The Iranian Gaming Industry

“The leaders of [Israel] threaten us with military action,” the Iranian supreme leader proclaims as a gleaming white missile prepares to launch. “But I think most of them know — and if they don’t, they should — that if they lay a finger on us, the Islamic Republic of Iran will raze them to the ground.”

One loading screen later, the missile is airborne. The player must chaperone their little white capsule of doom through what’s intended to be the Israeli port city of Haifa, strafing past enemy jet fighters, nabbing glowing power-ups and activating what might be a nitrous boost. And when this soaring payloaded projectile approaches an obelisk circumscribed with the Star of David? Cue explosion.

Iran

In recent years, this game — Missile Strike — as well asAttack on Tel-Aviv and others with an ideological bent have made headlines and helped give rise to Iran’s public persona. Sources say they’re developed to obtain funds from conservative elements within Iran’s ruling establishment who dislike the West and Israel.

The developers, meanwhile, say they’re only responding to what they see as provocation from the governments of Israel and the U.S., two countries often conflated in Iranian politics.

“The reason we explicitly depict an attack on Israel in this game is that they too are explicitly depicting [attacks], in Battlefield for instance,” said Missile Strike developer Mehdi Atash Jaam in an interview with Iranian news outlet, Fars. He’s referring to the simulated ground invasion of the Iranian capital inBattlefield 3, developed by Stockholm-based DICE but published by California-based Electronic Arts.

But within Iran, various people interviewed for this article say they’ve never played Missile Strike or its headline-grabbing brethren. One Tehran-based game journalist who asked not to be named, fearing government reprisal, says incendiary fare like this misrepresents Iran’s budding gaming community. “If you ask gamers here, they don’t even consider these things games,” he says. “[They] aren’t even from the game development community,” he adds before writing them off as “mods.”

Many games made in Iran have little to do with politics and ideology, even as their country of origin is locked in a perpetual news cycle over its nuclear program, Middle East proxy wars and those burning American flags dating back to the 1979 revolution (one that a former Grand Theft Auto developer ismaking a game about). That year, Iranians overthrew their monarchy and emerged with an Islamic republic. Revolutionaries took 52 American embassy staff hostage, prompting the U.S. to sever diplomatic ties and begin the first of many waves of economic sanctions against Iran.

Iran

Those sanctions have hampered international trade with Iran, isolating the country and, to an extent, its people. Iranian game developers have shared in the challenges. Sanctions block them from licensing paid versions of game engines like Unity or Unreal. Popular digital marketplaces spurn them, so developers mask their identities with VPNs or hide behind foreign front companies to release their work. Blocked by the international banking system, most Iranian gamers don’t have credit cards and can’t buy anything off the App or Play stores, let alone Steam or the PlayStation Network. Big-name publishers, wary of sanctions, have steered clear of the Iranian market since 1979 despite demand for heavy hitters like Call of Duty and Pro Evolution Soccer.

All that may change, however, as global powers team up with Iran’s new moderate government to implement an internationalagreement that places limits on Iran’s nuclear program. In exchange, Iran is expected to receive significant sanctions relief, setting into motion a rapprochement with the West and the country’s eventual reintegration into the global economy.

For Iranian gamers and developers, this could be a watershed moment. Part of a young, wired generation of defiant baby boomers, many are defying the Islamic Republic of Iran’s conservative establishment, eager to reconnect with the West and chart a different course for their country’s game industry.

THE IRANIAN MARKET

Ahmad Ahmadi is something of an ambassador for the Iranian game industry being plugged back into the world economy. He’s chief business officer at the Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation, a body that supports and regulates the industry. A week before the nuclear agreement in July of 2015, the possibilities had him enthralled.

“Until yesterday, Iran wasn’t really seen,” Ahmadi said of the status quo that reigned before the nuclear agreement. “People would say, ‘We have no sense of Iran, so it’s best not to think about it.’ So there wouldn’t be any engagement. Now, if international engagement does occur, I’d say Iran is a treasure island that just appeared out of nowhere.”

Iran has around 18 million gamers aged three to 40 years old, Ahmadi says, citing a study the Foundation — or “Bonyad” (bone-YAWD) in Persian — carried out in 2013. That makes it “the number one market in the Middle East by an insane margin,” he says. “Almost one fourth of Iran’s population plays games.”

Ahmad Ahmadi

Ahmadi started out in the aviation industry, later wading into tech. When the Bonyad had an opening, a friend introduced him. “I knew the game [industry] well and had gone to a couple expos for fun,” he says. He was there for the inaugural Tokyo Game Show in 1996, long before Iran had anything even vaguely resembling a game industry. And though it’s been a challenge for Iranians to obtain American visas since 1979, Ahmadi has proudly roamed the show floor at E3 in Los Angeles.

Like many, Pong was his first love. Then came his Commodore 64 days, which coincided with the early years of the Iran-Iraq war, the bloodiest armed conflict of the last half-century. “Gaming in Iran started with war,” Ahmadi says of a time when Saddam Hussein’s first SCUD missiles terrorized Tehran — and cut short his playtime. “When we heard those red alarms go off — it was wartime — we’d have to turn off our consoles and head to the bomb shelter with my dad.”

Ahmadi

Years later, Ahmadi is flaunting Iran’s market at Casual Connect in Singapore and schmoozing with Blizzard and EA reps while manning the Iran booth at Gamescom. He reports his findings back to Iran’s ever-curious game developers, recounting how his statistics on the Iranian market rouse foreign publishers.

“In one month, Pro Evolution Soccer sold five million copies,” Ahmadi says, referring to a Bonyad estimate of PES 2013’s sales that also factors in black market data. “I was talking to one of EA’s marketing managers at Gamescom about Pro Evolution Soccer [in Iran] and he told me he couldn’t believe it.” These may be cheap, pirated copies nestled in flimsy cardboard sleeves, but the Bonyad’s statistics show that sports is Iran’s most popular game genre.

Ahmadi switches course to the industry’s competing soccer juggernaut to draw up a potential sales strategy for first-timers looking to make a foray into Iran. “You can’t compare this with a copy of FIFA in the U.S. that’s being sold for $99 [sic],” he says. “But if the sanctions are removed and a company like EA comes along and says, given [Iran’s financial situation], ‘I’ll sell it here officially for $10 [USD].’ And then you end up selling four million copies at $10 each — how attractive is that? In contrast to selling, I don’t know, maybe 10,000 copies at $99 each?”

“These are the kinds of policies I’m after,” Ahmadi says. “Even though copyright doesn’t exist in Iran, I want to talk to these publishers and tell them you can tailor your game for the Iranian market with a [local] price so you have a competitive advantage for gamers here. So instead of buying a pirated game [on the cheap], they’ll go ahead and buy an original copy, and when you buy the original, you have access to all the features.” Features like official Persian-language localization and unfettered online play, all packed into an affordable region-locked copy that can’t be smuggled — or downloaded — elsewhere to upset industry pricing norms.

THE BONYAD

“If you haven’t heard of Garshasp, then you don’t know anything about the Iranian video game industry,” a developer utters at a meet and greet for tech entrepreneurs in downtown Tehran.

It’s easy to lose count of how many times developers in Iran cite Garshasp: The Monster Slayer as the Iranian game industry’s first masterstroke. Developed by game development studio Fanafzar Sharif on a budget of $400,000 — a lot in Iran where most games are a small fraction of that — it’s a hack and slash rooted in Persian mythology. It’s one of the best-selling Iranian-made PC games, having sold 300,000 copies domestically and even more when the developers launched it on Steam. Overseas critics panned it as a not-quite-there God of War clone, but for locals Garshasp’s 2010 release was a blip on the radar alerting many to the existence of a game industry in Iran.

The Dark Phantom

IRANIAN GAME SPOTLIGHT: THE DARK PHANTOM

A story-driven third-person shooter,The Dark Phantom has hints of Max Payne and stars a bandaged amnesiac who fights crime in the dead of night.

With the Iranian game development industry in its infancy, large-scale projects with the complex development cycles Garshasp necessitated hadn’t been attempted yet, so studios like Fanafzar Sharif needed money and guidance. So it pitchedGarshasp to the nascent Bonyad, which, in its early years, funded games in joint ventures with up-and-coming developers.

“The Bonyad isn’t a place that comes up with ideas,” says Bonyad Production Deputy Mehrdad Ashtiani. “It hears the ideas — like a publisher. You’d pitch your idea, and if it was accepted, they’d support you financially.”

An NGO founded in 2007 with funding and oversight from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Bonyad both nurtures Iran’s developers and acts as a regulatory body to organize a market Ashtiani calls “messy.” It formed an Entertainment Software Ratings Agency that functions like America’s ESRB, opened the Game Development Institute to train the next generation of Iranian developers, organized annual awards ceremonies and held the Tehran Game Expo, which drew a hefty two million spectators at its peak before being cancelled due to budget cuts.

“Almost all high-quality video games made after 2008 have been with the [Bonyad’s] intellectual and financial support,” Ahmadi writes in a chapter of the book “Video Games Around the World.” Financial support to games likeGarshasp helped spur the game development scene so that Iran now has roughly 95 game development studios, Ahmadi writes. It’s why Iranian game industry insiders often equate the founding of the Bonyad with the birth of their country’s modern game industry.

Parvaneh

IRANIAN GAME SPOTLIGHT: PARVANEH: LEGACY OF THE LIGHT’S GUARDIANS

A Diablo-esque hack-and-slash,Parvaneh was nominated for best “hardcore” PC game at Games Connection Europe in 2014.

“From [our founding] until now, we’ve worked on a lot of projects,” Ashtiani says. “Some have been successful, others have failed. But domestic game developers confront a lot of problems. Like the lack of copyright law. Or the notion that an Iranian-made game must sit on the same store shelves as a first-class foreign game. And they’re not priced fairly.”

It’s a tall order for Iranian games to compete when a neatly packaged, pirated copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 costs USD $1.60, the standard price for a physical game in Iran. It’s one of Ashtiani’s biggest gripes and why he hopes Iran will one day honor copyright laws, if only to protect its own industry.

“When you have two products, one of them a triple-A international title developed by 200 people in which millions of dollars have been spent, and the other an Iranian game developed by 15 people … but their prices are similar, this makes for unfair competition.”

In response, the Bonyad has devised a unique policy: It issues Iranian publishers holographic stickers they must use to seal each individual copy of their pirated games before they’re shipped out to electronics stores nationwide. This is both a form of censorship — stickers won’t be issued for games deemed “un-Islamic,” like Grand Theft Auto — and a protectionist measure to buttress struggling Iranian developers.

Iran

“Because the absence of copyright law allows you to make all this profit selling foreign goods without paying for copyright,” Ashtiani says, as if talking to an Iranian publisher pirating games, “you must now pay a fee.”

To obtain these stickers in bulk, publishers must purchase a specified number of Iranian-made games before minting DVD-9s of pirated international blockbusters. According to Ahmadi, the Bonyad has a system set up to estimate international games’ potential sales. The higher the sales potential of an international game, the more money publishers must contribute toward the purchase of Iranian-made titles to gain the right to pirate and sell it. Some sources say publishers can simply buy these newfangled stickers from the black market — without purchasing any Iranian games — but Ahmadi says that avenue has recently been closed off as Bonyad inspectors now closely supervise publishers affixing the stickers to their games.

But what of stores that circumvent the Bonyad and sell unstickered games? They run the risk of being shut down by the authorities or, in some cases, receiving jail time.

DISTRIBUTION

It’s an admission Amir Aliabadi is willing to make: Foreign games far outsell Iranian games locally. “Iranian games stand alongside foreign games for the same price, but they can’t compete,” says Aliabadi, who’s in charge of sales at AsreBazi (“Age of Games”), an Iranian publisher. “Gamers go toward the soccer games and the Call of Duties — they don’t even see the Iranian games.”

Iran’s most popular platforms have often been those that run on pirate-friendly storage media, i.e., CDs and DVDs. Wily computer hacks who could crack a source file and burn it onto a disc became instant dealers in an informal economy. Their clients were not only mom-and-pop electronics stores, but other businesses likely to attract the gaming demographic — which at the time meant bodybuilding shops and bookstores. Those who cracked, burned, packaged and distributed with machine-like efficiency would rise to become Iran’s “publishers.”

“IRANIAN GAMES STAND ALONGSIDE FOREIGN GAMES FOR THE SAME PRICE, BUT THEY CAN’T COMPETE.”

“The mobile and tablet are taking over, in addition to online games,” Aliabadi says. “I don’t think in the next two to three years, anything physical will be sold,” he says. To stem the losses, he’s hoping to leverage AsreBazi’s robust ties in Iran’s domestic market to win contracts with international publishers. Or they’ll just invest in mobile games, he says nonchalantly.

At the forefront of the mobile games push is Cafe Bazaar, a domestic Iranian Android store founded in 2010. With over 27 million users and 55,000 apps, 8,000 of which are games, it’s Iran’s biggest digital distribution platform.

AsreBazi is one of them. Among Iran’s largest and oldest, its business still rests on the laurels of pirated content and its access to distribution channels across the country. Its depot in downtown Tehran looks the part — a library liberally stocked with everything from a mod of FIFA 2015 optimized for the PlayStation 1 to Kinectimals on the Xbox 360. Their disc-enclosing cardboard sleeves have professionally designed, though sometimes mismatched, covers and the company has financed unofficial Persian-language dubs for hundreds of games, Aliabadi says. But these days, only best sellers like Call of Duty warrant that expense because even pirated game sales have tanked; Aliabadi says AsreBazi’s PC revenue is half of what it was three years ago. Faster internet speeds have not only democratized pirating for all, but with smartphone ownership rising rapidly — over half of Iran’s 80 million population has access to a smartphone — Iranians are increasingly opting for mobile games.

Iran

Cafe Bazaar’s credit system — like Microsoft Points — has single-handedly enabled freemium games in a country where online financial transactions still require users to reenter their national debit card information every time they make a purchase. Two of the Bazaar’s biggest mobile titles, Fruitcraft (100,000+ downloads) and Rooster Wars (800,000 registered users), are a testament to that. With a 114 percent spike in game revenue since last quarter, Moallemi says, the utility-dominated Cafe Bazaar is looking to games to drive future growth.

Various European publishers are in talks to bring their Android games to the Bazaar’s users, Moallemi says. Currently, a sans-in-app purchase version ofClash of Clans, unofficially ripped to Cafe Bazaar, has already cracked four million downloads, outperforming just about everything else on the service.

“They were really reluctant,” Moallemi says of some European publishers he negotiated with. “We’ve had cases where we’d negotiate with companies for six months just to convince them. It was tough — countless emails, Skype calls, exchanges. But then, once they came on board, they couldn’t believe it in terms of support, features and the revenue they generated.”

CRUNCH TIME UNDER SANCTIONS

Anu Game Studio CEO Mostafa Keyvanian rehearsed disaster scenarios in his head. His company’s physics-based puzzler Egg Oh! was about to go live. But what if the App Store banned his account, operated through a relative in Europe, because he and his team were in Iran, a sanctioned country? “We were terrified about these things,” he says in hindsight, noting he’s willing to go on the record now because he’s hopeful the future won’t be as stark. “Every time we’d log in to our account, we’d do it with a VPN or proxy server — we’d never connect directly. We were always afraid of what would happen. What if the VPN or proxy server went down and we were found out?”

Iranian developers like Keyvanian are denied access to the Google Play Developer Console if they log on without disguising their IP addresses. They can’t create Apple IDs to enroll in Apple’s developer program as Iranians — Iran, as is often the case, is missing from the drop-down menu. Even if they manage to release their apps on these marketplaces through workarounds, they still can’t repatriate their income because Iran has been excluded from the world’s banking system — unless they register a foreign front company and broker complex bank transfers.

Rooster Wars

IRANIAN GAME SPOTLIGHT: ROOSTER WARS

A touch-based fighter with in-app purchases, Rooster Wars has quickly grown to become one of Iran’s most popular mobile games.

Some might sell the rights to their game to a foreign publisher for unfavorable terms. For an Iranian software developer, this is what it means to be buried under nearly four decades of economic sanctions.

Outcast status isn’t new to Keyvanian, even within Iran. At the third Tehran Game Expo, he grappled with officials to get Anu on the show floor. “When I got there they were like, ‘Who are you?’” he says, recalling the exchange with an expo official. “I tried to participate, but they said I can’t. I asked why. They said my resume [wasn’t] good enough. I asked them what that meant. And they said it was because I hadn’t made anything.”

Keyvanian’s team had worked for years as a small outsourcing studio, providing 3-D modeling for award-winning games likeMurder in the Streets of Tehran, a Grim Fandango-inspired 3-D point-and-click adventure. His team’s name just didn’t make it to the back of the box.

But that year, Keyvanian had something else: We Need a Hero, a point-and-click PC adventure with a daring art style. It was Anu’s first-ever original game, and after seeing the trailer, the expo official relented. A few days later at the awards ceremony, a handful of nominations for We Need, as Keyvanian calls it, earned his studio much-needed rapport after years of anonymity. “They were like, ‘This guy came out of nowhere. Where’d he come from? What’s he been doing?’” he says of We Need’s reception. “That’s when Anu came into its own.”

Garshap

IRANIAN GAME SPOTLIGHT: GARSHASP: THE MONSTER SLAYER

The Iranian game industry’s first major production, Garshasp is a God of War-inspired character action game rooted in Persian mythology.

“After the awards ceremony, everything started looking up,” he says. “A bunch of big companies started working with us.” International publishers — Keyvanian won’t say which — from France, England, Finland and Poland took notice. “We had 11 offers for We Need,” Keyvanian says of deals that were beginning to materialize. He and his team stepped up to the plate.

But President Obama had just signed into law another round of sanctions, spooking Keyvanian’s European interlocutors. “We started to negotiate deals, but none of them came to fruition because of the sanctions,” he says. “They weren’t going to brush America and the sanctions aside to buy our game. The risk was too high.”

“We hope this doesn’t happen again for our other projects,” Keyvanian adds. If the economic sanctions that loom over every business transaction in Iran are lifted soon as part of the nuclear deal, it might not. Anu is pinning its hopes on another project as it wades into the post-sanctions era: a Rayman-esque platformer starring a club-wielding grandma marauding through an enchanted jungle. Like We Need, its cosmic brushstrokes have made it the talk of the town. It’s a game that sidelined Keyvanian’s big-budget PC sci-fi shooter because its iOS/Android/PC makeup and smaller budget made for a surer target.

It’s called Khaleh Ghezi (“Aunt Ghezi“), and it’s why Anu’s designers posted to their walls a photo of the development team grinning, standing shoulder to shoulder, four golden gazelle statuettes in hand. For them, the Tehran Game Festival had just come to a triumphant end.

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GAME CULTURE SEEPING INTO EVERYTHING

The sanctions may have restrained Iran’s access to international markets — satellite TV and unfiltered internet are officially outlawed but still widely available — but they’ve done little to throttle the influx of global pop culture, let alone game culture. This is a country where government-controlled state television whips out the God of War theme — or Gustavo Santaolalla’s score from The Last of Us — to incite viewers to the cause of national unity.

At electronics stores in Iran, Battlefield 3, treated as contraband for depicting an invasion of Tehran, is codenamed “Sour Cherry.” In the absence of a local BradyGames equivalent, newsstands once sold homemade strategy guides penned in notebooks by local neighborhood gamers. The Xbox 360 easily won the last console cycle here because the DVD-9 is far more pirate-friendly than the Blu-ray disc. And on the BaziCenter.com forums, Iranian gamers engage in fiery debates on the Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s move to dispense with turn-based battles. “It’s Iran’s NeoGAF,” journalist Kasra Karimi Tar says of BaziCenter.

The Mountaineer

IRANIAN GAME SPOTLIGHT: THE MOUNTAINEER

The Mountaineer is a whimsical platformer with a comic art style focusing on a worldwide mountain climbing competition gone awry.

Karimi Tar is a cinema and game writer with a lot on his mind. A few minutes into an interview for this story, there’s little he hasn’t expressed an acerbic opinion on. He refuses to forgive GameSpot’s Kevin VanOrd for his Arkham Knightreview. He grieves for Japanese developers who “lost their identity” trying to “do something Western” in the seventh console cycle, but praises Hideo Kojima, for whom “Iranians will go to the airport to welcome, even more than they do their national soccer team.” He calls Hideki Kamiya “the greatest game designer in history” because ofResident Evil 2, Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe,Okami and Bayonetta. He pegs Puya Dadgar as the “father of the Iranian game industry” because he made Iran’s first fully functional 3-D game, End of Innocence. He anguishes over Gerstmann-gate, touches on news of Kojima’s supposed spendthrift proclivities during Metal Gear Solid 5’s development and depends on Twitch for E3 coverage since YouTube is blocked in Iran.

Unreliable internet connections that hover around 2 Mbps, censors that block sites like GameSpot and IGN and the English-Persian language barrier haven’t prevented Karimi Tar from eviscerating what little daylight exists between him in Tehran and the industry he covers halfway around the world.

Even before the “filternet,” cost was often seen as the insurmountable barrier. But Iranians still found a way to stay apace with the day’s games. Most were priced out of game consoles, Karimi Tar says, especially in war-stricken 1980s Iran, but a democratizing innovation known as the game club changed that.

Quest of Persia: Nader's Blade

IRANIAN GAME SPOTLIGHT: QUEST OF PERSIA: NADER’S BLADE

The third and final installment in the Quest of Persia series, Nader’s Bladeis a sword-fighting action game that recounts the story of the celebrated Persian king, Nader Shah.

At these hole-in-the-wall establishments — think makeshift arcades — gamers would pay per hour to game on what was nothing more than a couple of consoles hooked up to home television sets. “It was five PlayStations and two Sega Genesises,” Karimi Tar says. “And people would just sit down and play.” It was the kind of place school kids would go to after class, spending their lunch money on playtime.

This was where Iranians could play “Mushroom Eater” (i.e., Super Mario) on a Chinese NES knock-off known as “The Micro,” or Mortal Kombat on “The Sega” (i.e. the Genesis, the only Sega console that gained a foothold in Iran). When game clubs swapped their 16-bit devices with PlayStations,Tekken 3, Resident Evil 2 and Winning Eleven led the charge.

“These clubs had a special technique,” Karimi Tar remembers. “They had five PlayStations but only two Winning Eleven discs. After the game loaded up in one console … they’d pop the lid open, take out the disc, put it in another console, and let it load there. Then they’d do that all over again. And again. It was a really popular technique. And there was always someone at the club tasked with keeping watch, to swap out the discs at the right time.”

Game clubs eventually gave way to “game nets,” where computers hooked up to a local network would be used to play Counter-Strike and other games. With faster internet, however, the game nets that once dotted Tehran’s boulevards have begun to disappear.

Iran

THE PERSIAN TOUCH

Developer Raspina’s opening salvo E.T. Armies is a Halo/Killzone hybrid marked by a degree of craftsmanship that — given the hurdles the team has had to navigate — left players scratching their heads when it was demoed at the Tehran Game Expo.

“When they’d come up to our booth, maybe 30 percent of the questions were, ‘Is this a foreign game?’” Raspina studio head Aria Esrafilian says. “Then we’d say, ‘No, it’s a completely Iranian game.’ Then they’d ask, ‘Are you sure you didn’t just dub a foreign game?’ Then someone else asked me if it was Crysis. One of our challenges was convincing people that it’s an Iranian game.”

“We learned on our own,” Esrafilian says, echoing a pervasive sentiment in Iran. “I don’t think any of our developers have taken a single course in programming, let alone game design.” Like an untold number of Iranian software engineers, Raspina’s developers have meticulously pieced together their game development know-how from online tutorials and discussion forums. They learned English as they did so, not before. It hasn’t been without hardship — Esrafilian emptied his savings into this project. No one here receives a salary. And E.T. Armies has been in development for six years.

“I THINK IN THE TECHNICAL DEPARTMENT, WE’RE STRONG. AND IN THE ART DEPARTMENT, WE’RE ALSO VERY STRONG. BUT THE BIGGEST AREA WHERE WE HAVE PROBLEMS IS GAMEPLAY.”

Esrafilian — and Technical Lead Mohamad Zehtabi seated next to him — are forthright. “I think in the technical department, we’re strong. And in the art department, we’re also very strong,” Zehtabi says. “But the biggest area where we have problems is gameplay.”

Iran has no shortage of skilled software engineers or artists, developers here say, but it may be in need of supervision from project managers, producers or game designers from abroad. Back at the Bonyad, Ahmad Ahmadi takes a frank turn from cheerleading to admit Iran’s shortcomings. “I can’t say we’re good game designers,” he says. “I can’t say that we excel in virtual economy and monetization. We are weak in those areas because the knowledge base for those hasn’t been in Iran.”

Travel warnings to Iran-bound visitors, Iran’s stringent visa-granting policies and a “brain drain” of more than 150,000 Iranians leaving Iran each year for presumed greener pastures abroad have slowed, but not halted, the inward transfer of industry-specific expertise.

But what the development community here might lack in game design and management, it makes up for in art, developers say. “Iranians have a cultural quality and a historical quality to them, and when a people have a cultural-historical quality about themselves, it means they have their own art style,” says the Bonyad’s Ahmadi. “This style helps an artist draw something unique from his own heritage.”

“WE ALWAYS PERCEIVE OF THE FUTURE THROUGH THE IMAGES THAT HOLLYWOOD PUTS OUT.”

The Persian undertones even surface in storytelling, which Karimi Tar says local game developers have a penchant for. As one of oldest civilizations in the world, Iran, formerly known as “Persia,” is sitting on boundless historical and mythological material to draw inspiration from. The “Shahnameh” — widely regarded as Persia’s literary masterpiece — has been sourced directly for games like Garshasp, but also the third-person sci-fi shooter Jonoun-e Siah (“Black Madness“) and Siavash (“Legends of Persia“), among others.

Jonoun-e Siah is a fascinating game,” Karimi Tar says. “It’s a shooter whose main character is based on Zahhak. Zahhak is a character from the “Shahnameh” who had two snakes growing out of his [shoulders] and every day he’d have to feed them a human brain to satiate their hunger. Then there’s these two chefs who are good people. Every day, they’d pick out two prisoners. They’d let the first one run away so he could hopefully go on to form an army large enough to kill Zahhak one day. And the other prisoner — the weaker of the two — would be sacrificed to feed Zahhak’s snakes. That’s how badass Iranian mythology is.”

It’s why E.T. Armies is offering an Iranian twist on the post-apocalyptic visions often depicted in Western games. “We always perceive of the future through the images that Hollywood puts out,” Technical Lead Zehtabi says. “What if such that an image of the future was seen from the perspective of an Iranian?”

“Someone might look at us and say, ‘You’ve only made one game from 2009 until now?’ Yeah, one game,” Esrafilian says, tinged with undertones of having been wronged. “Because we were in Iran with limited resources and we were sanctioned, there was a lot we didn’t have at our disposal. It was a grind.”That Persian touch goes a long way in informing the aesthetics. Aunt Ghezi’s enchanted jungle had its genesis in the Persian garden, and the painted cottages that abound in the background take a cue from a well-known traditional Persian landmark. Even the first map of E.T. Armies is set among alien ruins that a trained eye will notice carry subtle architectural homages to the ancient city of Persepolis.

Iran

POST-SANCTIONS

As this story goes live, Iran is reportedly close to fulfilling its obligations under the July 2015 nuclear deal, prompting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to forecast sanctions relief could come in a matter of days.

While American citizens would continue to be prohibited from directly conducting business with Iran, the nuclear deal would allow non-American subsidiaries of American companies to engage the country, as evidenced by a growing number of reports of American firms like Apple and HP gearing up for a post-sanctions environment.

Regardless of how extensive the Western sanctions relief may be, one developer, speaking anonymously because his studio’s marquee title was released under a Western front company, believes it’s a step that could completely change how Iran’s game industry operates.

Iran

“It means being able to attend trade shows more easily, work with publishers more easily, get feedback from publishers and license technologies,” he says, noting he’d be willing to introduce his company as Iranian if sanctions are removed in full. It would mean uploading games to marketplaces like Steam, the App Store or Google Play without alibis or proxies.

Iran could also grow to become an outsourcing haven for bigger developers, given its human capital and overall cheaper costs. “Development costs in Iran are probably one tenth of what they are in the United States,” the developer says. “If an American company comes here, and brings some of its producers and some of their technical leads along with them here, they’ll find … there’s an outstanding entry-level labor force in Iran. The thing is that there isn’t that experience — we don’t have a company here that has 30 years of experience in game development.”

“[We] can form new partnerships, engage in joint ventures so foreign companies can establish branches here. And in exchange for the opportunity they encounter, they can train the Iranian workforce,” Mehrdad Ashtiani at the Bonyad says, comparing it to Ubisoft’s move to open a studio in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Back at Raspina, Arya Esrafilian is ecstatic. “If Ubisoft were to propose a project to us even if it meant working ourselves to death — we would put in more effort than they expected,” he says half jokingly.

Mohamad Zehtabi, Raspina’s technical lead, interjects. “Because we want to show ourselves. The problem we have is that no one sees us.”

Esrafilian butts back in. “If someone tells you they’re going to give you one shot to show yourself and make it to the top, you’ll give it everything you’ve got.”

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