14.10.2013 by Humberto Cervera
Video Games Around the World: Mexico
Video Games Around the World is a forthcoming book published by MIT Press and edited by Dr. Mark Wolf who is a is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.
“Video Games Around the World” will be the most global look at video games yet to appear, with 38 essays, on Africa, Arab World, Argentina, Austria, Australia,
Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand,
Peru, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scandinavia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay, and Venezuela.”
Video Games Around the World will be published somewhere around 2014.
I was tasked with the writing of the essay about Mexico and then invited Jacinto Quesnel to be a co-author, we are publishing our essay about Mexico here with authorization from the editor.
Humberto Cervera & Jacinto Quesnel
In this essay we will explore the history of video games in México. Due to the lack of previously published information, this will be an exploration of the word-of-mouth side of this story. We will explore the retail industry, game journalism, and game development; there is little to none written record of México’s video game history, so this essay is based on interviews with a few key players in the industry. There is still a lot missing in this tale; sadly some other key players couldn’t be found or did not concede to be interviewed by the authors. This small piece is only comparable to the first relaxed steps at the bottom of a mountain before getting to the climbing. The authors hope you find this piece as enjoyable as it is informative. The interviewees are:
Gonzalo “Phill” Sanchez is aGame Development teacher at the SAE Institute (School of Audio Engineering), UVM (Universidad del Valle de México), and other universities. He is also Editor-in-Chief at Motor de Juegos (MDJ) (www.motordejuegos.net). He has almost 10 years of experience in the video game market and at Motor de Juegos he has created a community of devoted Mexican developers. He is well-known for the support he offers to aspiring developers and is the Mexican authority on the state of the video game industry. MDJ publishes a yearly report on the state of the industry.
Adrian “Carqui” Carbajal isEditor-in-Chief at OXM (Official Xbox Magazine México). Carqui has been a journalist in the industry since its birth. He has worked at the major local publications, at Club Nintendo, and was the Editor-in-Chief at Atomix and later for EGM en Español (Electronic Gaming Monthly). He has seen firsthand how the industry started and how it evolved to what it is now.
Jose M. Saucedo has almost 20 years of experience as a Mexican video game journalist; he was the founder of Contacto PSX (the first indie game magazine in México), after he became the Editor-in-Chief of Atomix magazine He is now working at Team One, as a sales representative for several publishers for the Latam region, and he is responsible for community management and support in marketing campaigns.
Gabriel Palacios has participated in nation-wide education projects such with the SEP (Secretaría de Educación Pública), CONACyT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología), amongst many others government institutions. He creates educational content, educational video games, and transmedia gamification strategies for education. He is also a digital artist whose work has been in exhibits in several art galleries in the United States and MK&Gon Germany.
Ivan Chapela has much experience in the Mexican video game industry. He established Radical Studios in the late 1990s, one of the pioneer developing studios in Latam; in 2005 he directed Atomix magazine, the biggest video game publication in Latam at the time; and in 2007 he founded 3nMedia, a consulting agency for the Latam video game industry. He has positioned himself as a key player with in the industry and as a leader in PR and marketing, experience which gives him unique and broad insight into game development and the retail industry.
Video games are deeply rooted in Mexican pop culture. As the southern neighbor of the United States, it is easy to understand why our consumption habits have grown in parallel with our northern neighbor. Only a handful of people had heard about video games at the beginning, and even with piracy and contraband, there is much evidence of the Mexican upper class importing consoles, like the Magnavox Odyssey or the Atari, for personal use as soon as they were released in the U.S. Almost any gamer over 35 years old will remember that period. Up to this day, you can still find such consoles in thrift shops all over the country. Due to a lack of a formal retail industry in México at the time, gamers in the country could only buy their original copies of the games they wanted on grey markets that sold smuggled goods. Gamers had the money to buy their games, but a lack of availability forced the consumers to acquire them through said markets.
One cannot speak of video game consumption in México without addressing our northern border; at least half of the video game consumption in this country was illegal back then (there is no data about this and we can only estimate through observation). Whether it was smuggled imports (called “Fayuca” in the local slang) or piracy, a lot of gamers got hooked into video game culture through the informal market. Without recorded data, game consumption in our country is hard to put in numbers, but according to El Universal,[i] a nationwide newspaper, the growth of video game consumption is three times larger than the growth of any other industry.
The Black Market (piracy) is different from the Grey Market (smuggled imports) and the formal (legitimate) market. And we can only infer that the growth in the formal market might not have been as much as it is now without these markets, since there is a migration of a significant percentage of consumers from Black or Grey Market games to the consumption of legitimate copies. This has been fueled by tighter control over game piracy, availability, and the status quo derived from the ownership of Formal Market games, as opposed to the social stigma created by owning pirated, Black Market illegal copies of the games. Again, there is no official data, and probably our next step should be to start quantifying it.
To make a long story short, Mexicans, given a low enough price, thrive on playing video games and the widespread success of arcade machines on the market is proof of this. It was on arcade machines, called “Chispas” (Sparks), “Maquinitas” (Little machines), or “Electros” in the local slang, that a huge number of young consumers had regular access to video games. Beginning with arcades, video games started to gain ground as the preferred form of entertainment for some people, but video games still had a long way to go to achieve critical mass. Some popular arcade games at the time were Pac-Man (1980), Centipede (1981), and Frogger (1981); popular games in México were the same as in any other country, just not as popular in the mainstream.
People thought of video games as something that was meant for children, at least until the 1990s, when avid gamers started to include adults in the demography. When arcade games started their decline in North America, arcades were still big in México, but as soon as consoles became more accessible in the mid-1990s, arcades in México followed the same fate as in the U.S.
Countrymen in Michoacan, a state famous for their continuous illegal migrations to the United States, still tell an unverifiable story about them being the first to —illegally— import PONG (1972) and hundreds of arcade machines back in the 1970s, which some gamers used for gambling, a common sight in the many years to come, no matter the game as long as it was competitive. To this day, one can see dozens of arcade machines among small populations, places where there is still no Internet or cell phone communication, and yet, video games prevail. Maybe the reason for this is that many gamers in said areas still don’t own a console. Many corner shops in poor city neighborhoods and rural areas still operate arcade machines. A common sight is either an old 2-D fighting arcade game or a newer one that holds a plethora of games running over an internal emulator (called “maquinitas multijuegos”). Over the last couple of years, some of these machines have been replaced by “Perla de Oriente” (Orient Pearl) soccer-themed illegal gambling arcades, since they obviously provide a better business.
Chuck E. Cheese restaurants never came to México, but its main competitor, Show Biz Pizza Place, opened up a Mexican branch, rebranded as “Show Biz Pizza Fiesta”. It was located in a high-income urban area of México City, but many people remember their first experience with video games happening at “Show Biz Pizza Fiesta”, despite its location in a high-income area, since their price range was still accessible. Two other arcade parlor chains (their main difference being that neither of them was a restaurant), “Coney Island” and “Recorcholis” followed. Coney Island closed on the early 2000s, but Recorcholis, a Mexican-owned company, still operates (as of 2013) and has extended its operations to Spain.
Parallel to the growth of the arcade parlors, one could find arcade machines at the entrance of corner shops and drugstores. Of course, most of these cabinets were illegal and unlike those in the retail industry; there was never a trade association regulating the arcade business. It was because of these arcade cabinets that people could start experiencing games like Centipede (1981) or Space Invaders (1978) right in the corner of their neighborhood; little by little, video games were taking over other forms of entertainment.
The arcade business in México was a vibrant market, even during the late 1990s, near Metro Insurgentes in México City, as many as ten arcade parlors were next to each other, constantly competing for the customers, trying to have the newer games and some even paid the best players to hang out at their places to attract hardcore fans of certain games. And even with piracy, there was formal importation of Neo•Geo MVS boards, and official launch events were held on México City each time a new King of Fighters game was released (with very close to launch dates to those in Japan). As noted before, El Universal, reporting on video game consumption, noted that gamers in rural areas were excluded. With 52.26 million people who play video games in the country, versus 40.6 million with Internet access, we are a gaming country; there is no doubt about that.[ii]
The only companies that had official representation for their arcade business in México were Nintendo, SEGA, Capcom, and SNK, which was because the Japanese arcade games of these companies were more popular than Atari consoles, and this could be the reason why Atari never opened up an office in the country, even though it was geographically much closer, in California. A troubled market forced Nintendo and SEGA to retire at the end of the 1980s, probably because of the North American video game Industry Crash of 1983, and this fate would soon be followed by Capcom and SNK in the late 1990s; they managed to survive longer because of the popularity of their fighting games, and they closed their offices in the 1990s when home consoles became more popular than arcade games in the Mexican market.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the main player base for video games in México existed within the arcade space; there were many more video game players in the arcades than players that owned or had access to a home video game console (sadly, there are no numbers to back this up, but this information comes to us from our interviewees’ experience and what we can infer from our own experience). This was mostly because of the high price of home console systems and because of the fact that since the effort to bring the Atari 2600 back in the 1980s, there hasn´t been another large-scale effort to legally bring consoles to Mexican consumers. Most, if not all, of the consoles in México were imported by individuals who had the financial capacity to travel to the U.S. and buy one for their relatives.
In the Mexican arcade scene, SNK’s The King of Fighters (1994) has remained present since its release. One could say that in México the national sport is Lucha Libre, and if one were to define a video game genre as the national video game genre of México, one could easily say that fighting games are this genre, for in México they have a whole subculture of their own; to this day one can always find a couple of Mexicans in the final round of international tournaments like Evolution Championship (EVO); some of the Mexican Champions are Cesar Garcia (also known as TA Frutsy, 2012, 5th place on Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 (2011), Antonio Medrano (a.k.a. Kusanagi, 2010, 3rd place on Melty Blood: Actress Again (2008)), and Armando Velazquez (a.k.a. IGL Bala, 2012, 2nd place on The King of Fighters XIII (2010)). The King of Fighters is currently played mostly on illegal emulation-enabled arcade machines. KoF remains one of the most-played video game series in the country.
As of 2013, one can still find arcade cabinets in groceries stores and drugstores, but the only chain of arcade parlors that survives is Recorcholis. There have been continuous efforts to bring back the arcade parlor, with franchises like Dave & Busters or Gameworks, but they keep failing; these franchises always open their arcade parlors in high-income zones of the country, so one could infer that the reason for this constant failure is the fact that gamers in theses areas have access to consoles; arcades were successful in México because the people without access to consoles sustained the parlors.
The Retail Titans
As early as 1973, a local engineer, Morris Behar, produced his own PONG-like console. The NESA-Pong (NESA standing for “Novedades Electronicas, S.A.”) was marketed and distributed all across Latin America, and achieved considerable success in the market. Even though there are no sales figures available, the NESA-Pong console was still a fair success for it had a great impact within Mexican video game pop culture and even the original PONG (1972) was refered to as the “NESA-Pong” by Mexicans. The NESA-Pong helped create awareness of the existence of video games, but it was still a luxury item that many lower-class Mexican families could not afford. The lack of TV or radio publicity proved crucial in NESA-Pong’s failure to appeal to a mass market, and not just a niche.
It was not until 1980 that the first shipment of the Atari VCS 2600 came to México, as the first console to legally appear in the Mexican market. Curiously, it wasn’t an electronics company that chose to bring the Atari to México, it was a meat packaging company (no one seems to remember the name of said company). They held the right permits to import the Atari, and they decided to try bringing this funny new electronic entertainment product to México. From a business perspective it made sense; the company was exporting meat to the U.S., but the trucks were empty when returning to México. In order to maximize the use of the trucks and make more money, importing something was the logical thing to do. Liverpool, a department store targeting high-income individuals, got the exclusive rights to sell the Atari 2600, and importation of the consoles began.
The Atari 2600 did not enjoy the levels of success it had in the U.S., but in the 1980s, Atari opened up an office in the country with Mexican engineers dedicated exclusively to the production of Atari video games; like most people working in the game industry at that time, these engineers had little to no interest on video games. It was because of Liverpool’s high-income target market that the Atari did not achieve a deeper penetration within the Mexican market, but as it happens with any form of media in México, video games would soon be pirated and illegally imported. Due to the extended piracy and contraband in México, more people had the chance to get their hands on this form of entertainment.
During the early 1980s, there was a void within the console market, a void that would not be filled until the Nintendo Entertainment System appeared in 1985. A lot of illegal importation of Famicom (the Japanese name for the console) from Asia, happened during the 1980s. The console was sold alongside an electrical adapter for the NES and multi-game cartridges. You could buy the Japanese console on grey markets like Pericoapa or Lomas Verdes around the country, and this smuggled console was cheaper than the legal one, for it avoided import taxes. The retail price for the NES in México was around USD $250, while the pirated version prize was USD $199.
During the late 1980s, Mexican bazaars, like the nationally-known “Bazar de Lomas Verdes” and “Bazar de Pericoapa”, were the focus of attention for gamers hungry for new releases. Smuggled imports were desired and even though we have no sales figures, many remember that copies of new releases sold out after only a few days.
Some years later, Teruhide Kikuchi opened up the first “Mundo Nintendo” store in México, the first legal retail shop dedicated exclusively to selling video games. Teruhide Kikuchi worked at C. Itoh, the official distributor for Nintendo Products in México. He was tasked by his company to open official Nintendo retail stores and so “Mundo Nintendo” opened up in four locations within México City. Seito opened up a Mexican subsidiary in México under the name of Gamela, which would operate successfully until 2002. There was no formal structure for the legal taxing and distribution of video games in México; Kikuchi was the one who did all the necessary lobbying to create the legal structure for the sale of commercial video games in the country, and this would make Bautista’s job much easier when he decided to become legitimate and expand his business.
Abraham Bautista, a businessman, noticed that there was a high demand for video games and that no one was supplying that market, so in 1987 he started bringing video games as personal imports from the U.S. to sell on his bazaar stand in Pericoapa, so he was able to sell original copies of games at a more accessible price, eventually absorbing all of his local competition. He would start business relations with the first-party distributors; and eventually, every non-Nintendo game in the country was brought in by Bautista’s operations. Bautista would soon be importing millions of copies.
In 1995 Bautista founded Game Express, a store selling legally-imported original games. With the foundation of Game Express, Bautista successfully moved the core of his business from personal imports into successful full retail stores that are now present in most malls across the country.
Kikuchi and Bautista both looked at video games as a business opportunity and their goal was to make video games a viable business. These two men would come to define the retail industry as we know it today.
Media and Marketing
Meanwhile, Kikuchi, in an effort to get the industry to be taken more seriously, commissioned the creation of a Nintendo-dedicated magazine, Club Nintendo, in 1991. His idea was that a monthly publication would give an image of formality and seriousness, while also functioning as a marketing device for Nintendo products; better yet, the magazine would be turning a profit. The founders of the magazine were Gustavo “Gus” Rodriguez and José “Pepe” Sierr, and for years to come Rodriguez would be the public face for Nintendo in México (and some Latin American markets that get Mexican TV). The market penetration of Nintendo was unlike what anyone had ever seen in the video game industry in México, and even today, one can hear casual gamers refer to any game console as “El Nintendo”, the generic name for any console.
Club Nintendo had humble beginnings, but in time the magazine changed its style and format. It was top-notch and marks the turning point for the video game retail industry in México. Club Nintendo created a sense of community between gamers in México, one that you couldn’t find before. This was the only magazine available for the industry and gamers. Even if you couldn’t afford a console, once a month you had access to insider information about video games. Many people who didn’t even own a game console would buy a copy of the magazine and of course it was because of this magazine that Nintendo became the leader in the Mexican market, a position it would hold until Sony’s release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000.
The “Family” consoles (local slang for the illegal Famicom consoles) was a big issue for Nintendo at the time, but it was because of this pirated console that people had such a deep brand loyalty towards Nintendo. This situation would repeat for the PSX, the PS2 and the Xbox, since pirated CD-ROMs flooded the grey market (smuggled imports). Many would buy a console while owning only a pair of legal games and dozens of illegal ones, and this gave a very strong user base and market for the PS3 and the Xbox 360 when they were released.
In México, piracy often works as a marketing device for companies, even though it does not help the market grow. It makes certain products accessible to a segment of the public that otherwise would never buy them. Even if the people acquire the products illegally, they will still develop a deep sense of brand loyalty and if possible, in the future, they will strive to become legitimate customers for their brand.
By the mid-1990s video games were already a legitimate hobby and the Mexican consumer was starting to look for more mature experiences. The problem was that Nintendo didn’t grow up with the consumer and their marketing was still aimed at children and teenagers. Club Nintendo, while still a household name for the Mexican gamer, failed to offer what consumers were looking for, information about other consoles apart from Nintendo, and more mature content. Some entrepreneurs saw the opportunity and started publishing their own magazines, with the sole objective of offering better and different content than one could find in Club Nintendo. The magazines that actually achieved this were Atomix in 1997, and Contacto PSX in 1999.
Atomix started as an Internet forum for gamers and became the first serious competitor for Club Nintendo, when it launched as the first multi-console magazine, and it would become the most successful magazine in the Latin American market. Atomix retired from print media in 2009 and continues to operate successfully as an on-line site. Contacto PSX, on the other hand, was a print magazine directed by José Saucedo and specialized in PlayStation content.
There were many other magazines, but none of them experienced the levels of success achieved by Atomix and Contacto PSX; as José Saucedo pointed out, “The main problem of video game journalism is that the journalists are mainly video game fans.They often lack objectivity and professionalism.” Saucedo believes that this is still a problem in the Latin American media, and this opinion is also shared by Adrian Carbajal who told us, “Video game journalism in México is produced by fans, not by professionals.” This is one of the reasons why not a single Latin American magazine has achieved the levels of success of say, IGN or Kotaku. English-speaking gamers would rather go to these international magazines than to read the locally-produced ones, mostly because of the quality and the objectivity of the content. There were other efforts to license some European magazines for the Mexican market; the problem with these magazines was that the information was completely localized for the European market and completely out of date when it arrived in México.
Grupo Televisa, a leading multimedia mass media company, had acquired the rights to distribute a Spanish version of the U.S. magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Carqui was chosen as Editor-in-Chief for this initiative. Most of the content was a translation of their U.S. counterpart, but EGM en Español still had local and original articles, and the magazine was in circulation until January 2009, when the U.S. edition stopped circulation, and in April 2010, when the U.S. edition resumed circulation, the Mexican edition did not.
Grupo Televisa also held the rights for Club Nintendo and would later buy the rights for OXM (Official Xbox Magazine) in the mid 2000s, when the rise of on-line magazines rendered the video game print magazine business unprofitable; the magazines that do continue are part of big publishing companies.
As of 2013, there are many print magazines on the Mexican market, most of them offering single-platform content like OXM has since 2011. The only multi-console magazine left in the market is GameMaster, founded 2010 by Eduardo Aké, Hugo Juárez, and Edgar Alarcón, which also happens to be the only printed magazine that covers national game development.
The second big factor in the consumer maturation process was the PSX. This console offered a more grown-up experience and was more accessible than any Nintendo Console, better yet (for the consumer), the game CD-ROMs were much cheaper and easier to copy illegally than the Nintendo cartridges. One could buy a PSX game for $10 MXN (less than USD $1.00), so if you were a really hardcore gamer, you could buy more than a game a week and your personal finances would not be affected. For hardcore gamers, the main appeal of the Super Nintendo were the JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games), but when the PlayStation obtained the exclusive rights to Final Fantasy VII (1997), the hardcore gamer segment of the market migrated permanently to PlayStation consoles.
Today, a lot of gamers have retired from buying pirated games, as is evident from the sales spike that the retail industry has seen in recent years; there are not only more gamers, as noted earlier, but gamers are changing over from buying pirated copies of games to buying original copies.
Speaking of console games, the most-played game series in the country is the FIFA series. The desire to play it is rooted in Mexican soccer culture and the inner need to see México win the World Cup at least once. Today, there are people who buy the console and only the yearly installments of FIFA games to play on it.
The PlayStation would continue to dominate the Latin American market until the release of the Xbox 360 (2005). One of the decisive factors in this market domination was that when the PlayStation 2 was released, Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) formalized relationships with Mexican distributors and kept a very close relationship with the members of the press. Neither Nintendo nor SEGA had attempted to do so. Following Sony’s example, Microsoft did this from day one for the release of their Xbox console. Of course, it was much easier for them because they were just entering the market, whereas the PlayStation had to deal with hardware modifications of their consoles and the pirated versions of their games in the Mexican market. Microsoft was able to avoid these issues.
The Dormant Giant
Apart from the “NESA-Pong console mentioned earlier, there was little video game development on the country during the 1980s and 1990s; as far as we know, not even hobbyists programming home computers. But a few museum edugames were being made at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) for their museum Universum, open since 1992, and as mentioned earlier, there were Mexican engineers working for Atari, but somehow the industry never managed to grow and mature as it did in the U.S. It was up to the fans to make video game development industry a reality, and to this day we continue to struggle to make this happen. The people working in the industry in those days were just businessmen or engineers that saw in video games an opportunity to make a prosperous business, and only through the importation of foreign systems and games, rather than indigenous productions.
But those children who stayed up late playing video games or that went every Sunday to Show Biz Pizza Fiesta would soon grow up with a dream: the dream of making video games. As noted by Gonzalo “Phill” Sanchez, when people realized that they could actually produce video games themself was when Club Nintendo’s 44th issue featured a special report focusing on the DigiPen Institute of Techonology, a Canadian school for video game design. This was the first time that Mexican fans noticed that there were schools that could teach them how to make their hobby a reality. Some Mexicans tried to go to DigiPen, but the expensive tuition left many more with only a dream and almost no tangible way of making it happen.
Three companies, Evoga, Aztec Tech Games, and Radical Studios, were the pioneers of Mexican game development. As Chapela points out, “When the pioneer developers started in the early 2000s, the local industry was not established yet (which is to say, no retail video games, formal distribution channels, or local publisher representation). There was no support from the government. The worldwide industry didn’t look at Latin America, and academically, the closest thing to video games was computer science. Therefore, most of the funding had to come from personal relations and the workforce had to learn through experience, which in most cases was not enough.” Each company had a very different business model; Evoga (2000-2004) did art outsourcing work for SNK. Considering the very high status that The King of Fighters had in Mexican culture, this gave the studio great sense of pride.
Initiating what is still struggling to become a formal industry, Aztec Tech Games (established in 1998) started the development of War Masters and Hellcopters, although neither game was ever released. This was due to inexperience and production problems within their development; nevertheless, the efforts that Aztec Tech started would soon help the industry in another way, with the foundation of the Aztec Tech Institute, which was founded with one core principle; to be a learning center for video game industry professionals. The Aztec Tech Institute was the only school in México where one could go if one was interested in the creation of video games and didn’t have the resources to go to DigiPen. The school operated for five years (2003-2008), but the directors of the project wanted it to be a full-fledged university with international recognition. They didn’t have the means to make this happen, and soon enough, the project was out of control and spiraling down. Of course, it wasn’t a complete failure; some people managed to take courses at the institute and those people would become the start of the third generation of developers within the industry. Also, Aztec Tech proved to the Mexican video game fan that making video games at a professional level was an actual possibility.
Last, but not least, in this group of pioneers is Radical Studios (2000-2004). At the time of the studio’s founding in September, 2000, massively multiplayer on-line games (MMOGs) were starting to become popular with PC gamers, so Radical chose to develop a simple 2-D MMOG as its premiere game. This turned out to be Eranor (2003), an MMOG tailored for the Latin American market, and completely in Spanish. Radical Studios had a very talented team, but with little experience creating an MMOG; it ended up being much more complicated and expensive than what they had originally thought. After two years of intense learning and financial struggles (no one in the team earned more than USD $200 a month), the investment the studio had available for the game ran dry. They did achieve some respectable things for the time, like having some players as beta testers and getting one server up and running, while also engaging with a small devoted community of fans that was heavily invested on the release of the game. Considering the inexperience of the team and the funds available to them, this was something great. Sadly, Eranor never became a reality, but it is still highly regarded as the first large-scale attempt at developing a commercial video game in México.
The directors and ex-employees of Evoga, Aztec Tech Games, and Radical Studios moved on to other ventures, but they still have a great presence within the video game development community in México. If it were not for them, the video game landscape would not be what it is today. As they say, the hardest step to take is the first one, and this is what they did.
Many little studios emerged from these first initiatives, most of them amateur studios or student groups that were finally realizing they could make their passion a reality. There were no other big developments until the foundation of Sabarasa México in 2009. Sabarasa was a very big international company from Argentina that mainly worked with licenses or did outsourcing for triple-A studios. The man behind the bringing of Sabarasa to México was none other than Abraham Bautista, the retail mogul, who finally decided to take a shot at development.
Sabarasa worked as an outsourcing company, but soon enough, Bautista decided that they wanted to start producing triple-A console titles, and so Sabarasa became the first Mexican triple-A development studio and was renamed Slang. (Full disclosure: the authors could not get interviews with ex-employees of Slang/Sabarasa. They are still bound by non-disclosure agreements, and so our knowledge of what happened at the company comes from other different sources and casual conversations of the authors with the parties involved.)
In the short years that Sabarasa was operating in México as Sabarasa-Slang (from June 2009 to April 2012), the company acquired all the licenses and permits needed to develop games for consoles and the licenses to create games based on the AAA (a Mexican Wrestling Federation), Atrévete a Soñar (Dare to Dream, 2009-2010, a high school-oriented “Telenovela” with musical features, aimed at children and teens), and El Chavo del Ocho (1971-1980, one of the most influential TV sitcoms in México since its appearance). These three intellectual properties were the most popular ones at the time in the Latin American market, and it was difficult to get licenses as popular as these. Atrévete a Soñar (2011) was released for Nintendo Wii and seemed influenced by the High School Musical game franchise, and found mild success in the market. El Chavo del 8 (2012) was a Mario Party (1998) clone, and was not that well received; it was also released for the Wii console. Lucha Libre: Heroes del Ring (Xbox and PS3: 2010, Wii: 2011) was the game with the biggest IP and was expected to be very successful. Millions of dollars were spent on the game marketing campaign. Adrian Carbajal remembers that the launch party for that game was the biggest that he had ever seen. Everyone was there; they had live music, lots of drinks, and lots of food. This comes from a seasoned journalist, someone who has been at many release events, parties from international studios and well-established franchises; he still remembers this party as the biggest one. But after years of development, the team delivered a product that didn’t sell as well as expected; even after all the effort, it was not able to compete with the existing WWE franchise games.
Even today in Mexican game development forums, there is much talk about what happened at Slang. Some say the studio had a lot of internal communication problems, others that there were toxic employees in positions of leadership that were not cut out for the job and were only looking out for their own interests. Maybe what happened was a combination of all these issues, and the inexperienced employees who were not able to develop for consoles. The truth is that until one of the ex-employees decides to speak up, we will never know what truly happened there. Nevertheless, one thing we know for sure is that the endeavor failed, and after two years of operation, Slang Studio closed their doors while Slang Publisher still operates.
As noted in the yearly report published by Motor de Juegos,[iii] today we have around 75 video games studios operating in the country. Gonzalo Sanchez suggests that probably only 50 of these studios actually operate or have video games in development. Most of these studios are run as a side business of a parent company or by students with no financial responsibilities. There is not a single game studio that operates with video games as their main line of business, and the people at the head of these studios struggle day to day to keep them alive. So the Mexican video game industry knows how to make video games, but is still learning how to make money out of the games its makes. We have yet to see the first Mexican studio that can operate with video games as their main business.
Triple-A development might still be far from the Mexican reality, but the growth of the mobile market has opened a huge window of opportunity for most. There is a thriving indie player community amongst IT and video game making programs in most universities.
Advergaming is a very popular business model for Mexican studios. A great example of this is Artefacto Studio (see http://www.artefactoestudio.com), and having started in 2003, they might be the oldest video game studio operating in México. Their main line of business is advergaming, and they have worked with companies like Nissan and Huevocartoon (a very popular Mexican comedy animation show). Sometimes they produce original content of their own, but taking care of the business side of the company always comes first. Currently they are the largest advergaming company in México. Some of their games are Kunana Island (2013, Windows Phone and Blackberry), Takis Air Challenge (2013, iOS), and Toxic Balls (2008, iOS). Some advertising companies, like Squad, have taken the leap from advergaming to the creation of original intellectual properties; Kerbal Space Program (2012, PC), their first original title for gamers, has achieved worldwide success, and was a top seller during the 2013 Steam “Summer Sale” and has since received wide attention.
There are studios that have government support and have advergaming business as the core income for the company. Larva Game Studio, with more than 25 employees, is recognized one of biggest and most successful game studios in México (see http://www.larvagamestudios.com). Larva is located in Guadalajara and has five years of experience in the industry. As their website states, they are developing Last Day on Earth (TBA, intended for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network), Night Vigilante (TBA, for iOS), and Red Bull Crashed Ice Kinect (2012, Xbox).
Educational games are also a very recognizable line of work. As wonderful example, Enova, a company whose main line of business is operating communitary learning centers, produce dozens of learning games. They distribute the games for free on their “Chispale” portal (www.chispale.com.mx). Some of their games are Cibers (2012, PC), El Circo (2012, PC), and Topo-Tops (2012, PC).
There is also a lot of “out of the box” thinking amongst game developers in México. A particular example is KaraoKulta Games’s approach to video game development (http://karaokulta.com/). They have around ten teams in different cities, and ideally, each team produces about a small casual game every month. They create more quantity than quality, but as the company’s founder Jorge Suarez told us, “At this moment, our main goal is to produce as many video games as we can, so we can learn and grow as a community of developers. In the future, we can augment our quality, but first comes the learning.” Some of their games are Run Zombie Run (2013, IOS), Bee Rush (2013, iOS) and Popcorn Adventure (2013, iOS).
Waking the Giant
What does the future hold for the Mexican Industry? Many agree that we have the talent and we have the passion. So why can´t we just start an industry?
First of all, some point out a lack of cooperation within developers: there are many associations that claim to be the “Official video game developer association of México”. If we want the industry to grow, we will have to learn how to work together, how to achieve common goals, and communicate with each other. As of this moment, industry is very small. If any of the studios would stop developing their current video game projects in México, no one outside the country would notice. There would be no actual difference.
We might be fighting for a cake that hasn’t been baked yet. We need to understand that we have to start with a plan that grows from small to big. Each studio has to focus on their own goals, as the biggest and most successful studios do. A lot of Mexican developers are driven by nostalgia, they want to recreate the games that they loved when they were young, but we need to do a shift. We need to wake up from that dream and change it for a drive to innovate. Maybe it’s better to stop asking, “How can I recreate the good games of the old days?” and start asking “How can I move the medium forward? What can I do for video games as a whole? What can I explore that hasn’t been explored yet?”
If we are to wake up the dormant industry, we also need professionalization. A significant quantity of studio teams are composed mainly out of animators and programmers who have the passion to make games, but lack a lot of other abilities and the production knowledge of what it actually takes to make a game. They do not know how to make a game project budget and they do not know how to organize or lead game-making teams. We have the technical talent but we need good project managers and game industry understanding to lead the team in the successful direction.
Last, but not least, we need businessmen who believe in the Mexican video game industry; we have yet to see game studios able to survive solely by making video games. To create an industry, we need entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks, people able to do what Bautista and Kikuchi did for the retail industry, business-driven individuals with a passion.
Let’s hope that in a decade we can re-read this and see how the industry has grown, but as of this moment (summer of 2013), the only thing that we can do is to work hard and keep moving forward, together. Only then will we have a Mexican industry relevant at an international level. Ten years ago, none would have thought this was even possible. So maybe, we are on our way to waking a giant.
[i] “Videojugadores Invaden El País.” Web log post. El Universal. Ed. Juan Luis Ramos Mendoza. El Universal Online, S.A. De C.V., Aug. 2012. Web. Mar. 2013. <http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/graficos/pdf12/tecno/invaden.pdf>.
[iii] Sanchez, Gonzalo, ed. Motordejuegos.net Reporte 2012. Rep. no. 2. MDJ ed. Vol. 2. Mexico D.F.: Motor De Juego, 2012. Print. Reporte De La Industria.