Israel’s indie game devs are poised for greatness - but can they admit they’re Israeli?

The Israeli developers behind indie hit GRIME explain how the country’s thriving casual game scene is set for greatness but Israel's politics are getting in the way.

 GRIME promotional image. (photo credit: CLOVER BITE)
GRIME promotional image.
(photo credit: CLOVER BITE)

It’s no surprise that Japan and the United States dominate a majority of discussions about video games around the world, as the two countries make up a huge percentage of the industry’s revenue and output. Even still, there are many game developers in other countries that have made a name for themselves – and as more opportunities for growth present themselves to video game makers in Israel, the country’s indie game development could join the conversation – but they may be better off not acknowledging their nationality.

Israel is already responsible for a significant portion of the world’s most successful casual mobile game devs, such as Playtika (which has a net worth of $7.5 billion) and Moon Active ($5b.); but in terms of so-called “premium games” like you might find on gaming platforms such as Playstation, Nintendo, Xbox or Steam, Israel-made projects have garnered little attention – though this may be subject to change in the near future.

“You don’t just have an industry crop up out of nowhere,” said Yonatan Tepperberg, technical artist at Haifa-based game studio Clover Bite (and one third of its dev team). “We have a very successful casual industry here, with lots of professionals that are extremely knowledgeable and experienced.”

Clover Bite’s sole release is the action platformer GRIME. The game, which takes heavy inspiration from games like Dark Souls and also Salt and Sanctuary, has achieved relative success in the indie game arena: it currently stands at 81% on MetaCritic, and it has accumulated over 2,000 “very positive” reviews on game publishing platform Steam.

“This is our first-ever game, and it was not really intended to be something this big,” said Clover Bite’s director and producer Yarden Weissbrot. He and his team began developing the game at the Tiltan School of Design and Visual Communications. “We were starting here in a studio inside of Tiltan that was mostly doing [casual] games for customers: simple match-four stuff, things like that. The one that was in charge of the studio left, and then we kind of took the opportunity to try and do something on our own. That’s how it started.”

 The Clover Bite team, developers of the video game GRIME (credit: Alexandra Korilovski) The Clover Bite team, developers of the video game GRIME (credit: Alexandra Korilovski)

Clover Bite’s journey from casual to premium game development illustrates a point made by Tepperberg: “It’s unavoidable that the industry here in Israel focuses mostly on mobile games, or free-to-play games, or casual games or hyper-casual games. I think it’s great that we have such an industry here – it’s really fertile soil for developers to learn actual tools and techniques to make great games.”

“That soil is the basis of the indie boom here in Israel,” Tepperberg continued. “You have more and more indie studios popping up here in Israel that make more hardcore premium games that hit the market to great success. And they don’t just make that one game and then stop because it doesn’t work. They actually keep working as a studio to make more and more projects.”

Solo game dev Alex Nicola, who has spent the last seven years developing his game Space Cats Tactics, agreed with that sentiment. He began his career in the mobile development scene in Israel, before graduating to more premium projects for large developers.

“My experience with mobile or casual gaming taught me how to deal with the pipeline of a creative field. Companies recognize [that experience],” Nicola said. “I sometimes recommend to new Israeli game devs to actually start with the mobile companies in Israel. It’s not their final goal but it helps a lot.”

There is, however, at least one potential roadblock stopping Israeli developers from breaking into the gaming mainstream: the political controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During development, Weissbrot was extremely paranoid about letting it slip that his studio was based in Israel. “I just tried to make it as much of a secret as possible,” he said. “I remember being a 14-year-old kid and playing multiplayer games – someone would ask where I was from, and the moment I would answer the question, I would get kicked from the game. That kind of stuff has only grown stronger over time.”

Weissbrot tried his hardest not to let it slip that Clover Bite was Israel-based. To him, drawing attention to your studio being in Israel could be a recipe for disaster. “I’ve seen enough to know it’s better avoided as much as possible. There’s no benefit to it,” he said.

Word did eventually proliferate that Clover Bite is Israel-based, though – and as if to prove that there was substance behind Weissbrot’s paranoia, one mixed review of GRIME written by a community member began with the disclaimer “I will start with the fact that the game in Israeli development will not change the score,” as if docking the game’s score due to its developer’s home country was reasonably up for consideration.

Weissbrot lamented that game developers from other countries, such as the Polish studio CD Projekt RED – which is responsible for the massively successful Witcher game series – can boast their nationality with pride, becoming a flagship for their countries’ reputation among the gaming community; but Israeli developers can’t do so as freely. “CD Projekt RED can call itself a Polish company; we’re not as big as them, but even in the future I don’t know that it would be easy [for Clover Bite] to try and claim that kind of title.”

Tomer Barkan, founder of the Israel-based Suncrash Studio, has had a divergent experience. “I haven’t gone around saying ‘hey everyone look at my blue-and-white game,’ but I haven’t tried to hide it,” he said. He admitted however, that there’s always a risk of getting backlash. “You see now instances of Russian games getting review-bombed because people hate the country, so they’re punishing the developers. I guess that’s something that could happen to Israeli games as well.”

With that in mind, if the global gaming community finds itself willing to separate artists from the political decisions of their governments, the Israeli indie game development scene could become the video game industry’s next obsession.