Singapore’s creatives in the gaming industry tell us why the work is anything but mindless fun.
BY JO TAN
Published on 2 August 2016
BY JO TAN
While some consider digital games crude excuses for players to beat opponents up, win money off them, or otherwise satisfy a thirst for vice and violence, many digital-game developers have moved into something far richer, offering players entire alternative realities to experience.
“The games I love have complex stories and narratives, often making statements about the society we live in,” explains freelance game designer Mansa Chaudhry, who has worked on various games, including Dropcast, released on Nintendo DS. “There’s a study of how the legendary Massively Multiplayer Online game, World of Warcraft, has factions which actually represent Republicans versus Democrats, and generally contains allegories for a lot of different issues.”
Gwen Guo, sound designer for games at Imba Interactive, echoes this sentiment. “People watch film and TV for the storytelling, but they haven’t necessarily seen games as a medium for that yet. Actually, games are wonderful at telling stories, and because players have to personally interact with a storyline in a game, they actually feel more immersed in it.”
MAKING THEIR MARK Witching Hour Studios burst onto the scene with the Ravenmark series, a multi-award-winning duology of strategy games strong on storyline and cerebral stimulation.
Indeed, home-grown game developer Witching Hour Studios is making waves with its highly narrative-driven games, such as the multi-award-winning Ravenmark series, set in a medieval fantasy world beset by mystics from a forgotten nation, or the other award-winning Romans in My Carpet, where Roman dust-mites try to civilise barbarian beetles in a college kid’s dorm room. Then there is the brand-new Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a game launched on PC and Mac this month and set to be released on PlayStation early next year, which is set in a class-stratified, Venetian-inspired city where rare masks enable the casting of magic spells.
Says Ian Gregory, game designer as well as co-founder/creative director of Witching Hour Studios, “In most other companies, a programmer might decide he has a few cool ideas from which he wants to create a game, and the rest of the team will graft a story onto that. But we work a little differently. We imagine the story first of all and bring the world to life in words.
“We then have the game artist work on concept art, to give a visual representation of what the world is like. Next, I sit down with the designers and artists to create the game mechanics, and we can weave the mechanics and the way the world works. Only then, do the programmers start building the world and the artists and animators start creating final art, followed by sound design, composition, voice-acting and so on, before everything gets stitched together at the end by the designers to produce the game.”
MAN OF THE HOUR Ian Gregory (above) is a co-founder of Witching Hour Studios, and also game designer for the company’s latest fantasy offering, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows.
People who consider such games mindless entertainment will be surprised by how much intricate art and how many skilled artists are involved in game creation. Gregory is especially proud that almost all of those involved in his projects are Singaporean.
“I get very annoyed when people tell me that Singapore is not creative, so I’m very particular about flying our flag. All our games begin as a Singaporean idea, and after the work of our almost-completely Singaporean core team of producers, programmers, artists, animators, character modellers, and game writers who help us flesh out characters and dialogue, they are finally presented as a Singaporean product.”
For the much-anticipated Masquerada, Witching Hour Studios did outsource some work to freelancers and external companies, but they comprise mainly locals too, like game artist Nur Aiysha. While she’s always loved drawing, she explains how game art is different from drawing for other media, “I worked on Masquerada’s interface art, to help players interact with its world. In games, you really do need many artists: the user interface artist and the environment artist, the character artist. And each artist doesn’t just draw pretty images; you need to learn about design optimisation, and to some extent, animation, because even if you are not doubling up on these roles yourself, you need to work with and complement these to create the entire experience.”
Guo, co-founder of Southeast Asia’s first and only game-focused sound-design company — Imba Interactive, which now has clients all over the continent — agrees. “I’ve produced music and sound for other media as well, but sound design for games is different. In media like film, there’s one final track and you have full control over how the audience should experience the music and sound. For games, we can’t predict if a player might go from environment A, with a particular sound design, to environment B with a different sound design. Also, they might have to take part in a battle in environment B, which will have a different sound design as well, so you have to consider the transitions and how everything flows together. “As a game composer, you can’t predict how long the person is going to stay in one level, so the music that you compose must sound good repeating itself. Additionally, we do basic Foley (a sound effects technique) to replicate real-life sounds, like footsteps on grass — often we have to record things ourselves. For Masquerada, we also worked on the monster voices, recording our own voices and then manipulating them with effects and filters depending on the designer’s monster description. For example, for the more water-based monsters, we might layer the voices with elephant seal growls to make them sound amphibious.”
WINNING MOVES Witching Hour Studios’ Romans in My Carpet (above) sees Roman bedbugs trying to forcibly civilise barbarian beetles. Meanwhile, Sweety Prince (below) by Taiwan’s EnjoyPlay (which Imba Interactive collaborated with) is about an aspiring female chef learning cooking (and more) from various teachers.
GAME ON! Players worldwide lapped up puzzle game Dropcast, created by now-defunct local outfit Mikoishi, of which game designer Mansa Chaudhry was a part.
Imba doesn’t necessarily take on all the game character voices. Where voice-overs are needed, it also functions as a voice director to cast internationally for voice actors: one of the few areas how non-local talent became involved in Masquerada.
Explains Guo, “When you’re marketing a game internationally, certain accents like American, or British, are just more recognisable due to their exposure on TV or movies. Having said that, I think Ian and I agree that it’s good to bring colloquial voices to the industry, because the wonderful thing about the gaming industry now is that it is very focused on exploring diversity. For Masquerada, it was great to have Singapore songstress Inch Chua performing the theme song!”
Says Gregory, “The great thing about creating new worlds is that we get to make the rules and choose our influences. Masquerada is partly modelled on Singapore as a city full of immigrants. One major character is Indian, another is Chinese. For my next game, I’m going to have a character speaking Hokkien throughout the game.”
“The fact is, there is so much artistic talent in Singapore, and we want to use it through our games, which as you can see, are like a full-on film or big-budget theatre production. What I’m hoping for is to be able to receive a Cultural Medallion award for making games, because I really believe they should be recognised as an art form as well.”
Chaudhry adds that games are an art form even more challenging than film or theatre. “They’re about understanding human psychology. A movie is a director’s expression of what he wants a captive audience to feel or think, but a gamer has a lot of freedom. In order to tell a strong story within that freedom, you have to make them want to do certain things to further the story, and that’s a lot more difficult.”
All our interviewees concede that depending on the product developers are aiming for, not all games have to be difficult to create. Says Nur, “Some companies are just focused on financial needs and don’t really give anyone room to let their creative juices flow. Those aren’t the nicest ones to work with.”
Guo elaborates, “There are developers who are more focused on the money, and they think that making clones — Candy Crush clones, gambling-game clones — are more reliable. But I think that besides ignoring what should be the main point of games — to develop creativity — it’s also a short-sighted strategy.”
Says Chaudhry, “Game developing, as with any creative enterprise, is very high risk. If you had $500 million to produce a film and you had your pick of any Hollywood star and Chris Nolan directing, you still can’t guarantee it will be a success. The problem is that many people in the gaming industry think they can lower the risk by creating games that aren’t too out there, that are very safe and similar to each other. But that means you end up with something that’s essentially nothing, and doesn’t sell.
“A lot of the game companies that do make it get there by just creating what they want. It doesn’t necessarily need very strong visuals or a very complex storyline, but when a team who is very strongly aligned bares their souls and expresses a clear vision, that shows in the game. They are risking something on a worthwhile bet, and in the gaming industry, when a bet pays off, it’s just ridiculous.”
WHAT DOES THE CATT SAY? Imba Interactive has provided audio for games like Mr Catt, by Taiwan’s 7Quark, a puzzle game with a charming premise.
Thankfully, for the gaming scene here, more and more creatives are daring to take risks, starting with boldly joining the industry, even without formal training. Nur never studied art in school, but jumped into game art because she liked both drawing and gaming, even if it meant constantly taking up complementary courses to improve her skill, as well as doing extensive research to get inspiration for her art whenever she starts a project.
Guo never formally studied sound design, but since she loved music and gaming, she wanted to marry the two hobbies and try to make a difference in the gaming scene. Meanwhile, Witching Hour Studios were a triumvirate with no official art training and zero experience in computing or programming before they came together.
Says Gregory, “I’m from advertising, while my co-founders are made up of a finance major and a business major. Obviously, the three of us had no idea how to make a game when we started the company, but we loved games and telling stories. Also, we were motivated by game developers BioWare — creators of blockbuster games Dragon Age and Mass Effect — which was actually started by two doctors. We’re stupid that way: we think if someone out there can do it, we can do it too.”
SONIC BOOM Imba Interactive, co-founded by (from left) Sharon Koh, Gwen Guo and Jeremy Goh, is a home-grown audio company providing original music, sound design, voice and implementation of all the above for game developers. PHOTO Sharon Koh, Gwen Guo and Jeremy Goh