Israel’s game boys may finally get a chance to shine

The video game market was worth $20 billion in the US alone in 2009, almost double the sales of five years earlier.

game presentation 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
game presentation 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When it comes to software or hardware technology, Internet content, networking, firewalls – just about any hi-tech area, in fact – Israeli companies are among the industry leaders, if not the leaders. Just about any area, that is, except for one – video games.
If you thought gaming was a waste of time, thing again. The video game market was worth $20 billion in the US alone in 2009, almost double the sales of five years earlier.
But somehow, besides a few notable successful exceptions, Israel hasn’t performed as well in the game business as it has in other technology development areas. Most of the content companies are very young. While Israeli developers have had success working for companies abroad, and Israeli companies have developed some games for American and Japanese publishers, Israeli start-ups haven’t made their mark on the gaming world yet.
That could all change, though, thanks to new advances in 3D cameras developed by Israeli companies – most notably PrimeSense, which is supplying the 3D guts of the new xBox 360, due out later this year.
“The fact that this technology was developed in Israel could be a good thing for Israeli content publishers,” said Oded Sharon, head of the Israel chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). “Of course, that success depends on whether or not consumers go for the 3D systems Microsoft will be coming out with. If the xBox has games consumers want, it will be a huge success, and Israeli companies will benefit.”
Some of that up and coming 3D gaming technology will be on display at IGDA Israel Game Day (GameIS), an event being held by the Israel chapter of the IGDA. The Israel chapter, one of many around the world, is about a decade old, and Sharon took the job of chairman three years ago. No newcomer to the world of game development, Sharon is the CEO of Corbomite Games.
Among Sharon’s contributions to the world of games are Pizza Morgana (in which you are teleported into a magical dimension where everyone delivers pizza) and the Corbomite Spinning Cube for iPhones.
It’s not that Israel, or Israelis, haven’t had some successes in game development.
“Some of the biggest games are made by companies that got their start in Israel,” said Sharon. Among those companies are Oberon Media, one of the world’s top makers of casual games, headquartered in New York, but the company got its start in Israel. And several big games – including Rising Eagle and Battledawn – have Israeli roots as well, Sharon added.
Still, Israel’s forte into the big leagues of gaming has been in the realm of hardware and technology, not content. And exciting things are happening in the technology area – especially with the adoption by Microsoft of the 3D technology developed by Israel’s PrimeSense (which is one of the sponsors of GameIS). The PrimeSense 3D sensor is the centerpiece of Project Natal, Microsoft’s upgrade of the xBox 360, giving it the ability to track users in full 3D. Natal’s ability to track movement is far superior to that of the popular Nintendo Wii gaming system.
“The difference is like night and day,” said PrimeSense CEO Inon Beracha. “If the Wii can track one point – an X and Y axis – and extrapolate it into action on screen, our product can sense tens of thousands of points, making the sensor much more sensitive and accurate. It’s like wearing a suit of Wii armor.”
PrimeSense isn’t the only Israeli company with a 3D gaming breakthrough. Lucid’s fast graphic chips can make games fly off the screen, and Omek Interactive’s 3D camera lets users control their avatars on screen, with proprietary motion games developed for the hardware. But not everyone can get into the hardware or technology business since the startup and development costs are high, meaning that companies need substantial help from angels and VCs if they want to fulfill their vision. In particular, in these uncertain times, only the most solid technologies are likely to get funded.
On the surface, it would seem easier for a start-up to be successful in game development, which ostensibly requires fewer resources.
But that’s not necessarily so either according to Sharon.
“Games need to be sophisticated to appeal to gamers, and that takes money. And until Israel has a track record in game development, investors will be reluctant to invest in Israeli content companies,” said Sharon.
This brings us to 3D games, an area, where Israel has an opportunity to make a name for itself. With Israeli companies at the forefront of 3D gaming technology, it stands to reason that start-ups here will be able to use their contacts to work out development deals for 3D content.
In fact, several Israeli start-ups, most notably Guy Bendov’s Side-Kick, are developing games for the Natal 3D xBox. Bendov will be speaking at GameIS, and demonstrating some of Side-Kick’s wares.
So, it would appear that Israeli game content start-ups will finally find their place in the sun. But not so fast, said Sharon, since it really depends on how the public likes the 3D features of the new xBox. “The truth is that hard-core gamers, who are more identified with the xBox, are happy to work their controller from a sofa. They don’t necessarily want to get up and move around,” said Sharon. Microsoft will have to appeal to the “Wii crowd”, which are the millions who have embraced the soon to be primitive technology of the Wii, and persuade them to trade their consoles in for the far superior PrimeSense-based Natal sensor system. If Microsoft can do that, Israeli 3D game publishers may finally have their chance to shine.