Asia's video game scene has a new player: Singapore

With roughly 17,000 visitors paying to attend the island state's recent GameStart Asia gaming expo, the future of gaming in the region looks set to soar.

Aloysius Low Senior Editor
Aloysius Low is a Senior Editor at CNET covering mobile and Asia. Based in Singapore, he loves playing Dota 2 when he can spare the time and is also the owner-minion of two adorable cats.
Aloysius Low
6 min read

GameStart Asia saw nearly 17,000 attendees paying to queue at booths to try out the latest and greatest games.

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For a nation that spent a cool $700 million USD (£460 million, AU$980 million) a year on tuition fees, you'd expect that Singaporeans would be home studying rather than attending a video game convention. But attend they did.

GameStart Asia, which ran in Singapore from November 13 to 15, saw nearly 17,000 attendees paying $16 USD (£10, AU$22) for a 2 day pass to queue at booths to try out the latest and greatest games from big industry names such as Sony, Blizzard and Bandai Namco. And this being a gathering of gamers, the cosplayers were out in force as well.

All in all, it was a big turnout boost for the second edition of GameStart, which saw more than a 40 percent increase from last year's attendance of 12,000. The success is due in part to the skills of organizer Elicia Lee and her team -- and it shows that Lee's belief that Singapore can be a regional gaming hub appears to be paying off.

"When we started out, we knew that it would take several years to build up the brand and start seeing returns," said Lee, who's the founder of GameStart Asia.

"We're definitely seeing increased awareness about the event, both in Singapore and the region, and we believe that as long as we continue to bring content to the show that people want to see, we'll be in it for the long run."

But is Singapore really the place where a gaming culture would thrive? In a society where academic excellence and a traditional career path are considered sacrosanct, the idea of studying programming and game design as an employment option is likely to set off alarm bells for traditional Asian parents. In that environment, can button-down Singapore deliver a workforce with the optimal balance of technical know-how and creative energy -- a sort of cross between Silicon Valley and Hollywood?

Game studios seem to think so. The island nation is playing host to game studios such as Ubisoft, while Tecmo Koei, Gumi Asia and Bandai Namco also have offices here where games are being made. Meanwhile, King -- the Candy Crush creator just purchased by Activision Blizzard for almost $6 billion USD -- acquired local studio Nonstop Games last year for a tidy sum.


The crowd at GameStart Asia is testament to the growing interest in gaming and e-sports in Southeast Asia.

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However, the scene here is still in its infancy. Compared to Ubisoft's larger studios in Canada, Ubisoft Singapore only has 300 employees.

As Ubisoft senior producer Hugues Ricour said in a ChannelNewsAsia report:

"[Singapore's] infrastructure is excellent, and it's very easy to do business here. [...] More importantly for us was the access to a very good talent pool. The level of education is great and this is exactly what we need in the videogame industry."

Other studios, such as Bandai Namco, have seen significant contributions from its Singapore offices. Take, for example, the Star Wars Battle Pod arcade machine that made its debut earlier this year -- the software for the game was actually developed by the Singapore team.


Plenty of long lines in the queue to try out the Star Wars Battle Pod machine. For most, it would be their first time since the Pod was announced earlier this year.

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Going local

But even as international studios start making use of Singapore's growing pool of talent, local studios are flourishing. Witching Hour Studios, which won the Best Indie Game at Tokyo Game Show for its new game Masquerada: Song and Shadows, is a prime example of the success of the local game development scene.

The game, still currently in development, is a role-playing game inspired by titles like Baldur's Gate and features a cast of top voice actors including Jennifer Hale (female Commander Shepard from Mass Effect) and Matthew Mercer (Fire Emblem: The Awakening).

The studio took up a booth at GameStart Asia to show a beta build of the game to its fans, but Ian Gregory Tan -- the studio's creative director -- says the show made for a "great platform for connecting local gamers with local developers."

"The energy and excitement matched anything I've seen at the likes of PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) or TGS (Tokyo Game Show). Whoever complains about Singaporeans not having passion obviously haven't been to Gamestart. We will definitely be a part of it again, if we can. The coming together of the local indie community and fellow Singaporeans is an incredible experience," said Tan.

Tan went on to add that it's important for local schools to work on providing hands-on education for students who want to join the gaming industry.

"We're an industry of doing and making. Past that, public awareness and support would go a long way in inspiring new companies to try brave things."

Likewise, at the Singapore Gamebox booth hosted by the Games Solution Center at GameStart, developers met with gamers keen on trying out their games, while a poster for the Singapore Humble Bundle stood prominently in the booth, reminding attendees of the chance to snap up the games for a steal.

"One of GameStart's intentions is to provide a platform for local developers to showcase their products to industry professionals, media and gamers from Singapore and around the region," said Lee.

"There is a lot of talent here and we really want to help them gain more exposure for their products. The number of indies at the show increased from eight last year to 30 this year, which is great."


GameStart Asia also hosted the Games Solutions Center, a government-backed initiative that serves as an incubation hub for game developers.

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International interest

With over 12,000 attendees last year, it made sense for big names like Sony, Blizzard and Bandai Namco to commit to booths at GameStart this time around. That's despite the fact that the seasonal calendar for East Asian gaming shows may feel a bit crowded, with November's GameStart coming just a few weeks after September's Tokyo Game Show, as GameStart's Elicia Lee explains.

"The timing is intentional, as many of the big game titles are announced or showcased at TGS. Most people in the region aren't willing to or find it very expensive to travel to Japan to attend TGS, and GameStart is positioned to bring that content to gamers in Southeast Asia, in English rather than Japanese," she said.

And Sony didn't skimp. The company's booth at the event featured two stories, with PlayStation VR units demoing six different games for attendees to try. Live demos of upcoming exclusive games, such as Uncharted 4, drew huge crowds, while visitors queued to try out EA's Star Wars: Battlefront and other upcoming new games.


A cosplayer tries out Star Wars: Battlefront.

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"At PlayStation, we are always looking for opportunities to engage our fans and the gaming community at large. Over the last few years, we have increased our participation in regional game shows in South-east Asia, including the recent Thailand Game Show and GameStart Asia," said a Sony Playstation spokesperson.

"The PlayStation VR, in particular, received a huge response from fans and the slots were filled up rapidly."


A gamer gets to try out Sony's Playstation VR with the help of a Sony staff member.

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Bandai Namco showed up with a faux castle, where visitors could try out the upcoming Dark Souls 3 and Just Cause 3 games, as well as Asian favorites such as Naruto and Sword Art Online. For Blizzard, the gaming giant gave out swag every two hours and had on display the latest Starcraft expansion, Legacy of the Void. Visitors to their booth could also get their hands on Hearthstone pin badges.

But it wasn't just the main booths that attracted the attention of the convention goers. The Retro Gaming booth, with its Smash tournament and old-school arcade games, and the Street Fighter V tournament located next to the Sony booth were crowd favorites.

Even as the dust settles on this year's event, GameStart's Elicia Lee is already planning for next year. This time around, CNET understands the ambitious plan is to hold the event even closer to Tokyo Game Show which would allow attendees to try out the new games right after the Japanese event.

"Our goal is to provide gamers in the region with the opportunity to see and feel some of these brand new games first hand," says Lee -- who seems well on her way to making Singapore an important hub for gamers.


Retro games also made an appearance at GameStart Asia.

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