THE greatest opportunity for Singapore's games industry may not come from home-grown offerings.
The problem with Singapore's nascent games industry, a game development executive remarked, is that it attracts too many hopeful young gamers.
A good thing, surely? After all, the industry players behind new initiatives such as last week's Games Creation Community (GCC) must want to see a flood of eager new talent take up the trade, to meet their ambitious target of 20 home-grown titles in two years.
APPARENTLY, fresh-faced talent is all well and good in its place, but the multi-billion-dollar games industry is no playing field for the faint of heart. Less than 10 per cent of all games ever break even. And like many start-ups, the majority of games in development - overtaken by financial woes, business concerns, technological advances and rapidly changing consumer tastes - may never even make it to launch.
Tech-savvy teens everywhere dream of cooking up the next Halo or Tomb Raider. A decade and a half ago, my more prodigious peers were concocting computer games of surprising sophistication in the secondary school computer club. Nowadays these would-be game gods number among our senior IT engineers and chief technology officers, their tech-savviness put to more conventional, and lucrative, uses.
Do Singapore's emerging game creators have the stomach to tough it out in the real-world games industry, where even their best efforts, imagination and sleepless nights may not see a payoff?
Like the film industry to which it is frequently compared, the games sector is a high-glitz, high-risk gamble in which those with the deepest pockets survive. Globally, it has reached a consolidation phase that has seen off several big players in recent years. Development and marketing costs have risen sharply - buoyed by consumer expectations and hype, as well as the emergence of new computer technologies promising faster, smarter and better gaming.
The most successful offerings are less often original offerings than sequels and spin-offs of proven hits or movie tie-ins. Top-shelf games such as Doom 3 and Halo routinely cost millions, and often years of effort to produce: and even these may fail in the fickle marketplace. At the end of the day, the cut of profits taken home by the game creators themselves might be quite small.
Sceptics point out that Singapore's games industry lags by at least a decade behind regional competitors, such as South Korea, whose success has been attributed not least to aggressive government intervention. Still, the Economic Development Board has had successes in wooing giants such as Lucasfilm, Koei and Vivendi here.
These and other recent efforts mean that a critical ecology of supporting services might well take root here. They will bring in much-needed business and global expertise in development, publishing, distribution and marketing. Their presence could also yield solid and sustainable commercial benefits - regardless of the uncertain success of home-grown games in future.
THE SURE WINNERS
BIG-NAME, high-quality offerings, produced in our facilities employing local talent, and licensing home-grown technologies would bring in steady revenue and useful experience, whether or not the end products succeed or fail in the market. It's a hub model similar to that adopted by cities such as Sydney, which has pitched itself successfully at Hollywood as a film location of choice.
Opportunities abound. For instance, games development is increasingly dependent on middleware - versatile third-party software components which let developers simulate advanced physics or artificial intelligence without having to reinvent costly techniques. Industry leader Renderware makes a roaring trade in licensing its technology to developers. It's like the spade business in a gold rush: Everyone needs one, whether or not one strikes gold at the end.
Home-grown discoveries in physics, audio and visual software from our research institutes could be retooled and commercialised for use by the gaming industry - either to give local game-makers an edge, or as a business in its own right. Our small, network-saturated environment is an ideal test-bed for cross-platform gaming technology - think games you can play on your home PC and continue outdoors on 3G mobile. There is also room for growth in the use of games in advertising and marketing as novel communication tools.
The Infocomm Development Authority's Games Bazaar platform - a flexible, low-cost hosting infrastructure for regional testing and distribution of games - is another initiative that could put our under-utilised IT infrastructure to wider productive use, even as game development finds its feet over the coming years. And then there's translation, porting and other auxiliary services.
To maximise local game-makers' chances, the GCC is betting ahead on mobile games, giving our folk a longer lead for the industry's next big thing.
But the competition is cut-throat and our traction on the global entertainment and cultural landscape is limited as always. The real money in this volatile field might not be in games made by Singapore, but games made in Singapore. That's not a bad way to play either.