Insert coin: Hong Kong's indie game developers discover money is on another level

It sounds like a fun job most people would love to have, but independent game developers say it's hard work in a tough market with little in the way of support

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 10:58pm

For those who grew up playing Super Mario 64, Halo and World of Warcraft, working as a game developer must seem like a dream come true.

But for indie game developers, struggling with high rent, a tough market and plenty of competition from home and abroad, the dream can be a nightmare - especially when you're often giving away your hard work for free.

Angus Cheng, founder of indie game company Baller Industries, works out of a group working space in Causeway Bay. Rental costs make an office of his own an unimaginable luxury.

Like many independent game developers, indies for short, he has gone from thrilling success to heart-breaking failure and back again. His first game, released in 2010, a story-based adventure game called Get Rich or Die Gaming, was a surprise hit, selling more than 100,000 copies.

"Then I did another one which was like a fighting game," he says. "It took me a really long time, like a year, to make that game, and it just didn't make any money.

"And that was pretty depressing."

When people think of independent video games, particularly mobile games, making money might seem easy - multi-million dollar examples such as Flappy Bird, Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds earned their developers huge pay checks with simply, easy game designs.

But most games fail to make a splash or even recoup their development costs. After his second game failed, Cheng had to find a job.

"I worked at a game company here and over the last year, sales picked up and so I quit again and went back to do this," says Cheng, who since Get Rich or Die Gaming has released other titles including the date simulator Tokyo Hosto. All of his games have been made available for Android and Apple smartphones, as well as PC and on Xbox Live.

On the other side of the harbour, in a Kowloon Bay studio, Twitchy Finger has something precious and - office space. The Twitchy Finger team all had other jobs before they decided to quit and start a gaming studio - chief executive officer Edward Li was a music producer and it is inside his former studio that the game company now operates.

"We all were at a certain crossroads," Li says. "We were in our early 30s, we'd been working for a good six to eight years, we were kind of stuck. We weren't kicking ass yet."

One thing they did all have in common was their love of games, from the early days of Mario Brothers all the way through to Clash of Clans on mobile devices.

Their first game, Furball Rampage, was released in July 2014. In it, you play a hamster rushing down endless city streets collecting seeds and coins to save your love. Li says it was a moderate success. "It's been downloaded more than 500,000 times … it earned its production cost back," he says.

They've begun working on their second, more ambitious game, based around the increasingly popular racing of mini 4WD model cars, and the team has expanded from the three original founders to seven, as well as an intern.

But even with Twitchy Finger's initial success and recent expansion, Li says being a game developer isn't easy. "It's a competitive market [in Hong Kong] and it's a small market," he says.

"If you're just making a game for Hong Kong you're looking at probably half a million people at best, active people playing games … there are maybe a bit more casual gamers, maybe a million."

The one market Cheng says would be hardest to break is mainland China, which has a very different gaming tradition to Hong Kong and other Western countries. "They never played Mario or Zelda, they jumped in at the massive multiplayer online stage, the Diablo era, so they don't know any of the 16-bit or 8-bit art," he says.

Like Cheng, the Twitchy Finger boys have had to do something unthinkable in most businesses looking to make a profit - they've had to give their work away for free.

"No one's going to buy a game," Li says. "About 98 per cent of the games out there are free to play, called freemium games. That means they're free to play, free to download but with in-app purchases. And it's just getting crazier and crazier."

Some Hong Kong developers have turned to crowd-funding platforms, such as Kickstarter, seeing them as a good way to raise money quickly. Twitchy Finger used Indiegogo to fund Furball Rampage, raising US$12,804.

Taiwan and the United States, for example, have great stuff to support start-ups. Compared to them, Hong Kong is a bit weaker
William Ng, Fight4Dream Studio

But it doesn't work out for everyone - Fingerprint Studio's Dixon Cheung successfully funded his game, Dr Mixinstein, on FringeBacker, only to discover his team didn't have the manpower to realise it yet. "We underestimated bringing forth something that was fun, that lived up to expectations," he says. "For the kind of gameplay we designed, we need a lot of money to make the true game experience," he says. "That is simply not possible at the moment. We don't have the money to complete that game."

Now Cheung and his team are trying to tackle Hong Kong's small and saturated market by providing a unique product - using games for purposes other than entertainment.

"We started looking at games for marketing, for medical purposes. We found there's a lot we can do with games … you can use a game to promote your brand or if you have some seniors who need to do exercises, we can use games," he says.

Despite his new ideas and booming creativity, Cheung says even if you have a good plan, money is still needed to develop it and to advertise it properly. "Do you have that kind of money backing you up?" he says. "There are a lot of games on the market to compete with … Hong Kong people are playing games from Britain, from Japan, from the US, from Taiwan."

There are darker ways to make money as well, such as using subtle, in-app purchases to drive profit. "I don't think that's right," Cheng says. "It's so tempting, though."

The one thing all developers have in common is they aren't going to let setbacks stop them.

Fight4Dream Studio's creative director Alvin Wong says he released his first game, Aliengine, in July this year along with his co-founder William Ng. It hasn't been an immediate success. "We have learned a lot from this launch … we learned the whole process of how to publish a game," Wong says. "[But] it's not making a big profit."

The developers says the local Hong Kong market is proving to be a difficult nut to crack. "We needed to learn a lot of things both technically and business side to survive," Ng says. "Taiwan and the United States, for example, have great stuff to support start-ups. Compared to them, Hong Kong is a bit weaker."

Wong says Hong Kong needs a specific college for game development to help local creators. "[It could teach] not only development but also marketing, which makes for a better foundation," he says.

But despite all the difficulties game developers face in Hong Kong, he says he couldn't see himself doing anything else. "When you create a character and rules that make the game fun, and people say they're enjoying it," Wong says.

"We enjoy the process and we have the passion to create games."

The games mentioned in this article can be found on Google Play and the iTunes store