Wed, 09 Jun 2010

Over the years, the United States and Japan have become the undisputed leaders of the computer gaming industry. In comparison, Indonesian computer game developers still have a long way to go before they can even think about catching up.

But this does not mean they aren’t making an effort. While most locally developed games cannot yet compete with international titles in terms of graphics and playability, they are at least off to a start, humble as it may be.

Titles such as “Enchanting Island,” “Wild West Billy,” “Help Papa Rob” and “Packet Rush” feature potentially addictive and easy-to-learn gaming action and simple yet eye-catching animation.

Most locally developed computer games are geared toward the casual gamer, ceding the more sophisticated gaming experience offered by international titles playable on consoles like Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo and Sony PlayStation.

Local games usually feature a simple - if any - storyline and whimsical characters. The game controls and objectives are likewise easy and tend to be repetitive, with difficulty gradually building up as the player progresses.

Most are also played on PCs instead of consoles. These types of games are usually billed as casual games or Flash games, based on the programming software used to create them.

Agung Wijaya, who owns a computer game development company called eFun-Soft (E-funsoft.com), said Indonesia had a sizable market of dedicated gamers, as well as a talented pool of designers.

“I believe that the quality and quantity of human resources in the field of gaming in Indonesia is tremendous,” he said. “The level of capability and creativity of developers here is completely on par [with their international counterparts].”

Agung, whose company is behind games like the tropical adventure “Enchanting Island” and the Western-style “Wild West Billy,” said the current trend of what he describes as “casual computer games” began in 2000, when faster Internet connections sparked interest in “Bejeweled,” “Cake Mania,” “Tumblebugs” and “Diner Dash.”

Guntur Sarwohadi, who owns game the development company SoybeanSoft (Soybeansoft.com), credits the prevalence of social networking Web sites, where these casual games are readily available, for the surge in interest in them.

“These Web sites are used by people from all ages and walks of life,” Guntur said. “So I think games have slowly become more acceptable to the previously non-gaming public.”

The current crop of computer game developers in their late 20s to early 30s started off as hard-core gamers. Most of them came of age during the gaming boom in the 1980s to mid-1990s.

During this time, titles such as “Super Mario Bros,” “Street Fighter” and “Final Fantasy” were just beginning their reign, with their sequels, particularly the “Final Fantasy” series, crossing generations to continue to hook today’s younger gamers.

Bona Akbar, a self-proclaimed “2D and 3D artist,” is a part of local game developer Slab Games (Slabgames.com).

“Like every other kid born in the ’80s, I experienced the glory days of the video game era where some of us would envy those kids who were lucky enough to have a Nintendo console,” he said.

“Those kids would be able to play Super Mario Bros’ and make him jump around destroying bricks with his head, as well as make him eat special mushrooms that would make him grow bigger.”

Bona compares the excitement of those early Nintendo days as rivaling typical youth activities such as flying kites or playing football.

“Eventually, I grew up owning the increasingly modern consoles, which culminated with the Sony PlayStation,” Bona said, adding that modern games, with their real-life graphics, “lost something.”

“It’s like they’re rehashing the same old ideas, just with better graphics,” he said.

Like Bona, Agung also grew up playing with the early generation Nintendo and Sega consoles.

He studied computer programming in high school and by the time he graduated, was dedicating himself to creating games. He finished his first full-length game, “Sphere 2000,” in 1999.

Agung, Guntur and Bona quickly learned that the available technology in the country was not sufficient to help them create sophisticated games that would be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with international gaming titles.

Casual games, however, were a simpler alternative that they could actually be competitive in.

“[International] casual games developers like Pop Cap Games seemed to create these solid games that became popular,” Bona said, explaining why he eventually decided to focus on casual games.

“In the beginning, I tried to master game development programs such as BASIC, but they were clearly not yielding satisfying results,” Guntur said. “Then I began to discover cheaper software and engines [hardware used to create games], which were much better options.”

For his part, Bona said that gamers expected a great gaming experience even from local developers.

“The expectations from today’s gaming community are high, especially in terms of gameplay,” he said.

“What’s even more of a challenge as a developer is that you have to combine those expectations with the casual gaming crowd, which steers away from complex gameplay.”

Bona added that many of the games he produced in the past failed and had “tasted the bottom of the trash can or are kept away in a closet somewhere.”

Despite the technical challenges that they face, the three developers have been able to make games that are considered respectively successful.

In 2008, Guntur and SoybeanSoft submitted “Pieces” to a competition organized by JayIsGames.com, a Web site dedicated to reviewing Flash and casual games.

Initially, there were some issues regarding the game’s similarities to the well-known game “Knytt.” In the end, however, it was decided that “Pieces” was original and won prizes for Best Use of a Theme and Best Platformer of the Year.

Bona and Slabgames started out to create a game for the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) in 2004, but had to cancel the project because of its challenging nature.

“At the time, the TNI asked us to create a big-budgeted training simulation game,” Bona said. “When we began working on it, we realized that to create a serious simulation game,’ the level of detail required would be very different.

It was a different set of parameters. We knew it was a major responsibility and we finally opted not to continue with the project, which we still believe was the right decision.”

Slabgames eventually went on to create games such as “Help Papa Rob” in 2008 and “Scream for Ice Cream” in 2009, among other titles, which incorporate a variety of playability.

Agung and eFun-Games experienced success when one of their games, “Fruit Lockers,” was included in the end-of-year top 10 list for 2005 put together by Real Arcade, an internationally known Web site also dedicated to casual games.

“I actually produced that game by myself in four months, programming its graphics and design,” Agung said, adding that Real Arcade eventually offered to publish the game, which meant that “we received royalties” for six months.

Another eFun-Games project, “The Enchanting Islands,” was published on Yahoo and well-known casual game Web site GameHouse in 2009.

“Essentially, what I want to offer is an escapist experience to help people escape their daily worries,” Bona said, adding that he eventually hopes to reach international markets through gaming consoles like the Nintendo DS or gadgets like the iPhone.

Agung, meanwhile, wants to see the local industry grow and reach its potential.

“We have to maximize the resources that we do have,” he said. “There are many talented people here whose abilities can make Indonesian gamers, as well as Indonesia, a force to be reckoned with in the international market.”