Zachy Hennessey
July 9

In the global game-development industry, Israeli studios have had limited success in carving their path on the international stage. Every so often, though, a breakout success emerges, suggesting that the little country has what it takes to make it big after all.

Happy Juice Games, an Israeli game-development studio in Rishon LeZion, recently claimed the international spotlight when its Lost in Play won Apple’s iPad Game of the Year 2023 award.

Lost in Play is an animated adventure game in which players accompany a brother and sister on a quest through dreamscapes alongside their imaginary friends. 

The game’s art style is a nod to modern thin-line animation, and features puzzles, minigames and a charming narrative that has resulted in generally favorable scores on the popular video game rating website Metacritic.

Lost in Play’s art style is reminiscent of modern thin-line animation. Photo via Happy Juice Games
Lost in Play’s art style is reminiscent of modern thin-line animation. Photo via Happy Juice Games

Happy Juice’s lead developer, Yuval Markovich, shared insights into the studio’s success, noting that one of the most significant hurdles facing Israeli game developers is the need to develop with a vast audience in mind if they want any chance at widespread exposure. This requires expanding beyond Israel’s borders.

“Because we are such a small country and such a small community, it’s very hard to make a game for the Israeli gaming market. It’s not profitable,” Markovich tells ISRAEL21c. “So we have to make content that is very global — but that can lead to the game lacking character.”

Lost in Play’s in-game narrative is communicated through playful iconography and gibberish dialogue, partly as a workaround for this issue — a gambit that certainly paid off, given the game’s success.

Geopolitics and gaming

Navigating cultural perceptions and geopolitical sensitivities also presents a significant challenge. Due to the sentiment of some gaming subcultures, a studio that outwardly presents itself as Israeli may encounter some friction with global audiences. Several Israeli game developers shy away from their identity as Israeli, for fear of backlash that could harm their games’ success.

Fortunately for Happy Juice, however, openly identifying as Israeli has not been problematic and even led to positive dialogue.

Markovich notes that following the October 7 Hamas attacks, he made a post on X regarding the event, which led to some people unfollowing the account, but in general Markovich saw it as a positive and important experience.

“Some people left, which is fine. I didn’t count the numbers, maybe a hundred, maybe less,” he recalls. “One person wrote to me saying ‘Listen, Israel is doing horrible stuff,’ and I replied ‘It’s a complicated situation. There are two sides to the story.’ We talked a bit, and then we said goodbye as friends.”

Game-dev ecosystem

Despite the challenges of global perception and limited local demand, there is definitely potential for growth within the Israeli game development scene.

Currently, much of this scene is dominated by casual mobile games from industry giants like Playtika, Moon Active and Huuuge

While these companies typically pump out somewhat generic (and potentially predatory) casino and match-three games designed to pull attention and money from users, many of the developers working among their ranks have genuine and well-developed talent.

If I were on the boat, I would simply turn around and paddle away. Photo via Happy Juice Games.
If I were on the boat, I would simply turn around and paddle away. Photo via Happy Juice Games.

In a certain sense, these casual studios serve a valuable role in the Israeli game dev ecosystem by providing a place for developers to make a living, which in turn opens the opportunity for smaller teams to break away and create more passion-driven games that cater toward the dedicated PC and console gaming audience.

As well, schools like Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem — where Markovich and Lost in Play co-developers Alon Simon and Oren Rubin studied and where Markovich now teaches game design — are offering increasing opportunities to young game developers.

“I see the level of students [at Bezalel], which is amazing — when I started animation as a student 20 years ago, there was nothing like that,” Markovich remarks. “No places in Israel taught game design or anything about games.”

Cooperative games

Happy Juice is not resting on its laurels. Its developers are already working on a new project leveraging what worked well in Lost in Play, and catering to a multiplayer, cooperative experience.

“It’s not a sequel — I think it’s in the universe of Lost in Play, and the art style will remain similar, but one of the things that we wished we did in Lost in Play was add a co-op aspect to it, because it’s a great game to play with your kids, with your family and with your partner,” Markovich says.

“So now we’re trying to make a game that is more cooperative. We’re still figuring out exactly what the storyline and game mechanics are going to be, but we already have a decent ballpark.”

As Happy Juice toils away at its next project, there is hope for the future of the Israeli game development industry. 

With fresh faces and eager minds pouring more of their time and passion into the art form, the next few years could see Israel take more of a role on the international game development stage, which could in turn open up more opportunities for dialogue about the complicated nuances of the country — and most importantly, recognition for its artists.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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