Developers hope to take on big players

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

Ever since the descending lines of marching Space Invaders inspired a new kind of recreation in the early 1980s, the worldwide computer games industry has experienced enormous growth. With the three big names of seventh generation consoles - Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 - battling it out for market share, the pressure to keep people playing with more complex and challenging games is high.

As a major consumer of all forms of computer games, Hong Kong is less known for its computer game development industry because of a shortage of the right talent and investors. Of the three main sectors in today's computer games development, such as computer-based online games, mobile games and proprietary console-based games, Hong Kong developers tend to focus on online and mobile games with smaller teams and lower budgets.

The more lucrative, high-profile console-based game development has largely taken place in Japan, Europe and the United States, with local developers left out in the cold.

'There aren't any local developers making games for the mass market and this is partly because of the issue of piracy,' said James Wong Kai-on, co-founder and game designer at Playpen Studios, a local computer game developer with 11 staff.

'The market cannot support itself. Developers have to make games subscription based and this is not an ideal situation. Knowing how much work goes into these things, it is unbelievable to think of someone sitting in a room burning copy after copy and selling them.'

Mr Wong's development team, based in the digital media hub at Hong Kong Cyberport, is one of a small number of local start-ups hoping to beat the big teams, fight piracy and crack the console game development market.

'One of the best things that Cyberport provides is its reputation as a secure work environment. It has ties to the Hong Kong government and a screening process for all companies that work here. This puts companies such as Microsoft at ease,' said Mr Wong, whose team is working on Skillz, a DJ-ing game for Microsoft's Xbox 360.

Cyberport, initiated and developed by Hong Kong's business tycoon Richard Li Tzar-kai and funded by the government, offers resources and training to digital media start-ups.

Companies like Playpen Studios get cheap office space and subsidised workstations through the Cyberport Digital Entertainment Incubation and Training Centre (Cyberport IncuTrain Centre).

The IncuTrain Centre's mission to spearhead the development of games in the local digital entertainment industry is an attempt to put Hong Kong on the international digital media map.

Although online and mobile game developers are well represented in Hong Kong, console game developers are still a minority and have yet to break into the international market, according to a recent report by the Hong Kong Digital Entertainment Industry Support Centre, a division of the Hong Kong Productivity Council.

M-Inverse Holdings, another small start-up based at Cyberport, hopes to sell ideas to publishers in the US and Europe.

'Even though you may have a good idea, you still need to have a lot of money to make a prototype and get your project into the market,' said Steven Wong Tak-kuen, programme manager at M-Inverse Holdings, whose primary target console market is Nintendo's Wii 5 platform.

'For console development you also need a good team with many years of experience.

'These people are hard to find in Hong Kong. Even though Polytechnic University runs a course, people still need a lot of on-the-job training.'

'You do need a very specialised team,' Playpen's Mr Wong said.

'It is not simply a case of hiring a computer programmer. This is high-level software programming.

'Because each console has its own operating platform, developers need to have specific experience.'

Some console developers like to hire programmers from overseas to bolster the team's track record and to strengthen their reputation in the international market.

Because development work can be long with little or no revenue, both Playpen Studios and M-Inverse Holdings offer their services to third-party developers.

By outsourcing their designers and programmers, the companies can fund their own development projects and keep the revenue ticking over.