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Analysts see a murky future for the gaming industry in Thailand, as more are playing online but the market is still dominated by a few big players.

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  • Newspaper section: Business
  • Writer: Zhang Qi
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Amid the cosplay pretties and gamers buzzing about the Thailand Game Show 2013 (TGS) were suits trying to determine the future of the online gaming industry. 

Gaming characters, including Captain America, in person at the opening of the Thailand Game Show on Jan 11.

A business matching forum for gaming developers and leading games and IT companies across Asean debuted at the TGS from Jan 11-13, aimed at promoting Thailand as the Asean hub for video games.

In addition to the exhibition zones where designers showcased their latest products and services, the matching zone was set up for game studios, animation providers, publishers, venture capitalists and developers from Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

A seminar on the gaming and digital entertainment industry in the advent of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) brought executives from the IT world with mixed ideas on the industry's outlook.

Although some feel the gaming industry in Thailand advanced to the next level thanks to better technologies and greater participation from mobile users, Pongsuk Hiranprueck, the managing director of Show No Limit and founder of TGS, felt 2012 was a struggle.

"We can't beat Japan and Korea in their market, because they're so strong. But in emerging markets such as Myanmar and Vietnam, customers' expectations are quite low, so that's our opportunity," said Mr Pongsuk.

He said the gaming market in Thailand is valued at 13 billion baht, with online gaming up to 5 billion. Mr Pongsuk is confident online gaming will grow 10-12% this year.

He noted the platform has shifted from personal computers to mobile devices. This has expanded the player base but meant game publishers and distributors had to make hard adjustments, he said.

"It is time for Thai companies to create our own characters, content and applications. We can win in the mobile game market," said Mr Pongsuk.

Thus far, most of Thailand's leading universities have open courses on digital gaming such as painting, drafting, game designing and development. In fact, many games sold in app stores are from Thai companies, but Thais do not like buying Thai products, so they are designed with an English interface, he said.

Paula Komalarajun, president of the Game and Interactive Digital Entertainment Association (GiDEA), was cautiously optimistic.

"Gaming is an emerging market here, so it is easy to join the market. But too many products and players have made it highly risky," said Ms Paula.

"I have to admit human resources for the gaming industry in Thailand remain very limited due to undeveloped education and training."

She said the Thai government has not paid enough attention to the gaming industry compared with other IT sectors.

Stimulus policies such as funding, supportive taxes and scholarships are absent. In addition, development of the lagging IT infrastructure is lacking, said Ms Paula.

"When state-of-the-art gadgets such as the Galaxy Note 2 come out, they usually can't run stably on Thailand's 3G networks. Actually, globally the technology is moving to 4G already, but 3G in our country is not even real 3G," said Ms Paula.

The AEC is expected to bring a bigger market and a freer flow of talent, but if the government ignores the industry it could have a negative impact.

As a public organisation, Ms Paula insisted GiDEA will focus on supporting small developers in Thailand, as big operators can take care of themselves, but she lamented developers always get stuck. The developers are very capable but also vulnerable in an industry full of risks.

Kittipong Prucksa-aroon, deputy managing director at Asiasoft Corporation, the No.1 game publisher in Thailand, warned that for local operators the biggest challenge when the AEC takes effect will come from international giants. They can afford to buy good products as the Chinese IT titan Teng Xun has done with the popular online game Garena, owned by League of Legends.

"The Thai market is saturated, making it difficult for small companies to survive unless they have good content and good luck. Five years ago, we had fewer than 10 publishers in Thailand, but now we have more than 40. Yet more than 80% of the market is dominated by the top three publishers," he said.

Asiasoft operates more than 40 online games in Thailand and elsewhere including Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. Its average annual revenue growth has been about 20%, with 99% coming from imported games.

"People perceive Asean as this giant market with 601 million people, but the countries are so different that one policy or one product campaign won't fit in all these markets, and each market is full of competitors," said Mr Kittipong. "You need to understand the challenges before you go into the market."

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