Starting small, aiming big: Game development in NepalFor years, studios from America and Japan have dominated the gaming industry. Only recently, games from other countries—like Poland and China—are gaining popularity. In this ever-expanding industry, how do Nepali game developers fare?
From the humble beginnings of Pong, the gaming industry today has mushroomed into a massive multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, gaming companies all around the world pour millions of dollars into the development and production of games made possible by the increasing number of gamers all over the world.
Even in Nepal, the gaming scene has slowly started growing with professional gamers, eSports tournaments, and mobile gaming taking over local digital platforms. There are thousands of Nepali players playing games on their phones—like the massively popular PUBG and Among Us—as well as on their PCs, like DOTA 2, League of Legends, and Counter Strike.
But almost all of the games that local players are playing are developed and published by massive international gaming conglomerates. For years, studios from America and Japan have dominated the gaming industry. Only with the recent popularity of games like The Witcher, from the Polish company CD Projekt Red, and PUBG, published by the Chinese company Tencent, have we seen the entry of games from studios of other countries. But in this ever-expanding industry, how do Nepali game developers fare?
“I think game development is still in its nascent stage in Nepal,” says Sashreek Shrestha, 26, developer of the game Momo Bounce. “There might be some companies that outsource game development work, but the game development industry is still too young in Nepal.”
And while there are many local companies that are developing games in Nepal—like AR Cube, Semantic Creations, Yarsa Games, Reizon Studios and Red Tail Studios—the Nepali game development industry still seems to be in its infancy as local game developers face various problems that hinder growth.
“I think it's only been about five years game development activities started in Nepal,” says Uttam Adhikari, 32, co-founder and CEO of Red Tail Fox Pvt. Ltd (Red Tail Studio) and former co-founder and CEO of the now-defunct Sroth Code Games. “But local and original content is limited. As a result, there is a scarcity of game developers, game designers, game artists, and game project managers to attempt big game development projects.”
Thus, all of the games that have been developed in Nepal till date are simple mobile games. Shrestha’s Momo Bounce is an endless jumper mobile game with the momo (dumpling) as the protagonist. Yarsa Games’ comprehensive catalogue of 11 games are all mobile games that are derivatives of physical board and card games. In the same vein, Red Tail Studio has also produced the mobile game Red Tail Fox Jump. Sroth Code Games, Adhikari’s previous game development studio, was one of the only local studios to attempt to develop a highly ambitious open-world PC and mobile game, Chronicles of the Himalayas. The project, Adhikari says, was way too ambitious for the current game development industry in Nepal. The main reason, he says, is economic feasibility.
“Large-scale triple-A games are not exactly economically feasible in Nepal,” says Adhikari, who has five years’ experience in local game development. Large-scale AAA games are to the gaming industry what blockbusters are for the film industry. “The Nepali economy just cannot support game studios with a budget of a large-scale AAA game. These kinds of projects normally start from a couple of million dollars and can hike up to tens of millions of dollars. There aren't any investors in Nepal who are willing or are capable to take risks to this extent in Nepal.”
Nj Subedi, CEO, founder and director of the Pokhara-based Yarsa Games, echoes Adhikari. “Nepal has a vast talent pool that can be mobilised for game development. We have great artists, designers and animators working on Hollywood movies and AAA Games,” he says. “Developers from Nepal are already working for the companies in Australia, the USA, and the European countries. What's lacking is a huge game development studio that can pay-match foreign countries. People aren't going to work for a gaming studio only because it's a cool career to have.”
Subedi, 28, founded Yarsa Games in 2016 by self-funding the company after one of his personal mobile app projects started making some money. After a year or so, his brother, Rahul Subedi, after completing his Software Engineering course, joined the company as well. While Subedi says that he’s faced many hurdles during and after founding Yarsa Games, the enthusiasm he and his team have for making games is what drives the studio to create more games.
“As a bootstrapped company, we have been able to sustain our business by creating simple games. There's obviously a lot of money to be made by making better, more significant games but the simplicity of our games is really working well for us,” he says.
In the mobile gaming scene, the competition is intense and surviving quite challenging. Local game developers say they can’t sustain themselves by marketing and catering to a largely Nepali audience since there is little to no means of monetisation. They have to compete with games from all over the world to even dream about their games turning a profit. In addition, due to rampant piracy, Nepali gamers have a tendency to download easily available cracked games online for free which further disincentivises gamers to pay for local games when they can access triple-A titles for free, say developers. This causes even more problems for game developers who struggle to find revenue for their studios apart from advertising revenue.
“How many people in Nepal actually buy games? How many of those actually try new games?” says Shrestha. “I think that digital globalisation makes it harder for any niche/Nepali developers to get their work noticed on international platforms. A console game can cost anywhere between $20-50 and as a customer, you would want games that are worth the price. Customers only know about the quality of your game through reviews and gameplay videos. One could argue that if Nepali developers aren’t being able to tap into international media, there are gaming markets like Steam, Google Play and App Store, but it’s not easy for Nepali developers to enter these platforms and collect revenue from them when there isn’t even an international payment platform to simplify this process.”
All international game distribution platforms require international payment accounts and many even charge developers to publish games on their stores. Without an international payment gateway, this causes further problems for local development studios like Yarsa Games.
“We couldn't even pay $25 to Google Play Store and $99 to Apple to publish our apps on their stores during the early days,” says Subedi. “None of the banks we approached were willing to pay on our behalf as well. Like everyone, we also had to ask our relatives to make the payments.”
Apart from paying digital distributors, many developers also have to pay for the tools they need for development. All of the developers we talked to work with one game engine or the other. Game development engines like Unity3D run for $1,800/year (Pro) paired with 3D modelling software and graphic design software adding to this cost further. Most of these software also demand high-performance workstation machines as well. For indie developers who can’t afford much massive set-up costs, Epic’s Unreal Engine offers interesting royalty-free options for small developers. Red Tail Studios, however, has managed to design their own in-house HTML5 game development engine for 2D mobile games called Red Tail Engine.
Regardless of all the doom and gloom around game development in Nepal, developers are hopeful for the future and acknowledge the growth in the industry. There are more and more mobile games being developed in Nepal and more development studios starting up in Nepal. Using free and open-source software like Blender also helps the studio minimise costs even though they limit performance since they’re not the best tools in the market.
“I think more and more people are going to get into game development because there is an undeniable steep rise in the players' engagement from Nepal. We have some popular game streamers on YouTube, like 4K Gaming, Nero, HypeGurkha, and Mr Hyuzu. Some popular apps like Hamro Patro and Daraz are also enabling users to play games inside their apps. All these things are contributing a little bit towards improving the local gaming market,” says Subedi.
But for game development studios in Nepal to be self-reliant and profitable, it will take years of work. However, with an ever-growing gaming community and passionate developers pushing the industry forward, the future is promising, say developers.
“For young, up-and-coming game developers in Nepal, working on creating good gaming experiences and starting with smaller gaming projects is key,” says Adhikari. “With experience you'll be able to create more complex and bigger projects later. Having the right launching strategy and partner network will make the game development industry sustainable and profitable.”