GAMING is still viewed as a pastime in Pakistan, something to chide kids about as they fritter away their time on their mobile phones. As an industry, however, the global gaming market size is expected to reach $546 billion by 2028, according to Fortune Business Insights.

Pakistan has a mobile-first gaming market — meaning the main mode of consumption of games is cell phones rather than consoles, computers or virtual reality. According to Intenta Digital, mobile games are expected to generate $171.3 million in 2022.

Pakistan’s gaming industry is aimed at producing apps for cell phones. “It is all copy paste from one another,” laments game engineer Shehmir Riaz Bhatti who is working on Texas hold ‘em poker for a Chinese company.

“Pakistan is growing, no doubt, but our workforce is not top calibre. Hardly any big brand name gaming firm, such as Call of Duty [owned by Activision Blizzard], has their presence in Pakistan, whereas all of them have a branch or two in India,” he said.

Experts say ventures into Metaverse, VR could open new avenues for local gaming studios

He bemoaned that big gaming studios in Pakistan assign a popular game to their team with one assignment: change the user interface and model and incorporate as many advertisements.

Heavy investments are made to market the game to ensure its downloads, but no effort is made to develop a unique product, he added.

The advertisement revenue from downloads accrues to the publisher. Thus, their interest is not in innovation or creativity but in cloning popular games that allow for a quick buck.

Furthermore, the lack of access to capital cripples developers that want to work with passion and ingenuity.

Big ticket, multi-player, complex, strategy and battlefield games require investments that can go up to millions of dollars and a development period that can stretch into years. On the other hand, cloned hyper-casual [short, lightweight, instantly playable] games can be made in a week at a cost of $2,000 to $4,000.

However, Mr Bhatti added that even in hyper-casual games, there is a lack of creative thinking.

“Think of popular games such as Subway Surfers or Temple Run. Pakistan has not developed any such title, but every other gaming house is making a parking game. So why would international firms be attracted to talent in Pakistan when it is showcased so poorly?” he asked.

From mobile apps to Meta

But while Pakistan focuses on hyper-casual games, it is moving towards more progressive frontiers.

“Currently, we are working on an NFT or non-fungible token-based platform, Virtua, which will soon be launched into the Metaverse as an entire ecosystem,” said Warda Rashid Khan, a producer at Lahore-based Technology Studio Big Immersive.

“There are a lot of intellectual properties that Virtua works with, for example, Godzilla vs Kong and Top Gun. These brands have given Virtua exclusive rights to create NFTs and publish them on Virtua,” said Ms Khan.

Her job is to acquire the required information from brands and assess what products can be created that will be integrated into the Virtua ecosystem, apart from the marketplace. They have three types of applications: mobile apps, desktop and virtual reality (VR) across which users will interact with the NFTs.

With the integration of the Metaverse in the gaming community, Pakistan can jump from the niche of mobile games to create space in the Metaverse — an opportunity several companies are already taking advantage of. Within the next five years, Pakistan will have a considerable role to play in the Metaverse, opined Ms Khan.

Training grounds

The gaming industry is also faced with a shortage of trained workforce which includes developers and designers.

“Pakistan produces about 20,000 IT graduates every year, but they mostly go work for software houses,” said Samar Hasan, co-founder of Epiphany Games.

“Since most universities do not have a proper degree programme for game development or even courses, there is a skill set shortage. That has made gaming studios wary of interacting in fear of their talent being poached,” says Ms Hasan.

“Universities should encourage people to look into this career option rather than just pushing people towards more traditional streams,” said Ms Khan, whose professional journey began with a software house before she started working freelance on Fiverr and eventually became a full-time producer.

However, she said that “the mostly Lahore-based” game development industry is now growing and opening up now. But such barriers prevent the sharing of knowledge vital to allow the industry to grow apace with international developments.

She reasoned that whenever a new technology is introduced, games are the first to experiment with it, be it VR, the Metaverse, artificial intelligence or NFTs. It is through the implementation in games that a technology’s potential is assessed.

“If an industry is acting as a training ground for new technology, why not see how important that particular industry is?” wondered Ms Khan.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2022

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