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Vietnam: gaming nation

Marianne Brown, HanoiOctober 22, 2013

Vietnam is the biggest online games market in Southeast Asia. But local developers are struggling. There's little government support and state media calls the trend a "social evil."

A Vietnamese gamer plays "2112"
Image: DW/M. Brown

Down a narrow lane in central Hanoi just after dark, rows of teenagers sit in a shop staring at screens. One of them, high school student Trung, who doesn't want to give his family name, says he comes to the Internet cafe most evenings to play online games.

"I spend about four hours a day playing online games," says Trung. "I play mostly games from China, but I like League of Legends."

Vietnam has more than 13 million video game players and the industry is growing rapidly.

It is also the largest online games market by value in Southeast Asia, with sales of around $200 million in 2012, up from $150 million in 2011 and $120 million in 2009, according to one industry insider who didn't want to be named.

But while the publishers are raking in the cash, developing games in Vietnam is difficult.

Little home-grown

"Gamers play many games but they don't play Vietnamese games," says 35-year-old Nguyen Tuan Huy, founder of one of the country's independent games developers, Emobi.

Huy says most people play massively multiplayer online (MMO) and player kill (PK) games from China. Chinese Kung Fu style games are particularly popular with Vietnamese gamers, who prefer them to sci-fi themes. But he says the country lacks government support for domestic developers to compete.

And current legislation doesn't help.

Nguyen Tuan Huy poses beside a poster of his latest online game "2112."
Games maker Huy battles the constraints of Vietnam's games industry and the country's restrictive lawsImage: DW/M. Brown

In September, Vietnam passed Decree 72 on the "Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online."

Under the new rules, developers and publishers of games have to apply for a license for online games. And not everything is allowed. Banned content includes nudity and extreme violence, and first-person shooting games.

Huy says the uncertainty caused by the new license regime will discourage investment.

"The procedures make investment in game production too risky because even after spending a year of time and money, developers don't know whether their game will get a license or not," he says.

"Social evil"

Online games are often described as a "social evil" by Vietnam's state media, which link them to violent crimes. The reputation - whether true or not - has made the industry an unpopular one with politicians.

"The biggest problem at the moment is that the government doesn't see games as something good and which it needs to develop."

Some of this could be fixed with better education. But game design is not a top priority for universities and it's leaving Vietnam behind other countries.

Another industry insider based in the country, who preferred not to give his name, says the new regulations will not help. He says that after the old regulations on the management of online games expired, nothing happened for three years.

"For three years no game could get license approval," says the insider. "All the companies had to survive by publishing without a permit and they faced the threat of the government closing them down at any time. But how else can you survive for three years?"

It's possible, says the insider, companies will continue to operate without licenses. Applying for a license is a slow process.

There are 76 game publishing houses in Vietnam, with a potential capacity of 200 new games a year.

Chinese netizens play online games and surf the Internet at an Internet cafe in Quanzhou county, Guilin city, south Chinas Guangxi Zhuang (Photo: Wang Zichuang)
The games we play: Vietnam's market is dominated by the games Chinese fans have made popularImage: picture alliance/dpa

"Each week, the committee analyses the content of one game. One week, one game. That's the maximum. So the most they can have [in a year] is 50 games. Out of 200 games only a quarter has a chance of being approved."

As a result, Chinese games have saturated the market - even though Vietnamese gamers like locally-developed games.

"[Vietnamese gamers] can't wait one or two years for a new one. In one year, they might play 20 or 30 Chinese games to satisfy their needs," says the insider.

Getting the game right

Last year, Huy's company Emobi released its first MMO game called "2112" - a reference to its release date.

The strategic game tells the story of an intergalactic war between humans and two alien races and is played in real time. But the game has failed Emobi's expectations.

"We didn't get that right," says Huy. "At the moment young people prefer Kung Fu style."

Developing a game in Vietnam can be risky, but Huy hopes the industry will grow with or without government help.

"If the government helps, the time will be shorter. If they don't help it will take longer."

In the meantime, high school gamer Trung says he's not fussy about the origin of the games he plays.

"To be honest, I don't really care where a game is made - if I like it, I play it."