January 3 was a regular workday in Isfahan, Iran, for indie game developer Mahdi Bahrami. Then he read the news. Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani had been killed in Baghdad by an airstrike authorized by United States President Donald Trump. That’s when Bahrami’s normal day dissolved into fears for his loved ones and his livelihood.

“I was just concerned with the game design before, different details about the game,” Bahrami said via a Skype call from Isfahan. “[After Soleimani’s death] I’m not thinking about the game. I’m thinking about my life, my family. It sounded like there would be a war, but hopefully that won’t happen."

In January, tensions between Iran and the United States escalated dramatically, beginning with the killing of Soleimani. On January 8, Iran fired missiles at an Iraqi military base housing U.S. troops in response. Soon after, President Trump announced the United States would be placing more economic sanctions on Iran. Since then, things appear to have calmed. But just as the most recent inciting incident came without warning, so too may future escalations. And for Bahrami and other Iranian game developers, the present conditions are problematic enough.

Bahrami has faced no shortage of hurdles for his business while living in Iran. There was a six-day internet blackout late last year after widespread protests broke out over rising fuel prices. Bahrami, among many others, had no way to work or communicate with others online.

“If I had a meeting with someone in Europe or if I wanted to release a game during that week I don’t know what’d I do,” he said.

These things aren’t under Bahrami’s control, and they have an outsize impact on his day-to-day life and business operations. Both he and the Iranian game development scene writ large are effectively cut off from the rest of the world by these geopolitical tensions and the sanctions imposed on Iran as a result.

Despite these roadblocks, a countrywide game development community has still managed to take form. Individual groups, as well as the government-run Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation, have hosted events like game jams — marathon game-making sessions — and the Tehran Game Convention, which saw 1,500 attendees the last time it was held in 2018. “We host regular workshops, host game jams in order to make the community stronger,” said Iranian game producer Taha Rasouli, who works for the Iranian game investment and publishing firm Avagames. “We want to bring people together, and that’s been difficult here.”

These difficulties stem from obstacles foreign to most game creators around the world, and they persist throughout almost every step of the development process. All console software development kits, many Google tools, as well as GitHub and other services and tools needed to create video games are unavailable in Iran. Iranian developers can’t test their games on key consoles, such as the Nintendo Switch or Xbox One.

The same is true of YouTube, PayPal and other websites that independent developers and studios rely on to promote and make a living off their work. Iranian developers also can’t freely sell their games on storefronts like Steam or the App Store, and in discussions about game distribution they often have to hide their national identity for fear of scaring off international partners wary of violating sanctions on Iran.

“We are practically cut off from everything; I can’t think of a tool we can access freely,” said Rasouli. “It’s either banned by our government or banned by international sanctions and it’s getting worse now because of the political situation.”

‘The downsides are tremendous’

The obstacles imposed by the geopolitical climate make the fundamental work of game development extraordinarily difficult, but Iranian developers have navigated them as best they can. They embrace the tools they can access legally — and pirate everything else.

“There are very few domestic tools we can use as replacements,” Rasouli said. “For the most important tools and services like game engines … there are no replacements. Trying to fool the system is one of those extra efforts we have to make in daily activities that sometimes take a lot of time.”

Iranian developers rely heavily on proxies, VPNs and IP relays to get around restrictions that block users in Iran. VPNs themselves are legal, but developers using them to skirt sanctions could still get in trouble. One developer interviewed for this story, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of legal repercussions, used multiple IP relays to publish their game on the PlayStation Network so Sony couldn’t find their actual location. Some tools, like the game engine Unity and the communication service Slack were removed from Iran by their creators to abide by sanctions, even though both programs are technically allowed. Developers can still use Unity by logging in through a VPN and downloading their free software. Slack still prohibits users with Iranian IP addresses.

“In a lot of situations, companies are too afraid to do anything [in Iran]. Even if it’s not a big problem, if it’s not banned by the sanctions,” Bahrami said. “Slack removed all the Iranian accounts from their database. They banned all Iranian accounts. I’m not sure why because we can use Gmail here, WhatsApp, Facebook."

A 1995 executive order prohibits “the importation into the United States, or the financing of such importation, of any goods or services of Iranian origin,” restricting business transactions between Americans and Iranians. Secondary sanctions, including ones in a new executive order signed in January, threaten other countries and businesses with sanctions if they do business with in Iran.

“Making a mistake can be a business-ending decision.”

John E. Smith, former Director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) does have a general license that permits some exemptions, including social media, email and messaging apps. OFAC has not publicly announced how video games are categorized relative to that group, meaning many gaming companies would have to apply for a specific license to do business in Iran.

“The U.S. several years ago, in an attempt to enhance the people of Iran’s ability to communicate, issued what’s called a general license,” said John E. Smith, a former Director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “An authorization broadly allowing U.S. companies to provide certain types of easily downloadable software to the people of Iran.”

The exemptions are supposed to increase the Iranian people’s ability to communicate, meaning that Slack and a free version of Unity could be legally accessible in Iran. However, OFAC hasn’t publicly confirmed whether the banned tools would fall under these exemptions. Smith emphasized that there is no black-and-white answer; any company walking that line (including publishers and other partners Iranian developers need to launch their games) would be treading ambiguous legal ground. Many companies would rather play it safe.

“The downsides are tremendous,” Smith said. “If a U.S. company makes a mistake, then they can be penalized significantly by the U.S. government. There are civil and criminal penalties for getting it wrong. … Making a mistake can be a business-ending decision.”

‘It’s a big problem here’

According to the developers interviewed for this story, the only way to advance in their career path is to leave Iran, making it near impossible for the country’s game development community to grow. Rasouli and others said most experienced developers often choose to apply for jobs outside the country in Europe and North America over remaining in Iran. The Iranian diaspora is estimated by Iranian officials at between 5 and 7 million people, mostly living in North America, Europe and the Gulf.

“Almost all of my friends from high school, the type of people that went to university, have left,” said Bahrami, who spent a few years in the Netherlands but eventually returned home. “It’s a big problem here.”

Yasaman Farazan, another Iranian game developer, is among those that left Iran to pursue her career, currently studying at the Cologne Game Lab in Germany.

“I’d definitely be happier back there with my family, but I wanted to see how game development works when you’re not cut off," she said. "I grew up knowing that if you become successful, you will leave Iran.”

The biggest barrier to success that developers face while living in Iran is their inability to put their games on the industry’s biggest marketplaces. While actual enforcement is scattershot, storefronts like the App Store, Google Play and Steam have all removed Iranian games from their service in the past.

“Imagine working on something for two years and not know whether it’ll get taken down,” Bahrami said.

Some Iranian-made games can still be found on Steam, even though the platform’s subscriber agreement clearly states that users can’t be “located in, under the control of, or a national or resident of any such prohibited country," which includes Iran.

“We want to bring people together, and that’s been difficult here.”

Iranian game producer Taha Rasouli

Some developers find their way around this restriction by recruiting the help of friends who live outside Iran, allowing them to market the games on the developers’ behalf. But this means developers can’t take credit for their own work.

“That’s the solution people usually go for,” Farazan said. “They usually have someone outside Iran, especially if it’s an established company, who can sign contracts and work with publishers."

Iranian developers also face pressure from within Iran. The creators of indie game Children of Morta were summoned to Iranian court over complaints about how the game depicted Islam; the case was ultimately dismissed. The developers interviewed all emphasized that these were rare cases, however.

Iranian game developers don’t foresee any coming reduction to the obstacles they must clear to perform their work. If anything, given the recent tensions with the United States, it could become more difficult.

“Everything right now is getting worse,” Farazan said. “I’m not optimistic; nothing is going to change with the sanctions unless something changes within the governments [of the United States and Iran]. I don’t see that happening."

Farazan, Bahrami, Rasouli and others all echoed the feeling that the stress and anxiety caused by recent events has made it hard to focus on day-to-day work. “It’s draining,” Bahrami said. “How am I supposed to focus with everything that is happening?"

For Bahrami, his concern isn’t for any future improvement for the situation, but rather a hope it will not get any harder to conduct his business, or his day-to-day life.

“I think it can be worse,” Bahrami said. “At least right now I can go buy some groceries and go outside with my family and have fun. Maybe at some point, we won’t have electricity or the Internet. I can see it getting worse.”

Aron Garst is a writer covering the video game and esports industries. You can find his work regularly in ESPN, WIRED, The Verge and EGMNOW. Follow him on Twitter @GarstProducton.

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