Every evening after sundown people vacate the usually bustling tourist sites of Senado Square and the Ruins of St. Paul’s – but Chinese vampires, ghosts, ghouls and zombies are roaming the streets for innocent prey. In the face of imminent danger, you only have seven days to travel across the territory and investigate the matter with just a slim hope of survival against the massed forces of darkness.
Welcome to the apocalyptic setting of multiplayer, survival horror role-playing video game Fight the Horror, developed by indie studio 4DMacau Studio. While it is rare – or even unprecedented – to see a video game staged in the gaming enclave, what is more surprising and outstanding is that the game has been developed by a local team led by former civil servant Tony Lam Kai Wa.
“Isn’t there a public perception that there are limited career choices here; either you work in the government or in casinos and resorts?” asked Mr. Lam, creator and executive director of the game. “Rather than being frustrated about a lack of opportunities for using one’s talents, why not just give it a shot?” His ambition and passion for video games has gradually taken shape as Fight the Horror, which debuts in September, might hopefully become a hit that encourages more local talent to engage in games development.
A graduate of computer science from a Stateside university, Mr. Lam followed the path of many locals upon returning to the city from abroad – joining the civil service workforce. Although working for public bodies, he used his free time to write smartphone applications. “I’ve loved playing video games since childhood . . . and I’ve had ideas about developing games for years,” he said. “I took part in a smartphone application design contest of CTM [telecom operator Companhia de Telecomunicações de Macau S.A.R.L] in  and won the Open category, which gave me confidence in my abilities [in games development].”
“Isn’t there a public perception that there are limited career choices here; either you work in the government or in casinos and resorts?” asked Tony Lam, creator and executive director of Fight the Horror. “Rather than being frustrated about a lack of opportunities for using one’s talents why not just give it a shot?”
Not long after the contest the video games enthusiast gave up his ‘iron rice bowl’ job and set up 4DMacau Studio with his savings to focus on video games. Besides his passion, the development of open source technology, software for which the source code is made available for free, also prompted him to take the risk.
“Starting four or five years ago game engines like Unity and Unreal have gradually become available for free,” he said, explaining game engines as software frameworks for video games that merge game codes and graphics together. “These engines were only the tools of the wealthy in the past but now everyone can use them, providing an environment for the survival of indie game developers.”
The development of Fight the Horror began about a year ago when Lam met other local partners who were also interested in developing video games. Compared to other well-known survival horror games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill the Macau-developed game focuses more on action and the interaction between players. “For instance, players mainly use guns in Resident Evil but our game doesn’t have any [weapons] for long-range combat because we want players to fight the devils from a close distance,” he explained.
The game also supports nine players playing at the same time, of whom three form a team and compete with two other teams to resolve the puzzles and myths. “Horror games seldom support multiplayer mode as there is a perception that more players will make the whole experience less terrifying,” he said.
“We emphasise the interaction between players a lot so that the devils are not frightening anymore as the game unfolds,” adding philosophically that “human beings are more frightening.”
Eyeing the West
The horror survival video game will first be launched in the personal computer (PC) market in September, followed by other console platforms – namely, PS4, Xbox and Nintendo Switch, a few months afterwards – according to 4DMacau Studio’s strategy. The game is now undergoing an internal trial phase, which could become available to more people after participating in the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco in March, one of the largest professional game industry events.
Attending such summits and exhibitions is one of the strategies the Macau team will use to muscle into the US$100 billion-plus (MOP800-billion-plus) industry. In addition, they will make good use of social media platforms and other online channels to advocate the game, harnessing video game streams and inviting famous Youtubers to play.
“The game targets the Western market, in particular the United States, so we hope to gradually enhance the exposure of our game via these events,” Mr. Lam explained. “The feedback from [consumers in] the Western market on promotions in social media like Facebook and Twitter have so far been quite good – they are interested in horror games and stories bringing the Western and Eastern cultures together.”
“If [the game] can make money I think it can encourage more locals to join the games development industry,” says Tony Lam.
“Our ultimate goal is that the game could hit the Japanese game market because Japanese game developers have earned a lot of money from us [in the past],” he laughed, adding the game also has a Chinese version in addition to the English version for the Chinese market.
Bucking the trend
According to research firm Newzoo, the global games market was expected to generate US$116 billion in revenue last year, up 10.7 per cent from 2016. The market is expected to grow further to US$125.4 billion this year and US$143.5 billion in 2020. Mobile games have been the main revenue contributor, accounting for 44 per cent, or US$50.4 billion, of the total market in 2017, amid the prevalence of smartphones and tablets over the past decade. PC games and console games account for 27 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively.
Expounding upon the reasons why the studio has not developed its first game as a mobile game, Lam explained that Fight the Terror is more suitable for PC and console platforms, while it might also be easier for new indie developers to crack the latter platforms. “Some game developers retreat from the [PC and console] markets, providing room for development by others as the market size remains large,” he said.
Using their experience in the Taipei Games Show – which attracted dozens of games developers in January – he said: “We were able to exhibit alongside some large games developers in Taipei because there were less than 10 console games developers in the show.” Nonetheless, he said his team would consider developing mobile games in the future.
The launch date of the game also signifies the start point of the studio starting to rake in revenue. “We didn’t have any revenue during the development period so in the meanwhile the studio gives each team member a salary level that is enough to sustain living expenses and [build] commission for the future [based upon sales],” he explained, as the team now has five full-time members.
“We try to cut down living costs like eating McDonalds or travelling less frequently or buying fewer games,” he smiled. “Compared with Hong Kong, we have less living burden because the government gives out a lot of subsidies and assistance like the annual cash handout of MOP9,000 [US$1,125].”
Regarding the quality of the game, he does not think locally developed games will be at a disadvantage to games developed elsewhere. “In the current era of shared technology, basically no party holds a specific kind of technique,” he said. “What makes the difference is how well you develop and enhance those techniques.”
Mr. Lam does not provide any details for the expectations of the game nor the investment, only hoping that 10,000 players will materialise after its launch. “It has already been a success for us by simply launching the game,” he noted. “If it can make money I think it can encourage more locals to join the games development industry.”
Regardless of the reception to the game, 4DMacau Studio will continue to develop more games in the future. “We have ‘good brains, good livers’ now,” he said referring to the intelligence and stamina that can decline with age. “We should not waste them.”
China was the largest market in terms of game revenue last year, followed by the United States and Japan, according to the latest estimates of research firm Newzoo.
China was expected to rake in US$32.54 billion (MOP260.32 billion) in game revenue in 2017 with an Internet population of 814 million; the United States, with an Internet population size only less than one-third of that of China, is anticipated to generate US$25.43 billion, the firm said.
With an Internet population half the size of the U.S., the sales of games in Japan was estimated at US$14.05 billion last year, it added. Germany, the United Kingdom and South Korea were the next three biggest markets, generating over US$4 billion each.
Two other markets in the Greater China region were also on Newzoo’s list. Taiwan was ranked 15th with revenue of US$1.03 billion, while Hong Kong placed 37th with US$265 million.