Indie game developer and Genuine Studio CEO Janus Wong talks to Jumpstart about the opportunities and challenges in indie gaming development in Hong Kong.
The gaming industry in Hong Kong is brimming with gaming opportunities. With a high internet penetration rate of over 80%, the number of mobile gamers in Hong Kong is expect to hit 1.7 million by 2025. Coupled with a high average revenue per user of US$37, Hong Kong’s mobile gaming industry’s revenue is projected to reach US$56.1 million by 2021.
According to App Annie, Hong Kongers are ardent fans of action games, role-playing games, martial-art titles, and puzzle games. The top-grossing iOS game titles in Hong Kong currently includes Alibaba’s New Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Tencent’s PUBG Mobile. These are triple-A games, or games developed by large companies with higher budgets, extensive marketing, and a focus on monetization.
Despite the frenzy around these triple-A titles, Hong Kong indie game developer and CEO of Genuine Studio Ltd. Janus Wong, did not follow the bandwagon. A product designer by profession, Wong was passionate about writing and later adapted his stories into detective mystery mobile games, Detective Kobayashi and Rainy Butcher. These have escape room elements with Hong Kong as a backdrop – a rarity among Hong Kong gaming publishers.
Indie video games, or independent video games, are developed with a smaller budget, scope, and limited marketing, compared to triple-A games which are funded by large game developers such as Ubisoft Montreal and Electronic Arts. Often, indie games struggle with fund shortages and intense competition in the industry.
Here’s a look at how Wong embarked on the indie game development journey, how he utilized resources from government policies such as Game Enhancement and Promotion Scheme (GEPS), and turned Genuine Studio into a well-known niche gaming brand.
From text to screen
“I started writing short detective novels from 2002, and the same year, Detective Kobayashi started taking shape,” Wong tells Jumpstart. “I loved having my stories published visually and found several artists to help me.
These artists also happened to be video game graphic designers. Wong soon partnered with designers to publish his stories in a video game format.
Having bootstrapped game development, Wong was in charge of creative direction and story writing. With the help of programmers and graphic designers, the team of five released the crime-solving game Detective Kobayashi to iOS in July 2015, two years after development took off.
The game belongs to the visual novels genre, a popular interactive-fiction video game genre that originated in Japan. Detective Kobayashi was later released in Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia in September 2015, and in Android in 2019.
In Detective Kobayashi, players control Kobayashi Masayuki, a wisecracking male detective, to investigate crimes by interacting with witnesses, collecting physical evidence, and confronting suspects. The game’s design is heavily inspired by Japanese anime style to appeal to Asian markets.
Initially, Detective Kobayashi struggled to gain traction due to lack of promotions, and had only 10-20 players. It was only after the game got featured in the iOS App store that the number of downloads spiked to 20,000.
Detective Kobayashi’s creation led to the founding of Genuine Studio Ltd. in 2015. It was a small startup of eight staff working part-time. Two years later, Wong switched his career from a designer to a full-time game developer.
As interest in the game soared, in November 2016, Wong released its sequel, which received over 500,000 downloads, Wong says. Meanwhile, a crossover with another Chinese detective game, Fei Duanmu VS Kobyashi: Kowloon, on Steam in November 2018, sold over 17,000 copies. A remake with enhanced gameplay and story was launched on Steam in January 2019, further selling 6,000 copies, Wong adds.
“I usually develop visual novels as they are more technologically feasible and narrative-driven, and I really love writing,” Wong says. “Some say Detective Kobayashi is quite similar to Capcom’s Ace of Attorney, but I think it’s inspired by [games like] Sherlock Holmes and Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc more. Still, I want to establish my own brand and style.”
Thus, in later games, Wong switched the design from anime to a more localized style that appeals to HK gamers. While Detective Kobayashi was mainly dubbed in Putonghua, another crime-solving drama game Dangerous Man: Rainy Butcher was the first to be fully dubbed in Cantonese to match the backdrop of HK. While dubbing in more universal languages like English might appeal to a larger market, Wong insisted on authenticity.
In Rainy Butcher, players step into the shoes of an ambitious female journalist to track down a serial killer, inspired by the notorious 1983 “Jars Murderer” Lam Kor Wan. The realistic and gritty background of urban Hong Kong, authentic voice-acting, and thrilling mystery storyline struck a chord with players in Hong Kong.
“It has amassed 400,000 downloads since its release on Android in December 2020,” Wong adds.
Meanwhile, Wong’s latest puzzle adventure game Urban Legends Hong Kong, was released on Android and iOS on June 17, 2021.
The journey of growing Genuine Studio’s offerings into gaming favorites was no smooth sail for Wong.
“My first few games did not fare too well. There were only a few players and people are generally reluctant to spend money on mobile games with a relatively unknown intellectual property,” Wong says. “While I was happy with the product, I also realized the importance of budget and promotion.”
It cost about HK$800,000 (US$10,300) to develop Rainy Butcher due to the use of 3D environments, Cantonese voice actors, and a larger plot, says Wong.
Additionally, it was promoted by popular Hong Kong actress and author of Dangerous Man, Mary Jean Reimer, and cost twice that of another game by the studio, *Dangerous Man (*which does not feature voice-acting). While it’s easier and more affordable to employ Chinese or Taiwanese voice actors, Wong’s team believed that Cantonese dubbing was more authentic for Rainy Butcher.
One way they recovered the high development charges of the game is by adding more advertisements.
“As only 2 out of 100 players will make in-game purchases, we added more advertisements in Rainy Butcher to balance the budget. We get HK$0.1 (US$0.013) per view for ads, which will increase with more players,” Wong notes.
Rainy Butcher was later translated into English, Russian, and Korean, to appeal to foreign markets. Wong says that it is important to expand to either the global or Chinese market for increased traction.
“However, owing to censorship and the tendency to undersell games in China—like a US$60 triple-A game could be sold for half the price—we decided not to focus on the Chinese market,” he adds.
Support for indie game developers
“It is almost impossible for Hong Kong to develop triple-A titles. We have talent but inadequate capital to operate a large company of over 100 staff, as the rent and labour costs are high,” says Wong.
However, Wong adds that it would really help the industry if the government diverts more resources to gaming development. Currently, Hong Kong has several programs in place to give a leg up to indie game developers and gaming startups, including the GEPS.
A government subsidy scheme, the GEPS provides holistic support to 12 selected gaming startups. Under the program, candidates receive training on company operation and marketing, free exposure through the scheme’s publicity channels, and showcase opportunities in Taipei or Tokyo Game Shows.
In addition, the selected startups receive two paid interns to assist game-testing, and a marketing subsidy of HK$500,000 (US$64,415) for promotions. The GEPS has been active for two years, and is expected to return next year.
For Wong, the GEPS played a crucial role in Dangerous Man and Rainy Butcher’s promotion. Genuine Studio was one of the startups that qualified for the GEPS both in 2019 (for Dangerous Man) and 2020 (for Rainy Butcher).
“With this large amount of money, startups can try various marketing channels apart from Facebook and Instagram, like TV ads, radio, or even bus ads,” says Wong. He stresses that marketing is essential. “Without adequate promotion, your game cannot gain traction.”
Wong also found the training sessions insightful. “The tutors helped with the analysis of players’ behavior, such as the levels at which players tend to give up or make in-game purchases,” he says. “This was helpful in level-designs and adding tips to Rainy Butcher, and was crucial to its lifespan and profitability.”
Moreover, Video Game Expositions like the Tokyo and Taipei Game Shows offered Genuine Studio many business-to-business opportunities.
“We met and exchanged contacts with investors and industry peers and found related personnel for gaming translation and graphic designs,” Wong adds.
“The CMF offers HK$100,000 (US$12,883) to bring your ideas to life,” says Wong. “It is pretty generous, and the entry barriers are less stringent.”
Meanwhile, the Incubation Programme assists startups in maintaining their businesses. Under the program, the startups will receive training, funds up to HK$500,000 (US$64,415), and business-to-business (B2B) networking opportunities with industry peers and investors, Wong explains.
“It is held three times a year so you can retry even after disqualification. Gaming startups should not miss out on this opportunity to learn,” he adds. “In fact, I just graduated from the incubation program this February. It was an insightful experience and I gained a lot through networking with fellow gaming industry peers.”
Sharing his advice for aspiring game developers, Wong says that what is most important is to be happy with what you’re doing, and to play more games for inspiration and trial models.
“It’s okay even if your first few products fail, you can learn from the experience,” he says.
Images courtesy of Genuine Studio Ltd.