Vietnamese game makers begin playing foreign markets

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Gaming industry makes promising export start, but it is far, far away from the big league

Software engineers at work in a Ho Chi Minh City-based game developing company

Vietnamese video and online game distributors have started to make money by exporting their own games, but industry insiders said advanced markets are still out of reach.

They said the local games industry is still beset with several problems, in particular the lack of people trained or skilled in game creation.

VTC Online Communications JSC under the Vietnam Multimedia Corporation, one of the first game exporters in the country, started production in 2009 with just five people.

It only managed to sign contracts in March last year to provide first-person shooter video game Squad and strategy video game Generation 3 to ten European and Latin American countries, after making seven simpler games for local players. The company has also won contracts to provide Squad in the Middle East and Singapore, but it has not got a license for the game at home over concerns of excessive violence.

Tran Phuong Huy, general director of the company, told Thoi Bao Kinh Te Saigon Online in an April 18 report that its production studio would have gone nowhere if they were not introduced to Vo Bang Phan, a game designer then working in the Netherlands who has stayed and helped expand the studio to nearly 100 people at present.

Huy said the studio had experienced people in programming, graphic design and sound effects, but no one trained for the most important part game design. 

He said the company started the studio to stop dependence on foreign game providers and having to share with them a big part of the profit. "We did not think much about export profit during the first days, only wanted to prove to the world that Vietnam can make its own games."

Other companies including VNG, a leading Internet content provider, and Hanoi-based Emobi Games also joined the games export market last year.

DeNA, Japanese provider of mobile portal and e-commerce website, is distributing VNG's two online farm games Sky Garden and Pig Farm. The web games are distributed on the social network Mobage, one of the most popular cell phone gaming platforms in Japan owned by DeNA.

VNG exported its third game, Galaxy Pirates, to Japan last month, and also provided farm game My Fish in China.

Nguyen Nhat Tuyen, director of game development at VNG, said game exports account for between 10 and 15 percent of the company's revenues.

Le Hong Minh, general director of VNG, told Vietweek, "The fact that Vietnamese games are exported to a big market like Japan is a creditable accomplishment. It marks a milestone for VNG and for all the businesses that have invested in online entertainment in Vietnam."

Emobi Games, meanwhile, is selling 7554, a first-person shooter game based on the legendary Dien Bien Phu battle of 1954 that ended French colonization of Vietnam, in the US for US$12 apiece. It has also signed contracts for exporting the game to France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Austria.

Besides the games for which foreign partners only help with the platform at local markets, business insiders say they are also exporting games in terms of outsourcing, in which they completely follow the design and content requirements of foreign partners, or in cooperation agreements under which foreign partners train personnel.

The insiders said that despite the impressive advances, the fledgling industry has been hindered by language and culture barriers, as well as the gap in the levels of game industry development between Vietnam and its markets.

"Our whole staff keeps getting caught in the loop of making and fixing errors," Huy said.

Tuyen also said that the biggest problem is that they lack a group of qualified people. "There is a lot of pressure when working on projects with foreign partners with different technical and even legal backgrounds."

Both Huy and Tuyen said they believe their companies will succeed very well when they manage to overcome all the barriers.

They also said that in the beginning, the local industry should focus on mobile phone games to avoid competition with experienced providers in overseas markets.

Huy said cell phone games are actually a big piece of the pie that only received attention recently.

"Vietnam can be competitive in this segment," he added.

He said the games do not cost much time or money, and can be distributed on available platforms such as Apple Appstore or Google Play Store, "which are the factors that will narrow the gap between Vietnamese and foreign game providers." The games can use a lot of skills that Vietnam's sophisticated graphic designers have, he said.

Huy's VTC Studio is going to launch its first mobile game around the middle of this year while VNG and Emobi Games have said they are also on the same track.

Minh of VNG said his company will focus on developing games for social networks and mobile platforms, and expects to earn $10 million a year from the segment in Japan in a couple years.

Ys Lee, advisor to the South Korea National Information Society Agency, also said at a digital conference in Ho Chi Minh City late last month that Vietnam should develop simple games on cell phones if it wants to survive in the international game industry.

Lee said Vietnam will lose in the high definition games segment currently dominated by providers from South Korea, Japan and China, according to the Thoi Bao Kinh Te Saigon Online report.

He said some small providers in Korea also have chosen to make mobile games to avoid being swallowed by the big fish, and they have actually succeeded, topping local lists for the number of players as well as revenues earned.

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