Struggling Philippine indie programmers looking for backers to step up their game

THE GLOBAL GAMING MARKET is projected to grow to $665.77 billion by 2030, according to Fortune Business Insights.

By Keisha B. Ta-asan, Reporter

JUVENILE MELCHOR “NILEY” B. BACOLCOL, 32, has been trying to develop a horror role-playing game (RPG) that revolves around Filipino mythology since 2018.

But the video game project has barely moved in the absence of local capital.

“There are limited funding opportunities in the Philippines,” the multimedia graphic designer said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “There are many skilled and creative Filipinos ready to make AAA games, but instead, we get outsourced by big companies abroad.”

The global gaming market was valued at $249.55 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow from $281.77 billion last year to $665.77 billion by 2030, for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.1%, according to Fortune Business Insights.

Lockdowns spurred by a coronavirus pandemic forced people young and old to play video games on their mobile phones, personal computers (PCs), PlayStation and Xbox consoles at home.

“People experienced worry, anxiety and terror as a result of the pandemic,” it said on its website. “In addition, social gatherings and outdoor activities were prohibited. All of these factors worked together to boost gaming, which is known to provide relief from a range of mental conditions.”

Mr. Bacolcol, the lead game developer and creator of Balete City, cited limited business-to-business events in the Philippines, so he often flies to global gaming conventions to pitch their projects.

Balete City, made in Unreal Engine for PC and console gamers, revolves around ancient Philippine mythology. While clips of its early development stages went viral in 2018, there have been no set deadlines in the absence of funding.

“Governments in other countries have allocated a budget to support game development projects,” Mr. Bacolcol said. “In the Philippines, we have limited funding to none. Even in outside trips representing the Philippines, we need to shell out a hefty amount of money.”

QueueBETA Ent, a startup entertainment studio composed of graduating students from Gordon College in Olongapo City, is developing a 3D RPG called Estrella: The Spark of Destiny for their thesis.

Many indie developers start their careers as students, making project management challenging, QueueBETA Head of Marketing and Management Daniele Victor R. Marilag said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

“Creative differences among team members and the need to allocate resources such as time, skills and funding are additional struggles,” he said. “These challenges, especially for newcomers, highlight the complex landscape for indie developers.”

Angelo Gabriel G. Barrera, chief executive officer and creative director at Katakata Creative, said the Philippine gaming industry is still young.

“A number of bigger companies have tried creating original content before, or what we usually call intellectual property (IP),” he said in a Microsoft Teams video interview. “But there’s just not much of a demand for those games locally.”

He said Filipino-made video games tend to be very small in scale and usually end up becoming mobile games. It’s still difficult to promote these to Filipino consumers, who prefer mainstream content.

Teddy O. Belnas II, game director at Mapua Game Consensus, said triple-A companies are far ahead in technology and game quality.

“Generally, people prefer mainstream games, especially with well-known IPs. Even though the indie community is large, the general public prefers something that is known, which mostly comes from big companies that adver-tise their games well,” he said.

QueueBETA said the video game market is a “hit or miss” for most indie developers because of this.

“The community leans toward well-known intellectual properties from AAA developers like Sony and Nintendo,” Mr. Marilag said. “These titles often stand out for their quality and the familiarity they bring.”

“However, the rise of indie games demonstrates a growing appreciation for unique, innovative experiences. Without captivating gameplay, players might find themselves lost and will end up playing a different game,” he added.

Mr. Barrera noted that there is a lack of publishers in the Philippine game development industry.

“So, that brings a problem with people like Niley and Balete, and also for people like me, because we can’t really bring our project as just a PowerPoint presentation and show it to someone and hope they fund it,” he said. “It’s not possible here in the Philippines.”

“If we were presenting to publishers abroad, it may be possible. But then, we’d be competing with many more developers worldwide,” he added.

As a result, video game developers end up getting outsourced, writing code for big foreign companies to fund their own game projects.

STATE SUPPORT

Government grants are available to Filipino game developers, but they’re not that big. Still, being able to get one, like Mr. Barrera did, is a big “stamp of approval,” he said.

“Having that support is crucial. What’s more important for indie devs is we don’t try to earn money right away. We want our audience to grow and once that happens, the next game should generate income,” he added.

Ranullf J. Goss, president of CyberCraft Philippines, said the Trade, Tourism and Science and Technology departments have been supportive of the local video game industry.

There’s also the game development grant from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) launched in 2022. Game development groups recognized by the corporate regulator can get as much as P1.5 million, while indie game developers can get as much as P300,000 each, he said.

CyberCraft is an association that works with government agencies to promote Filipino-made original game content, while looking for funding for game development companies.

“If you’re a college student or you just graduated, P300,000 is big,” Mr. Goss said in mixed English and Filipino. “But if you’re a veteran in the industry or you’re a team, it’s not enough.”

Mr. Barrera said most aspiring game developers are not aware of these state grants. “The government should really put more emphasis on promoting the local game industry. We should be promoting them on the same level as other forms of multimedia like shows and movies.”

The Philippine government should allot funding to support indie games with original content, according to Mr. Belnas.

The country also needs local events where indie game developers and firms can showcase their work and attract investors, such as the Philippine GameDev Expo, which was held last year, he said.

“Experiences like that help not only in exposure but also boost the confidence of the devs. The games they have produced are played by people at these events, and they get to hear constructive criticism about their games,” he added.

Mr. Marilag said the government should develop a curriculum that reflects what the gaming industry demands.

“We could change the ordinary and go beyond textbooks, dive into real-world projects, hands-on experiences and workshops that make learning an adventure because that is the most engaging aspect of developing a game,” he said.

Providing avenues of collaboration between the academe and industry professionals could also bridge the gap and empower aspiring developers to thrive, he added.

Mr. Goss said emerging gaming technology like Unreal Engine 5, an open and advanced real-time 3D creation tool, could also be used in other industries.

“It’s a game engine but it can be used for films and can be applied to other graphics-intensive applications, even training simulations,” he said.

Unreal Engine 5 is free to get started for game development; a 5% royalty only kicks in when your title earns more than $1 million (P55.9 million), according to its website.

Mr. Barrera said game developers should shun outsourcing and completely rely on local sales to build up their projects. “If we have more government and private sector support, we’d be able to really create a homegrown Fili-pino game development industry,” he said.