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Friday, March 24, 2017, 09:40

Keeping the whole world in game mode

By Evelyn Yu

Award-winning smartphone game founder Yat Siu says the HK market may be open and mature, but users’ loyalty is still low. He tells Evelyn Yu his aim is to educate children via games.

Keeping the whole world in game mode
Imbued with devotion and enthusiasm in the smartphone game business, Outblaze’s Chief Executive Officer Yat Siu says he’ll strive to educate children through games. ( Parker Zheng / C hina D aily)

For Yat Siu, founder and chief executive officer of Outblaze — Hong Kong’s leading mobile game developer — creating fun for people is the central objective of his mission because it motivates them and helps them to perform well and win.

The entrepreneur, with the musical genes planted in him at a young age and now with a string of local and international accolades under his belt for his achievements in smartphone game business, has piloted the company for almost two decades, turning it into one of a handful of local companies whose games would have a far-reaching impact on the US, Japanese and other global markets.

Founded in 1998 in Hong Kong, Outblaze has since published more than 900 apps with a total download of 515 million. It was listed among the “Top 50 Mobile Games Developers” in 2013 and 2014 by games pundit Pocket Gamer — reputed to be a world authority on hand-held and mobile devices.

According to global researcher SuperData, the game industry raked in US$91 billion in revenue worldwide last year, with the mobile-game segment being the star performer, winning the lion’s share of US$41 billion, followed by retail games on US$26 billion and US$19 billion for free-to-play online games.

Mobile games have helped evangelize the whole gaming industry

Yat Siu, founder and chief executive officer of Outblaze
“Mobile games have helped evangelize the whole gaming industry,” Siu tells China Daily.

“The availability of smartphones has enabled everybody to play them any time. In Japan, many mobile games can be played single-handedly — commuters need to hold the loop with just one hand and can still enjoy the games.”

“PC (personal computer) and console games are also growing very fast. They’re not growing because more and more people now play the games — it’s because all those who’ve been playing casual games like Candy Crush are wondering ‘what else can I play’ and are moving to more complicated games­,” he explains.

As the eminent pool of players evolves, Siu believes mobile-phone games need to be more complicated, go deeper and be presented with a better design.

The key to a good mobile game, he says, lies in its depth and content — a good level-balancing game that people can spend lots of hours on and are constantly engaged in.

One of Outblaze’s latest education creations offers a quality, low-cost guitar, Chord Hero , and a companion app, MonsterChords , which utilizes chord-recognition technology to provide real-time feedback for kids learning to play the guitar. Children follow the instructions to strum the chords, and the app determines the accuracy of the playing. The app transforms tedious repetitive practices into a fun game.

Predominant model

Siu says the game has thousands of pieces of cloth and plenty of levels to go into. It’s aspirational and, unlike male gamers, the female players tend to be more loyal.

The predominant business model for mobile games is freemium, whereby games are downloaded for free, while additional contents will be charged for.

Running over 900 games, Siu says the idea is not that all of the titles are profitable, but the portfolio is.

Siu is candid, admitting he does not have the sense to tell which game would be a big hit before it’s launched. The strategy is to keep trying and rely on the company’s own distribution channel from existing customers.

According to Siu, marketing the products via the main platforms of Apple and Google is costly but, with apps in abundance, they can tell users to download one or the other of their apps.

Animoca Brands, a game developer and publisher affiliated with Outblaze that went public in Australia in 2015, posted revenue of HK$50 million last year, but Outblaze has yet to reveal theirs.

Compared with their operations in the United States, Siu says the Hong Kong and Chinese mainland markets are rather small. Game distribution channels on the mainland are currently dominated by a handful of key players.

Tencent’s hit game King of Glory boasts a daily user base of 50 million. The online multi-player game is based on the world’s most played PC game League of Legends.

“The ability to make it deep and intriguing in game play is not unique. If King of Glory wasn’t published by Tencent, it would have been just a normal game,” comments Siu.

Siu struck a cautious tone concerning the industry’s development on the mainland, pointing to policy uncertainties.

In 2015, the mainland authorities lifted a 14-year ban on console games, and popular consoles like Playstations and Xboxes can now be sold there. However, stricter rules on mobile games have been enforced. The State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television stipulated last year that foreign companies planning to launch mobile games on the mainland have to team up with a Chinese company, and rules are even stricter for “story-based” games.

Hong Kong offers an open and mature market, says Siu. But, the problem is how to circumvent local users’ low degree of loyalty. Citing last year’s hit game Pokémon GO as an example, he says Hong Kong gamers are willing to try and pay, but they tend to move on quickly to other games.

Thus, he sees a growing market in children players. Instead of just inundating them with fun, his aim is to educate kids through games.

One of Outblaze’s latest education creations, Chord Hero , utilizes chord-recognition technology to provide real-time feedback for kids learning to play the guitar. Children follow the instructions to strum the chords, and the app determines the accuracy of the playing. The app transforms tedious repetitive practices into a fun game.

To Siu, the whole world is in game mode.

“Facebook is a game whereby by posting photos, you get ‘likes’. School is also a game but a badly designed one. A good game should give people fun and, ultimately, motivate them to learn.”

With optimism, the ‘power of a good game helps you perform better and go on to win’

Raised by two Chinese musicians in Austria, Yat Siu had his finger on the pulse, as far as music goes, at a relatively youthful age.

He had his first stint on stage at 15 when he began delighting audiences in theaters, doing his thing on the piano, flute and cello. Far from the thought he was already the cat’s whiskers, Siu reckoned he was still “behind the curve”.

“My mom has a perfect pitch. It took me sometime to accept that I’m not like her,” admits the 44-year-old serial entrepreneur.

He doesn’t look like being in that genre — chief executive of Hong Kong’s biggest game  developer company. He looks being the typical geek with a wiry frame, donning a black sports blaze, wire-brimmed glasses and sports shoes. He could easily be mistaken for any of his programmers at his office in Cyberport — a sprawling retail-and-entertainment complex and home to a cluster of the SAR’s technology and digital talents on the southern shores of Hong Kong Island.

Siu had a greater inclination to computers, his music and tech-savvy parents bought him a computer in the 1980s and the self-taught programmer was soon capable of coding musical composition software.

Compared to music, Siu says the satisfaction of programming comes from fast results. Back in those days, he had to practice for years, sometimes up to eight hours daily, and still thought he wasn’t talented enough and probably too “old” among this peers in Vienna, where competition among classic music prodigies was intense.

In programming something however, he could see the output instantly. And, most importantly, he was fascinated by the empowering ability of computer science.

“The purpose of computers is to make tools to make it possible for everyone to do something. In those days, you couldn’t compose music unless you had a degree in music. But, nowadays, with a GarageBand (a popular music creation app) and a sense of melody, you can compose music. It took us decades to get there, but that’s the power of the computer.”

When Siu set foot in Hong Kong in the 1990s, e-mails didn’t even exist. With foresight, dedication and hard work, he went on to launch the city’s first business internet service provider Hong Kong Online.

Being a young entrepreneur in Hong Kong isn’t a walk in the park, he reminisces. He harks back on the “hostile” environment back in the 90s, not only because he had “really long hair” at the time, he says in jest, pointing to its length running down to his waist. The thing was that most of the companies he tried to sell his products to had no interest whatsoever in the internet — they barely knew what it was and it took him a long time to help bring the market to the fore.

What he learned from his musical background is constant practice and mastery, which matters in everything, And, what he discovered later in his gaming business is optimism, all of which, Siu says, have benefited him a lot in his career today.

“A good game has one incredible overarching quality which is optimism. No matter how many times you’ve tried and failed, in the end, you can somehow win. You can tell a badly-designed game may force you to pay to win, but the power of a good game design and game play can motivate you to do better.”

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