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Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus

Turning folklore into mobile games

May 25, 2016

An eight-hour drive, pit stops in Kuching, Lachau and Engkilili, and a constant flow of Apai Saloi stories from my dad, pretty much sums up the journey I experienced as a kid when my family travelled from our hometown of Lundu to my dad’s village in Merindun in Lubok Antu for the Gawai (harvest) festival each year.

Folklore such as Apai Saloi, passed down from one generation to the next, are part of our Iban culture. Apai Saloi, which literally translates to Saloi’s Father, might not be as cool as Marvel Comic’s Captain America or Ironman but he is certainly a local superstar in our community. I imagine that each of the more than 30 indigenous and ethnic groups living in Sarawak have their own tales. But let’s admit it. Hollywood heroes are today bigger hits among our children and even adults. Our local heroes and heroines have been given a back seat.

So, how do we keep the traditional beliefs, and therefore our rich cultural heritage, alive? Well, one way to do it is to turn them into mobile games. You see, in the past few years mobile gaming has been a huge revenue earner globally. According to the latest update for 2016 by Newzoo, a world leader in games, e-sports and mobile intelligence, the global games market raked in US$99.6 billion. Of this figure, mobile gaming alone accounted for US$36.9 billion, surpassing PC gaming. Newzoo expects mobile gaming to reach US$52.5 billion in 2019.

As you can see, the mobile games industry is a big money making business worldwide. If this is not enough to convince you, here are two examples: Crossy Road, a game created by two Australians in 2014 made US$10 million in 90 days. Supercell, the mobile game company behind the addictive Clash of Clans, reported a revenue of US$2.3 billion last year.

The Malaysian government has taken notice of the growth of the mobile gaming industry worldwide and initiated support to stimulate the industry. The Multimedia Development Corporation Sdn Bhd, now known as Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation Sdn Bhd (MDEC), partnered with GameFounders in March last year to drive the games development industry in Malaysia. GameFounders is a global startup accelerator program that focuses solely on game studios and start-ups. This move has given local games developers access to mentors, investors and strategic partners. Monetary support in terms of grants is made available to games developers by MSC Malaysia through its Intellectual Property Creators Challenge (IPCC) initiative. The IPCC challenge is held every year and the next call for the competition will be opened in July.

With the rapid growth in the mobile games industry, the marketplace where developers publish their games is becoming more competitive and saturated. If you look at AppStore or GooglePlay, you will see that a lot of games clone each other, whether it is in terms of visuals or gameplay. So, in order to stand out, new fresh content is required – and this is something we already have embedded in our diverse Sarawak culture.

This proposed “cultural approach” has actually been adapted and proven successful before. In 2011, Imangi Studios created the Temple Run based on the Mayan culture. Since the launch, the game has been downloaded more than a billion times on mobile devices. Year Walk, an adventure game created by Simogo which was inspired by myths and monsters from Scandinavian folklore in early 2013, won that year’s Unity Awards for Best 2D Artistic Experience. On a much bigger scale, Square Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy XV town of Lestallum was inspired by the Malaysian way of life and you will find teh tarik, satay and roti canai in the game.

Cultures could inspire the visual, storyline and enhance the overall gaming experience since they provide a good foundation for new and fresh concepts. And, those who play the games could learn a thing or two about the various cultures and traditions from around the world because of the games’ origin.

Generating an income by converting our local cultures into games is a huge possibility, as the examples mentioned above show. This is a feasible endeavour especially now with the continual assistance and support thrown in by the Malaysian government. Sarawakians could have the access to opportunities that will allow them turn local folklore into popular games and therefore money-generating ventures.

Hopefully, this will spur the growth of the creative industry in Sarawak. In the last Global Entrepreneurship Movement event which was held at the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching, university students and working adults took part in the games category. This is an indication that there is local interest and also that we are not lacking in talents. While the games development scene may not be as vigorous compared to that in Peninsular Malaysia, the mobile games industry in Sarawak is certainly picking up.

Augustus Raymond Segar is Associate Dean for Design, Faculty of Business and Design, at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable via asegar@swinburne.edu.my