Tell Your Own Stories and Find a Foothold in the Red Ocean— An Interview with Taipei Game Developers Forum Co-founder Johnson Lin
In recent years, many independent game developers in Taiwan have launched controversial but sophisticated creations like Detention (返校), created by Red Candle Games (赤燭遊戲), which have stirred up heated discussion throughout Taiwan. However, for the gaming industry to thrive it needs more than just development teams with creativity and the ability to execute: it also needs a discussion platform that will effectively promote communication between teams.
Co-founder of the Taipei Game Developers Forum (TGDF, 台北遊戲開發者論壇), Johnson Lin (林容生), is the driving force behind the push for the gaming community to share notes and learn from each other.
Following the lead of his big sister, 36-year-old Johnson Lin (林容生) began playing Super Mario in elementary school. He was learning programming before middle school, and by the time he got to high school Lin was already an administrator for an internet game forum. In terms of exposure to gaming and IT, Lin was years ahead of his peers.
Promoting exchange in the independent game community
Influenced by his home environment, Lin decided to study interactive media technology at Yuan Ze University. At first he thought he would be taught how to develop games, but the curriculum went in a completely different direction.
Although Lin realized that his skills were still not good enough to produce something perfect, when he took part in the Open Source Software User Group (開發原始碼社群), he noticed that the Taiwan’s thriving independent game community lacked discussion forums.
So Lin started hosting small-scale “sharing meetings” for independent game developers, which later led to the founding of the Taipei Game Developers Forum (台北遊戲開發者論壇). As he promoted exchange between independent game developers, Lin discovered his own point of entry into the gaming industry.
Thanks to his long-standing hard work, the Taipei Game Developers Forum has expanded year after year. In addition to attracting the participation of nearly a thousand developers from Taiwan and abroad, the Forum has become Taiwan’s largest professional game forum.
In the meantime, Lin founded Manapool (法力池) with his game industry partners to provide funding to independent game developers. Red Candle Games (赤燭遊戲) is one such team: initially struggling with financial challenges during the development process for Detention (返校), they were rescued by a capital injection from Manapool.
Experience: the most valuable resource
“What Taiwan’s independent game industry needs most in terms of resources is the passing on or sharing of experience. And that’s why we’re working hard to promote these communities and platforms,” said Lin.
Looking back at his experience of promoting game communities in recent years and considering the current state of Taiwan’s independent game industry, Lin said, “In fact, large-scaled game seminars have been held for many years in Japan and the U.S., but Taiwan has been developing only slowly in recent years.”
Lin also said that independent game developers are under less pressure from company management and are more willing to share their experience with other game development teams: “Small teams actually have a greater need to share with and receive encouragement from peers. That’s also one reason why having a platform is critical.”
Apart from the vertical flow of experience (from older to younger generations) and the horizontal flow of information exchange among Taiwanese developers, Lin also pointed out that new information for the international game industry is mostly written in English or Japanese. This means that improving foreign language skills so as to obtain the latest industry information in real-time has also become extremely important.
Local character not a magic pill: finding your niche is the way forward
Lin is frank that, in a buyer’s market where there are many game developers but few publishers, if independent game developers want their creations to enjoy higher market value, the first prerequisite is segmentation. For example, Detention (返校), developed by Red Candle Games (赤燭遊戲), chose Taiwanese history as its entry point, which was a rare niche market at the time.
But even if “localization” is usually one of the main sources of “segmentation,” Lin reminds us that if too many developers charge in the same direction, “profits will go down.” That’s why game developers have to begin from close to home and find their own niche markets.
“Just like The Legend of Tianding (廖添丁－稀代兇賊の最期) produced by BanYaCraft (烏白馬工作室): it’s a sequel that was co-created by the maker of the classic Flash game, Thiam-ting 2004 (神影無蹤廖添丁). In addition to using Taiwanese folktales as its point of entry, the sequel also has the uniqueness of having the original author take part in production, all these years later. Also the graphics have been significantly improved, and that’s an obvious niche market.”
Indeed, “local character” is not a magic pill that makes any game sell, and there is no single formula that can determine a game’s success. The only way to thrive in the red ocean that is the game industry is to constantly seek to learn from the international and domestic game industries, while at the same time tirelessly digging into what makes your developers unique and telling your own stories.