How can a country where mobile clones reign supreme break into independent IP?
In Southeast Asia, gaming is booming. Huge numbers of avid gamers, a growing young population with a sweet tooth for all things Western, and a relatively open market have made the region very attractive for publishers looking to expand their audiences. Largest amongst the Southeast Asian markets is Vietnam. We took to the people of Vietnam to understand where they get their gaming fix, and how the landscape of Vietnamese indie development has evolved alongside these appetites.
Walking the streets of any Vietnamese city, it is obvious to even the most casual observer that mobile gaming is having something of a revolution here. Cafes line the streets and you’d be hard pressed to find a single one devoid of at least one local hunched over their phone, expertly sliding fingers around the touchscreen. Somewhat culled in numbers are the internet cafes filled with banks of desktops running DOTA or Counter-Strike, occupied by young gamers looking to take to the online battlefields. Due to their high costs, home computers and traditional consoles have been largely eschewed by the Vietnamese market, leaving mobile gaming strongly in the lead as the Vietnamese market grows.
In 2017, around 32.8 million players made up the gaming industry in Vietnam, making it the 28th largest gaming market worldwide according to Newzoo. With a population of nearly 96 million, a staggering proportion of Vietnamese define themselves as gamers – so why do we see so few original Vietnamese games?
When thinking of Vietnamese games, the first that comes to mind for most Western consumers is the 2014 viral sensation Flappy Bird. Developed alone by Vietnamese-born Dong Nguyen, Flappy Bird combined retro pixel-art graphics with simple but highly challenging mechanics to create a worldwide gaming phenomenon. Nguyen has been quoted as saying that he believes that Western games are overly complex and that he wanted to make a game for people who were on the move. Unfortunately, after the runaway success of Flappy Bird, his independent studio .Gears has yet to have another smash hit and hasn’t cracked a top chart since 2015. And his isn’t a solitary story. In fact, in the Vietnamese market, none of the top ten most downloaded mobile games in 2017 were actually created in Vietnam.
So what are Vietnamese gamers playing? According to Eugene Tran, a 24-year-old resident of Da Nang, most gamers in Vietnam are simply not interested in playing independent games.
“Games could be made in Vietnam. However, most people are largely interested in imported online games,” says Tran. “Everyone playing in computer game centers are playing games like League of Legends, Overwatch, or PUBG.”
It’s not just a preference for imported games that drives Vietnamese gamers to AAA titles like these, however. Tran also describes a gaming culture that is, by and large, unaware of the idea of indie games: “People are only interested in the games they see streaming or games that they can play on the go,” they explain. In personal experience, walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and the cities in between, not once did I see any sort of game being played that wasn’t recognizable instantly as being part of a familiar game family like MOBA, RPG or card battle games. Streaming these games has become the end goal for many Vietnamese gamers. “I love watching streams and it’s games like these that I find myself playing most,” says Ho The Vu, 28, of Da Nang. Vu works a day job in Da Nang but at night he often streams League of Legends and dreams of someday playing for Vietnam’s national team.
These games are still the exception rather than the norm, however. Mobile gaming is by far the largest segment of the Vietnamese gaming population and the download chart is regularly topped by casual games like Subway Surfers, My Talking Tom or Roblox. With limited access to streaming networks and systems, if a Vietnamese gamer is going to watch or create a stream, it’s going to be of one of the major players in that area, not an indie title. One of the reasons for this is the reticence many Vietnamese have towards spending on video games even to this day.
“Currently, many Vietnamese enjoy free smartphone games,” Noriko Kato, CEO of Fuji Technology, told Nikkei Asian Review in a mid-2017 interview. “But the number of Vietnamese gamers who are willing to pay is on the rise.” To that end, Fuji Technology, a Japanese IT firm with offices in Hanoi, has begun a porting service for Japanese games looking to be adapted for the Vietnamese mobile market.
The explosion of mobile gaming in Vietnam can also be traced back to the recent introduction of nationwide 4G coverage which bolstered an already booming cell phone market. In Vietnam, the cell phone is still seen as a status symbol, much as it is in the West. But due to the financial impossibility of luxury items for many Vietnamese, the phone becomes a peak aspirational item.
“Everyone has at least one phone and they are always ready to buy a new one,” confirms Vu. Phones are ubiquitous across Vietnam; they are sold on street corners, they are used on motorbikes, they are even left as offerings on altars honoring dead relatives so they may have all they need in the afterlife. One is left to wonder not why the mobile gaming market exploded in Vietnam, but rather why it took until now for people so enamored with their phones to use them for gaming.
So, if Vietnam’s gaming appetite is satiated by imports and external mobile clones, where does that leave internal game development?
Game development in Vietnam is not a new phenomenon. As early as 2002, Microsoft outsourced parts of its Forza development to Vietnam-based Glass Egg Studios, who have contributed to everything from mobile racing titles to Insomniac’s Spiderman. Clearly, the talent for making games exists in the country but has yet to strike out on its own. Vietnamese indies cannot look to Western indie roadmaps for cultural acceptance; digital storefronts are already over-crowded with variations of cloned games and Vietnamese gamers have yet to develop the distinct tastes for niche games delivering an individual developer’s passion project rather than a free-to-play, free-to-forget digital download.
Delving into the history and culture of the country, it’s easy to see why this is, however. Sure, it’s easier than ever to break into game development for wannabe developers with software like Unity and distribution platforms like Steam or any of the App Stores (in much of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, third-party app stores are still allowed and largely unregulated). And clearly, the demand for games is there. But Vietnam is operating in a very different landscape to these Western developers.
Some blame may still lie with the governing Communist Party of Vietnam; a game like “Papers Please” could never work in a country that still regularly confronts government censorship. All three of the major internet service providers, FPT Telecom, VNPT and Viettel, are owned by the government and military and, according to the World Press Freedom Index, Vietnam is ranked a dismal 175 out of 180. Living under a censored regime severely limits the creativity of any would-be developer and discourages games on certain topics from ever being created. Why risk your freedom to create a game for the ResistJam when you could merely clone another challenging 8-bit platformer?
From Wolfenstein’s Nazi-blasting to Fallout’s subtle critique of pre-Wasteland American excess, many of video gaming’s most memorable and controversial moments have come from games that are overtly political, yet these politicized AAA titles are the exception rather than the norm. When even including a female lead character is a selling point for most AAA developers, indies have long remained a bastion for experimentation. With the threat of government persecution hanging overhead, is it any wonder that many Vietnamese developers have chosen instead to toe the line of acceptable imports?
There are many factors that contribute to Vietnam’s lack of original games; from the viewpoint of making money, recreating the familiar is always preferable to giving an audience an untested product. From the viewpoint of staying on the right side of a potentially retributive government, it also pays to not push boundaries. Purely from a gamer’s perspective though, until the game developers of Vietnam begin to create unique IP’s, all we can expect to see out of the market is what we have already seen.