SINGAPORE: The second edition of the GameStart convention takes place this weekend till Sunday (Nov 15), and gamers from all across the island and the region are expected to descend on Suntec Convention Centre to have a go at some of the new and upcoming games and hardware from all around the world, such as the highly-anticipated Star Wars Battlefront and Sony's PlayStation VR headset.
But even in the midst of all the blockbuster games, one booth right in the middle of the convention floor stands out right in the centre of the showfloor – the Singapore Gamebox, which gives locally-developed games their time in the sun.
The Singapore Gamebox is hosted by the Games Solution Centre (GSC), an initiative by the Media Development Authority (MDA) and managed by Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP). GSC is an incubation centre for Singapore-based game developers, and also houses a Sony PlayStation Incubation Studio.
Beyond the Gamebox, other local studios are located around the hall alongside major gaming companies like Bandai Namco and Sony PlayStation. By doing so, GameStart hopes to show both local gamers and foreign gaming companies that there are great games being developed here.
The GameStart stage before the show's opening. (Photo: Alvin Chong)
"We hope to provide a platform for local developers to showcase their products to industry professionals, media and gamers from Singapore and around the region," said Ms Elicia Lee, founder of GameStart organiser Eliphant. "There is so much talent here and we really want to help them gain more exposure for their products."
"SINGAPORE'S FASTEST GROWING MEDIA SUB-SECTOR"
Such a statement is not without merit – local games have been starting to get eyeballs, the most recent being Witching Hour Studios winning Best Indie Game at the Tokyo Game Show 2015 with the upcoming Masquerada: Song And Shadows.
"The games industry is Singapore's fastest-growing media sub-sector," said an MDA spokesperson. "This is an exciting time for our game development scene where more Singapore-made games are being recognised on the global stage and enjoyed by players in the region and beyond."
"We strongly believe Singapore is well-positioned to ride on the growth trend in Asia and we hope that given the promising outlook, more developers will want to set up their base here," said MDA.
Among the international gaming companies that have set up a base in Singapore are Ubisoft, Gumi Asia, Tecmo Koei and Bandai Namco, and MDA says the growth of Singapore’s game industry ecosystem is "supported by the availability of a skilled workforce, strong IT and market connectivity and a robust intellectual property rights protection regime".
The Ubisoft Singapore office. (Photo: Alvin Chong / TODAY)
Ubisoft senior producer Hugues Ricour agrees. "(Singapore's) infrastructure is excellent, and it’s very easy to do business here," he said. "More importantly for us was the access to a very good talent pool. The level of education is great and this is exactly what we need in the videogame industry."
HOW DEEP IS THE TALENT POOL?
However, Mr Ricour also pointed that the game development scene is still young in Singapore compared to, say, Canada. French gaming giant Ubisoft has offices in Montreal, Toronto and Quebec, hiring more than 3,000 employees in total. Ubisoft opened its studio in Singapore in 2008, and currently has about 300 employees.
Another country with a strong development culture is Sweden, and while its population – 10 million – is almost twice Singapore's, the number of major development studios in Sweden far dwarves the number here. The Nordic country houses a large number of major developers that are a veritable who's who of developers behind some major game releases in the past few years.
The Ghost Games office in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo: Alvin Chong)
These include EA DICE (Star Wars Battlefront), Ghost Games (Need For Speed), Avalanche Studios (Mad Max), MachineGames (Wolfenstein: The New Order), Overkill Software (Payday) , Tarsier Studios (LittleBigPlanet 3), Frictional Games (Amnesia: The Dark Descent), Coffee Stain Studios (Goat Simulator), Paradox Interactive (Europa Universalis), Ubisoft Massive (Tom Clancy's The Division).
There is also Minecraft developer Mojang – acquired by Microsoft for US$2.5 billion in 2014 – and Candy Crush Saga developer King, which was just acquired by Activision Blizzard this month for US$5.9 billion.
At a recent interview at the EA DICE office in Stockholm, Sweden, EA DICE's senior producer of Star Wars Battlefront Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir felt a tradition of interest in technology and games played a part.
"Sweden has a highly educated population that has a large interest in science and technology. So you have companies also like, Skype and Spotify outside of Sweden, but also Ericsson and before that Volvo," said Ms Ingvarsdottir. "So this has been the country of industry and engineering for a long period of time."
Star Wars Battlefront senior producer Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir. (Photo: Alvin Chong)
"But I think also there has been a strong demo scene in the eighties, that really bred the first wave of developers in Sweden," she added. "DICE grew out of one such group (Digital Illusions), and they found success and they in turn spawned others."
"So I think it's a combination of sort of Nordic interest in technology and loving games."
One thing is for certain: Singaporeans do love their games. In the casual games sector report for 2015 by games market research company Newzoo, it was revealed that Singaporeans have the highest annual spend per player in Southeast Asia – at US$189.30 per player – just for casual games alone. The same report showed that about 50 per cent of all Singaporeans are gamers, of which 1.1 million are paying gamers, and these figures don't include the numbers for console and PC gaming.
Even with an overlap between casual and non-casual gamers, it's clear that gaming is a past time Singaporeans do embrace. After all, GameStart 2014 saw more than 12,000 gamers from Singapore and the region throng the halls – the response was good enough for the organisers to double the floorspace and add an additional exhibition day for 2015.
But interest in gaming does not always translate to interest in making games, and those in the industry think the talent pool for making games is in Singapore could always be improved.
Said Eliphant's Elicia Lee: "Singapore has excellent infrastructure for businesses, which is a big plus for developers looking to expand into Asia. What we lack is a strong and hungry talent pool these companies can draw from."
"We need to build up and strengthen our talent pool here, in terms of education and training," she added.
A gamer tries out the GameStart mobile game. (Photo: Alvin Chong)
Valiant Force developers XII Braves' Chris Ng and Jonathan Leong concurred: "The degrees and diploma courses need to be updated; more relevant skills and tools should be covered for students to be better equipped with a strong foundation for the industry."
But while the talent pool could be strengthened, Singapore's small size might actually be a positive.
"I think the concentration of talent here in Singapore plays a huge part in the what makes it vibrant," said Witching Hour Studios creative director Ian Gregory Tan. "Game development is a quite a collaborative process, so being able to bring good people together easily is a huge boon."
The MDA said that it is committed to attracting and nurturing talent in Singapore, and to this end has already rolled out several initiatives.
"Over the years, MDA has been offering support in game development, marketing and talent enhancement," said a spokesman. "We recognise that MDA is not alone in playing a part to ensure the growth of the games sector and pool of talent here, and ... is therefore also working with industry partners to incubate promising local games start-ups."
The authority pointed out its support for the partnership between Digipen and Japan gaming giant Nintendo to launch the Digipen Game Studios (DGS) this year, which will provide mentorship, technical and publishing support to qualifying developers and their projects to create games for the Nintendo platform.
MDA has also collaborated with WDA to launch the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme for the Games sub-sector recently in October, and has also recently facilitated a tie-up between Singapore game developers with Humble Bundle, a popular US-based digital storefront, to launch a special Humble Weekly Bundle: Made in Singapore promotion.
In future, MDA said it also plans to expand the Games Solutions Centre’s role in nurturing local games start-ups, to strengthen mentorship programmes and enhance business connections through regular networking sessions with publishers, platform owners, venture capitalists and Angel Investors.
The XII Braves booth at GameStart. (Photo: Alvin Chong)
The XII Braves developers agree that the MDA has been "very supportive in sharing valuable resources, their vast network and marketing", while the "GSC has also been actively organising events for developers to gather and share knowledge and information of gaming industry".
Witching Hour Studios' Ian Gregory Tan also said MDA support has been beneficial. "I would also say the Government has been very supportive of the industry. Agencies like the MDA and WDA have also grown along side us, evolving to the industry's need. The recent Humble Bundle initiative by the MDA is a great example of this."
"Government agencies are doing a solid job in promoting the industry and supporting local developers," added Ubisoft's Mr Ricour. "For example, The Games Solution center is a great platform for indie developers, as it provides a hub to prototype their games, network with their peers, exchange ideas and get some trainings. Schools are also great laboratories for experiments, and Ubisoft is closely associated with local schools to provide mentorship to the students."
Ubisoft and Nanyang Polytechnic recently signed a deal to create a more structured internship programme.
However, Mr Tan cautioned against depending on Government grants to get games made, saying that while money from grants can be a good starting point for fledgling developers, reliance on it is not the best business model.
The Witching Hour Studios booth at GameStart. (Photo: Alvin Chong)
"If a whole business model depends on grants, perhaps that isn't the best of business plans and it's time to re-evaluate it," he said. "The best alternative? Sell games. It's a commercial industry and funding past the initial springboard that the Government provides should come from selling games."
"I think there needs to be a shift in how companies are approaching grants," Mr Tan said. "Right now, many are trying their best to make games that qualify for grants, so the actual game becomes the conduit that gives them access to money. It should work the other way around. Money from grants should give companies the freedom to make great games."
He also had some words of advice for new developers. "If you're just starting out, I'd say bootstrap as best you can," said Mr Tan. "Lean on the kindness of friends and family - and do your best to return the goodwill when you're able. Angel investment is available too, but that's a hard sell if you're just starting out."
He added: "On the other hand, there's always crowd funding like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. These are great platforms for funding projects, as long as developers are aware of all it entails."
THE FUTURE IS "PRETTY BRIGHT"
While it is hard enough starting off from scratch, developers here are also clear about one thing – it isn't enough to just make a good game, one has to know how to sell it too.
"It is definitely not easy to be a developer in Singapore due to the industry’s dynamic pace of evolution and also the know-how in this business is quite complex," said XII Braves' Chris Ng and Jonathan Leong. "Developing great games alone is no longer sufficient; areas like Marketing, Publishing, Game Operation and Customer Services needs to be taken into account and executed well."
"A keen understanding and acceptance that games sit neatly between art and business (is required)," added Mr Tan. "Both areas are key in making successful games and leaning too strongly on either one will nearly always result in a weak product. When this is the common mindset, we're going to see a huge improvement in terms of what - and why - we're making."
With that in mind, Mr Tan thinks the future for game development in Singapore may just be promising.
"The industry moves way too fast for a prediction of any sort, but if everyone has the right mindset and tap on opportunities when they come, it's looking pretty bright," he said.
Ubisoft Singapore managing director Olivier de Rotalier shares the sentiment. "I am optimistic! A lot of companies are coming in … (and) the Government agencies are doing a great job to help aspiring game developers to create their start up and build their game. The support is here, and more and more people are taking risks," he said.
"It’s an exciting moment!"
GameStart 2015 is on from now till Nov 15.