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Gaming boom is driving demand for developers

At the bus stop, on the MTR and in coffee shops, people can be seen with their faces buried in their smartphones and tablets, their fingers pounding on the screens as they slay monsters, connect matching pieces of candy together or fire antagonised avians from catapults. Never before have videogames been so popular.

Ken Chan, founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Game Development Association and director of game developer Pick Technology, says the game industry has generated a lot of noise in the past few years thanks to the emergence of smartphone app stores.

"Last year, the local market for games was HK$100 million," he says. "It will only get bigger as more investors decide to join in. Local game developers have attracted interest from listed companies, either to invest in them or to be partners in developing games."

Five or six years ago, prospects in the local game-development industry were gloomy and many bright talents left for other jobs in IT. Now, however, the industry has been revived. "Besides the boom in game apps, costs have risen rapidly in South Korea and the mainland, which were traditionally low-cost environments for games development. This has made Hong Kong an attractive choice for investors," Chan says.

The local games-development market is seeing an increasing number of companies join in. "In the past, local developers might switch to becoming distributors to help bring overseas games into the local market, because game development was not profitable," Chan says. "But as the local market has matured, foreign companies can easily set up their own distribution channels, so distributors are going back to being developers."

With more investment and players, industry pay levels have gone up. "Newcomers such as junior developers can get HK$10,000 to HK$15,000 a month. Middle-management posts, such as system analysts, can earn HK$30,000. Project managers make up to HK$50,000, depending on the scale of the project," Chan says.

Lobson Chan, senior director of local game apps developer Outblaze, agrees on the rosy outlook for the industry, saying that the demand for games has never been higher.

"If you look at the revenue of app stores - whether Apple or Android - up to 80 per cent of profits come from game downloads," he says. "In the past three years, there have been more than 170 million game-app downloads for games produced by Outblaze. It is certainly one of the world's fastest growing industries."

The widespread use of smartphones and tablet computers has injected new life into games, he says. "There are many new electronic devices coming onto the market every month and all of them allow users to play games. People who are not regular gamers are picking up the hobby because the devices make it such an easily accessible thing to do. With more gaming devices and gamers, the industry is expected to continue to grow at a tremendous rate," he says.

Despite the bright prospects, he says app makers have a hard time competing with banks and commercial firms for IT talent. "Banks look for IT specialists to manage their databases and systems, and commercial companies have a huge demand for app development," he says. "Game developers must fight these sectors for talent, which makes recruitment a tall order because many youngsters still do not consider game development a legitimate career option."

He hopes, though, that this will change, as the gaming industry offers many good career opportunities. "An experienced game developer has a number of options as they move up. They can choose to be project managers, to oversee game development, or move to the business sector. Different companies with different technologies are always looking for ways to collaborate and game developers can act as a bridge between different parties," he says.

He adds that the skill set required for creating games apps is more complicated than for other apps. Game developers, therefore, have little problem moving on to developing apps in other settings if they so wish.

With the rise of mobile game apps, there has been a decline in the development of computer and console games, Ken Chan says. "The skills in developing computer and console games do not necessarily translate into creating mobile games. There are fewer buttons on a phone, and given the smaller screen of mobile devices, there are limitations developers need to be aware of," he says.

Lobson Chan says there is no specific academic requirement for developers, although applicants need to be proficient in operating a computer. "We recruit people who enjoy playing games and are passionate about creating them. Technology is constantly improving so you must be willing to learn continuously to keep up with the latest trends," he says.

Ken Chan says there are also jobs in the industry that do not require hardcore computer skills. "We employ customer-service people or 'game masters' to answer players' inquiries," he says. "These people do not need a technical background, but must love playing games. They are responsible for spotting problems in order to offer suggestions to help enhance players' experience."

Currently, the local game industry is mostly made up of small-to-medium sized firms, most with fewer than 20 people. Ken Chan, however, predicts that this will change in the near future as large, multinational game developers increasingly enter the market.

"Small firms like us are going to face tough competition," he says. "To stay competitive, we must develop games with a local flavour to retain players. Our company has created mahjong and horse-racing games, which are local favourites. The app store has allowed developers to compete on the global stage, but before going worldwide, we must get the support of local players first."


Ken Chan and Andy Siu on the most popular locally developed game apps
Tower of Saviours Siu: “It might look like a local version of Puzzle and Dragons, but most gamers would agree that it is a high-quality piece of work.”
iFighter Chan: “This was one of the first shooting games to make use of smartphone touch screens.”
Star Girl Siu: “This game is highly popular among female gamers because it makes their dream of having loads of clothes to mix and match come true.”
iHorse Chan: “Horse-racing games are always a hit among Hong Kong locals.”
Mahjong World Siu: “With more than six million downloads in the past four years, this game shows the favourite Chinese pastime also is hot among Chinese gamers.”