Witching Hour Studios
Think indie development is tough? Try it from the other side of the planet
If you think it's difficult being an indie developer in North America is tough, try doing the same job from the other side of the globe. Every problem you might encounter as a small business is magnified many times over when you're trying to conduct business 9000 miles away from your target audience.
We spoke with a developer from Singapore about the challenges facing creators on that side of the world, and came away with a unique appreciation for the North American and European indie uprising.
In the age of the Internet, we don't often think too much about how geographical location affects your ability to prosper in the games industry, but Brian Kwek of Witching Hour Studios said that it's a persistent struggle to survive as a studio in Singapore.
A key resource in the indie gaming movement is passion. We take it for granted in the West, but Kwek said that it's in short supply in Singapore.
“Passion is something that is very often foresworn in Singapore,” he said. “The government is not openly fond of saying 'go and live your dreams, do what you like!' and I think that mentality is a very “American Dream” sort of thing. I don't like separating it into Western culture vs. Eastern culture, but I notice that in a lot of major Eastern cultures they have dreams but a lot of times they end up not following them. They're risk averse.”
“Whereas in the West there's a lot of 'fuck this, I'm going to go do what I want, it's OK if I can't pay rent next month.' Experiences vary in both cultures, but it's a generalization. So Singaporeans generally would rather feed themselves but be miserable for the rest of their lives than follow their passion.”
The presence of large corporations in the country makes that even more difficult. Bandai Namco and Ubisoft both make games there, as did LucasArts until it was recently shuttered. The existence of those large corporate entities in such a small country has given skilled employees inflated salary expectations and decreased passion.
“They go to the big companies where they make these casual games and they get burnt out and start to hate the industry, and we lose that talent,” said Kwek. “They're used to pulling LucasArts and Ubisoft-level salaries. They have experience, but because many of them don't care as much about passion they'd rather be making a bit more money than working on the next Bastion. Singaporeans don't believe they have the potential to do their own creative things.”
Brian Kwek's and Witching Hour Studios' iOS title Ravenmark: Mercenaries
It's not just a corporate cultural differences that's holding companies back though.
“Generally speaking Singapore is a man apart from the rest of South East Asia,” said Kwek. “We've set ourselves up as more of a financial capital. Especially compared to places like Cambodia and Vietnam, places where game development happens to be going quite strong.”
The problem is that Kwek said Singapore can sometimes be culturally closer to the West than the major Asian countries that surround it.
“There's a huge scene in Vietnam, they're making a lot of casual games and I think it's going well for them,” said Kwek. “In Singapore, because we've grown up playing a lot of American and Japanese games we sort of aspire to that type of game. I grew up on a diet of JRPGs and we aspire to make that sort of game. But what's available to us resource wise is not encouraging that.”
While indie devs like Witching Hour Studios might be artistically closer to the West, their financeers have a very different mentality.
“They'll say 'so you should be able to make us Infinity Blade for about $15,000 right?' They lack knowledge about what it takes to make a game. And when they find out how much it actually costs they laugh you out of the meeting room. Then they find out how much Infinity Blade earned and then they want you to make Infinity Blade instead of your passion project.”
Over and again, “risk averse” was the word Kwek used to describe Singaporeans in general. Which is difficult, because risk is an inextricable part of the independent games business.
It doesn't help that the attitude of the Singaporean gamer is such that studios like Witching Hour can't reasonably make a game that appeals to their own people.
“At times they'll just see that this isn't Mega Man or Street Fighter or other high quality stuff and they'll just say 'why should I care about this game, it sucks,'” said Kwek. “It's a quick, snap judgement. They'll just tell you, 'your game sucks.' If you're not Street Fighter or StarCraft, get lost.”
Obviously, the idea of creating something with the polish and beauty of Street Fighter or StarCraft is completely out of the question for an indie. Both of those games were in development for nearly a decade by massive teams costing tens of millions of dollars.
The realities of the business mean that they have no choice but to target the United States, the UK, and Canada with their games. Which is very difficult to do from the other side of the planet.
“Gamers don't have to know or care that we're from Singapore,” he said. “If they do that's a big plus, but it doesn't matter that much. And studios in Singapore need to resolve that problem of getting ourselves out there. There are a bunch of us who make quality games, but we're failing because we can't bridge that gap.”
It's no small gap, either. Even North American indie teams struggle to gain exposure and go to conventions. For a Singaporean company, going to a North American convention would cost tens of thousands of dollars in travel alone.
Talking with Kwek gave me a unique appreciation for the strengths of the North American gaming market. As difficult as it all is, at the very least we have a huge number of independent developers who want to take the plunge to create something personal and great.
We have a massive work force that wants to get involved in the games business. So large, in fact, that we often hear about the difficulty in finding a job in gaming after graduating with a degree. Beyond that, we have a very understanding player base that actually wants smaller and more personal games.
Our part of the industry has its problems, but the troubles of another country helps put them in perspective. Suddenly they don't look so bad.