By Howard Tsao & Johnson Lin
If there is one event that serves as the barometer for Taiwan’s indie scene, it would be the Taipei Game Developer’s Forum (TGDF). It started a few years ago as a small gathering of primarily indie developers sharing ideas. From humble beginnings, it grew to be the premier game industry summit in Taiwan with more than 800 anticipated attendees this year. It attracts prominent indie devs internationally to speak, and it is inspiring a generation of Taiwanese indie developers who are getting more and more recognition worldwide. Events like this didn’t exist a few short years ago, and it happened through the sheer force of will of a few individuals who dared to see the possibilities for independent game development at a time when the Taiwanese game industry was dominated by AAA free-to-play and game outsourcing.
Whether it is by player base or spending, Taiwan is actually a sizable gaming market despite its tiny landmass. In the 80s, it had a nascent PC game market development scene, and entered a golden age in the 90s that saw the birth of a number of long-running titles that continues to influence to this day. Yet over time, bigger publishers emerged to dominate the industry largely by licensing foreign IPs to distribution and localize. This trend wasn’t inconsistent with the other Taiwanese industries and an overall economy that was outsourcing based. In the 2000s and early 2010s, because of the rampancy of piracy, Taiwanese game publishers became early adopters of MMOs, either by shifting their development focuses or by importing numerous titles from South Korea, and more lately from China. This also led to the early exposure of the business model now known as free-to-play. A number of publishers, such as Softworld and Gamania, exploded in size, and licensing plus free-to-play ruled the day.
As viable distribution channels for indie developers were yet to be seen, they tended to work with the bigger Taiwanese publishers, and the relationship tended to be exploitative. Bigger publishers would demand exclusive publishing rights, the lion share of a game’s revenue, the IP, and often leaving no way to exit the relationship for an indie. There was a prevailing belief by big publishers that free-to-play was the only way to go, and as a result, developers were severely limited by a desired or preferred business model to take creative risks. As a corollary, creative game ideas would be unlikely to see the light of day. In that climate, indie developers faced long to impossible odds to survive, let alone innovate or thrive.
With the rise of the iOS App Store and later Google Play, there was finally a global and financially viable distribution platform and model that was accessible to Taiwanese developers. The growing adoption of the Unity engine also meant that cost barrier to game development was lowering enough for people to want to start taking more creative risks. With possible distribution avenues opening, one of the early challenges was searching for creative identity. The Taiwanese independent game development scene was very new, and there was no existing culture or local demand or awareness for Taiwanese indie games. Early indie projects tended to find references and inspirations internationally in terms of story, theme, art direction, or mechanics. One of the early teams to find success was Monkey Potion. Their game Bonnie’s Brunch was a polished and well crafted time-management game that received critical acclaim and showed other aspiring devs what could be possible.
At the same time, larger Taiwanese publishers started to struggle as players began to fatigue over their retread projects and as more and more players turn to gaming on iOS, Android and recently Steam. A virtuous cycle of awareness and creative undertaking started to take place, and support networks for indies started to slowly gain traction. Take IGDShare, the largest indie network in Taipei, for example. They started with just a few people, hosting small monthly meetups, and over the last 3-4 years, the community grew to hundreds of developers. It also inspired developers in other cities in Taiwan, such as Taichung and Kaohsiung, to form their own indie groups. The indie groups together established a bigger network and worked together with the Taiwanese government to organize events that were unseen in Taiwan previously.
Over the last couple of years, Taiwanese developers have been taking more creative risks and not only finding their creative voices, but inspirations from their native culture as well. The team at Sunhead Games for example fused pixel art with traditional Chinese themes in the fast-paced mobile gem A Ride into the Mountains. Their follow up this year explored Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy as well as swordplay and Chinese martial arts in The Swords.
Red Candle Games is another indie team taking creative risks while paying homage to native culture, theme, and art. Their upcoming, Steam green-lit project Detention is a horror puzzle adventure set in a dark period of Taiwanese history under marshal law. The residue from that period led to a genre of fiction and film centered on school yard horror. Detention captures the spirit of that while exploring Taiwanese comic and animation art. It is thematically unique and offers its audience a window into the angst, despair, and uncertainty of that time and place. Game Stew’s Tower of Fortune series blends Rogue-like mechanics with a simple, bold, and no-holds-barred pixel art style that contains a mixture of both Cthulhu mythos and Taiwanese religious themes.
Recently, more and more talented people are returning to Taiwan from abroad to form indie teams. During the tech revolution of the 80s, this used to only happen in hardware and electronics manufacturing. Now, it’s happening in game development, which is exciting. Qubit Games, founded by a former senior programmer at AMD and the lead character artist of God of War, focuses on weaving interesting mobile gameplay mechanics with voxel art. The games feature a slick voxel object editor they developed. A group of graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center came back to Taiwan in 2013 to form Team Signal, and they garnered global recognition from their second game Hyper Square, a fast-paced finger twitch game. Their latest title, the IMGA nominated OPUS: The Day We Found Earth, transcends cosmic and space exploration gameplay elements to invoke deeper emotions and spirituality through its narrative. Indie devs in Taiwan are beginning to use games as vehicles to pose deeper philosophical questions and explore wider ranges and depths of human emotions.
At a time when Taiwan struggles with recognition and real economic issues and battles uphill to find an independent identity and its place in the world, people are increasingly looking to independent games as a medium of artistic expression, to tell their unique stories and to share measures of Taiwanese culture and tradition with the rest of the world. And they are succeeding.