The beautiful city-state of Singapore has served as the de-facto crossroads of the eastern and western worlds for the extent of its – at times tumultuous – existence. Founded on the spot where a lion passed a prince while he was hunting, the region saw vicious fighting during the Second World War as a troops of the British Empire were beaten into surrender by Japanese forces.
Following the later Japanese surrender, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia in the early 1960’s, before declaring full independence in 1965.
Since then the country has faced down terrorism, financial meltdowns and an outbreak of SARS, going on to become the fourth wealthiest country in the world, and the fastest growing economy. For a nation containing only 246 square miles of land, this is no mean feat.
The pull of this titanic economy on the international video games development industry is also a significant one. Singaporean official bodies themselves are hugely welcoming of the business development studios can bring. The national media regulatory body, the Media Development Authority, actively seeks to expand on the substantial existing workforce in the Singaporean video games industry, as does government agency Contact Singapore.
“The Singapore Government has identified the Interactive and Digital Media industry as a key growth industry,” says deputy executive director of Contact Singapore Kee Ee Wah.
“The game industry is one of the key Interactive and Digital Media sectors that we are seeking to grow, as we work towards our aim of becoming an Asian IDM capital from which original content is created for global consumption.”
MR. BLUE SKY
It is telling that those involved in games development in Singapore aim as high as they do. The nation in which they live represents the perfect example of a plucky underdog story, blighted by every possible setback and not only surviving but coming out in better shape than many of the bigger neighbors that surround it.
“Singapore is a relatively new player in the games industry, but it has a lot of government support in funding start-ups and experimental projects,” smiles Robin Tan, creative director at critically-lauded XBLA title Armor Valley’s studio Protégé Production.
“Also, we have sunny weather all year round.”
It’s an aging gag, but there is feeling that it represents something significant here. Singapore is a small but busy place with a growing multinational community establishing itself around games development. There is an open, friendly atmosphere that is reminiscent of a very flush and well-equipped version of the bedroom coders of old.
“There is a strong sense of community amongst studios both local and foreign,” agrees Siddharth Jain, founder and creative director of casual and learning-based games studio Playware Studios Asia.
“There are frequent industry meet-ups. Most studios know each other well and business and contacts are often shared. Aggressive poaching from other companies is not a norm and usually avoided by everyone. Competition is friendly since the market is so large and diverse.”
Sian Yue Tan, producer and studio head at nearby Ratloop Asia, shares this sentiment, pointing out the involvement of both institutions and the local community in helping new and established businesses and business models to expand and grow.
“IGDA Singapore regularly organises get-togethers, where they’d arrange interesting talks and presentations, followed by drinks.
“These meets are well attended and it’s good to see more and more people at these gatherings every time we go. People are helping out in there spare time, whether a school offering its building as a venue, or people helping to organise, or speak at the events. This shows a tremendous amount of willingness from the community to share information and make things work.”
Of course it is nigh-on impossible to operate successfully as a closed-circuit in a globalised world, and as outmoded as it may seem in 2010, there are occasions where size, or at least landmass, does matter.
“Like all fast growing areas, there is an issue here with finding the right people sometimes, especially on the lead and senior levels,” says Allan Simonsen, technical director and co-founder of Boomzap, the casual games studio responsible for titles like upcoming Pirates Plund-Arrr on the Wii and the oft-discussed casual titles of the likes of Awakening: The Dreamless Castle.
“You can of course find them overseas, but that does tend to raise your cost of production. Apart from that the historical issue has been that the primary markets are overseas. But with the fall of the big European publishers that tends to be the same for everyone except the US and East Asia.”
SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET
Despite confessing difficulties, that incurable Singaporean optimism soon finds its way back into Simonsen’s outlook. Asked whether Singapore is appreciated on the world stage, and in the west in particular, he remains upbeat.
“Appreciated is a funny word. I think it’s seen as a growing part of the global community, though it doesn’t have the same profile as Korea or Canada. It’s still finding its role, which makes it an incredibly exciting place to be.”
Sian Yue Tan shares the notion that for Singapore, the plateau of what can be achieved has yet to be reached.
“Some of the major studios like Ubisoft and LucasArts have already set up shop here, proving their faith in the country’s development capabilities and ecosystem. On a smaller scale, games created by Singaporean indie studios and individuals have been doing quite well in global games competitions like the IGF, which is a pretty good indicator of what the local talent pool has to offer western audiences.
“The last few years, games made in Singapore have consistently made it into the finals of that competition, which is very encouraging to see. IGF 2010 saw over 3000 submissions from all over the world and our game, Rocketbirds: Revolution!, garnered three nominations for excellence in audio, excellence in visual art and the Seumas McNally grand prize.”
It really is difficult to find anyone who doesn’t hold high hopes for the years to come in Singapore.
“Singapore will definitely be a brand to reckon with worldwide, in time,” states Playware’s Siddharth Jain.
“Singapore already exports its education to other Asian countries with content produced locally being highly regarded in China, India, Indonesia, the Middle East and even as far as the United States. The rapidly-growing games sector is sure to recognise the value of this goodwill in the interactive sphere.”
The enthusiasm that burns at a creative level on the island seems to be built on a strong foundation of faith in both the development community and the national business models developed by the larger governmental organisations.
“The success Singapore has enjoyed in securing a slate of IDM projects and playing host to some host to some of the most exciting industry events in the region provides good momentum in Singapore’s drive to become an IDM capital,” explains Kee Ee Wah.
“Over the next few years, we will keep capitalising on emerging trends and investing in world class-facilities to benefit media players in Singapore and around the world.”
Allan Simonsen has another way of putting it.
“Singapore’s a great place, to start a company in, to live in and to have fun in,” he says.
“The food is fantastic and cheap, the weather is wonderful and the girls are pretty. Come join us.”