The games are afoot

Above: Promotional art of the MokoJumbie character in the game Le Loupgarou by Couple Six. Art courtesy Couple Six. Click to enlarge images.

Originally published in Caribbean Beat for November-December 2017

The race for success in the international gaming industry has become faster and more aggressive, with spending on top of the line games costing as much as a midrange film.

Promotional art of the Charred Man from the game by Couple Six.

Tetris, released in June 1984 is estimated to have earned US$170 million. Grand Theft Auto V, released September 2013, has earned upwards of US$80 million.

Games, popular on the PC but massive on mobile devices, are a key element of the modern computing experience. Marketing professionals pursue opportunities to gamify their sales pitches, striving to immerse potential customers in participatory experiences while sharing their stories.

While most games just barely manage to recoup the massive investments in their creation or fail entirely, the allure of success drives developers, designers and artists to work harder to create the next big game.

In the Caribbean, two small creative shops are working independently to not just create games that compete in this superheated market, they are committed to creating experiences that reflect the culture, rhythm and unique character of the islands of the archipelago.

Taking advantage of new educational opportunities in the region, including a greater emphasis on software development in the tertiary level curriculum and the success of the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s nine-year-old animation programme, a new generation of young creatives are embracing the tools and learning available online to do what they might only have dreamed of as recently as a decade ago.

Couple Six from Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago’s Coded-Arts are fully aware of the competition they face and are working to realise games that reflect and celebrate the uniqueness of the region.

Mark Ramsay and Ariana Green of Couple Six. Photo courtesy Couple Six.

Mark Ramsay was on a train from Toronto to Montreal in 2015 when he began chatting with a good friend about building a videogame.

But his friend wanted to create a Pong clone and Ramsay wanted to create something more modern and involving.

Another friend, Ariana Green, his bestie for ten years, was to his surprise working on her own video game project, but the two had absolutely no idea how to build a video game.

At this point Ramsay could rely on a background in fiction writing and Green was into photography.

They began with an chilling visual in mind, a girl walking her bike down a rough path in a cane field who encounters a La Diablesse, the demon temptress of regional legend.

The two began learning everything they could about the medium. They studied game design, narrative construction, pipelines and processes, studied running a company and project management while Green dug deep into programming with the Unity game engine, a popular coding backbone for developers.

“I think our lack of expertise and sheer gumption were incredible assets in those early days,” Ramsay recalls.

“We didn’t have the wherewithal to understand that this project was too big to cut our teeth on – and that ignorance was a blessing.”

Floating houses from the game by Couple Six.

The team, now working as Couple Six, has since grown by three; Joshua Clarke, a Fine Arts graduate of Barbados Community College, Krystal Leslie, a classically trained musician who is working on the musical themes that will underpin the game and Danielle Blaize, a Trinidadian animator who is working on the 3D models for the game and the characters.

“Not only is developing a videogame with a small team ambitious in and of itself – but the kind of project we’ve decided to commit to borders on insanity,” Ramsay admits, “and that’s exactly why we’re doing it.”

“We have met talented artists and developers all across the globe (Twitter is a lifeline when you’re a creative working on an island) and they have lent their support, their insight and their experience. That kind of input is invaluable.”

The game, Le Loupgarou, has rich concept art and test animations that create a brooding, somewhat spooky world that’s both distinctively Caribbean, if you spend a lot of time outdoors at night in the region, and otherworldly, as befits a game “about a plantation fire, a pact with a creature called a Baccou, and a civil rights activist masquerading as a maid”.

The team has signed up for online patronage with the website Patreon, where supporters can follow and contribute to the development effort.

“We tried to work on other projects, side projects, random websites, copywriting,” says Ramsay “but it detracts from our goal.”

“We’re in it for the long haul. We know what that means. We’ve begun hunting for investors, backers or grants to keep the project afloat and eventually we will be turning to Kickstarter.”

“We’re almost ready for that. We want to make sure that when we turn up and accept people’s money, we know we can deliver.”

Programmers, artists and management of Coded-Arts at the company’s U-Start incubator offices in Caroni, Trinidad. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Trinidad’s Coded-Arts came together in a more deliberate and planned strategy, but still ended up guided by serendipity.

Students of the University of Trinidad and Tobago in animation and others in software engineering created two companies after graduation, Interactive Creative Entertainment and Toolkit Developers, both with the mission to create local video games.

The two teams started referencing each other to create a project and soon realised that marketing a game under two different studio banners simply didn’t make sense. After 11 months, they decided to merge into a single company, Coded-Arts.

The team is developing Char Su’s Great Adventure, an atmospheric game about a boy living on a Caribbean island who has to deal with magic and mysticism, battling an obeah man who wants to release the region’s deadliest myths into the wider world. The game is an adventure platformer targeting XBox One, Steam and PS4.

“Originally,” says Andy Berahazar Jr, Chairman & Creative Director of Coded Arts, “we thought we could get by doing a couple of small games while we worked on a larger game. That didn’t work out at all.”

Certainly not if the team is to hit their target, the Triple A international gaming standard for the final project, which demands a three to five-year development cycle.

Screen detail from the Coded-Arts game Char Su’s Great Adventure.

The team is large and gathered in their space at UTT’s U-Start incubator centre, they completely overwhelm the space. But the whole group of twelve is almost never in the space at the same time, and usually six are in the office while the rest of the team works on projects.

Some of those projects will keep the rendering servers running, and Managing Director Manuel Browne spends most of his working day selling the services that the company offers, a unique blend of web projects, 3D renderings and walk-throughs and gamification of projects for commercial customers.

Under development as a commissioned project is a video game for the popular T&T video series I am Santana that’s due in the first quarter of 2018.

In September 2017, the team delivered a People Finder web app and Android app for people to make contact in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The company has also developed an immersive VR experience, modeled in 3D, of Dr Eric Williams delivering his first Independence Day address to Parliament at the Red House.

It’s an odd experience, looking around the room they have created, full of people with twitchy nervous tics and uncomfortable postures, apparently reluctantly present for the historic address.

“People are interested, but they want to see if it’s something that lasts,” Browne says.

“It isn’t food, it’s something that has to be sold in a particular way to particular people.”

To enhance their commercial offerings as well as to enrich their game development, Coded-Arts has invested in virtual reality and augmented reality development kits as well as buying a motion capture suit.

The company is in talks with Electronic Arts about a development kit and is talking to Microsoft about working with a Hololens device.

The international market for their particular services is changing as well. Where China and India are volatile heavyweights in the market, but China is turning its resources inward to create more of their own properties instead of powering production for first world nations.

Browne sees the market moving into Latin America now that prices are rising in India and hopes to find a place there using shared English speaking as an advantage.

Left to right, Brian Perry ,Technology Director, Andy Berahazar Jr, Chairman & Creative Director and Manuel Browne, Managing Director at the Coded-Arts U-Start incubator offices in Caroni, Trinidad. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

“We are all gamers, and this is where we wanted to be when we were growing up,” says Berahazar.

“We have an opportunity to decide on what gaming in the Caribbean looks like in the region and locally, and we have to capitalize on this and make it happen,” adds Browne.

“We are aiming to be the first developer to release on the console, where success is found, and not to just get lost in the clutter of mobile app stores.”

“Companies are looking for independent and interesting projects to promote, they want something new, something reflecting unique cultures and experiences.”

“We have the opportunity now to preserve our culture and to promote it using these mediums and channels.”

Coded-Arts finds itself in an unusual space as it works to develop a new business model in the Trinidad Market.

They talk to established businesses and their leadership and according to Browne, “It’s a lot like having your father looking at you doodle and smiling and patting your on your back, assuring you that you’re doing a good job.”

They also field continuous requests from interns and young people asking for courses to equip themselves for a nascent industry, finding themselves only a few years after starting out, in the position of mentoring others in the business.

Mark Ramsay remembers meeting the Coded-Arts team in Trinidad at the annual Animae Caribe screening and demonstration event.

“They took us out for Scorpion Pepper hot wings when we were there. You know, important business stuff.”