How Sanctions, Violence Doomed Syria’s Game Industry

By: Andrew Groen

“Life for Syrian game developers has never been better,” joked Falafel Games founder Radwan Kasmiya in an e-mail to Ars Technica. “You can test the action on the streets and get back to your desktop to script it on your keyboard.”

In Under Ash, players start out with simple rocks and slings before graduating to heavier weaponry.

Kasmiya’s icy humor hides a sobering truth about the troubles faced by Syria’s once-promising game development industry. The country once looked like a future technology hub, with its centralized location among the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries allowing it to easily draw programming and engineering talent from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. But that promise has been effectively squashed, first by global economic sanctions and then by more than a year of bloody civil conflict.

Now, amid the chaos in the streets, the majority of Syria’s young techies have fled for better jobs and heightened security in the neighboring countries of Jordan and Lebanon. Others have gone even further.

“The entertainment industry was the first to be affected by the revolution,” said Kasmiya, who left Syria to start Falafel Games from the relative safety of his current home in China. “During the previous 11 months, most IT companies either closed or are facing hardships. A large wave of talent is migrating towards neighboring countries.”

Syria’s games industry now looks like just another collateral casualty of dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s struggle to hold power.

A Fleeting Opportunity

Kasmiya was the developer behind Syria’s biggest video game success, 2003′s Under Ash. Never sold in the West, the game made international headlines for its controversial portrayal of the Israel-Palestine conflict through the eyes of Palestinians who take up arms against Israeli soldiers. Although the game’s reported sales of 100,000 would be minuscule for a major Western release, in the MENA region they justified a sequel— 2005′s Under Siege, a more documentary-styled game that tracked the lives of Palestinian families based on stories from United Nations documents.

Kasmiya’s Afkar Media went on to release a real-time strategy game based on Islamic history, called Quraish, as well as first-person action game Qalat an-Nasr (Castle of Victory). Other studios included Damascus-based JoyBox, which produced several PC, mobile, and Web games before an apparent closure in 2011 (representatives from JoyBox did not reply to requests for comment), and Techniat3D, a smaller independent developer focused on action games. While their titles were primitive by modern international standards, they represented important first steps for a budding local industry.

Even in retrospect, the presence of any sort of game development presence in Syria still seems a bit odd. The country isn’t particularly large or wealthy, and its economic and political policies leave much to be desired, especially compared with some of its neighbors.

“Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are productive nations where the lack of natural resources has necessitated the development of internal human resources,” said Muhannad Taslaq, owner of Jordanian developer Mixed Dimensions. “The need to create jobs and income streams has encouraged them to focus on education, and they have evolved into the technology centers for the region.”

In the absence of other advantages, Syrian developers like Kasmiya distinguished themselves partly through a willingness to advance social ideas in their games. Quraish, for instance, uses a real-time strategy motif to illustrate the historical birth of Islam. And while Western observers took Under Ash as a purely reactionary response to the way Arabs are portrayed in Western games, the game’s design actually spreads a much more nuanced message about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Quraish might not look like much compared to modern real-time strategy games, but its focus on Islamic history was unique for the genre.

Kasmiya himself is quick to point out that Under Ash doesn’t promote indiscriminate violence against Israel — in fact, players lose the game immediately if they harm an Israeli civilian. Moreover, he said, the game’s intentionally, always-increasing difficulty means that every character who picks up a weapon eventually gets killed. This makes Under Ash a frustrating game that’s impossible to win — and a poignant statement about the ultimate futility of armed conflict.

Then came the sanctions.

Sanctions

Any momentum Syria may have been building as a regional game development hub slowed considerably in 2004, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush levied economic sanctions against the country. The sanctions were aimed directly at the country’s ruling al-Assad regime, which allegedly helped arm militant groups that were fighting coalition soldiers in Iraq and which had allegedly provided support for Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harrireh.

But Syrian businesses that had nothing to do with those decisions were harmed by the sanctions. While the actual sanctions only cut off American exports into Syria, as well as flights between the two countries, they also had a distinct chilling effect on Western investment into Syrian firms.

According to U.S. government documents, American businesses were often wary of working in Syria because the U.S. wouldn’t offer them any assistance or insurance on investments. Supporting Syrian companies could also be seen as unpatriotic, since the U.S. government lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Under the sanctions, Syria’s game developers found themselves cut off from investment money they needed to grow, as well as from other relationships that were just as important as cash. “Any [closure of opportunity] is devastating to a budding games company as global partnerships are completely hindered,” said Rawan Sha’ban of the Jordanian game development company Quirkat. “Even at the simplest infrastructure level, game development engines [from the U.S.] cannot be purchased in a sanctioned country.”

The West isn’t the only part of the world with venture capital, of course. Many MENA countries, especially nearby Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, have plenty of capital. But Ziad Feghali, owner of Lebanon’s Wixel Studios, told us that Middle Eastern culture isn’t currently disposed to risk money on volatile IT and gaming ventures. Most investors choose to risk their money in more traditional opportunities like infrastructure and natural resources, even if the rewards are more modest.

“Security issues are one of the reasons [for lack of investment],” Feghali said. “IT investors tend to risk their money in stable countries.” Indeed, given the destruction that has been visited upon Syria’s IT industry since the start of the current unrest, that fear looks largely justified.

Syria’s own internal economic troubles didn’t help the game industry’s growth, either. A weak and overly complex banking sector led The World Bank to rank Syria 173rd out of 183 countries (and falling) in the ability of a business to obtain credit. Perhaps even more frightening for potential investors, Syria is ranked 175th in enforcing contracts; a U.S. State Department report cited the country for reports of “rampant corruption and cronyism.”

While a few Syrian developers were able to achieve some small success on their own, the lack of investment made it hard to expand or to absorb setbacks. Syria’s Techniat3D, for instance, created a Tomb Raider-inspired adventure called Zoya: A Warrior from Palmyra, that was by all accounts a decent game. However, it reportedly sold just 100 copies, a catastrophic failure that Afkar Media’s Kasmiya chalked up to the “inappropriate attire” worn by the woman on the cover. Techniat3D went under shortly after Zoya‘s release in 2003, showing how a single misstep can spell doom for a company that can’t attract outside support.

We Hardly Knew Ye

The global gaming industry will do just fine without a vibrant Syrian presence. Most of the talented individuals who established the county’s early game development successes are still working, albeit in other countries. For now, all eyes are on Jordan, Dubai, and the United Arab Emirates to provide games catering specifically to the MENA region’s 400 million people.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. The saddest part about the story of Syrian game development is that there was potential for the country to have a second chance. Just before the current unrest broke out last March, France had broken from international trends and reopened talks with Syria, going so far as to welcome the country into a Mediterranean free trade group. Moreover, the United States had elected a new president, Barack Obama, who seemed intent on a new start in Middle East relations, and with whom Syria seemed willing to negotiate (some even speculated Obama might end sanctions on Syria).

Lebanon's Wixel Studios has made many small-scale web games, like this comedic fighting game that pits Egyptian politicians in hand-to-hand combat.

But the bloody winds of Syria’s internal warfare swept away any hope that these changes could spur a revival in the country’s game development infrastructure. “I think it lost [its gaming industry] for the coming five years,” Kasmiya said of Syria. “Then it will rise again as the fundamentals will be forever there.”

“We stopped believing in the greatness of our nation and its people,” said Feghali, speaking about Lebanon and its sister nation, Syria. “It has great schooling systems and a good university system, along with a high rate of university graduates. Unfortunately 80 percent of these great minds leave the country as soon as they finish university or after their first year of work. The reason is simple—they do not trust their country.”

Source: Ars Technica

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