Malaysian video games sector is maturing into adulthood
“Where we’re at when it comes to video games development, I would say that we’re still very nascent,” says Hasnul Hadi Samsudin, Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC)’s vice president of Digital Creative Content. He raises his hands to indicate the levels.
“If we’re to look at it in terms of human age, I’d say we’re somewhere in the teenage years. We’re not adults yet,” he lowers his hands. “But we’re coming towards that.”
Hasnul would know. If the Malaysian games development industry is currently outgrowing its acne and weird Goth phase, Hasnul has been overseeing it the moment it could walk. One could say that he’s a proud parent. When he speaks of upcoming local games and its developers, he speaks with the vigour and pride of a father during graduation day.
A graduation day that is fast approaching. Or, at the very least, the games industry is now ready to step up. The upcoming Level Up KL – traditionally an industry event for developers, corporates and businesses – will now feature two days that are open to the public. There, Malaysian game developers will now open their games for the eyes and hands of Malaysians.
Hasnul sees this as a sign that we now have content good enough to showcase. It’s also a sign that things are moving in the right direction. All they need is guidance and help.
“What we want now is to encourage creators with passion, and to see them supported and facilitated,” he says. “That is something happening in every other region across the world. If we don’t do that, the opportunity to stand out will be lost.”
A strong video games development ecosystem, Hasnul notes, requires education (from primary to tertiary to higher learning) and sustainable companies. Malaysia may not have the most robust of ecosystems, but the cogs are already in place. For one, there are now nine Malaysian universities and colleges offering games development courses.
At the same time, games development companies in Malaysia are forming solid anchors for the industry. That a major games development studio like Japan-based Bandai Namco setting shop in Malaysia in 2017 is an indicator of local talent quality. Additionally, local game startups such as Magnus Games, Metronomik and Kaigan Games are growing in employee size and recognition.
This is not counting the already-established games developer studios in the country, which include the likes of Passion Republic, Lemon Sky Studios and Streamline Games – all which have worked on best-selling AAA games that range from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Lost Legacy to Dark Souls 3.
These are studios with employees numbering in the hundreds, with Lemon Sky being upwards of 350 people at the moment. “They’re already considered world class studios,” Hasnul beams, proud as can be.
While they started off doing outsourced work, some of these studios are beginning to produce their own IPs – Passion Republic with GigaBash, and Streamline Studios with Bake ‘N Switch. Both games were recently mentioned by Sony International Entertainment World Studio president Shuhei Yoshida as Southeast Asian games to look out for.
Strengths and gaps
Asked about the strengths of Malaysia in games development, Hasnul says: “Our strengths – and this is well known already – is that we’re very good artists. That’s why you see companies like Passion Republic, Lemon Sky and Streamline doing well. They’re at the level expected for AAA games development.”
The question now is how to allow them to go to the next level. “This is where the government is needed, so that we can assist them into being more successful – either by way of improving their business, which is what they’re currently doing with outsourced work; or by moving them up the value chain, which is to have them start creating new ideas.”
The bigger challenge, Hasnul notes, is in acquiring and nurturing talent. “This is not a Malaysian problem, but a global challenge,” he says. There are numerous gaps to bridge, one of them being between industry and academia. Then there’s the challenge of distance – the aspect of allowing students and aspiring game developers from outside of Kuala Lumpur to learn and improve.
There are options for this, Hasnul muses. One way is to digitise games development education and using digital platforms to make them more accessible throughout the nation. But even so, they will also need to address the challenge of language as well.
Another gap is between the content of education locally and the content available internationally. “How do we create bridges between universities outside of the country to work with local universities?” Hasnul asks. For this, he says that there are things coming soon that will help realise these opportunities.
One more important aspect to address is awareness. Essentially, there is a need to amplify the games development industry to the general public.
Hasnul says that, in the broad discussion of the digital economy and the requisite skills surrounding areas of big data and artificial intelligence, the content creation industry too needs these talent. To Hasnul, it’s one way to sell the content industry – that people from across different disciplines, be it in AI or production accountants, are needed in games development.
“People need to understand the potential.”
One pervasive question on Malaysian games development is on whether they should focus on creating games for a global market, or games that are distinctively Malaysian. Hasnul believes that a balance can be achieved.
There first needs to be an understanding that these games companies need to be sustainable. “Their market is a global market, so they need to ensure that their content is what the taste of the global market is.”
Yet it doesn’t mean that the games can’t have Malaysian influences. Hasnul notes that the games from Metronomik and Magnus Games Studio – specifically No Straight Roads and Re: Legend – have subtle Malaysian designs and elements. “You see that as them trying to imbue their games with our cultures and ideas.”
There will come a time, when games development in Malaysia has progressed enough, that people can start producing Malaysian games through a Malaysian lens.
Going forward, Hasnul is thinking of ways to market the content that are coming from Malaysian studios. One way will be to engage with influencers. “We see a lot of marketing happening from influencers, especially for games. Getting them (the studios) to understand how to utilise these opportunities and getting to know influencers is important,” he says.
At any rate, the outlook is certainly bright. The “console wars” – what gamers have come to call the never-ending competition between game platforms and consoles – is currently heating up to new degrees. This, Hasnul stresses, will open the floodgates of opportunity.
“Now, you have video game consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo competing with and against platforms like Apple Arcade and Google Stadia. All of them are hungry for content. How do you make yourself stand out so that they will pick you as their exclusive?” he says. “Or, at the end of the day, how do you make sure that when you create a product, it can exist on all of these platforms?”
It’s clear that Malaysian game developers need to be just as hungry themselves. The world is, as they say, an oyster. Same goes for video games.