attending the 2005 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I found
that there is a growing interest in the outsourcing work and even
entire games to Asia. This interest could be attributed to higher
development price tags for next-generation game development, cheaper
communication/data transfer via the Internet, easier travel access,
rapid economic growth, and a growing talent pool in Asia.
Outsourcing artwork to Asia is nothing new for the movie/TV industry,
with a lot of the work already being done in places like Korea, Taiwan,
and Shanghai. Larger game companies such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts
have recognized this trend and taken the first steps by opening game
studios or publishing partnerships in China.
instead of talking about the whole of Asia, I will be focusing only on
South-East Asia, leaving aside over-discussed areas such as Japan,
South Korea, and China. Having spent over 5 years there setting up two
studios, I felt the region has reached a point of maturity in game
development that an article highlighting some of the activity in the
area would be useful. I will also concentrate on four particular
countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines) in the
region, since most of the notable activity in game developing is
happening in these countries, and these are the areas I particularly
know. These four countries are so diverse both culturally and
language-wise that bundling all of them together would not be
informatively fair so I also decided to devote a section to each.
each country, I will be covering specific pieces of information
including some of the game development companies in the country, what
types of products these companies are developing, the colleges that are
providing game development specific coursework, and what incentives the
governments in these countries are providing. I will then proceed to
provide an overall cost comparison and gauge skill-sets available.
Asia is a collection of countries that, except Thailand, were once
colonies of various world powers. Its strategic location as a trading
route and the need to militarily balance China 's "Communist threat" in
the past has made it a center for economic growth for many years.
South-East Asia has quickly moved its industry from agriculture to
manufacturing, taking only 20-odd years. South-East Asia's largest
trading partner is the U.S., with between 10-20% of its goods being
exported. Many countries in South-East Asia now realize the need to
shift their economies from a manufacturing base to a more
service-oriented industry, and have begun governmental programs to
stimulate that transition.
Concept art from the Mage Masters PS2 title by Game Brains.
an ex-British colony, Malaysia has inherited both its educational,
political and judicial systems. Formed as a federation of states that
originally included Singapore, the biggest advantage for both these
countries is that English is the primary language used in many lower,
college and graduate levels schools.
are about 10 small to medium-size game companies focusing on
development on the PlayStation 2, PC, Game Boy, and mobile platforms.
has developed several products for the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance
and is currently finalizing development of their PlayStation 2 game Mage Masters. Phoenix Game Studios (www.phoenix-gamestudios.com) develops games for the Xbox and online games for the PC. PGS has released an MMO called Storm Riders Online, which is currently available via subscription in both the U.S./Europe and SE Asia .
The largest mobile game companies are Unreal Mind (www.unrealmind.com), Tantalus Asia (www.tantalus.com.au), and 5th Cell Media (www.5thCell.com). Most of these companies focus on developing outsourced projects for U.S./Europe. Some companies also develop for America Idol type programs that use Short Message Service (SMS) for voting.
Several educational institutes also offer game development specific coursework and degrees. The Multimedia University (www.mmu.edu.my)
has a game development program focusing on game technology and design.
The program is quite technical in nature, having originally started as
an offshoot of its computer science department. The course for the
Multimedia University is going on its seventh year and has always
sought direct involvement of the local game companies. The Games
Showcase is an event held by the University which is open to the
public, and where local commercial game developers will judge projects
created by the students.
Lim Kok Wing (www.limkokwing.edu.my)
has recently started a diploma in the creation of game art. This
creative arts college is leveraging off its current courses in 3D
animation, multimedia design with some new game design/development
classes to create a game-specific syllabus. The instructors conducting
these courses are ex-professional developers who have several titles
under their belt and have already laid out a fairly comprehensive
academic plan. The One Academy (www.toa.edu.my),
which already has a reputation for graduating high qualified commercial
artists often employed in the region's advertising agencies are now
addressing game concept art, emphasizing art styles, characters and
The Malaysian Government has set up an organization called the Multimedia Development Corporation (www.mdc.com.my)
to stimulate the growth of a larger information communication
technology sector. The MDC has provided a bill of guarantees to
approved companies (these are called "Multimedia Super Corridor Status
Companies") that provide such benefits as unrestricted employment of
foreign workers, no income taxes for 10 years, and ability to have 100%
foreign ownership. MDC has also in the past made available grants to
MSC status game companies to develop technology like game engines, as
long as these engines are commercially utilized in the company's
products. MDC has often played the role of a neutral body to bring
education and industries together, as well as match-making partners.
is the only South-East Asia nation that has never been colonized. It
has kept is sovereignty via the deft maneuverings of King Mongkut (made
famous by the play Yul Brynner in The King and I), who played
the colonial powers against each other during the 18th century. Better
known today as a tourist destination, it is a country with a great
depth in culture, heritage, creativity and artistry.
There are roughly 10 to 15 game companies in Thailand. The two biggest companies are Cyberplanet (www.cyberplant-i.com) and Chiang Mai Digital Works (www.cmdworks.com).
Thailand is in a unique position, in that its language creates the
ability to have a strong local demand for domestic products. Original
games sell well in Thailand once they are translated into Thai before
being sold. Most of the products from these companies that are being
developed are edutainment products on the PC or mobile games.
The Assumption University (www.au.edu)
currently conducts a video game course in English. Most other
universities that offer computing coursework in Thailand frequently
embark on projects to develop games on the mobile platform.
Thai government is very interested in foreign investments in the IT
sector, giving the ability to easily get visas, work permits, tax
exemption and allowing for 100% foreign ownerships. A proposal is
currently in place by the Ministry of ICT to setup a "Thai Game
Cluster" that could possibly give funding for game development ventures
that want to set up in Thailand .
Philippines is an ex-colony previously under two foreign powers (Spain
and later the U.S.) that had significant impact on it culturally and
economically. Although English is not the primary spoken language, it
is actively used because it used extensively in schools. Although the
country has gone through several years of political instability, the
government is working hard to bridge the poverty gap (70% of people are
in the lower income bracket) and build a stronger middle class. The
challenge facing them and many other countries in South-East Asia is
that some of the more talented individuals have migrated where their
skills can be used more meaningfully.
are currently about 5 game companies here, with some of the previous
development focus being on the PC platform. But recently, many
companies have been moving to develop more mobile titles. Companies
like Esoft Interactive (www.esoftinteractive.com)
have already done an array of PDA puzzle-oriented games, so moving to
the mobile titles makes a lot of sense for them. Other companies that
have finished PC titles such as Anino Entertainment (www.aninoentertainment.com) are moving into the mobile games as well, because of the shorter development cycles and faster cash turnaround.
Anino Entertainmant's Anito: Defend A Land Enraged.
Philippines are already well known in the region for their 2D animation
skills, having developed more than a couple local and foreign animated
series. The Animation Council of Philippines (www.animationcouncil.org)
is a non-profit organization whose members specialize in 2D/3D
animation, and is a good starting reference to find companies that work
can be outsourced too.
the education front, several schools have started game development
courses, including De La Salle University Manila, Ateneo de Manila
University, and the College of St. Benilde. Other schools are planning
short courses or full 4-year game development courses. Students from
the College of St. Benilde and Ateneo de Naga often win top spots in
animation contests held by the Animation Council. The IGDA Manila
Chapter is very active in promoting the game industry, and a visit to
their forums is highly recommended. In addition, an interesting new
game competition for game companies and college students called
to its close ties to the U.S., doing business in the Philippines is
fairly easy. The government currently offers a tax holiday and
duty-free importing of capital equipment.
having split from Malaysia about 35 years ago, has worked aggressively
to become a premier trading port and manufacturing powerhouse. In order
to compete more effectively with neighbors that are richer in natural
resources, Singapore has created the ideal environment, both
financially and living-wise, for foreigners looking to do business
here. Singapore has now set its sights on becoming a leading new media
game companies like Koei and Genki both have opened studios in
Singapore, testament to the Singapore government's active stance in
promoting game development in the region. Singapore has aggressively
targeted some of these companies by providing staff to these firms in
Japan, partially subsidized by the Singaporean government, in order to
transfer skill sets to locals.
Local companies in Singapore are mainly focused on mobile development, with companies like Mikoishi (www.mikoishi.com) and NextGen (www.nexgenstudio.com) being the largest. There are several PC development companies, but those with products shipped include Envisage Reality (www.envisagereality.com) and Inerworx (www.inerworx.com).
Nanyang Polytechnic (www.nyp.edu.sg)
offers a Diploma in Game Design, as well as having coursework in
digital animation. Several games created by the game design development
team have been marketed to Taiwan, Korea, China, and Japan. Nanyang
Technical University (www.ntu.edu.sg) has set up a Game Lab, and offers final year electives in game programming.
government of Singapore is represented by 3 government bodies, all
promoting game development. The Media Development Authority (www.mda.gov.sg)
is responsible for the various initiatives, developments and standards
for television, film, video, radio, publication and new media. MDA has
been very successful in the promoting the creation of home-grown movies
and TV serials.
The Infocomm Development Authority (www.ida.gov.sg)
is responsible for developing, promoting and regulating
info-communications in Singapore . iDA will guarantee high-bandwidth
inter-connections and world class data-center in its bid to become the
infocomm hub in Asia. One of the reasons why Korea has been so
successful, creating a booming online games industry, is because of its
excellent network services and Singapore plans to follow suit by
providing similar bandwidth.
Finally, the Economic Development Board (www.sedb.gov.sg)
is the powerhouse organization that targets strategic directions that
will have the most benefits for Singapore. To achieve such goals, they
are able to provide aggressive incentives and also be able to match it
with funding. EDB was instrumental in convincing LucasFilm to set up a
studio in Singapore.
encourage game development, EDB has initiated the Game Creation
Community, which fosters local talent by assisting in the 4 areas of
creation, production, financing and distribution. Local companies will
get a chance to get pitching sessions with publishers and venture
capitalists for their products. This event is held quarterly in
conjunction with Nanyang Polytechnic.
the levels of skills in SE Asia for game development are pretty good
for junior to mid-level positions. Skills for leadership position such
as art directors, technical leads are harder to find and sometimes a
company may have to hire "out of industry".
technical skills sets in Asia are fair, with a large number of
computer/electrical engineers coming from both local and international
colleges (Many South-East Asian families send their children overseas
to the U.S., UK, or Australia). In Malaysia, there are specialist
programmers who have developed commercial quality game engines, with
some of them working on their 3rd commercial iteration. Finding these
engineers is difficult though regular channels, however, unless you are
keyed into to the closely-knit local industry. Many of these engineers
quickly find higher paying jobs overseas and locally after graduation.
with experience in game development are extremely hard to find,
especially those that have dealt with international publishers. Project
management staff from other industries can be recruited, but may not
understand enough of the games development lifecycle to be effective
immediately. The closest industry where some of these qualities can be
found is the advertising industry, but the fact that most advertising
jobs rarely last more than 3 months would mean that the recruited
individual would have to do a lot of thinking on their feet.
are fairly abundant for junior to mid-level positions, with most having
worked on both 2D and 3D work. Some artists do have to be retrained to
appreciate game specific nuisances such as low poly modeling or use of
game tools. A few educational facilities have already started making
sure that graduating students do have the game related skills by
including extra classes on the game assets. The position of art
director is even harder to fill, and recruitment for the positions will
mostly likely be an expatriate.
Asia's weakest areas seem to be in the availability of good game
designers. Most of the potential game designers come from paper-based
role playing backgrounds. Paper-based gaming has been around a long
time, especially in more English speaking places like Malaysia and
Singapore. A weekly column in the local paper often provides reviews of
board and card games. The availability of junior designers has been on
the rise though, once again because of education initiatives. One key
type of designers lacking in SE Asia are good level designers, with
only a handful of people even developing any "mods" for any of the
famous first-person shooters.
of the key attractions in doing business in South-East Asia is the
significant lower cost of development; in some extreme cases projects
can be 1/8 th the cost of similar products developed in the U.S. The
longer the development period, obviously, the larger the saving in cost
would be, because staff salaries represent the biggest overhead in any
game development company.
only key factor that limits higher end development projects, though, is
that the complexity of the work requires skills that are harder to find
in SE Asia. The impetus of many of the game companies and governments
in the region is towards these higher-end projects, making it only a
matter of time when these skill-sets will become more common.
an established game studio which has a track record of developing
quality products and wants to set up in these countries, there are
several advantages. The first advantage is that a smaller advance can
be taken on the product to be developed, thereby decreasing the amount
of time that for royalty checks from product sales can be collected.
The second advantage is that same amount of money can be used to make a
product of better quality by possibly putting more polish on the
product, providing more content and better graphics. Lastly, for
products that take a large team to develop, it can be done more cost
effectively purely because of lower cumulative salary costs.
studios have a big challenge in getting their product to market. Due to
piracy and market size, the local marketplace cannot support
development cost for large products. Most of the region's developers
are now focusing on products with lower staff overheads and faster
development cycles such as mobile games.
local studios want to develop products for international marketplaces,
the distance from the publishers also pose a huge problem in getting
their foot in the door. The games industry requires constant networking
and pitching in order to get a product published. A "Catch 22"
situation is present for AAA type products, where high quality products
developed by very experienced teams with multiple titles under their
belts have raised the bar of publishers' expectations. Local developers
have little or no experience in AAA game development, and have to
struggle with how get the experience needed to develop these games
without having worked on one.
way out of this tricky dilemma, though, is for local studios to try to
build these skills purely by doing outsourced development, while trying
to partner with a more established foreign development company who may
be able pass these skills to them. So long as the companies can break
even financially, build a good reputation for quality products shipped
on time, retain staff and work on game engines/prototypes on the side
then the company may be in position to work on AAA titles. Korean
publishers are another way to go, as they are closer, and networking
there could be an avenue to being published elsewhere.
companies wanting to take advantage of the lower costs of development
also have several obstacles to overcome. Finding the proper partners in
the region is one of them. Each country has different nuances, both in
dealing with local governments and hired staff. The fastest way to
'acclimatize' one-self to these regions is to partner with local people
who understand these all these quirks. Companies will also have to deal
with the time-zone differences, often making crucial communications
with the publishers that much harder.
finding a partner may be through outsourcing work to a company there.
First contact can be made by contacting the relevant government
organization or non-profit company associations. Many of these
organizations can be extremely helpful in providing information on
potential partners, assistance and incentives for relocating.
the cost of developing games is tied to the standard of living in these
countries. Singapore, the most developed of all South-East Asian
nations tops the list for development costs, but also has skilled
personnel and a friendly business environment. Malaysia and Thailand
would rank second, with Philippines being the cheapest purely because
of its currency.
terms of skill-sets, Malaysia and Singapore are fairly even at this
time. Both countries have aggressive governmental programs for game
developers, and educational facilities that are training graduates
specifically for game development. Malaysia perhaps benefits from its
larger population in graduating more skilled professionals, but
Singapore, with its program of "partnering" with foreign game firms may
edge out Malaysia soon in terms of quality.
Asia shows a great potential for game development, but still stands in
the shadow of the huge explosion in foreign companies exploring China.
Yet with South-East Asia's close proximity to China, it is in an
intriguing location for foreign companies wanting to set up shop.
Countries like Singapore and Malaysia, with their melting pot of
Chinese, Malay, and India cultures provides a stable launch pad to all
the "hot'"developing nations such as China, Indonesia, and India.
Ranulf Goss - IGDA Manila chapter coordinator
Constance Soh - EDB Singapore
Hasnul Samsudin - MDC Malaysia
Hilmy Abdul Rahim - Multimedia University (http://fit.mmu.edu.my/academic/aca-seg-3y.html)
Yan Marchal - Sanuk Software(www.sanuk.biz)