18 years on, is Singapore capable of making blockbuster video games?

SINGAPORE – Some 18 years after the Government announced support for video game development in Singapore, leading many people to seriously consider a career in the industry, there are now more than 220 game development and publishing companies here.

And a milestone was reached last week when Gamescom Asia was held at Suntec Singapore – the first time an offshoot of one of the world’s biggest video game events, Gamescom, was organised outside Germany.

But a burning question lingers: Can Singapore make big-budget, blockbuster video games that rival Hollywood movies and put its game development industry on the world map?

Some doubts were cast on the hopes for such triple-A (AAA) games in July after a report by video game news site Kotaku detailed the troubled development of Ubisoft Singapore’s Skull & Bones, a pirate game which garnered international attention when it was announced in 2017 and hailed by industry observers here.

The game has been in development since 2013 – which is longer than usual – and has reportedly cost over US$120 million (S$162 million) to date, which is unusually expensive. AAA games can take two to five years to make, with some development budgets hitting US$50 million or more.

Industry players said the development of AAA games is very difficult and is usually reserved for the biggest companies with the financial and manpower resources.

The Singapore Games Association said 12 per cent of game development studios here are AAA studios and the rest are small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Besides Ubisoft from France, other AAA game multinational corporations in Singapore include Koei Tecmo and Bandai Namco from Japan, and Riot Games from the United States.

“I don’t think Singapore could never develop a triple-A game. I don’t think it’s a lack of talent or desire,” said a games industry veteran with more than 10 years of experience, who declined to be named.

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Rather, he feels most people here and in South-east Asia tend to play more mobile and indie games, and these would then be the type of games that developers know how to build.

This is in contrast with places like Japan, the US and parts of Europe where AAA games are made for console game markets that have historically been large.

Research by game events organiser and broadcaster One Esports that was reported this year showed that 87 per cent of South-east Asian gamers use mobile devices to play games, compared with 60 per cent in North America and 59 per cent in Europe.

Delegates at Gamescom Asia 2021 trying out games by Singapore Games Association on Oct 15, 2021. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

In Singapore, consumer spending on mobile games is still strong, hitting US$219.4 million in the first six months of the year, down 1.7 per cent from a year ago but still up 51.6 per cent from 2019, following a boost from stay-home measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic, according to figures from mobile data firm Sensor Tower.

This comes even as revenue from games for personal computers and mobile devices hit US$515 million last year, an 18 per cent increase from 2019, according to data from gaming consultancy Niko Partners. The bulk of the revenue was from mobile, at US$464 million.

Industry players also said that with smartphones becoming more powerful, there are now console-like quality games such as Genshin Impact that are playable on mobile devices.

Mobile and indie games are also easier for developers to get into than AAA games, because they are not as resource-intensive and can be developed with budgets of US$1 million to US$15 million. Sometimes, the figure can be less than US$1 million.

Mr Lau Wei Kit, co-founder of Cargo Studio, an incubator for game firms, said the US$316 million that reportedly went into making AAA title Cyberpunk 2077 could easily translate into 2,000 to 3,000 different mobile games being developed and released.

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“I’m pretty sure that as a nation, we will be able to build very competitive and high-quality products if we are given the opportunity to figure out how to perfect this craft through 2,000 to 3,000 game products,” he said.

He added that revenues for mobile games can be multiple times their development costs, in contrast with some AAA games that might only break even, such as in the case of Star Citizen.

The proof is in the pudding: Some smaller-scale made-in-Singapore indie games that can be played on phones have become hits.

Since 2017, Cat Quest by local indie firm The Gentlebros has made more than $5.2 million in profits from over 1.3 million paid downloads, noted Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan in a speech at a Gamescom Asia event.

Since 2017, Cat Quest by local indie firm The Gentlebros has made more than $5.2 million in profits from over 1.3 million paid downloads PHOTO: THE GENTLEBROS

Another issue with big-budget AAA games is that companies are more averse to failure and taking risks, which some industry players said has led to titles that are sequels or remakes of older hits.

For local indie studios like Reckoner Industries, which last month released a logic puzzle game steeped in engineering principles, being financially viable does not necessarily mean making only mainstream games.

“There are a lot of players looking for games that are not common,” said the studio’s co-founder Benedict Lee, adding that there are opportunities for indie developers in genres and games that are underserved.

Still, some industry players feel there is a place and opportunity for AAA game development here, and for companies to have a diverse portfolio of titles.

“AAA development is in many ways more viable now than it was 10 years ago,” said Mr Allan Simonsen, coordinator for the International Game Developers Association’s Singapore chapter.

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Making games in Singapore is still competitive cost-wise compared with doing so in cities like Montreal or Paris, and much cheaper than in the West Coast of the US, he said.

A maturing game development community in Singapore also “means you need fewer expensive expatriates to fill out your senior roles” to develop AAA games here, he added.

Many industry players attributed the maturing scene in large part to the Government’s efforts – including promoting education – from the 2000s to kick-start the sector.

Mr Raymond Wong, director at Koei Tecmo Singapore, said: “When we were hiring people in 2004, there was no one with any game development experience. But today, you have schools with courses specialising in games. The quality of people joining the industry has risen a fair bit.”

Skull & Bones has been in development since 2013 – which is longer than usual – and has reportedly cost over US$120 million (S$162 million) to date PHOTO: UBISOFT

And despite the development issues with Skull & Bones, which Ubisoft said is the first AAA game to be led by its Singapore studio, the office here has contributed to 16 AAA games since opening in 2008. These include Immortals Fenyx Rising and every title in the Assassin’s Creed franchise since Assassin’s Creed II.

But one thing that could hamper development here in general is that the same maturing talent for games is also sought after in burgeoning technology sectors.

“The overall pay grade for the games industry falls behind that in other tech industries. Hence engineers often leave the industry to join e-commerce or fintech by the time they reach a certain seniority, as they seek higher pay because of responsibilities such as buying a house or starting a family,” said Ms Gwen Guo, chairman of the Singapore Games Association.

“Game companies have to boost retention by exploring attractive factors such as strong leadership, fair or flexible working hours, and a healthy work culture.”


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