Video game development isn’t always the fun-filled, caffeine-fuelled, manic digital playground that we think it is. Brian Kwek, owner of boutique publishing label Ysbryd Games, says “It’s tough, unpredictable, and generally not glamorous.” In some circles, the game development industry has even gained a reputation for being inhospitable.
“You may have read articles about months or even years of crunch. For example, extended periods of 120-hour workweeks — as well as problematic behaviour such as abuse and gaslighting. These are topped off with pay levels that aren’t competitive.”
Kwek is quick to point out that this bleak picture isn’t the norm here. There is a growing number of independent studios who have a devotion for creating video games out of love. Game studios are also practicing a healthy work-life balance and professional respect between colleagues.
But the industry is still in its infancy. “People tend to come into it bushy tailed and eager to give their hearts to the cause. Five to 10 years down the line, they realise they have a wedding to pay for, children to raise, loans to pay, and parents who think they’re ‘just playing games’ at work,” Kwek shares. “And so they leave the industry in search of better opportunities, and we lose their valuable experience.”
Video game developers face social stigma and pressure
Andrew Teo, creator of Ghostlore, a new action role-playing game (ARPG) featuring South-east Asian folklore, admits to facing the same pressures. He feels he has sacrificed social acceptance as a designer in a mobile game studio. He spends all his free time working on the game after his day job.
“Game development occupies nearly every waking hour. I have very little bandwidth to care about hitting the milestones a Singaporean man in his 30s is supposed to be hitting,” he says. “Even I feel relatives and acquaintances are judging me for being single with no car, house or fancy watch. I wish my way of living was acceptable.”
There are plenty of people who value the work he’s doing. Since its unofficial release in April, the game has seen 5,000 downloads. While the East-Punk ARPG was still in “early access” on video game retailer Steam, it was technically playable while under development. The game made it to the top-selling list on Steam the week it was released.
While Ghostlore is scheduled for release next year, Teo is hesitant to go it alone. He holds a fear of risk and preference to stay on the creative path rather than branch out into entrepreneurship.
One gamer who chose entrepreneurship from the get-go was Desmond Wong, CEO of The Gentlebros.
The Gentlebros is the studio behind the popular Cat Quest series, which is available for mobile, PC, and console platforms. The game won the Excellence in Visual Art and Design award at the SEA International Mobile Game Awards in 2017. It was also nominated for Mobile Game of the Year at the 21st Annual D.I.C.E Awards. A third instalment is in development.
Putting a bit of themselves in the video games
“We got very lucky. Making a game isn’t cheap and it takes a lot of time,” says Wong. He explains that an ARPG of Cat Quest’s size can take two years to complete. “It was our final shot since our first game, Slashy Heroes, didn’t exactly sell well. Had Cat Quest not done well, we would have had to rethink our life choices.”
That choice was to leave a comfortable job at the Singapore office of Japanese video game and anime holding company Koei Tecmo. He then chose to start The Gentlebros with his colleagues. Nevertheless, working at an AAA game company — a term used to classify high-budget, high-profile games like Grand Theft Auto and FIFA — was starting to grate on him. “You feel like a small cog in a huge machine, that nothing you do ever really matters.”
Although the risk paid off, Wong is careful not to let his zeal upset his work-life balance. Despite his role as the company’s CEO, artist and game designer, his day typically begins at 10am and ends by 5pm or 6pm. “Having a balanced lifestyle is very important. I cycle and hike a lot, and some of these experiences end up in the games we make,” he says.
One particularly pleasant ride past a canal at sunset was the inspiration for a scene in one of his video games. “These moments outside of gaming can also have a positive effect on one’s craft.”
Studio members regularly receive fan mail. Some of them thank the team for making a game that has helped them overcome depression or adversity. “A good game involves putting a little bit of yourself into it. All of our stories are based on our past experiences.”
Passion remains despite getting fired from corporate studios
Traditional artists do the same thing, pouring parts of themselves into their work. For some video game developers, it is the same unstoppable creative force that keeps them going through inevitable rejection and despair.
James Barnard of Springloaded has experienced both. He had been fired from two studios, including Lucasfilm Animation. Reasons for dismissal included being “too creatively pushy and aggressive” for the typical corporate structure. His dismissal did not bother him. “When I left Lucasfilm 10 years ago, I wanted to make sure I would have fun every day, be creative, mess around, and not deal with politics,” he says. “It was frustrating having amazing ideas that have to go through 20 layers of management before they are eventually rejected.”
As soon as he was on his own, Barnard self-funded three games in one year. He took care of the art, coding, marketing and music himself. “They were terrible games,” he laughs. “I would look at the app store and hold back my excitement at the possibility that I could be a millionaire in an hour. But I would see that three people had downloaded the game — and I was one of them! It was so depressing, but I didn’t want to stop doing it.”
He had to move out of his flat and into a shared one. Eating economical rice, get a part-time teaching job at Digipen Institute of Technology, and make smaller games to survive.
His big break finally arrived when American publisher Kongregate picked up his mobile game Tiny Dice Dungeon. He admits that was when he finally thought about the market and what people wanted.
People are at the core of the video game industry
Springloaded is now known for its adorable pixelated style that ranges from the wholesome as in Decks & Dungeons to the slightly odd GORSD. Its current hit is Let’s Build a Zoo, which has enjoyed over 100,000 downloads on Steam since its launch last year, with console releases on the way.
“Now when hiring for Springloaded, I look for people who are really into it. Their CV and their qualifications mean less to me than how much they love the job. When their faces light up when you ask them what they like to play or why they like the games they do, you know they’ll be great people to work with.”
In a small industry in a small country, people are everything.
At BattleBrew Productions, no one came in a stranger. CEO Shawn Toh says they were all either former colleagues, classmates, friends of friends, or convention-goers or exhibitors. “Because this is a creative industry, everyone is much more involved in the process, which is why it is important to work with people you can trust professionally and personally.”
The five-year-old company has a small team of 11 full-timers, and is best known for the award-winning Battlesky Brigade: Tap Tap and Battlesky Brigade: Harpooner, part of Apple Arcade’s 100- game launch line-up. Cusineer, winner of the January Digital Big Indie Pitch, will launch later this year.
As with many startups, BattleBrew was able to get off the ground with founder life savings, family donations, and angel investments. “But when other people are counting on you for their livelihoods, scoring each round of investment is less like a celebration and more like gaining ammunition and equipment. Game development is like fighting war on multiple fronts, and everything is on fire.”
A job that requires one to wear many hats
Toh’s colleagues are no stranger to wearing multiple hats because of this. “I’m the CEO and Design Director, but I am sometimes the janitor, too. One of our programmers is an expert in combat design, and one of our designers has excellent skills in community management and social media.”
Certainly, expanding the team will take some load off of everyone, but maximum growth is not his priority. “Having three production teams would be great, so we can work on our flagship game and a couple of other titles simultaneously, but I would feel a little weird if we reach a point where we didn’t know everyone’s name at the company.”
Staying relatively small has its perks, including camaraderie and creativity autonomy, but studios like Mighty Bear Games are thinking much bigger. “We have close to 60 people today, but the best teams in the world have hundreds or even thousands,” says CEO Simon Davis. “We’ve never been interested in remaining small, so I’ve never viewed other independent studios as competitors. I instead look to services like Netflix and Disney+ or games like Call of Duty, where people log in thousands of hours a year.”
Dreaming big for the future of video games
Davis is eager to dominate the mobile game market, as two of its biggest titles are Apple Arcade exclusives. The iPad game Butter Royale from 2020 was named Best iPad Game of the Year by iMore.com and voted Best Action Game and Best Multiplayer Game at the Arcade Awards by the Apple Arcade Discord Server. Disney Melee Mania, which offers a full roster of Disney and Pixar characters within the currently popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, came out last December.
Davis jokes that the reality of video game development involves “a lot of crying and complaining” because the job is notoriously difficult. “Games also often sit on the edge of what’s technically feasible, so you have massive technical risk combined with lots of creative personality types, which makes this a very interesting dynamic.”
But as a result of his background working at industry giants like Ubisoft and King (now under Activision Blizzard), Davis sees himself as more of a disciplinarian than most independent studio heads. “I know how hard it is to get things done. The job has to be fun, but at the end of the day, we still have to ship stuff.”
“Papa Bear” (Davis) is always in the US and Europe looking for investors because “South-east Asian investors prefer to invest in fintech or e-commerce because they’re more risk-averse or don’t really understand our business.”
But Davis still believes the future of mobile gaming will be defined by accessible, multiplayer games designed here in the region. “When we started in 2016, people asked us why we set up in Singapore. I believe in this market, and that Southeast Asia is the next frontier. Singaporean talent can compete with world-class talent — people just need support.”
Related: Games Are Good