Entertainment

Passion Drove These S'poreans To Launch A Game Dev Startup - They're Even OK With No Salary

Just about everyone that has played video games as a kid dreamed of making their own games one day.

But getting a job in the industry can be very difficult because it is a highly competitive market.

As such, it would seem like a very far-fetched idea for the average Joe to pursue a gaming-related job, especially in Singapore – where the gaming market is very niche.

However, this challenge only served as an impetus for these 29-year-old friends – Lim Chian Song, Chin Yong Kian, and Jonathan Ong – to kickstart an independent gaming development company in Singapore.

Imagine this: making games that will get the world addicted and getting paid for it.

But is it really as easy as it sounds?

From Passion To Startup Idea 

Image Credit: Rotten Mage

As they were avid gamers, I guess it’s no surprise that the trio pursued a diploma in Digital Entertainment Technology at Nanyang Polytechnic – that was also how they knew each other.

The game development course gave them the “first exposure” and also fuelled their interest in gaming even more, spurring them to start up a gaming development company.

But because they were “young and inexperienced”, they decided to shelve their plans, promising to revisit it when they have better honed their technical skills.

So after enlisting in National Service – right after graduating from polytechnic – Yong Kian and Chian Song enrolled to Digipen Singapore, pursuing a degree in Computer Science in Real-time Interactive Simulation.

Towards the end of their university studies, they flirted with the business idea of starting a gaming company again – and this time round, they decided to just delve into it.

The timing seemed right because all three of them were graduating from university (Jonathan was pursuing a dual-degree in the National University of Singapore back then) and they were confident that they had garnered the sufficient skills and training to actually turn their passion into a business venture.

So Does Passion Really Pay? 

Image Credit: Rotten Mage

Pumping in a basic capital of $15,000, the three established Rotten Mage in September 2013. They were bootstrapped and had to take on part-time jobs and client work as sideline income.

Money earned from these jobs were then channeled towards paying for contract artwork, music, as well as marketing expenses.

“We do not pay ourselves salaries,” said Chian Song. Profitability was never a priority for them, he emphasised, as long as they earned enough funds to float the business.

With their unstable income, it serves as no surprise that their parents are always questioning their career choice.

“They inquire from time to time if we are planning to search for a ‘proper’ full-time job, but after being foolishly stubborn for all this while, they have decided to just accept it,” said Chian Song.

In any case, they started up Rotten Mage without a concrete business plan – and that was the speed bump they faced at the start of their startup journey.

“Initially, we had no real [business] direction. We knew we wanted to make games, but we had no solid concept of what we wanted to make.”

“Both Yong Kian and Jonathan liked to create flash games in the past, so we decided to tap on this and develop web-based games. We were hoping to earn money through ad revenue, but mobile games was gaining popularity instead. This caused the web portal industry to lose profitability.”

Nonetheless, they disregarded the mobile trend, refusing to blindly follow the footsteps of other gaming companies and decided to focus on doing what they are good at instead.

They went on to spend half a year developing a PC game called Blue Giant, but finally came to the conclusion that “there was no real progress and [hence] decided to scrap the project.”

The failure of their first project never daunted them, though.

They decided to salvage the fun elements from Blue Giant and incorporate them into their second project, Spacejacked.

Image Credit: Rotten Mage

With the launch of Spacejacked, they changed their basic monetisation strategy to a premium model, in which players pay US$10.50 to buy their game on Steam.

To date, they only earned US$2,500 from this revenue model; and another US$4,000 “from other website and deals such as bundles”.

Chian Song admits that their Steam income is “below average” for most games, and bad timing also probably contributed to this low figure, he added.

“The launch of Spacejacked was on the same day as Stardew Valley – which was the most profitable breakout indie title last year, having sold millions of copies.”

“But Spacejacked still received good responses, and even Forbes featured it as one of the upcoming games to look out for in 2016. The game was also awarded the Best Linux Game in the Intel Level Up Game Demo Contest in 2015. People that eventually played the game liked it, so we didn’t feel totally defeated,” said Chian Song.

Growing Slow And Steady

However, a better marketing strategy would have probably helped boost the sales figure, he lamented.

“Marketing is the biggest challenge that we faced so far. You could have the best game in the world, but if no one knows about it, you can’t make money from it. We always felt that Spacejacked was not ready or polished enough to be shared with reviewers or journalists till the very end of the development stage.”

In total, it took them two and a half years till the game was released.

During the first two years of development, they had zero income. But the team is now very optimistic for Spacejacked sales.

“With our upcoming projects towards the latter half of the year, we feel that there will be a slow and steady growth for Rotten Mage, which we are excited about.”

Image Credit: Rotten Mage

Currently, the startup is working on another gaming project called Fates and Constellations, which is now in the early development phase.

“We have been play-testing our games with fellow developers, and it has been rather well-received for its puzzle mechanics,” said Chian Song, optimistically.

On The Gaming Scene In Singapore

Image Credit: Rotten Mage

When asked to describe the gaming culture in Singapore, Chian Song said that it is slowly gaining momentum – regardless of the age group.

“However, there is still a lack of support for locally-made games. Often times, there’s a strong perception that they are clones of existing mobile games,” he said.

“While exhibiting at GameStart for the past two years, many people asked if Spacejacked is made locally – and they are usually genuinely surprised to find out that it is a Singapore product. Hopefully, this stigma will change in the following years with more breakout games popping out of Singapore.”

In terms of government support, Chian Song said that when starting up Rotten Mage, they were very lucky to be able to secure an office space at PIXEL studio, formerly known as Games Solution Centre.

“This allowed us to focus on developing our game and not be troubled about issues such as rental fees. We were also able to tap into a community of fellow game developers for advice,” said Chian Song.

“There are also various schemes that assist in development as well as marketing in government agencies, so startups should research on what they can use. But at the same time, they should not be too overly reliant on them either.”

Sharing some business advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, he said: “Be forever prepared for failure, but do not despair too much because of it. You will certainly learn a lot from the experience. Over time, you will also meet others who will guide, assist, and inspire you to bounce back.”

Featured Image Credit: Rotten Mage