Iranian developers defy huge odds to create acclaimed computer game

Amir Hossein Fassihi, center, CEO of the company that created "Garshasp," talks with other game developers at a seminar in Tehran.
Amir Hossein Fassihi, center, CEO of the company that created "Garshasp," talks with other game developers at a seminar in Tehran. (Thomas Erdbrink/the Washington Post)
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - March 21, 2010
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 21, 2010

It might not seem that remarkable for a ragtag group of friends to come up with a computer game in a dusty back office.

But the Iranian engineering students, programmers and fantasy animators who created "Garshasp, the Monster Slayer" have not only impressed foreign companies with their product. They have also proved that young Iranians can carve out opportunities for themselves against a backdrop of international sanctions, domestic deterrents and anti-government demonstrations.

The Tehran office run by business developer Arash Jafari and chief executive Amir Hossein Fassihi is no flashy Silicon Valley incubator, but it's no standard Iranian workplace, either.

In the entrance, a life-size cutout of Akouman, a devilish character sporting large white horns, awaits visitors. The walls of the tiny "arts department" are painted bright yellow and lined with drawings of mythological beasts and warriors wielding gigantic swords. The young men in sneakers and hooded sweatshirts laugh out loud as rock music blares from speakers.

"We hang out so much that we have to be friends," said Yaser Zhian, the main programmer. "It just feels so good to be doing something all by ourselves. It's us against the world."

The game, created by a 20-member team, is expected to be released abroad to coincide with the Iranian new year, which starts Saturday. There have been other Iranian-produced computer games, but "Garshasp, the Monster Slayer" is the first that can compete internationally.

The action-adventure game is set in ancient Persia (as Iran was formerly known) in a world taken over by mythological monsters called "deevs." All characters are drawn from Iranian myths and legends. Players must fight their way through three "worlds," or levels, by killing opponents and solving puzzles.

The creative impetus behind "Garshasp," which won praise during recent gaming conferences in the United Arab Emirates, Germany and France, was set in motion years ago in Tehran. During jam sessions with a semiprofessional rock band and breaks from university basketball games, a group of youths started daydreaming about making a computer game.

"Me and Soheil Eshraghi played in a band," said Jafari, a former electronics engineer with long, dark hair. "We liked games, but I didn't know Soheil could make animations," he said. One of Eshraghi's cartoons received a U.N. award in 2000.

While at the prestigious Sharif University of Technology, Jafari met Fassihi, an old friend, who was studying civil engineering. Both had passed a grueling national exam taken by 200,000 students a year. The top 800 are accepted at Sharif University; Jafari placed 97th and Fassihi 180th.

Fassihi, who recently became a father, won a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at UCLA. After earning his degree, he returned to Tehran, where international pressure over Iran's nuclear program was already hurting businesses. Jafari and Fassihi then started a company developing Web sites.

"When we had made enough money, we decided to try and make the game," Fassihi said.

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