Fil' Your Boots: The growth of games development in the Philippines

Fil' Your Boots: The growth of games development in the Philippines
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

August 12th 2016 at 12:30PM

One of the most populated countries in the world, the Philippines is seeing local studios break onto the global games stage – even as the industry continues to struggle to gain traction back home. Develop catches up with developers, service firms and industry organisations in the country

In line with its booming population and growing economic prominence, the Philippines’ development industry is similarly seeing rapid maturation, supported by increasing interest from global games firms.

“This is a very opportune time for the Philippines,” observes Ryan Sumo, lead artist and co-founder of studio Squeaky Wheel. “Ubisoft just opened up shop here and, if they succeed, more companies should follow.”

Erick V. Garayblas, the one-man force behind Kuyi Mobile, says that he has seen “the local game development industry and community grow tremendously over the past few years”.

“Meetups that normally include 10 to 15 people now have around 40 or 50 attendees,” he explains. “More companies are put up every year and I’m seeing more independent developers as well.”

The Philippines has long been associated with outsourcers and service firms rather than dedicated development studios, as Alvin Juban, president and chairman of the local Game Developers Association of the Philippines chapter and director of business development at Synergy88 Digital, recounts.

 “The industry is still quite young, just over a decade old and has been predominantly been service-oriented,” he recalls. “There have been a few key studios who have been able to pour out triple-A art content over the years, belaying to the fact that we are a strong art nation.”

However, Playlab GM Niel Dagondon believes the country’s development makeup has shifted as smaller creators establish a local foothold. 

“The dev sector is much larger than it has ever been,” he states. “Now, it is not just outsourcing companies like it was back in the 2000s, but also indie studios, dedicated service providers working in QA, mo-cap and so on, and original IP creators.”

While Filipino studios are becoming more commonplace, Gabby Dizon, CEO and co-founder of Altitude Games, says that international firms and workers still remain a rarity.

“There are a few international companies in the Philippines, with Gameloft handling its backend operations and Ubisoft setting up its studio in partnership with De La Salle University campus in Laguna,” he reveals. “There are few expat or foreign workers in the game industry in the Philippines, although they do exist.”

Sumo adds that this may soon change, as “politically there is some talk of removing impediments to foreign ownership of companies, which will make it even more enticing for companies to move here”.

"It is easy to find talent but very hard to find great talent."

Niel Dagondon, Playlab

With devs from overseas yet to be convinced of the Philippines’ viability as a development hub, the onus has been on the local development community to foster and incubate fresh talent.

“The hurdle five or more years ago was that you’d have to self-study in order to make games yourself – but now almost all the well-known local universities offer game design and development courses,” says Garayblas. “Students and interns are more skilled in their respective fields.”

Dizon agrees: “The academe has done a great job of building a pipeline of talent into the game industry. De La Salle–College of St. Benilde offers a full four-year game design and development course staffed by industry practitioners to ensure that what is being taught to students is always current with industry standards. GDAP has an academic track where schools can sign up and be accredited to teach game development to their students.”

Ron Schaffner is president and founder of services provider Secret 6, which contributed assets to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4.

“Today, the industry has grown tremendously,” he notes. “Interest in the field grew, and the talent pool quickly expanded in quantity and quality, not just due to the early entrants into the games industry, but through the support of several universities that now offer game development courses and degree programmes.”

While it’s clear that steps have been taken to encourage a greater number of budding devs to enter into the industry, Dagondon argues more work needs to be done to push the Philippines into line with its global counterparts.

“Education, if any is basic, and many studios do not push the creative envelop enough to make the product truly ‘world-class’,” he assesses. “It is easy to find talent but very hard to find great talent – which is a necessity in this industry.”

Breaking onto the world stage remains the Filipino games industry’s greatest challenge. While Secret 6 technical development manager Gene Gacho estimates that there are around 80 different studios in the Philippines, Juban says: “We have to see one to achieve impactful commercial success.”

Garayblas elaborates: “While the local development community has been steadily growing, sadly, local revenue isn’t catching up.

“The good news is that this situation has forced most local developers to target the overseas market because we have a better chance of becoming successful and sustainable taking this route.”

Sumo comments that most titles developed locally are for mobile and browser, due to the low barrier to entry.

“For larger, more complex games that require a studio, it’s hard to get the kind of funding that makes that possible,” he explains. “Local banks and VCs still have trouble wrapping their heads around game development as viable business.”

Schaffner also laments the difficulty in obtaining financial backing: “Compared to other countries, the amount of government support and private venture in the Philippines is very limited.

“Without such resources, a company’s growth and its ability to enter new markets is slowed or prevented. Aside from that, internet quality and cost are among the worst in Asia.”

Kevin Boase, development director and co-founder of Buko Studios, also expresses concern that the country is lagging behind its Asian neighbours when it comes to the elements required for a fertile sector.

“It feels like the Philippines has fallen behind in terms of experience and infrastructure compared with, say, Singapore and China,” he offers. “There is no shortage of passion to catch-up, so investment should yield good results.”

Boase reinforces his belief that the local industry could make its mark on the global industry if the necessary support was given.

“Artistically, the Philippines are drawn to a mix of western and eastern styles and genres,” he details. “They keep up with international trends and quickly identify what it is to be competitive. Budgets, experience and spending hold them back.”

Dizon hints at the growing ambitions of Filipino creators. 

“In the last few years, we have seen a lot more independent teams come up with original content, driven by the open platforms of mobile and PC,” he says. “The outsourcing industry is still here to stay, but new and experienced teams alike are discovering that they can create their own products now that the cost of development has rapidly gone down.”

"While the local development community has been steadily growing, sadly, local revenue isn’t catching up."

Erick V. Garayblas, Kuyi Mobile

With the Philippines only at the beginning of its growth as a region for development, what are the advancements set to impact the emerging industry?

“The advantages and issues surrounding outsourcing are well known by now,” Boase says. “There is still a need for more investment within the Philippines to be able to offer higher-end services and develop quality portfolios.”

Garayblas instead puts a focus on the nascent technologies set to be adopted by aspiring devs in the region.

“One of the new technologies that could also set an impact is the advent of VR,” he says. “Since Filipinos are known for being creative, I’m pretty confident we can make unique and innovative games using VR.”

Juban instead highlights the opportunity to attract a greater number of international powerhouses to move into the country.

“Better internet service and more telco co-operation will make the bigger dev studios take a second stab at the local market and feasibly the rest of South-East Asia,” he hopes.

Sumo concludes with an optimistic summary of the country’s efforts to make its name heard on a global scale:

“All of the developers here have a collective chip on their shoulders, and it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks out and brings attention to the scene.”