By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 21, 2010; A13
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.
For Iranians, who live with double-digit inflation, unemployment and constant political and judicial uncertainty, enterprises that do not yield almost-instant results are typically regarded as lost undertakings. There are no copyright laws, and music, movies and computer games can be freely copied, distributed and sold.
"People thought we had lost our minds," said Jafari, laughing. "Why weren't we building apartment buildings like other engineers? our parents asked us," Fassihi recalled.
Jafari and Fassihi recruited amateur Iranian game developers from English-language game forums on the Internet. "There is a lot of talent in Tehran," Fassihi said, "but nobody had experience." Eshraghi, the animator, created the main characters; the others scoured the Internet to learn more about developing games.
"Google was our university," Jafari said.
The team also had to deal with the growing trade sanctions against Iran. It was impossible to buy the licenses for the Western software used as the game's engine. The Iranians had to rely on less powerful open-source software that was freely available on the Web.
"We evolved into professional developers and animators," Jafari said. "We created a whole new industry in Iran just by trying and trying and trying again."
Eventually, a foundation funded by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance provided the team with seed money to promote its game in Europe, where a German distributor now intends to sell it. "The only way we can fail now is if we screw things up ourselves," Fassihi said. "We are in control of our own future."
But Iran's harsh realities have been impossible to avoid completely. The game is ready for distribution, but Jafari and Fassihi are temporarily delaying its domestic release.
"The game is about fun," Jafari said. "But people are sad right now, worried. Some of their family members are in prison. This is not the right time to promote our game."