the national development sector, but would not think twice before accepting a job offer outside of Brazil, because here the chances of the sector take off and becoming globally relevant are minimal. It is unfortunate. Finally, I know that this article can and will displease many Brazilian studio owners, but I could not help but tell the truth, and nothing that was said here for me was made with the intention to harm. I wanted to elucidate the world about the difficulties that the Brazilian games sector suffers. I am not adept at hiding dirt, and I think that if we want to evolve, first we have to realize our errors and humbly seek change. In this respect, we also have a lot to evolve. Good luck to us!

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