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Game on for Pakistan’s esport industry

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Despite a growing interest in video gaming, the local industry faces hurdles ranging from lack of diversity to absence of government support
by Arooj Khalid

There are over 2.5 billion gamers around the world today. They can choose from a variety of genres including action, strategy, role-playing, etc. Similarly, they can go for multiplayer vs. single-player games, online or offline, and use a PC, a console, or their mobile phones.

About 50 years ago, these choices were unimaginable. Even the average American teenager at the time would have to visit a chain restaurant to play another round of the latest arcade games.

As personal computers and gaming consoles became more common, video games gained new heights of popularity, bringing about widely successful video games like Atari’s Pong.

With the turn of the millennium, the internet became more affordable, and video game technology progressed into games that could be downloaded onto consoles and PCs.

Gaming zone

While the development of video games may not be a subject of mainstream media reports, it has been going on in Pakistan for as long as two decades. By the early 2000s, companies started designing gaming consoles with online connectivity in mind, such as the Dreamcast and Xbox.

Game development studios popped up in major cities of Pakistan, doing the outsourced bidding of world-famous developers like Sega, Disney Interactive, and Zynga, among others. With significant development in the following decade, gamers now had the ease of buying games directly from online stores and shops like Playstation Network and Xbox Live Marketplace.

The popularity of video games has only seen an increasing trend since. However, game studios in Pakistan were unable to maintain the stream of work due to lack of expertise, international competition in outsourcing, and a deteriorating reputation of the country itself.

Caramel Tech Studios

In the past decade, the growing accessibility of smartphones has brought on the integration of mobile gaming into the video game industry as well, with worldwide hits like Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, and PubG Mobile. Pakistan has found a way to put itself back on the map with a growing appreciation of the video game world: major hits like Cricket Revolution, Stick Cricket, and Wacksy Taxi, and collaborations with international studios resulting in games like Jetpack Joyride.

The Pakistani game development industry is well on its way to becoming a prominent sector in the future of Pakistan. But cultural lag and slow internet speeds are not the only obstacles that the industry must overcome.

 While it took time for the video game technology to reach Pakistan in the early 2000s, it seems that Pakistani gamers are not too far behind in the gaming world today. According to Newzoo, 55% (1056 million) of the consumers of this $159.3 billion industry come from the Asia-Pacific region, which continues to boast the fastest growth of video games.

In Pakistan, approximately 8,500 experts are associated with the game development industry and earn $25 million in revenue according to unpublished estimates by the IGDA Pakistan (International Game Developers Association). Game studios continue to get set up all over, and a rising esports culture can be seen on the horizon.

Reading the manual

While Pakistani gamers and developers have made their name in the international industry, there’s a lot left to be accomplished before Pakistani studios can compete with global giants.

Saad Zaeem, co-founder and CEO of Caramel Tech Studios, thinks that one of the reasons the Pakistani game industry remains in the shadows is a lack of formal education in game design.

Almost no educational institutions formally train people in game design, which results in a scarcity of talent to be hired by the studios. While talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan, Zaeem says that professional education in game design could be one of the factors that bring positive development for game studios as there is sufficient art and engineering expertise available already.

Caramel Tech is also a parent company to a separate mobile game studio, Revolving Games, where this issue was tackled by bringing in foreign talent and a studio in San Francisco. The latter is set to release their first multiplayer strategy based game next year. However, education is not the only hurdle. Game studios also need to be more diverse in hiring the right experts.

Maha Nawaz, an Associate Game Designer at Mindstorm Studios, maintains that while there is a sufficient job market for game developers, artists, and graphic designers, the quality of video games, in general, can be improved if the studios hire people with more expertise in separate aspects of game development rather than dumping the entire load on game artists or developers.

Amal Uppal Anique, a senior game artist at Revolving Games, agrees with the view that lack of government and institutional support has caused the industry to lack stability. “People who’ve been raised in the kind of struggling economic society Pakistan is, find it hard to wrap their heads around the concept of “work” as the same as doing something one can enjoy,” she says.

Musawer Khan, a professional gamer from Pakistan

Multiplayer strategy

According to Saad Zaeem, most of the games that have originated from Pakistan have been locally centered, similar to the film industry. While people watch these movies and play these games, they don’t appeal to a global audience. Even mega-successful games like Stick Cricket were only popular in cricket playing nations of the world.

Pakistani studios require a video game legacy that other studios can follow, and that is only possible if the developers focus on a global perspective instead of keeping things locally centered and unrelatable to the foreign audience.

Maha Nawaz thinks that another obstacle that hinders the progress of the indigenous gaming industry is the lack of originality. Often, studios take a pre-existing game that’s trending and create other games based on the same design and mechanics.

“To create games that can compete for consumption at an international level, we need to figure out how to acquire and improve the quality of our games,” she explains.

Major studios in Pakistan are currently trying to battle these hurdles and create an environment that encompasses solutions to the issues they have faced in the past. This paves the way for new video game developers to enter the industry with fresh ideas and creativity.

“You need to have a global mindset because if you have a successful game that works well, it will work well in most places around the world,” Zaeem says.

Recently, a wildly popular action game PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battleground) was banned in Pakistan owing to health concerns, leaving millions of gamers in distress. Even though the ban was later removed, the question arises whether we will see the launch of indigenous video games anytime soon.

A layout of a game, designed by Amal Uppal Anique

Controllers

While companies like Telenor have led initiatives to encourage experts associated with the video game industry in Pakistan, Zaeem believes that the hurdles in indigenous game development are more complicated.

“The challenge is that the Pakistani consumer typically doesn’t like to pay for content. So the only way we can monetize is through advertising,” he maintains.

Zaeem adds that another challenge is the varying tastes among a wide population and their contrast with the tastes of the people who generally have the opportunity to create games.

Majority of the revenue in international companies is generated by in-app purchases and pay-to-play games, whereas only 10-20% is generated through advertising, considering mega-hit games. When it comes to Pakistan, low financial revenue and the lack of an ecosystem for the indigenous industry to develop creates an air of uncertainty.

Another important issue that arises when it comes to the video game industry is the vast generational gap. The generation of people who experienced the advent of video games first hand is just growing up and entering the industry.

Amal Uppal Anique points out that the generational trust issue gets real when it comes to working in the video game industry. Shedding light on the vast differences in work ethics just ten years ago, as compared to the continually evolving work environment of today, she doesn’t find it surprising that the tech industry appears to be in the shadows.

“We’re definitely on our way though, because we’ve bypassed the close-minded, rote learning generation in power before us. But realistically, the masses have worse problems on their hands for now. They haven’t got to the point where they have the luxury to think beyond that,” she reiterates.

Anique explains that people in western countries have years of economic security, social welfare, and a stable geopolitical climate. “They can think about promotional content like comic-cons when they don’t have power outages. But we’re a little handicapped for the moment though we’re digging our way out.”

While the industry may not be hitting the mainstream market in a way that it does abroad, Anique is positive that the journey toward its rise will take place as quickly as before.

Caramel Tech Studios

Next level

Video game experts also point out that one of the key factors in the slower growth of the industry is that it took some time to understand that gaming is not just restricted to commercial video games or mobile applications.

Gamification techniques can be utilized in a variety of ways in education, marketing, recruitment, training, development initiatives, economic resources, and many other fields. Caramel Tech Studios is working on one such project, in collaboration with a local brand.

At the beginning of this year, as the world was forced into lockdown by the covid-19 pandemic, the world of esports gained mobility and took advantage of the situation. In Pakistan, however, esports have taken a backseat with the occasional tournament held at the local or university level.

Despite this delay, Pakistani gamers have taken initiatives to participate in worldwide or regional tournaments and prove their mettle. Platforms like Portal Esports and Mountain Dew Gamers Arena have helped the industry flourish in Pakistan.

Musawer Khan, better known as Ghost Khan in the gaming community, is one of Pakistan’s top gamers and has won many national and international level gaming tournaments. According to Khan, one of the biggest impediments to the esports industry is the lack of support for players by institutions and the governments. After working hard to qualify for global tournaments, players are often denied visas to the host countries.

“There is a huge skill gap between the gamers in Pakistan and gamers from other countries as well,” says Khan. He adds that there are several other hurdles, such as slower reaction times, ping times, lack of fast internet, and a scarcity of sponsors.

The overall rankings of Pakistani players are also lower than other countries as the former usually can’t commit fulltime to practicing the online sport. Even with local tournaments being held consistently, Khan thinks that better opportunities need to be created to help foster the existing talent in Pakistan. “There is nowhere else to go after the local competitions.”

Saad Zaeem comments that esports has a lot of unutilized potential in Pakistan. With technology being the great equalizer, esports has the potential to go beyond the restraints of socio-economic barriers to look for talent.

“There’s a predominant Western or Far Eastern domination on esports right now, but I think there is massive room for a Pakistani company to take advantage of this vacuum.”

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