Lithuanian developers are so self-deprecating it is almost frustrating. For every achievement of Lithuania's games industry that veterans Artūras Rumancievas and Ridas Bušmanas list while we are touring around their lush offices in Kaunas, they add three reasons why it is "unfortunately not on the Western level yet."
Artūras is a longtime member of Lithuania's games industry and the organiser of its biggest games festival, and explains the current situation is the inevitable result of recent history. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the smaller states on its periphery entered an economic chaos that would last years. This is the start point for Lithuania's games industry, which realistically has only had about 20 years to sort out its technological and human resources and begin taking games development seriously. "While countries like Russia, Ukraine and Poland all had their own domestic markets, it was a lot more challenging for the smaller Baltic countries to make that first step. We were receiving little international interest from other companies due to the stereotype that piracy is rampant in the region," says Artūras. "We knew we had to do it all ourselves."
Ridas opening GameOn 2015
In the 1990s Lithuanian developers would bundle their computers together to eke out enough performance — it was difficult to import powerful PCs in this decade — and copies of games were only available on CDs that came free with a gaming magazine, or were passed between friends. Everything changed with digital distribution, the rise of mobile gaming and online marketplaces such as Steam — almost overnight small, independent companies in the region were able to sell their creations on an international market.
Today there are approximately 15 games development companies in Lithuania, some of which have attained international success. Nordcurrent's Cooking Fever, for instance, has been downloaded over 100 million times and was marketed by Khloe Kardashian (Artūras jokes "they were only able to afford a Khloe"). TutoTOONS, a game developer and publisher, has 300+ mobile games and more than 200M downloads worldwide. A children's educational game, Pepi Bath, has had over six million downloads and has even been adopted by some infant schools as part of their curriculum.
"All of this of course makes me optimistic, but I also wish that we had the space to create games that would be more reflective of the local culture," Artūras says. "Yhat one could recognise a game that comes from Eastern Europe, [and] it wouldn't look just like all the other ones." Part of the problem is that, for Lithuania's homegrown talent, the grass has traditionally been greener elsewhere. With Lithuania joining the European Union in 2005, in particular, many of the country's programming talents took the opportunity to emigrate elsewhere in the EU to more established games companies. Lithuania's games industry is now starting to be supported by some EU and government money, and this tendency is partially reversing, with many talents migrating back and to build the industry they came from. "While we have always been strong on IT," adds Artūras, "we are still desperately lacking artists, publishers, analysts, journalists etcetera."
Artūras teaching schoolkids about jobs in games
While Artūras has been organising the industry for a couple of decades now and is impatient for it to receive some recognition, his colleague Ridas is of the younger generation, and he feels lucky just to be making a living out of video games.
"I got into League of Legends in my mid-teens, and that passion did become an obsession but I was making a name for myself. One day my parents cut the cord and said that if I want to continue playing I have to pay for my own internet. I would do little jobs here and there to be able to afford it. My parents realised that this wasn't enough of a deterrent for me and I came back home one day to my computer being taken away. They said, 'if you want to play so much, get yourself a computer'. I worked my socks off during one summer and bought myself a PC. When I proudly brought it home one day, my parents said, 'You can play your games, but not in this house.' That's it, I was on the streets."
Luckily by this time Ridas was already going to university and was able to join a community of people that would be supportive of his love for gaming. The community had developed its own eSports event, Infoshow LAN Party, which started out as a small gathering in a dorm room. It soon moved into a classroom before taking over the university's biggest hall. With Ridas on board, Infoshow became Lithuania's largest eSports event, housed in the country's historical sports venue with the capacity to seat more than 1,000 gamers under one roof. Players from all over Eastern Europe compete for prizes in CS:GO, League of Legends, Hearthstone, Overwatch and others.
The InfoShow LAN Party in 2006. Header image: InfoShow LAN Party in 2016.
Artūras works in the same offices where one of the CS:GO teams practice. "You go past the CS:GO practice room and you hear all these dudes non-stop hurling abuse at each other, mercilessly swearing at one of the players for failing to pick an item. The team is not doing brilliantly, let me tell you," Artūras laughs. "Next door is a 'Sneaky Box' indie game development studio, where mostly female artists have their own Overwatch team. Even though they’re not playing on a competitive level just yet, it's cool to compare the in-game relationship. I hear them going, 'Oh, you didn't pick off their sniper, no worries, we'll get them next time!' I’m sure these women actually have a good chance at winning some prizes. It's my dream to get them to compete in a tournament."
Today, both Ridas and Artūras are working around the clock to deliver GameOn III, the Baltic states' biggest gaming culture festival happening on 16-17th September. Last year the event attracted 14,000 people over two days; considering Lithuania's population of around three million, that's the equivalent of the UK having 300,000 people attend such an event (for comparison's sake, 75,000 people attended last year's EGX.) The festival features everything that one would expect at a large consumer / industry event — eSports competitions, family space, international studios showing off their newest games and industry awards and so on. But the largest slice of the budget is going towards attracting international speakers to give lectures and provide inspiration for Lithuania's games studios, the kind of people that can encourage the country's next generation to be bold and innovative in their game creating. This year the organisers have also introduced its first women-only panel, hoping not only to provide a space to discuss and share their experiences in the games industry, but to attract sceptical parents and explain that programming not only can but should be a career choice for young girls.
GameOn 2016 Indie Arena
If we start with the Magnavox Odyssey, the west's commercial games industry is just under 50 years old. That is the period that's been telescoped into less than 20 years in Lithuania, and plans are in place for what lies ahead. In 2022 Kaunas — Lithuania's second city, the Glasgow to Vilnius's Edinburgh — will be the capital of culture in Europe and GameOn, together with LŽKA (Lithuania's equivalent of trade body UKIE), is planning to bring locally-made video games into new art galleries and open 'bArcades' to put not just games but Lithuanian games into the everyday cultural life of the city.
The stage is set. Lithuania is one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU, and is rapidly reaching the technological, economical, cultural and political level of its Western counterparts. The only thing currently holding the region back, in a creative sense, is that ineffable quality of confidence. If its next generation can get over the habit of self-deprecation, and build on the foundations people like Artūras have laid, then the next big thing in gaming may well hail from this neck of the woods.