Filipino indie game studios struggle to produce global video games despite having world-class talent and resources. Gabby Dizon talks about how to bridge this gap
In October 2015, Philippines-based Altitude Games announced the worldwide release of its first game Run Run Super V for Google Play. The game had previously been soft-launched in Southeast Asia and appeared on other Google Play stores for the first time. More importantly, Run Run Super V made history by becoming the first-ever Philippine-made game to be featured globally on Google.
But what significance does a global release play in the nascent video game community in the Philippines? What kinds of experiences or challenges do Filipino game developers face that are unheard of in other countries? e27 sat down with Gabby Dizon, CEO of Altitude Games to get to the bottom of these questions.
Back when it was PC, not mobile
Let’s rewind to the 2000s, when digital distribution of video games was practically non-existent. Big game companies relied on retail distribution, fancy box art covers and good old shipping practices to deliver their games to their loyal fans. Small independent game studios were not as popular as they are today, with Steam, currently the leading digital video distribution platform, yet to be created in 2003.
During this period, Dizon recalls, the Philippines served primarily as a low-cost outsourcing post for many of these, usually American, video game companies, who would hire Filipino artists, programmers and game designers to work on popular foreign video games.
As they picked up on the importance of milestones, predictions, budgets and deadlines involved in the release of a typical video game, local Filipino game designers and developers were encouraged to self-publish and produce their own games. Their thorough knowledge of game design combined with their new learnings from their work in the outsourcing industry, became the basis of how several of these developers attempted to make original Filipino-made games.
Anito: Defend a Land Enraged is the first original Filipino-made game that placed the Philippines on the video game industry’s global map. Made by Anino Games in 2003, Anito: Defend a Land Enraged became the first video game that was produced and designed entirely in the Philippines by a team of Filipino game developers, and subsequently shipped and marketed worldwide. The game would, later on, inspire other Filipino game developers to follow suit.
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Opening the gates through mobile
That being said, everything in the video game industry changed when the iPhone and the App Store were created. The emergence of so-called smartphones and their online stores allowed mobile games to reach out to casual audiences and even piqued developers’ interest in producing more of these.
Suddenly game developers had the option to create their own mobile games for a relatively small amount of money, something that would have been impossible during the reign of console and PC games, Dizon remembers Filipino developers, who once struggled to produce games for the Palm Pilot, could now make games for iOS with one or two man teams.
However, this shift also caused international mobile game companies such as Gameloft to set up in the Philippines, who were eager to take advantage of the country’s low-cost and well-trained labour force. As a result, Filipino independent developers were forced to compete for staff and, unable to pay the same rates, often found themselves back in the outsourcing industry.
Anino Games, too, shifted back to game outsourcing until 2014, when Anino was acquired by Thailand-based Pocket Playlab. Boomzap, a Singapore-based game outsourcing company, also ported its PC games to mobile, and in recent years, started producing original content for American publishers.
Dizon, who had been part of the original Anino Games team that created Anito, transferred to Boomzap during the rise of mobile games. It was there that he found teammates, who shared his dreams and ambitions, and who would later help him launch Altitude Games in 2014.
Indie studios versus outsourcing companies
The struggle between joining outsourcing companies, who offer stability, and the desire to produce original content, continues to be difficult for many Filipino developers.
Spending time in an outsourcing company can add to a developer’s experience, but also means that creativity needs to be put on the back burner for the time being. Producing original content was not a walk in the park for Altitude Games, recalls Dizon.
Just because a game is up on Google Play or the App Store does not mean an end to the journey. In fact, live operations, game updates, sales and bug patches need just as much attention as making the game, if not more rigorous.
“Making original games requires funding that covers both pre- and post-release.” Dizon explains. “For example, high-quality F2P (free-to-play) games often take over US$100,000 to produce. The biggest part of [the] funding is used for talent salaries, software tools, marketing money and ongoing operations.”
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Dizon believes the following two points can make or break an indie game studio:
Unlike its East Asian neighbours, South Korea and Japan, the Philippines suffers from a weak domestic market when it comes to video games. Both South Korea and Japan have each reached more than a billion dollars in video game sales, with the Philippines reportedly having around US$12 million in sales in 2012.
In South Korea and Japan, local consumers routinely make in-app purchases, thereby generating additional revenue for the game development companies. In the Philippines, US$1 at times represents the daily wage of a low-income earner; therefore, even charging US$1, the minimum amount a game can charge for in-app purchases, is often beyond the bounds of possibility for indie developers.
To circumnavigate this dilemma, Altitude Games relies on partnerships.
Its partnership with Xurpas, a Philippines-based mobile content company, who has existing agreements with local telcos, allows Dizon and his team to tap more than a million potential Filipino customers through an initial load-based subscription. As mobile phone credit in the Philippines can be spent in smaller dividends, Filipinos who wish to play mobile games can do so for less than US$1.
This strategy also allowed players to have more access to Altitude Games’ in-app purchases, especially if they lack credit or debit cards. Both telcos and respective partners then profit due to the volume of the players involved versus average spend of one player.
2. Global exposure
While the development of a game is important, it’s only half the battle. The other part is publishing. According to Dizon, most game developers he interacts with care only about designing the game but forget that operations, marketing and technical support are just as crucial. He also notices how Filipinos are still catching up with the rest of the world in publishing top-selling games.
“You need to run your game studio like a startup.” Dizon explains. As the CEO, he subjected Altitude Games to a lot of iterations, soft launches, player feedbacks and ran his studio based on hard metrics. He hired people who had talent in video game design and programming, as well as folks with experience with MMO game publishers and worked with them to navigate publishing for F2P mobile games.
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Not yet over
Dizon says that Altitude Games has a long way to go and a lot to prove to reach profitability and become a global success story. However, to have Google select Run Run Super V to be featured globally on Google Play is a stepping stone and a validation that Filipinos have not only the talent but also the drive and business acumen to compete at the global level. Dizon is optimistic that his fellow Filipino game studio owners will garner global exposure and content the same way Altitude Games has.
With that, Dizon imparts one final lesson to young developers: “Best advice: Don’t start with your dream game. Everyone’s an idealistic gamer in the beginning, but if you learn the trade first, the production and the team building, then eventually you can make it happen.”
The post You need to run your game studio like a startup: Altitude Games’ CEO appeared first on e27.
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