Few countries boast a rich cultural history like Italy’s. And yet, until recently, the land famous worldwide for its art, film and music has struggled to make waves in the video games industry. Thankfully, that’s changing – and fast.
Since 2018, the number of developers and game studios in Italy has doubled. Half of that employee growth has happened in the last two years, supercharged by the introduction of tax credits and a fund to partially cover the cost of game prototypes, which the country’s game trade organisation, IIDEA, says is the result of a years-long battle for recognition with the government.
“When I joined the association, I spent the first years battling prejudice, fighting parliamentary enquiries around censorship and a lot of negative stuff,” Thalita Malagò, IIDEA director general, told VGC. “Then there was a time where the industry started to develop, and we were able to shift the discussion towards what we should do to help the industry develop here and compete with other European countries.”
Malagò credits the Italian industry’s turnaround to two major points: the explosion of mobile games in 2011, which inspired a wave of new companies to enter the games market, and the pandemic, which showed previously cynical parliamentary institutions the value of video games, from both a social and economic perspective.
“Since 2018, the number of developers and game studios in Italy has doubled. Half of that employee growth has happened in the last two years”
The introduction of a 25% tax credit for games development in May 2021 – similar to those already enjoyed in the UK and France – is also working, inspiring confidence in domestic game developers and putting them in a better position to pitch projects to international publishers and investors.
The Italian industry remains small by global standards – more than half of companies recently reported a turnover of less than €100,000 – but young people here still love their video games: with a turnover of €2.2 billion from consoles and software, the market is in the top five in Europe.
“I think we’re still very far from France or the UK,” Malagò continued. “Our growth has been steady, but it’s taken a long time because we are not a very fast country in general! I think that probably, in five years’ time, we will be in an even better position than we are now because I believe the government support will grow. This is something that makes the difference. I think there’s room for us to at least double compared to where we are today.”
Despite its growing development scene, Italian culture will be well familiar to anybody who’s scaled Assassin’s Creed’s towers, flanked centurions in Rome: Total War or, if you’ll forgive a more clichéd example, enjoyed Nintendo’s galaxy-sized franchise Super Mario.
With Italian companies finally getting the support they need, many of the developers VGC spoke to at the recent First Playable event in Florence expressed a motivation to reclaim some of the Italian culture that has been so widely utilised in video games by foreign developers.
“Back in 2012, I went to one of my first global game jams,” explained Pietro Righi Riva, founder of indie studio Santa Ragione. “At the time, there was a video presentation by a famous Italian game designer Paolo Pedercini, aka ‘Molleindustria’, who is a professor who makes these political games like McDonald’s Video Game and Democratic Socialism Simulator.
“During the presentation, he was showing off Assassin’s Creed and asking this audience of young developers, ‘why are Canadians telling us about the Renaissance? Why are we not doing that?’
“For me it was quite a motivational speech. There should be more work about Italian culture coming from Italian development teams, but as soon as an international publisher sees an Italian developer making a game about Italy, they immediately start worrying about international appeal.”
“He was showing off Assassin’s Creed and asking this audience of young developers, ‘why are Canadians telling us about the Renaissance? Why are we not doing that?’”
Part of the challenge for Italian developers aspiring to compete with established international industries is creating an environment in which its developers can thrive. IIDEA hopes events such as First Playable, and an increased presence at international events such as GDC and Gamescom, will help put Italian developers on the global radar, and Riva agrees.
“Events like First Playable are exactly what we need to cultivate the local industry while enriching its international appeal,” he said. That’s a smart way to go, showing international partners all the talent and business prospects that we’re offering. There have been some breakthrough titles [internationally], which were mostly racing sims, but I think we’re still missing our Minecraft – having one flagship IP that could put us on the map for global investors.”
One of Italy’s biggest recent success stories is Stormind Games, the creator of multiplatform action adventure games Remothered and Batora: Lost Haven. Just like the wider Italian industry, Stormind has exploded in the last five years, growing from five employees to over 100. And it says this domestic success can not only inspire new people to enter game development at home, but that it’s attracting those who went abroad to come back to the country.
“Italy is composed mostly of elderly people, so the government tend to care about more traditional industries,” world builder Giacomo Masi told VGC. “Only recently, thanks to the growing economic side of video games, studios here have been able to grow larger. Before that, the knowhow used to go abroad, and only now finally we have places [big enough] where people don’t need to go abroad in order to fulfil their desire to become a game developer.”
CEO Antonio Cannata added: “Italy is very famous for its creativity. But in terms of video games, it’s known for racing game developers. What we are trying to do at Stormind Games, is to create something new with a larger scope [than indie games] and offer an opportunity for Italian developers abroad to come back to Italy.
“Because most of them decided at a certain point in their career to go work on specific projects or IP that were not possible in Italy. But there are now some companies in Italy that work on some very famous IPs. We are working on some of them, in fact. We can’t tell you which, but they’re some of the most iconic IPs in the entire industry.
“So here there is the opportunity for Italians to come back home, to work from home in Italy, and then when we have a kick-off meeting they get to come to Sicily, which is not bad! For us, it means they can bring the expertise they acquired abroad back to Italy and it will be good for the expansion of our industry.”
“There are now some companies in Italy that work on some very famous IPs. We are working on some of them, in fact. We can’t tell you which, but they’re some of the most iconic IPs in the entire industry.”
Of course, the darling of the modern Italian industry is Mario + Rabbids studio Ubisoft Milan, which this year won the award for Outstanding Italian Company at the Italian Video Game Awards. The studio has existed since 1998, but it only exploded on the international scene after partnering with Nintendo for the 2017 Nintendo Switch exclusive.
According to producer Cristina Nava, the recognition that comes with working on a global blockbuster IP has made it easier to keep hold of its domestic employees, and create a healthier environment for the Italian industry overall.
“Even though we were founded in 1998, we were a bit obscure, as we were a lot smaller than Ubisoft’s other studios in Montreal and Paris,” she told VGC. “Since we created the Mario + Rabbids IP we have had the spotlight on us, so we’ve been able to attract more talent, which previously was quite difficult because Italian wages are lower.
“Previously, we were just the studio who did [support for] Just Dance – a very successful game, but not many developers wanted to come and work on something where you’re not covering all the parts. [Mario + Rabbids] has allowed us to attract more talent and also contribute to a healthier field for video games in Italy, because sometimes our greatest talents go abroad.
“Now, many startups are growing and making better games, and there are courses in university for video games, whereas before, there were none. We often hire people from there now and help them grow. Sometimes it’s the case that we help them grow and then they go abroad, but now with the IP that we are developing we have been able to keep more of them.”
Surprisingly, 25 years later, Ubisoft is the only major international publisher to establish a studio in Italy. According to Nava, this won’t change until the government provides more incentives for talent to remain in the country.
“It’s important to create a healthy industry in Italy to keep our talents from fleeing, but also to attract talent from abroad,” she told VGC. “Of course, the introduction of tax credits, which are not as strong as in other countries like Canada, [made a difference]. But we would like and need more support from the government side, and the wages need to get higher. Passion is not enough: we need more support. It’s odd that the only major international publisher that has a studio here is Ubisoft… we should have more.”
Even Ubisoft Milan’s creative director Davide Soliani, the man the internet fondly remembers for his tearful reaction to an E3 reveal of his game in 2017, honed his craft abroad at studios such as Kuju in the UK and Ubisoft’s flagship Montreal hub. But Nava says her determination to grow the scene at home meant she never considered boarding an aeroplane.
“I don’t want to be the one going away. I want to stay here and grow the industry,” she said. “It’s been difficult, but I’ve never thought about going abroad, because I want the industry to grow here. I’m very attached to Italy because I know we have the knowhow, the talent, and incredible artists. I want them to stay here.”