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Wall comes down, games take off

Industry veterans say the rising stars of game development are more likely to come from the former Soviet Bloc countries than from Western Europe or the United States.

LONDON--The rising stars of game development are more likely to come from Central and Eastern European countries than from Western Europe or the United States, attendees heard at this week's Game Developers Conference Europe.

Game development in Western Europe and the United States is stagnating, said speakers at the conference here. And as governments in the former Soviet republics crack down on crime, the speakers said, work on games is exploding, fueled by enthusiasm and unhampered by the baggage that Western game developers carry with them.

Jon Hare, who is widely regarded as one of the gurus of gaming for his work on such titles as "Cannon Fodder," "Wizball Wizard" and "Mega lo Mania" during his time running Sensible Software, said the Western game industry is facing a crisis: As the industry has become more commercial, games have become less diverse.

"It's very much in vogue now to quote your influences," Hare said. "Commercially, it's very important. And you need to quote influences to sell an idea to a publisher, but it has gained too much importance and is limiting creativity."

The flip side, said Hare, is that if a game is too original it will be difficult for people to pick up. But gamers are not getting the choice, he said. "We don't get the backing to try new things. Publishers are scared; they want more of the same."

That situation may be changing a bit. Glasgow, Scotland-based Gamers Republic, which started out providing production management and development outsourcing to the game publishing industry, has moved on to game development and has resources as far afield as Vietnam.

Dave Sharp, founder and managing director of Gamers Republic, said some publishers have gotten their hands burned in Central and Eastern Europe but stressed that the governments are now cracking down on the organized crime problem very effectively.

"One big publisher got really ripped off this summer by a supposed developer that turned out to be mafia, and they were taken for 250,000 pounds," or $387,000, said Sharp. "While this is going on, Sony and the like will stay away. Sony does not want a development kit to go missing and end up being distributed outside its control."

Tales of mafia involvement have largely been written off as myths, and the company that got robbed failed to properly check out the people with whom it was doing business, said Sharp. His own first experience of organized crime there came in 1995 when he visited Moscow while working for Virgin Interactive.

"It was clear from the start that the mafia ran everything," said Sharp.

At the time, the government had no way of tracking and tackling the problem, said Sharp. "Governments now realize that if they want to join the EU, if they want trade barriers to be removed, they have to get on top of the problem."

Some big publishers are taking a much more active interest in developing countries, even though there is still a stigma attached to game development in Central Europe, said Sharp.

Marek Spanel, co-founder and managing director of Bohemia Interactive Studio, which created the million-selling "Operation Flashpoint," gave a good reason why the big companies should look to that part of the world. "Most developers are doing their first projects so have fresh ideas," he said Spanel, whose company is based in Prague, Czech Republic. "We can develop new games."

What's more, Czech developers do not see game development as just a business, said Spanel. "We see it as an art. There are plenty of new ideas here, and we are eager to show that we can better then developers in the U.S. and the U.K."

Most Central European games are currently PC-based because software development kits for consoles are expensive, but the situation is changing. Bohemia is currently working on a version of "Operation Flashpoint" for Microsoft's Xbox, for instance.

In Poland, there is a similar energy. Adam Marczynski is a third-generation Polish-Canadian who moved in 1995 from Canada to Poland, where he built a software development company. His company has created a 3D game engine for the PC, featured in the title "War Drones" published by Midas in the United Kingdom. His company is now developing a 3D Shockwave engine.

Polish developers, said Marczynski, have three things in abundance: enthusiasm, lack of cynicism and team effort.

"It is really important to know that even if we are only making a little money, it is an honor to work on something you really love," he said. "People in these countries don't see the work as a 9-to-5 job. They don't have so much baggage in terms of gaming history."

ZDNet UK's Matt Loney reported from London.