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Game Development in Singapore: A Primer

In this special GameSpot Asia feature, we look at the game companies that call Singapore home, as well as find out what the future has in store for development in the nation.

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For an island that only measures 274.2 square miles with an estimated population of 5 million people, one might assume that video game development is almost nonexistent in Singapore. Far from it: Companies like LucasArts and Ubisoft have set up local development operations, while the Singapore government body, Media Development Authority (MDA), is continually pushing out initiatives to promote gaming culture and the industry throughout the country. In this GameSpot Asia feature, we look at just how vibrant the Singaporean development scene is, speak to some of the key players, and find out what the future holds for the industry.

The Big Guys

Is it all sunshine and roses to work in a country smack-dab on the equator? With about 1 million gamers and about 40 game companies, LucasArts Singapore's executive producer Gio Corsi certainly thinks so.

"It's exciting times being a game developer in Singapore," Corsi says. "While the rest of the industry around the world is just starting to shake off the effects of the economic downturn, all pistons are firing here in Singapore. There are companies setting up shop all around the city, and we continue to grow and take on bigger and more challenging projects."

Established in 2007 under the wing of the Lucasfilm Animation branch in Singapore, LucasArts Singapore has recently completed Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 for the Nintendo DS and Monkey Island 2: Special Edition for the PC. LucasArts Singapore also had a hand in developing a level and downloadable content for The Force Unleashed 2 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, as well as Jedi Alliance for the DS and Republic Heroes on the DS. Currently, there are 76 people working in the office.

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Ghost Recon Online's open beta will be available later this year.

Another big company that seems to bask in working in Singapore is Ubisoft's Singapore branch. The branch opened up in 2008 and is currently housing about 180 local and international staff. Wayne Wong, communications advisor for the branch, says that Singapore "has an interesting gaming scene with numerous small players in the market coupled with a few big names like ourselves. Singapore may be young in that regard, but it has a strong infrastructure that makes it highly adaptable to the needs of the industry. Furthermore, the key players here have been contributing significantly to the rapid growth of this industry."

Ubisoft Singapore's past contributions include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-shelled, which was fully produced within Singapore in 2009. It also chipped in for big titles like Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (specifically the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC), as well as Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. Currently, the studio is working on Ghost Recon Online for the PC and the Wii U, a team-based online shooter based on the famous Tom Clancy franchise.

But it's not all just big players in Singapore. Boomzap Studios cofounder Allan Simonsen thinks that while the game environment is dominated by big studios like LucasArts and Ubisoft, plenty of smaller companies are also making their mark. "In the undergrowth," he says, "there are a lot of spunky startups usually focusing on flash, social, and iOS/Android development. The community's still growing rapidly, and there's a lot of positive buzz. The big advantage to working in Singapore is the convenience. For anyone coming in from the outside, it's probably the easiest country in the world to adapt to; taxes are low and the food is amazing."

NexGen Studios, a local studio known for its online collectible card game Tactics Anthem Online: Chronicles, is also in the same boat as Boomzap Studios. Founder Alvin Yap thinks that the creative environment is strong in the nation.

"The awareness of both East and West cultures do allow designers to create interesting ideas. The government is generally helpful to developers here, too." However, he feels that manpower continues to be a challenge as it takes time for the young industry to produce local talent.

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Boomzap's latest title is Antique Road Trip 2.

Aroon Tan, managing director of Magma Studios, seems optimistic about Singapore's future. While challenging, his company is proud of the work it has done, specifically its recent browser-based massively multiplayer online game World of Temasek.

"One of our major challenges is scaling up a team in a short time. Finding the right balance of talent with a relevant track record is extremely demanding. When teams come together, and their skill sets complement each other, real magic is created. Our next hurdle is finding ongoing projects to keep the team together. Projects and funding are not easy to come by."

Despite this setback, Magma Studios managed to craft the MagmaFLOW module tailor-made to write quests for World of Temasek, thanks to the support of the multi-agency Interactive Digital Media Research and Development Programme Office established by the MDA.

Raymond Teo, the sole developer of Secret Base Games, wouldn't have the courage to start a game development company himself if the MDA were not around to be involved.

"The industry is blooming here, so there seems to be a good range of locally based big-name companies to indie studios," Teo says. "Depending on what you want to do, there's a place for everyone." Teo hopes to see more of an exchange of opinions between developers, as well as see more game-related courses teach those interested about game design fundamentals.

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The Good & The Bad

Every region has its ups and downs, whether it is the climate or work environment. So what are the pros and cons of working on an island like Singapore? Corsi feels that the only con is that Singapore's game industry is still typecast as being young.

"The biggest pros are definitely passion and the willingness to learn and try something new," Corsi says. "The talent pool is tremendous and culturally diverse. There is an increased focus by the Government and the Educational Institutes on the Digital Media Industry making it easier for passionate and talented individuals to develop games here in Singapore."

Wong states that the country is "well positioned for the game development industry given its solid infrastructure and the ease of communication and transportation." In addition to the MDA's involvement, he believes that the premium education system helps groom future talent for the industry. In terms of cost, however, having a business operation is more expensive in Singapore when compared to other countries within the region. He says that Ubisoft "has to develop a deep understanding of the talent pool here before we can work out a realistic plan to leverage on these talents and grow far together with them."

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Tobe's Vertical Adventure is out on Xbox Live Arcade in the Indie Games channel.

From the mouths of the smaller game companies, the general consensus is that government support is a guarantee when starting a game development studio in Singapore. Simonsen says that the country is "a great melting pot of developers from all over the world." In his company's last industry survey, 42 different nations were represented. There's also a great deal of aid from the government, both for startups and SMEs, as well as for MNCs interested in setting up shop here. Yap also agrees that the government is supportive in that regard.

"About the only negative is the cost," Simonsen says. "It's not as cheap as it used to be, and rent especially can be a big expense for expats coming in."

Sian Yue Tan, cofounder of Ratloop Games Asia, says that "it's not easy to find experienced developers who are based here, but [his company's] been pretty fortunate so far and [believes that] this just takes a bit more time." On the plus side, he says that Singapore is efficiently run and comes with good weather and fibre optics connections.

The Big Picture

The overall scope and the high concept of the games industry is skewing toward the positive, but planning ahead to make sure it stays that way helps. MDA's executive of communications, Chua Xiao Ying, says that to date, "there are more than 60 game development, publishing, and services companies in Singapore as compared to just 34 back in 2008," cementing the fact that future planning is required to make sure growth is controlled.

The MDA launched the GAME+ program last April. This four-section program is designed to catalyze the local games development scene and establish an ecosystem for Singapore game development talent to see their products and IPs go from concept to commercialization. This in turn helps establish Singapore as a hub for games development in Southeast Asia.

In addition, the program helps provide Singapore-based companies with funding for the creation of a prototype to secure a publisher or attract financing for a market-ready, commercial video game product. The program itself is currently supporting 22 projects, with half of them targeted for completion at the end of 2012.

But what about the results of the program so far? According to MDA's director of Interactive Media, Games, and Publishing, Thomas Lim, one example was Ratloop Asia's Rocketbirds: Revolution! The game was a triple finalist at the Independent Games Festival 2010. Currently, the developers are working on a PlayStation Network version of the franchise called Rocketbirds: Reloaded! that's scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. Protege Productions, a small team who made an action strategy title called Armor Valley, secured a publishing agreement with Microsoft on its Windows Mobile 7 platform.

Concerning the future growth of the games development scene, Lim states that the MDA has identified serious games as an opportunity for the games development community, given Singapore's reputation in such domains as education, healthcare, and training. Speaking of education, the MDA launched the Media-in-Learning initiative, which supports the development and deployment of up to 24 game titles over the next three years to aid effective learning in not only traditional school-based education, but also other domains, such as self-defense and healthcare.

Thus far, the MDA has awarded funding to seven serious games projects in 2010, one of them being a game called Tandem developed by Eyepower Games where players role-play as agents in a special task force and have to relay information via handsets with built-in microphones. Another game funded by this initiative is 3D Online Virtual World for Tourism by developer 3rd Planet where players learn about history and culture through the framework of an adventure game in the style of Myst.

In February of this year, the MDA and the Serious Games Institute in the United Kingdom issued a joint call for proposal for serious games. To support this joint call for proposal, the MDA will commit $4 million over two years to fund selected projects. The MDA also announced that a Games Solution Centre will be set up in the Mediapolis Phase zero building that is currently open for tenancy. The centre aims to upgrade the competencies of game development studios. The MDA predicts that it will see over 20 companies benefitting from the centre over the next three years.

Game developers are also doing their part in cultivating the future workforce of the gaming industry. Wong says that Ubisoft Singapore is working hand-in-hand with DigiPen Singapore for the DigiPen-Ubisoft Campus program that hones local talent for the competitive gaming industry.

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Rocketbirds Revolution is a 2D platformer tailored after '90s titles like Out of This World and Flashback.

By the Numbers

Does the future for the games industry seem prosperous? It seems likely, given the following statistics documented by analyst group Niko Partners:

-By the end of 2011, there will be 1.41 million gamers in Singapore with the vast majority of revenue being derived from online games rather than packaged products.
-While the analyst group has not done its own door-to-door survey, it estimates that there are 40 to 45 game companies in Singapore, most of which include development teams.
-The group believes that Singapore's online games market revenue will reach $31.5 million in 2012, and it will grow at a double-digit rate through 2014.

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