From arcades to personal computers to consoles, gaming has evolved over the years to become increasingly popular in Bangladesh, but the field of game development remains largely neglected.
The country has yet to tap into the vast potential of the gaming industry, which generates huge revenues worldwide. Gaming has not only become a prominent part of modern pop culture but is now also one of the most profitable entertainment industries.
A November 2020 forecast by game analytics firm Newzoo said gamers worldwide would spend $174.9 billion on games this year, marking 19.6% year-on-year growth. Also, the gaming market was projected to generate $217.9 billion in 2023.
Bangladesh's game market was worth $62.22 million, said a 2017 Newzoo report, which was based on data available up to December 2016. The report ranked Bangladesh as having the third-largest video game market in South Asia after India and Pakistan, and 61st among 100 countries globally.
Despite having such a big market, game development has not flourished in the country. In recent years, the number of gamers here has increased substantially. Many game enthusiasts want to take up game development professionally.
Yet, Bangladesh lags far behind in this field compared to many countries, including neighbouring India. The number of game development companies there jumped from 25 to 250 in the last decade as new startups are appearing every month. According to Business Today, India's gaming industry is set to be worth $1 billion by 2021.
There is no official statistic on the number of game development companies in Bangladesh. Company owners say indifference towards this sector is a big reason behind its poor growth here, and ICT Minister Mustafa Jabbar agrees. He says there have been no big initiatives to promote this industry in Bangladesh.
Gaming is a huge industry worldwide and is set to grow further, but nothing significant has been done yet in Bangladesh to promote it, Jabbar told The Business Standard.
Ershadul Hoque, founder and CEO of Riseup Labs, echoes Jabbar. He says Bangladeshis do not know much about this industry because no large-scale game has been developed here yet.
A brief history
Dhaka Racing was the first computer game developed in Bangladesh. After a demo release in 2002, the 3d car racing game's full version was unveiled the following year. The single player game featured some prominent Dhaka streets as racetracks, including those in the Chandrima Udyan and Ramna Park areas.
The game created a big buzz among gamers. It was also awarded as the best software of Bangladesh.
Arunodoyer Agnishikha, a game based on the 1971 Liberation War, was released by Trimatrik Interactive in 2004. Like Dhaka Racing, it also generated huge response, opening a new chapter on video game development in the country.
The subsequent years saw no significant game development until 2015 when Mindfisher Games Inc released Heroes of '71, which was sponsored by the ICT Division and Bangladesh Computer Council. Though the project revived interest in game development, the trend did not grow much.
Lack of education, training
The ICT minister believes the lack of skilled manpower largely explains why game development has not picked up in Bangladesh.
"We do not have highly skilled game developers. No game has been developed in recent years that could be called a breakthrough," he says.
Because of the shortage of skilled developers, companies face numerous difficulties during recruitment. Jabbar thinks this is directly linked to the fact that there is no opportunity to receive formal education in this field.
"Game development is not taught academically here. Outside the academy, we do not have good institutional training either. If we want to have developers who can make games based on the interests of local consumers, we need to educate or train them. But where are such qualified trainers?" he adds.
Professor Dr Syed Akhter Hossain, head of the computer science and engineering department at Daffodil International University, concurs. He says there are game development projects at universities, but they are mostly workshop- and seminar-based.
"We cannot deny that we have weaknesses in several areas of game development, such as characterisation and visualisation. Gaming has not grown here as an industry yet," he says.
But Zamilur Rashid, director and CEO of Ulka Games, one of the fastest-growing game development studios in Bangladesh, believes developing games is more about having good programming skills and technical knowledge than getting an academic degree.
"We have lots of good programmers here. We also have fine art graduates who have graphics skills. So, we have people who possess the raw skills. A good programmer or a graphic artist can be trained for game development in three months," he says, explaining why a lack of formal education is not a big obstacle in this field.
To fill the gap caused by the absence of academic education, gaming companies sometimes arrange training, especially at universities. Battery Low Interactive arranged for such training at Brac University and the University of Rajshahi.
Its CEO Minhaz Us Salakeen Fahme says online gaming communities and tutorials are key learning sources for potential developers.
Ershadul believes self-learning is fine but argues that a formal education has enormous benefits.
"If you study game development academically, you can perform better once you enter the industry because you already have good knowledge. Look at Finland. It has developed very popular games, such as Clash of Clans and Angry Birds," he says.
"They have game studies in universities. We had someone from Finland visit us last year. He has a master's degree in game psychology. He told us there had been studies in his country on what colours should be used on which game screens, what the font sizes should be and what pricing model would attract the highest number of customers. Here we do this arbitrarily. Get the difference?" he adds.
Zamilur thinks it would be easiest for Bangladeshi game developers to receive industry-level training if good foreign firms came to Bangladesh.
"This is because those companies have been developing games for 50 years, starting from around the '70s. If they come here, our developers will get practical training and in about five years, they will develop top-notch skills required to make games that can compete at the global level," he says.
There are some bureaucratic complexities and if the government can remove those, foreign firms will be interested in coming here, he believes.
"At the policy level, things are just fine here, but the government needs to remove the red tape to attract foreign companies. For example, if a company says it wants to invest in Bangladesh, the government needs to make sure that it can get the whole system up and running in a month," explains the Ulka Games CEO.
Ulka Games is part of Moonfrog Labs, an Indian gaming firm which Facebook Gaming has featured on its website for their Ludo Club game's success strategy. Ludo Club's daily active players grew significantly, primarily in India and Peru, during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another uphill battle
The ICT minister warns of another problem that game developers are bound to face – piracy. He says people in Bangladesh are quite accustomed to using pirated products.
"We are not used to paying for intellectual property. Software piracy is a big problem here, and game developers will face the same issue," says Jabbar.
This indeed is a serious concern. Despite numerous measures taken by different countries, piracy remains a global problem. In 2014, around $74 billion was lost to pirated games and almost 2.5 billion pirated games were downloaded, according to research by Tru Optik, an American digital media firm.
Some 90 percent of business software is pirated in Bangladesh as the country has limited resources to devote to intellectual property rights protection, says the "2020 Investment Climate Statements: Bangladesh" report by the US Department of State.
"Look at the countries where intellectual property sales propelled their development. Their citizens pay for such goods. If you do not pay, how will people use their intellect to develop such products?" Jabbar asks.
His words of warning are not to be taken lightly. After the demo version of Dhaka Racing was released, the developer duo Ashik Noon and Adnan Karim had to deal with the scourge of piracy.
As pirated copies popped up on the market, they protected the game by making it mandatory for buyers to call them and ask for an authentication code. Without the code, the buyers would not be able to play.
"It is a cultural trait of Bangladeshis that they do not want to pay for art and that is why developers here do not want to make games for the local market," says Minhaz.
"The scale of game development is already small in the country. Now if you download cracked versions of even the few games that are developed here, it is natural that developers will not be interested in serving the local market," he adds.
"That is why many game developers move abroad. Also, many of my university peers who were interested in game development eventually moved to other areas of software development," he explains.
Bangladeshi developers also faced massive setbacks as they did not have access to Google Play merchant accounts before 2017. The search engine giant would not allow developers to open merchant accounts from Bangladesh and sell apps on the app store prior to that year.
"This was a massive problem. We were lagging far behind other countries that were allowed to open merchant accounts before us," Minhaz says.
Explaining the remarkable growth of game development in India, he says some Indian developers who were working for top gaming companies abroad in the early 2000s later returned home and set up studios.
"They hired local talent, trained them, built networks using their past connections and thus experienced rapid growth. It will take time for that to happen here," he observes.
An immense prospect
With the rising popularity of games, there is no possibility that the gaming industry will stagnate in the foreseeable future. The industry has massive potential to contribute to Bangladesh's economic growth.
Professor Akhter says interest in game development has increased considerably over the last several years despite the absence of formal education in this field.
"The progress students have made was primarily driven by their personal enthusiasm. They are exploring this field and acquiring skills on their own. Also, students have made tremendous progress in mobile app development," he notes.
He is optimistic that there will be immense progress in game development in Bangladesh in about three years.
Zamilur echoes the professor, saying once developed, the industry can create a large number of jobs.
"I would say several thousand game development jobs can be created in Bangladesh in the next two to three years," he adds.