Growing Pains for Penang’s Gaming Industry

By Nicole Chang

November 2021 FEATURE
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WHEN MALAYSIA ANNOUNCED its first lockdown last March, gamers scrambled to purchase video game CDs and game consoles, with retailers like Game Tag and Impulse Gaming Penang witnessing a sudden influx of customers. But sales dried to a trickle soon after, says Yeoh of Game Tag. “Overall, our sales dropped by half when compared to before the pandemic.”

The two brick-and-mortar game shops popular with gamers at Prangin Mall were financially scathed. “Demand was high at first when PlayStation 5 launched at the end of 2020, but shipment to Malaysia was stalled due to a shortage of semiconductor chips. The limited supply caused local sales to suffer,” says leasing manager Louie Looi. He adds that the game retailers have since resumed business operations following the mall’s reopening. The new mode of doing business is to make sales online, either by engaging customers on Facebook with the latest product updates or setting up virtual shops on online sales platforms like Shopee, to expand market reach. Customers will then receive orders via shipment or self-pick-up at the physical retailer.

Oculus Quest 2 is an all-in-one VR system. It retails at RM1,599. Photo by: Impluse Gaming Penang

Global Trends Decide

The increased sales of Nintendo Switch and Oculus Quest 2 during the lockdown piqued gamers’ interest in Virtual Reality (VR) games, says Jerick Teoh from Impulse Gaming Penang. “These games are user-friendly and affordable, but as a genre it is still not popular in Malaysia. Many VR games are not released here and to purchase them, gamers need a US-based account. All transactions made through credit card are in USD, this makes it troublesome for less tech savvy gamers.”

Yeoh adds, “In my 14 years in the business, I’ve come to analogise demand for games with that of movies. Hardcore Marvel fans would not miss an installment of The Avengers’ franchise, it’s the same for gamers of Monster Hunter for example. That said, the trends are also guided by renowned developers like Ubisoft, Blizzard, Bandai and Koei Tecmo. PlayStation and Nintendo Switch console games are popular here, but not as much the Xbox, VR playset or racing games.”

From Playing to Designing

Crab War, Postknight, King’s League, Simulacra, Re:Legend and No Straight Roads are but some successful games with local intellectual property rights.1 Indie game developers aside, there are many local creative studios that provide outsourcing services for AAA games;2 Street Fighter V, Gears 5, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Final Fantasy and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End were all co-developed by Malaysian studios.

In fact, Penang-based Lemon Sky Studios was heavily involved in the development of two popular games, Final Fantasy VII Remake and Resident Evil: Resistance, among others. “We designed parts of the environmental setting for Final Fantasy VII Remake and worked on modelling the armour, characters and props in Resident Evil: Resistance,” explains studio manager Eng Tzy Ling.

Read also: Pit Stop on Penang’s Digital Journey

Game console sets and accessories for sale at Impulse Gaming Penang. Photo by: Impulse Gaming Penang

Local Talents Measure Up

Both Eng and Teoh agree that locally produced games are of international standards and comparable to many foreign indie game productions.

The gaming industry is growing fast in Malaysia, “but its market is still niche from poor promotion and exposure on media platforms,” says Teoh. “Competition is tight on the global scene, especially when big-name game studios have spent years and a huge marketing budget to reach their current position. Money talks when it comes to standing out; local game producers need more financial capacity for marketing and promotion,” confirms Yeoh.

The work environment at Lemon Sky Studios. Photo by: Lemon Sky Studios

Adding to this concern are the shortage of creative talents and the skills gap between educational institutions and what is required in the industry. “There aren’t enough talents to meet current industry demand. We are constantly on the lookout for talents and we do hope that more young Malaysians will consider the world of game art as their chosen career. The arts is now a viable career path, with many opportunities in Malaysia for art students to pursue. Hopefully those with an interest in creative media design will choose game design as a field of study.

“We usually take some time to train fresh graduates who join us to ensure proper application of knowledge, as well as practical and technical skills learnt from schools,” explains Eng. Despite the drawbacks, Eng says she is excited about the potential in Malaysia’s gaming industry and how it is able to develop further.

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Nicole Chang

has just completed her PhD programme at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.