Online games go local for Southeast Asia's booming market

SINGAPORE - It was while hunting for monsters in a virtual cave that Bend Henmoko Madio met his community and realised why companies are adapting online video games to suit the different languages, tastes and mobile devices in Southeast Asia.

Text translation, dialogue dubbing and character outfits are among the most common tweaks in the "localisation" work by firms wanting to capitalise on the region's booming game market and keep players loyal.

"I met these friends when I was playing Rohan: Blood Feud hosted on the Indonesian server," said 32-year-old Madio. "Localisation makes it easier to form a community ... After all, it is easier to communicate with fellow countrymen."

Localisation is gaining ground in Southeast Asia, where 85 million players spent US$661 million (S$838.88 million) last year on online games, research firm Niko Partners says. It expects that spending to hit US$1.2 billion by 2017.

"The growth has been quite staggering," said David Ng, chief executive of Singapore-based gaming company Gumi Asia Pte Ltd."That is what's fuelling the localisation business because more and more people are starting to realise it's worthwhile."

Gumi Asia, a unit of Japan's Gumi Inc, creates in-house games and also publishes those of its parent, with teams working on localisation for Southeast Asia.

In Puzzle Trooper, a game originally intended for western players, a character resembling the wrestler Hulk Hogan got some manga makeovers.

"When we started doing testing in Southeast Asia, we realised that they don't really like the western art that much,"Ng said. "Then we tested with some more Japanese-looking art and the response was really good."

Beyond language and culture

Still, Southeast Asia is far from homogeneous. Gamers in Thailand and Vietnam tend to like Chinese-style outfits, while those in the Philippines love western-style characters such as the original Puzzle Trooper, Ng said.

"Indonesia is hard," he said. "You have the Muslims, Chinese and Christians. It's a mix. It's really difficult to comprehend a market as diverse as that."

Indonesia's nearly 20 million players spent US$88.1 million on online gaming in 2012, almost 26 per cent higher than the year before, according to Niko Partners.

"The future of game localisation in Southeast Asia is going to be decided by the Indonesian market," said Harry Inaba, managing director of localisation firm Synthesis APAC.

Unlike Gumi Asia, independent firms such as Synthesis work on contract with developers wanting to localise their games.

Catering to the Southeast Asian market goes beyond language and culture to include optimising graphics and adapting to diverse handset types, Ng said. The Android operating system's domination in the region presents a sizeable challenge.

With at least nine Android systems now in use and thousands of distinct devices in the market with different screen sizes and graphics capabilities, developers must localise their games into many formats. In contrast, the vast majority of Apple devices run on iOS 7 or the previous version of that system.

Low connection speeds in parts of Southeast Asia hinder developers from using high-quality graphics and elaborate animation, so banners that pop out on the screen would not be ideal as they can take a long time to load.

Instead, developers are using the pixel technology found in older phones that requires lower bandwidth.

Gumi picked the 20 to 30 most popular Android devices to localise into, Ng said, with the ultimate goal of fostering player loyalty by making games "sticky" to various markets.

"Stickiness equates to removing any barriers from their understanding of how to play the games," he said. "To remove barriers, you give them something they're more familiar with."