Taiwanese indie gaming has come a long way in a short time. It’s only been five years since Red Candle released Detention, a surreal and harrowing expedition into the “white terror” of political purges and martial law that dominates the island’s history in the 20th century, and – I am almost sure – the first original Taiwanese game I had ever played. Since then, I’ve discovered that more and more indie games that I enjoy have been made in Taiwan. The detention now feels like a spark that led to a silent explosion.
The growth was just as evident to those there. “When I first attended the indie games section at the Taipei Game Show five years ago,” Scott Chen, co-founder of Taiwanese developer SIGONO, tells me. “There were only about 15 Taiwanese booths, and it was the biggest gaming convention in Taiwan! There would now be more than 50 local teams showcasing their work among the hundred booths, and the overall quality has significantly increased.”
Red Candle has undoubtedly been the flagship of this new wave, with Detention and the acclaimed Devotion suite both placing Taiwanese culture at the heart of their experiences. But at the same time, SIGONO has been making progress with its sci-fi narrative adventure series, OPUS, releasing the third entry, Echo of Starsong, in 2021. And over the past few years, a range of other studios have produced impressive titles such as Carto, Vigil: The Longest Night, Behind the Frame, MO: Astray and The Legend of Tianding that exemplify the community’s drive to develop distinctive experiences.
The change was also noted by Vlad Tsypljak, co-founder of independent publisher Neon Doctrine, who moved its base of operations from China to Taiwan three years ago, and published both Vigil and The Legend. of Tianding. “When we got here, the only famous games were really Detention and Devotion,” he says. “[Development] was still heavily mobile-focused, especially on idle clicker MMOs or Gacha games.” He also explains that a lot of local talent and educational resources are channeled into building assets for major overseas publishers, with Uncharted games , Resident Evil remakes and Destiny 2 among those partially built in Taiwan.”But we’re definitely seeing more growth from local studios getting into the PC market,” he adds, “creating games on the local culture or something different, instead of rehashing Western-style games”.
According to Tsypljak, one of the reasons the indie boom is relatively recent is that studios previously struggled to monetize their output. “Taiwanese investors are often not very familiar with the industry and how things work,” he says, “so developers always find themselves in a tough spot financially, even when their game is doing well, because of the agreements they have structured with the investors”. Another problem is the work culture, which is “very overwork-oriented”, says Tsypljak. “We’ve seen studios pushing themselves too hard and when it’s almost time to release the game, everyone hates each other and they’re exhausted.”
Now, however, there are more resources to help newbie developers land great deals and manage workflow. Events like the Taipei Game Show, Taipei Game Developers Forum, and IGDA conferences have made it easier for studios to leverage regional and global knowledge and experience. There are also government-funded initiatives, Chen says, “that focus on finding the right publishers for teams, or funding local developers to attend overseas conventions.” And while educational resources are still a little scarce, he says, “people are eager to help each other, and many people with language skills are more than willing to help spread valuable knowledge overseas.” .
This community spirit is taken up by PP, one of the team members of CGCG (Creative Games Computer Graphics Corporation), the studio behind The Legend of Tianding. “We have very positive and active independent groups in Taiwan,” they say. “Our biggest independent group is IGD SHARE. Many talented game designers share their knowledge on the site and stream on Twitch every month. Overall, I think the resources are sufficient for someone who wants to create games from scratch.”
These resources have helped CGCG find the right support for its work. “It’s very difficult [to secure funding]“, says PP. “After all, creating games is a very high-risk investment compared to other industries. But we secured funds from an angel investor, DIT Startup, and government grants. “Neon Doctrine then made the difference at the end of the process, handling localization, quality assurance, and advertising, among other things.” It’s very important to find a publisher and become a partner with them so you can focus on what you do well,” says PP.
SIGONO took a different route, initially releasing its products on mobile platforms. “When we started,” Chen says, “we focused on small projects and invested the profits of each in developing the next.” Thanks to the positive comments and reviews, the OPUS series has now accumulated more than 10 million mobile downloads worldwide. “It’s the kind of success that has allowed us to keep making new games,” says Chen.
Yet, while that sounds very simple, Chen clarifies that it was anything but. “Six years ago, we were showing our game at every event to find companies interested in partnering with us,” he says. “We would be lucky if one in ten were interested in our game, and even more so if one in ten of them were ready to make a deal.” They also took a risk with Echo of Starsong, releasing for the first time on PC and iOS simultaneously. “We’ve established good relationships with major app stores over the years, and we’re quite comfortable with the idea of self-publishing,” Chen says, “but it turned out to be a lot more difficult than we imagined. [on PC]especially in the Western market.”
Going forward, however, the biggest issue might be game releases in mainland China. Currently, Chinese gamers buy games through Steam’s global storefront, and Tsypljak estimates that China accounts for around 30-40% of sales of Neon Doctrine titles. The concern so far has been to make sure the games don’t contain any politically sensitive material relating to China (as Red Candle found out the hard way when it left a derogatory picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Devotion, which caused a backlash that forced them to remove the game from sale). Even a game like The Legend of Tianding, which champions the Taiwanese resistance against Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, requires some clever localization. “It’s always tricky to deal with the Chinese market for Taiwanese,” says PP. “We are designing the game as we want and some item descriptions may be considered sensitive by the publisher’s Chinese team, so we are including a Chinese version of them.”
The looming problem, however, is that China may soon completely ban the global version of Steam. If this happens, games will only be sold through Steam China and other heavily restricted local platforms, and each title will have to go through an arduous process of government certification, adhering to strict guidelines for “appropriate” related content. violence, sex, religion. and politics. For many developers, this will simply prove too costly, considering the modifications they may need to make and the slowness and unreliability of the system. “There is still a huge backlog from a few years ago when they stopped the whole process,” Tsypljak says. “When it comes to PC games, maybe three or four make it every quarter.”
At the same time, Europe and North America remain tough markets to break into, as games from Taiwan and smaller Asian territories struggle to garner media attention, even with the backing of a publisher like Neon. Doctrine. Tsypljak says their latest releases have sold well, suggesting Western gamers are open to experiences from Asian creators beyond Japan. But, he adds, “if publishers have the choice between an indie game made in Europe or America and an indie game made in Indonesia, Malaysia or Taiwan, they always go for those made in America or in Europe”.
“I had a lot of bad experiences,” he continues. “[A journalist] walks up to me and says, ‘This game looks cool, we’d like to talk to the devs.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, the developers’ English isn’t that good, but I can interpret for you. Or if you send me the questions in English, we will do the translation. But 99% of them say it’s too much work. They say they would like to support developing regions and Asian games, but when the going gets tough there is very little coverage.”
Chen had similar problems, even though he is fluent in English. “The years it took to break into the Western media sphere were honestly quite disheartening,” he says. “Selling a game without cultural barriers is hard enough. But when you present a game that doesn’t come from the usual places, people are like, ‘Is it even good? Do they even make games there?'”
The last few years should have taught us that, yes, they are definitely making games there and an increasing number are really, really good. “The key to success is persuading people to give your game a chance, and that’s something we still have a lot to learn,” Chen says. If recent independent production from Taiwan is to be believed, we shouldn’t need much more persuasion. This newly flourishing scene deserves every possible chance.