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Indonesia’s video game industry is just waking up. Local game companies have been around since the late 90s, but most of them limited themselves to publishing international online games in Indonesia. Others were essentially outsourcing studios, taking on jobs from bigger foreign games studios without getting much credit for their work.
About seven years ago, a shift occurred. Indonesian developers started creating their own intellectual property, mostly for Flash-based titles. The rise of Flash games made it easier for smaller studios to publish and distribute games. This new attitude of creating things locally was passed on to the next generation – smartphone game developers.
Among the developers of this new era, one games studio stands out. It’s Own Games. The startup hails from Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city after Jakarta and Surabaya. What makes Own Games different is its Rovio-like approach. It bases its intellectual property and business model on cute characters.
It started with a contest
Own Games came to life when Eldwin Viriya, the game studio’s co-founder, got bored at his previous job. In 2011, Eldwin worked as a junior lecturer at Parahyangan University in Bandung, teaching programming to students only a few years younger than he was.
To pass idle time, Eldwin started making a game. Not long after he started, he got wind of a competition in which contestants were asked to develop a mobile game for Nokia.
He invited his little brother Jefvin to help. Jefvin was in his final year of high school and wanted to find out whether studying IT was the right thing for him. During the development phase, Eldwin handled the art assets and the game’s main engine, while Jefvin helped his brother with coding and balancing the game design. Despite their limited prior experience, they came out as one of the competition winners with their debut game, Beyond the Well. They came in third place, along with a small cash prize of IDR 10 million (US$1,000). More importantly, they had established a good connection with Nokia. The brothers decided to take this game developer business to the next level.
One for all
Maybe it was Tako who helped the brothers succeed with their first-ever game.
Tako is a cute character with yellow skin, humanoid features, and a mouth like an octopus’. Some might say Tako is a cute version of the legendary Cthulhu. You’ll encounter him in various adventurous roles in the games – as a shepherd in Eyes on Dragon, or as a Power Rangers-like superhero in Own Super Squad.
Eldwin first created Tako and his companions for an animation contest he participated in during high school. He pulled the character out of the hat for that first game he made for the Nokia contest. Ever since then, Tako has been a central cast member in each of Own’s games, including the latest one released last April. It has tens of thousands of downloads on Android, but the developers prefer not to share the number of the game’s monthly active users across all platforms.
Tako appears in Own Games’ merchandise and acts as a kind of mascot for the startup. While some Indonesian game studios do have recurring characters, none promote a character as intensely as Own Games.
“We think that if even if we only have one hit game with Tako and friends, some kind of domino effect will have an impact on our other games,” says Eldwin.
It’s not entirely new thinking. Developers have noted that mobile gamers don’t tend to develop brand loyalty based on who develops the game, but based on characters. Prime examples are Rovio’s Angry Birds series, or Cut the Rope with its Om Nom character.
Eldwin observed how Nintendo’s Mario and Rovio each took advantage of the popularity of their characters.
Leveraging a spillover effect, Nintendo managed to succeed in many game genres, from platformers to fighting, racing, party games, and even RPG, with Mario. The same applies to Rovio, which has conquered the mobile gaming world with puzzles, racing, and RPG, all starring the popular troupe of emotionally unstable birds.
Eldwin hopes that strong character branding will help Own Games get into other creative media besides video games. Own Games has made comic strips, merchandise, and a short animation in which Tako and friends sing a traditional Indonesian song to celebrate the nation’s 70th anniversary of independence last August.
Own Games gains attention in Indonesia through the merchandise it displays at gaming and pop culture expos. And it’s starting to see the forming of a fanbase around Tako. Some creative fans made a papercraft model and cut-out template for Tako and friends.
Own Games declined to comment on any merchandise sales figures.
Own Games sees the possibility to expand into other media formats more permanently if one of its current test balloons takes off. “If we become successful in other media, expansion is the clear thing to do. But of course the production of video games will not simply stop,” Eldwin says.
While Tako’s popularity is not on par with Mario or the Angry Birds, developing intellectual property taught the Viriyas brothers a lot. While they continue working on Tako and his buddies, the studio has started building a new set of characters that will star in its future games along with Tako.
“We’ve been working on Tako and Friends almost nonstop for the past four years, so we want to build new IP as solid as possible using the experience we got from making Tako,” says Eldwin.
It took Nintendo almost one hundred years to come up with Mario, and Rovio made more than fifty games before it produced the Angry Birds. Own Games still has a long way to go. But it definitely has the potential to be one of the front runners of the Indonesian game industry.