In a time when local musician Joel Tan, better known Gentle Bones, is a well-known name among millennials, Singaporean indie game developer The Gentlebros is constantly asked if their name was based on a reference to the term ‘gentlemen’ or their musical counterpart.
“We get the Gentle Bones thing alot! That’s what you get for sounding like someone famous,” chirped Desmond Wong, one-third of founding team.
For them, the name came about as a reference to the ‘gentlemen’ term, but they decided to change it after realising that “a billion other companies thought the same thing”.
Made up of 3 colleagues-turned-partners – Desmond Wong (Chief Executive Bro), Leon Ho (Chief Technical Bro) and Nursyazana Zainal aka Syaz (Chief Financial Bro), they’re not all ‘bros’ in the most standard of definitions – one of their members, Syaz is female.
“[She] likes to be called ‘bro’, so we had the idea to swap out the name – and The Gentlebros was born.”
The trio met when they were working at Japanese games publisher Koei Tecmo – which more popular titles include Dead or Alive, Fatal Frame, and Dynasty Warriors.
By a stroke of fate, the 3 were seated next to each other in office and in a spur of the moment decision, embarked to make their own game just to “see where it went”.
“Surprisingly, it led to The Gentlebros!”
But unlike what some might think – their group exodus from Koei Tecmo to create their own offerings wasn’t something that led to any bad blood.
“Our ex-company would still offer us advice whenever we meet at events, and we’re still chummy with the people working there. In fact, if there was some chance we could collaborate with them on something in the future, we would be totally in for that!”
Passion Over Paycheck
For the trio, their experience at their ex-company wasn’t just fun – it was one that also equipped them with much-needed development skills, and also gave them the chance to work on the games that they grew up playing.
“However, deep down we all went into the games industry because of passion, because frankly, other industries pay a lot better! So with that passion, everyone wants to make their own games one day. “
And when their “innocent project [they] undertook for fun” got the attention of Kongregate, a US publisher, they knew that it was their make-or-break chance to become independent.
“They gave us some money to start out, and using that, we left the company to start our own.”
Having switched from being part of a huge company to starting up on their own, Desmond shared that being inspired by small indie teams (Yacht Club Games, Hipster Whale, etc) like themselves gave them the “courage to step out and pursue [their] dreams”.
“They proved that great games could be made by small teams too, and also be loved by the world.”
“We Felt Like Students Learning The Ropes Again”
For the ‘bros, one of their greatest challenges was understanding how a business was run, and all the paperwork that went with it.
“Suddenly, we were thrust into a world of tax, CPF and annual financial reports, and we knew nothing about how all those worked. For a good part, we felt like students learning the ropes again.”
As an indie developer with a small team, manpower is an inevitable issue – with the team needing to make tough decisions on whether or not to take up more time-consuming (but equally rewarding) tasks.
“It’s horrible to kill an idea because we just can’t do it, or it takes too much time. Sometimes we would also have to turn down certain offers because it clashes with our schedule, or we couldn’t spare the manpower to facilitate it.”
Visibility in a rather saturated industry of “thousands” is also something that they’re dealing with – especially when it comes to ensuring that their game gets the attention it deserves.
“Standing out is tough! Not to mention that you’re also competing with bigger AAA titles for visibility too. Put all these together, and it creates a situation where even if you have a great game, people may not even have heard of it.”
However, the team stands firmly by the belief that this is a problem that can be solved – and have been going to trade shows, talking to media, and forging online communities to win the popularity game.
Unlike fellow local indie developer Rotten Mage that we covered a few months back, The Gentlebros have actually been rather lucky in terms of finances.
Desmond credits this, half-jokingly, to the “monstrous amount of savings” they got from their full time jobs.
More than that, it was also the funds they got from their publisher and a grant from SPRING Singapore that helped them tide through the time from their beginnings to the launch of their first title, Slashy Hero.
“However, we are taking longer than expected with Cat Quest (their second game) and those funds were quickly running low. Thankfully, we managed to clinch a deal with another publisher, and we’re back to being good.”
Desmond admits, though, that albeit them not needing to worry about funds, the team is still trying to create a sustainable business model in games.
“Most people say you just need that one hit, and you’ll be fine. But how do you get to that one hit, or at all? We’re hoping we can create that model by creating an IP that we can continuously pull from. An IP where people will see it, and trust that it would be great quality and good fun.”
“That’s what we hope to achieve with Cat Quest and all our future games.”
But how did they manage to get the much-needed grant from SPRING, and what advice do they have for fellow developers also looking for that extra boost of funds?
“We actually didn’t even know that such a grant existed! But we had a lot of mentors, and one of them suggested we try for it.”
“We decided to ask around, and eventually we were directed to Nanyang Polytechnic, where I graduated from. The people there had connections with SPRING, and after a few rounds of polishing up our presentation, they recommended us to them, and after presenting our idea, we got the grant!”
And as for fellow developers looking for an extra boost of funds, Desmond has this piece of advice:
“Have a solid idea of where you’re going, and a very good foundation to stand on. Don’t be afraid to push up your strengths, and don’t focus on your weaknesses.”
When Passion Wins Awards
Winning Best Mobile Game and Best Design Award at Casual Connect 2016, their smashing debut title Slashy Hero was actually inspired by Desmond’s commutes on crowded trains.
“Whenever it was fast approaching my stop, and I wished I could just draw a path through all the people and bash my way out. Slightly morbid, I know, but sometimes ideas come from weird places!”
But they remain humble in spite of their very promising start.
“Frankly, we felt like we didn’t deserve it. Honestly, we felt there were other far superior and bigger games that deserved the awards we got. Nonetheless, it made us really happy and showed that we were on the right track. It also motivated us to keep making better games in the future too.”
A Future With Cats
Currently, the team is working on Cat Quest, a 2D Open World RPG that allows players to explore their surroundings as – you guessed it – a cat!
An interesting tidbit is that the game actually started off as a dancing game called ‘Copycat’.
However, at the prototyping stage, the team realised that the game wasn’t as fun as they hoped it would be, and decided to pivot – taking along with them the 3D model of the cat they created.
The game then took the form of Cat Travels, a fantasy travelling game where players could collect items, battle monsters in the background, and discover new locations.
Soon, doubts filled their minds again, as they wondered if players would find the concept fun.
Unwilling to give up on the adorable 3D cat that they had grown to love, it went through a few more iterations until finally taking the form of Cat Quest – which is currently available Greenlight , and would be launched 9 August.
The road ahead for The Gentlebros is long, but promising nonetheless.
As an indie developer, Desmond shares advice for fellow indie developers that he admits they are still telling themselves on a daily basis.
“Don’t give up no matter how tough it seems. Be smart about how you make your games, and never ever forget about the business side of things!”