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Hungary's Video-Game Industry Is Winning a Place in Western Markets

February 10, 1985|From Reuters

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A new industry being built in Communist Hungary by bright young computer buffs is winning a place in the West's lucrative but fiercely competitive video-games market.

Western computer stores are clearing room on their shelves for Hungarian products with names such as Buffalo Roundup, Caesar the Cat, Chinese Juggler, Traffic and Eureka.

The 18-month-old Novotrade Joint Stock Co. is the industry leader, selling its games in the United States, Britain and West Germany.

Taking Aim at U.S.

"We are aiming to compete with U.S. firms--the best play, best graphics, best music, and the best use of the computer's abilities," Novotrade managing director Gabor Renyi said in an interview.

Two years ago, there was no such industry here, but advances in software expertise, economic reforms that spur initiative in business, and the ingenuity of a nation that produced the Rubik Cube--an infuriatingly difficult mechanical puzzle--have unleashed a welter of activity.

New firms and free-lancers are burning the midnight oil to meet deadlines for Western partners with an insatiable appetite for Hungarian games, industry sources said.

After living on advances of $600,000 in 1984, Novotrade expects to move into big profits after the first royalties come in next year, Renyi said.

Confidence High

Novotrade has sent 25 games to the Western market with a circulation target of 50,000 units each, and expects to make $1.5 million from royalties in 1985, according to Renyi.

"But we only need one game to be a big success and we'll make much more," he said. There are signs this will happen, with confidence high both here and among Western partners, he added.

A Novotrade game called Eureka has been launched worldwide with a $31,000 prize to the first person who reaches the end of the epic adventure.

British partner Andromeda is setting up a firm in Britain to take Novotrade games to the U.S. market, where it will cooperate with American firms Epyx and Activision.

For now, Novotrade produces games for the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum home computers widely used in Britain. Andromeda has told Novotrade its ideas are highly original and immensely popular.

The firm, whose shares are owned by 97 state organizations, is proving the value of reforms that are decentralizing the Communist state's economy.

Free to mold a market strategy, the firm can make the quick responses needed in this volatile trade where a bureaucratic economy would stand much less chance.

Novotrade has only five in-house programmers. It relies on 150 free-lancers in an "electronic cottage industry" to design its games, paid by contract for each project.

A core of 50 work constantly, said software manager Donat Kiss. "The majority are fanatics. They push their kids aside and work through the night," he said. College graduates with computing experience or computer users bored with their jobs work away in basement and attic rooms.

No Vast Sums

With home computers way beyond the pocket of most programmers--a Commodore 64 costs $1,250 in the Budapest shops--Novotrade lends imported machines to free-lancers so they can produce their games.

They are not yet making vast sums, Kiss said. They work on advances, if their talent is proven, and will reap big royalties if they score a market winner.

The Traffic game, in which players control the traffic flow on London streets, was written by three university math students in their spare time. Launched in Britain by Quicksilva, the complex game has five traffic maps with vivid graphics, ragtime music and synthetic speech.

Last year Novotrade held a competition for video games. Some of the 1,300 entries were marketed, including Caesar the Cat and Chinese Juggler, where a waiter spins dishes on a pole, while Andromeda gathers other ideas in the United States and Britain and brings them here for Novotrade to turn into finished games.

Brain Power Demanded

Eureka could be the game to put Novotrade in the top league of software houses. Renyi said the game will absorb a player for months, especially with the big prize incentive.

Its five adventures through epochs from prehistoric times to the present demand great brain power and computer skill. On reaching the end, the player finds a telephone number and wins the prize if he is the first to call. Video-game prizes are not new but are rarely so large.

Novotrade runs a bimonthly bulletin and plans to launch a magazine here next year with a circulation of 80,000.

It will later sell its games cheaply in Hungary, but Renyi said the home market is small in a country of 10 million people and will not yet yield important profits.

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