In the Indonesian game development studio Toge Productions, what Mohammad Fahmi looks forward to most is Game Jams. This is the “black word” of the game industry, similar to a hackathon, requiring that you prototype your ideas within 24 to 72 hours, and you must hand in all the games when the time is up. The purpose is not to make a finished product that can be directly marketed, but often just a Demo. This is an event open to all employees, even marketers like Fahmi are not outsiders.
At a Game Jams in December 2017, public relations and marketing manager Fahmi introduced a rather unusual game. Measured by traditional standards, “Green Tea Latte” is not a game in the strict sense, it is more like an emotion.
The player plays the role of a barista in the game and interacts with human (or humanoid) characters that he frequents. From an aesthetic point of view, this game uses the pixel art of the 90s as a sample, accompanied by loose low-fidelity background music. As a barista, you have to respond to your customers’ stories, influence their life paths, and cook the right drinks for them at the right time.
Toge studio released some experimental works earlier, but its big projects are mainly platform games and strategy games. However, Fahmi’s colleagues saw the appeal of this approach. This dreamlike urban landscape is immediately familiar. Although the cafe in this game is located in Seattle, players can easily think of scenes that take place in any metropolis, including their hometown of Jakarta.
Nowadays, Indonesian indie games that have entered the mainstream view by taking advantage of the popularity of “Coffee Talk” are receiving unprecedented attention. Now that the rules of the game are changing, mainstream platforms such as Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Switch have to change their perceptions of Indonesian independent developers.
Here, both mainstream game manufacturers and independent game developers like Fahmi are looking forward to and adapting to new story scripts.
Small scale chopper
“Green Tea Latte” has become a thing of the past, and it reappears as “Coffee Talk”. This narrative-oriented game took two years to develop and was in charge of Fahmi, who was also responsible for marketing. After becoming a major project, it brought unexpected success to this small studio.
After the release of “Coffee Talk” in January 2020, Fahmi said goodbye to Toge Productions and started his own project. He estimated that in the first few months after its launch, the game earned the studio about $500,000 in revenue. In his opinion, this is “a lot of income for an Indonesian game.”
Frederick Tirta, Toge’s product manager, confirmed that “Coffee Talk” has exceeded this standard line, but declined to give more details. Of course, this is incomparable with the income of masterpieces such as Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” or Sony’s “Uncharted” series. But the development cost of indie games is much lower.
“Coffee Talk” was released on multiple platforms, including Nintendo’s Switch and Sony’s PlayStation. This situation is still uncommon in Indonesia. Like other countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is not yet a big console game market; game developers mostly focus on mobile games. Newzoo, a game industry research organization, estimates that the scale of mobile games in Southeast Asia in 2019 is US$3 billion, while the total value of the PC and console game market is only US$1.4 billion.
Even if local developers want to develop console games, they will be excluded from the ecosystem. For example, for various reasons, Sony and Nintendo did not provide console development kits to companies registered in Indonesia.
Now, everything is slowly changing. Just as Indonesian independent game developers realize their potential, mainstream platforms are making independent games an even more indispensable part of their strategy. In 2019, Sony established a new independent gaming department. Nintendo has launched a new Switch device suitable for small games. Games based on this device are relatively easy to develop. They now need small local games to attract and retain new players.
Therefore, the monetization mechanism is also changing. Mobile games are often free, monetized through advertising or in-app purchases. On high-end gaming platforms such as Steam, PlayStation, and Nintendo, players usually have to pay to download games. This makes it easier for small games to pay for themselves—a few hundred downloads are enough.
Just like “Coffee Talk”, Indonesian game developers are exploring a maze of roads, turning their ideas into reality, and achieving profitability.
Fahmi is excited about the success of “Coffee Talk”, but this kind of operation where marketers come up with ideas has drawbacks.
“I didn’t really get any financial benefit (from “Coffee Talk”). Its copyright belongs to Toge. But my name still appears first in the opening and closing subtitles. My name is still mentioned in the promotion. We still maintain a very good relationship.” Fahmi said frankly.
Leaving Toge to create more narrative games in his own way is a risky dream, accompanied by many financial and legal uncertainties.
Last year, Fahmi began to organize the team and put in his next idea-“Afterlove”. But after paying out of his pocket, his funds quickly ran out, which forced him to reflect on his strategy.
Therefore, Fahmi decided to make a less ambitious game called “What Comes After”. In this touching game, you will follow a character named Vivi on the journey of the afterlife, and then return to the present world. In this process, Vivi learned to love and appreciate life.
Fahmi explained the original intention of developing this game: “This game was originally to pave the way for “Afterlove”, but also to help me learn. I realized that I don’t know how to make a game from scratch. I and (the founder of Toge) (Person) Kris Antoni. He is more experienced and smarter than me.”
Fahmi’s loose team worked on this game for three and a half months. In order to keep the team motivated, he decided to motivate them with a revenue sharing scheme, including those who get commissions. “Because of what I learned in the past, I hope everyone will be happy when the game is successful.”
Even if “What Comes After” is just a stopgap measure, it is a success in itself. Fahmi estimates that its development cost is only $600 to $700. “Basically, the cost was recovered on the first day of sale. So far, 3,700 copies of this game have been sold. It’s amazing for something that only took three months to develop. It only takes 5 USD.”
Through the maze
In addition to figuring out funding issues, independent game developers like Fahmi must also decide which platforms to produce for and how to plan for release.
For example, What Comes After was originally only released on Steam, and it was also released on a niche independent gaming platform called itch.io. Steam is a better distribution channel, but it also charges a 30% commission from each sale.
If independent game developers want their work to reach a wider audience, they often have to rely on fans and other enthusiasts. With the help of volunteers, Fahmi launched the game version in different languages. Every translation and localization release will bring new players and new revenue.
When Spanish publisher Flynn’s Arcade approached him, hoping to help him release the game on Switch, Fahmi was surprised. They don’t need to spend money at all, Flynn’s Arcade will get a share of the revenue from the Switch version of the game.
Publishing games on Switch, PlayStation or any other console is almost impossible for individual game developers or small studios. You need to obtain a development kit; and the gaming giant has blacklisted many Southeast Asian countries, prohibiting the ordering of these devices.
According to Hasnul Samsudin, head of PlayStation Malaysia, the problem is that development packages need to be approved by the standards organization of each country to ensure that they are safe. For many years, as a member of the government agency Multimedia Development Corporation (MDEC), he was responsible for the development of Malaysia’s gaming industry.
Samsudin and MDEC initiated a series of gaming activities and conferences, making Malaysia a gaming hotspot in Southeast Asia. But he also pointed out that in some countries, this process may be tortuous and requires government commitment to ensure its smooth progress.
He added that Southeast Asia is also a hotbed of piracy. For example, although Indonesia has been fighting piracy, its shopping malls are still flooded with pirated software, games, movies and music.
“I think many big companies are worried that if we give them development kits, they may fall into the wrong hands; they may find a way to create some kind of pirated software; in this way, we will lose business.” Samsudin said.
In Malaysia, MDEC constantly seeks to talk to the gaming giants and eventually persuades them to allow development kits to enter the country. He added: “This requires a personal relationship, and someone needs to defend us within the company.”
In Indonesia, although negotiations are still going on, they have begun to heat up. According to Tirta, the founder of Toge Productions, big platforms are trying to make more contacts with them compared to two or three years ago. “As some local games in Indonesia become more and more popular, people’s awareness and attention are also increasing.”
Now, the most likely scenario for development packages to enter Indonesia is that some of them will be placed in government-supported joint office spaces and managed by the Indonesian Game Association (AGI). This at least allows Indonesian developers to test games in a shared facility. Now, they need overseas collaborators, or cooperation with mature issuers, these platforms can do this for them.
Now, Fahmi is back to work on the larger project “Afterlove”, this unreleased game will be a dating simulation game. In this game, you will play a role that hears the voice of the late ex in your mind. According to Fahmi, this is a game about love and mental illness.
Fahmi also tried to formalize his relationship with partners. He has registered a company, but he is still not ready. “I just want to play games, I don’t want to be the CEO or take other responsibilities.” He said.
Embracing commercialization is a problem that independent developers need to face directly. It seems to run counter to the spirit of cooperation and volunteerism that permeates the culture of indie games, even though this spirit makes this type of project possible in the first place.
But, what if more independent developers really have the opportunity to create and publish their own games on mainstream platforms? They must improve their standards and develop reliable business plans to achieve long-term success.
In one such case, Stairway Games, a studio headquartered in a small town in Central Java, is planning to release a game “Coral Island”. The founders of Stairway Games are experienced entrepreneurs, but this is their first game. Co-founder Jeremiah Bramble has been engaged in furniture related work in his family business, but is passionate about games. He and his friends tried game development as a side job.
“Coral Island” is a farm simulation game with tropical islands as the background. It is very similar to popular games such as “Harvest Moon” and “Stardew Valley”. The work is amazing, the environment is located a large part of it underwater, in a coral reef with fish and mermaid civilization.
To raise funds, Stairway Games launched a Kickstarter campaign. It claims to raise at least $70,000. Internally, they hope to exceed this goal and reach 300,000 to 400,000 US dollars.
After being online for a few hours, they easily surpassed the initial goal. The team has now raised more than $1.6 million in funding. For a small studio with no performance, this is a lot of money.
After Bramble talked with several publishers, he decided to publish Coral Island on his own. Cooperating with publishers means sharing revenue, and the success of Kickstarter gave him confidence that he can reach players without resorting to publishers. To this end, Stairway Games hired a consulting company called Robot Teddy. The consultant receives a one-time service fee instead of a revenue share.
Recruit independent developers
Samsuin pointed out that now is a great time for independent developers. Because the tools for making games are getting easier and easier to use. Game developers can also seek advice on the Internet and cooperate across borders.
He added that the entire industry is shifting to indie games. The major mainstream platforms have recognized their value and re-adjusted their strategies to pay more attention to low-cost games.
In 2019, after Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony’s game division, stepped down, he initiated a new project-building a network of independent developers.
The Nintendo Switch, which was first released in 2017, also changed the rules of the independent gaming industry. Samsudin said that it is smaller and more portable, and game lovers can still play in fragmented time or on the go. Therefore, it is very suitable for indie games. Because compared to more complex multiplayer games, strategy games, or combat games, indie games are generally shorter and require less immersion and loyalty.
Game engines like Unreal and Unity also provide free software to studios whose income is below a certain threshold. This lowers the barrier to entry and greatly reduces the risk of entrepreneurship. In May last year, Unreal lowered this threshold to $1 million, which is good for developers. Another breakthrough came from Apple, where the App Store reduced the commission it charges small developers from 30% to 15%.
“I think it ultimately comes down to the eyeballs.” Samsudin said. Each platform is adjusting its strategy to accommodate independent developers, because they want to build an ecosystem around their own stores and devices. They can attract more players and keep them immersed in the game longer.
But according to Toge’s Tirta, platforms like Nintendo and PlayStation still lack a mechanism for displaying new content and personalized recommendations. Presenting fresh indie games with blockbusters can help new talents become more important in new markets, such as Southeast Asia. This is a huge growth opportunity for host manufacturers, because this region is far from saturated.
Fahmi said that now, the world is eager for new stories and the emergence of dark horses. This is also a good opportunity for developers from neglected areas to emerge.
“It’s not exotic. It’s more like people are tired of the stereotyped white protagonist. They want to see something different that allows them to get out of their own world.”
For example, the background of “Coffee Talk” is Seattle, but there are many metaphors of Indonesian culture. In this game, you can brew a drink called STMJ, which is made of susu (milk), telur (egg), madu (honey) and jahe (ginger), which is a unique Indonesian characteristic Healthy drinks.
“Now, I can imagine that Americans will try to make STMJ at home because of this game.” Fahmi said.
This article is compiled from The Ken
Original translation link: https://the-ken.com/sea/story/indonesias-indie-games-level-up-after-coffee-talk/