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Made In Malaysia - Game Production in the Tropics

Translated from the original German text with the kind permission of International Games Magazine; additional photos taken from F5 Quicksave and Tourism Malaysia

Some shade, a fan, cold drinks - that's what one wishes for at such a day in Kuala Lumpur. It's July 5th, 2012, the termomether shows 35° celsius, humidity is over 80 percent. A depressing heat lies over Bukit Bintang, the biggest shopping district of the city, as a neverending traffic rushes through the urban canyons.

Those who get the chance escape into one of the fully air-conditioned shopping malls that are densely assembled on just a few square kilometres. If Sungei Wang Plaza, Starhill Gallery or Fahrenheit 88 - provided enough loose cash, the motto is shop till you drop. The oversized temples of consumerism make look German shopping centers look downright contemplative. At Sungei Wang ("Cash Flow") Plaza everything a shopper could wish for, from sneakers to cooking books, can be obtained on 120,000 square metres. Those with more exquisite taste can take a taxi a bit to the north, where the 452-metre-high Petronas Towers stand: At the base of the twin towers, in Kuala Lumpur's noblest shoping mall Suria KLCC wait Prada, Armana and Versace to do themselves the honor.

Tech geeks on the other hand get their fix at the seven-storied Low Yat Plaza: In 350 shops notebooks, smartphones, video games and consoles are stacked. Who'd want to go back into the heat from here? Kuala Lumpur is booming, no doubt. Malaysia's capital only has 1.6 million citicens, but within the metropolitan region Klang Valley already live seven million people. In the last couple of years countless banks, hotels and administration buildings have sprung up like mushrooms and joined the city's skyline. Kuala Lumpur ("muddy river mouth") isn't just the economic and cultural center of a country rich in mineral ressources (Oil!), but also one of the most visited cities of the world: Every year about eight million tourists pour in here, eager to spend their money and visit sights like the broadcast tower, the honorable Merdeka Square, the Lake Gardens or china town.

Success with racing games

Another economical pillar of Kuala Lumpur is the IT industry: In between the Petronas Towers and KL International Airport, the government built the Multimedia Super Corridor, a 50 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide special economic area for businesses of information and communication technology. Within the MSC lie the towns of Putrajaya and Cyberjaya, connected with the fast KLIA Ekspres - a few game companies have settled here. The most well-known studio of the country is found at the center of the capital, though, only five minutes by foot from the modern station KL Sentral. Founded in 2006, Codemasters Malaysia made significant contributions to the visual design of the racing game series Dirt and Race Driver: Grid. Codemasters wouldn't tell us on what projects the art studio is working currently - a request for an interview was declined by the mother company in the UK. In general recent information on the Malaysian Codemasters subsidiary are rare. One of the few exceptions: In March 2011 lead technical art trainer Ivon Smith announced during a TV interview that the company would grow beneath 100 employees within the year.

At another game company we had more luck than with Codemasters. The independent studio E-One was eager to share information - not the least because it just published its first major game. Hoodwink is a point&click adventure which is offered on EA's download portal Origin since June 28th (by now it's also available on Desura -ed.) The game is set inside the megacity Global-01, which is suffering from the consequences of a catastrophal epidemic. The thieving small-time criminal Michael Bezzle tries to win the girl of his dreams, but gets entangled in a web of intrigues and is forced to deal with all kinds of weird characters. Hoodwink, says E-One president Amir Irwan (36), is geared towards gamers with puzzle experience. "The target group are people who don't take life too seriously and welcome a decent dose of nonsense, and appreciate funny dialogue and dry humor." Since point&click adventures aren't too popular within Asia, Hoodwink is aiming mostly for the European, North American and Australian markets. Yet the dystopian world of Hoodwink has an oriental touch, so Irwan: "A bit like Malaysia itself, where tradition and modernity are melting together." But will this formula be accepted by the partly highly critical adventure game audience? Irwan remains modest: "Hoodwink is our first product, we're still in the process of learning. At any rate, we'll keep working to improve ourselves, that is what's most important."

Double-tracked strategy

E-One Studio always pursued multiple tracks in its business strategy. Hoodwink may be its first published game, but the company has been founded already in 2006. The founding duo Amir Irwan and Erkan Sabanovic also sees themselves as multimedia service provider for other companies. Currently the studio's 30 employees work on the action adventure Hidden Dawn, which is planned to be released for several platforms. This makes E-One Studio the exception in Malaysia: Many companies are specialized as service providers for game art and animation - or they're producing games for Facebook and mobile devices. Bazil Akmal Bidin ("BuZz") estimates the number of game studios in the country to no more than 50. The 27-year-old programmer coordinates the Malaysia chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and is optimistic for the future of the production location Malaysia: "We got the potential to become an important player in Southeast Asia. We're already pretty good when it comes to quality art assets for AAA-games. The most important thing now is to build a strong community of developers and a trade association for game companies."

According to BuZz, Malaysia by no means lacks talented young people. But an adequate education system to get those talents ready for the industry is still missing. "Most courses either deal with programming or game art," is his criticism. "There aren't many options for game design courses." A commendable exception is the KDU University College in the city of Petaling Jaya, ten kilometres southwest of Kuala Lumpur: Here it's possible to study game design as well as game art and game technology. But even if the quality of education an many universities should improve, that still would be far from getting rid of all the recruiting problems of the industry. Malaysia simply doesn't have any success stories (except for Codemasters) that serve as role models for local startup-businesses and draw lots of workforce towards the industry. The Codemasters-titles developed partly in Malaysia became international hits, but an AAA-bestseller made entirely in Malaysia hasn't come up in a very long time.

But the beginnings of the Malaysian games industry had been quite promising: In 1995 the local studio Motion Pixel delivered the SNES-game Ghoul Patrol, made in cooperation with LucasArts; since 1998 GameBrains developed more than 20 games for platforms like Nintendo DS and PS2. However, Motion Pixel soon disappeared again, and GameBrains does only casual games these days.

Brain drain to the neighboring country

The government's aid for games in Malaysia requires lots of improvement. It neighbor Singapur makes a much more consistent effort to get foreign game companies into the country - as a result, both Ubisoft and LucasArts have been running studios over there for years. "We lost some experienced personell and prodigy to Singapur," BuZz remarks with regret. But not only this brain drain reduces the growth of new talent: Many young programmers are more inclined to get a secure and well-paid job at an IT company instead of getting involved with the adventure in the games industry. Governmental support for the IT industry in Malaysia goes through the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC). A specialized games-aid doesn't exist, but some support programs for the animation industry, from which game developers can also profit. One of the main goals of MDeC is to get new businesses into the Multimedia Super Corridor. Interested companies go through an admission process - if they succeed, they receive tax exemptions for ten years. "Just like any other government, the bureaucracy involved can get too much," says Amir Irwan. "Some companies just don't apply for support because they fear the long admission procedure."

Expensive internet

Irwan is optimistic about MDeC's plans for additional support programs for startup businesses. The studio founder considers it another responsibility of the state to deregulate the Malaysian DSL market: "When it comes to internet costs, Malaysia still is one of the most expensive countries in the world. As a private customer one currently pays about 150 Ringgit (US$50) a month. The reason for that is that the state only gives licenses to selected providers. So it's not a free market." In consequence, there are a lot of internet cafes in Malaysia - where people mostly play browser games and preinstalled software like StarCraft II. Reduced provider costs would increase the private consumption of games - and probably also produce more young talent for the games industry.

With support programs, an opening of the market and an improved educational system the dream of people like Amir Irwan and Bazil Akmal Bidin could come true: To make Malaysia into a game design force to be reckoned with. Natural advantages of the location are plenty in the Southeast-Asian nation. "We got beaches, mountains and rivers - our employees' weekends are packed with outdoor activities," raves Amir Irwan. "Malaysia is a great place to maintain the right work-live-balance."

Inside the twin towers

Partly made in Malaysia: Race Driver GRID

Street view in Kuala Lumpur


Programmer Erkan Sabanovic, producer Amir Irwan and writer Christopher Kuok Meng Huan

Stephanie Yong Jo-Ann is one of the more experienced team members - she worked several years for Codemasters Malaysia

Bazil Akmal

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