If you're in Kuala Lumpur and looking for interesting indie developers, you could do much worse than heading to the flourishing tech hub of Bangsar South. More specifically, about halfway up one of its many gleaming, glass-and-steel towers, to the Komune co-working space.
Thanks to a deal with the property developer UOA Holdings, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) has taken a big step toward its goal of turning this rapidly modernising area of Kuala Lumpur into the country's key hub for game development of all kinds; from large companies like Streamline Studios, to the many small and creative teams that operate out of Komune. Indeed, across five days at the Level Up KL conference, whenever I asked where the creators of a promising game were based, the answer was almost invariably the sleek, collaborative space at the top of the UOA Corporate Tower.
Perhaps the most exciting of those developers is Magnus Games, which has achieved a virtually unprecedented level of success for a Southeast Asian developer of its size and experience. Founded in 2015 by two Malaysian brothers, DC Gan and Welson Gan, Magnus Games' early efforts in development were all for an area of the market that new developers in emerging industries are regularly advised to target: free-to-play mobile games.
"We didn't know to make a game that has to be surrounded by monetisation. We're core gamers, personally"
"That's really not our forte," DC Gan says, when we meet shortly after his talk at Level Up KL. "We didn't know to make a game that has to be surrounded by monetisation. We're core gamers, personally; when we buy a burger, we really want to get a burger."
The two brothers quickly found themselves operating far outside of their comfort zone, trying to build games that they seldom played, let alone understood. When DC describes the work Magnus Games produced during that period, he is disarmingly blunt: "We failed at those projects, really badly."
More importantly, though, they were operating outside of the one thing that keeps an indie studio going through the lean, early years: passion. Magnus was only ever trying free-to-play and mobile to establish a reputation and maybe secure some funding for what DC describes as "our dream game". If Magnus was going to fail, the brothers reasoned, it might as well be in attempting to make the one thing they really wanted, and not due to ill-advised creative compromise.
"It didn't work out," DC says. "So I talked to my brother and we decided to take a leap of faith."
A leap of faith from free-to-play to premium, and from mobile to PC and console, made possible by a small amount of private investment and money borrowed from friends and family. "We couldn't really afford to support ourselves," DC admits, and if it wasn't for the Square Enix Collective, that may well have been the case even now.
Re:Legend, the "all-encompassing, RPG-simulator hybrid" that had been the brothers' dream since they were teenagers, was accepted by Square Enix in 2016 and given a slot to be showcased to the Collective's community. To say the response was positive would be putting it mildly; according to DC, Re:Legend was the only game in the history of the Collective to receive 99 per cent upvotes, and it attracted record levels of feedback and comments.
"Everything started to fall into place," DC says, recalling the feeling of affirmation that the game he and his brother had imagined seemed to be a "dream game" for so many others, too. "Me and my brother have played a lot of games, and we have experienced a lot of good games that the younger generations don't know about any more. We wanted to combine those experiences, and give younger gamers a clear idea of what we used to play - but a better version, hopefully."
Re:Legend does speak loudly of a handful of classic games - Harvest Moon is often brought up in feedback, DC says - but it is more powered by nostalgia for its inspirations than it is derivative of their ideas. When Magnus turned to Kickstarter, then, it was confident it had a product that could spark enthusiasm across different age groups and gaming knowledge, and attract the sort of engaged audience that would invest in a game that may still be a year away from release.
"For the Kickstarter alone we prepared for eight months. I think we studied more than 100 projects in total"
The Re:Legend Kickstarter campaign started at the end of July 2017, with a funding target of S$70,000 (roughly $53,000 US). At the end of 30 days it had raised S$630,700 ($480,000 US), sailing through stretch goals that guaranteed versions for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, ensured that full voice-acting would be added to the game, and that its score would be recorded by the celebrated Video Game Orchestra.
Re:Legend was not just the biggest Kickstarter campaign by a game developer in Malaysia; it was the biggest Kickstarter in the history of Southeast Asia, in any category. That level of success is impossible to guarantee, of course, but Magnus Games did everything in its power to ensure the campaign had the best possible chance of hitting its target - and a great deal more than many experienced studios would with a team of two developers and no resources to hire PR and marketing experts.
"We're very conservative," DC says. "For the Kickstarter alone we prepared for eight months. We looked at every trend, and I think we studied more than 100 projects in total, writing down every statistic, finding the best time to launch. Every time we found a game that is similar to [Re:Legend], we'd write down everything: strong points, weak points, what they're doing on social media, if their updates are anything special."
This hands-on approach carried over to the live campaign itself, a 30-day period in which DC says he and his brother barely left their home. They were canvassing for press coverage, reaching out to streamers, sending hundreds of emails and responding directly to every single comment left by the game's Kickstarter community. That community grew far larger and more quickly than expected, DC says, but their preparation was so rigorous that every outcome had a corresponding plan - right down to stretch goals to take them beyond what any other Kickstarter in SE Asia had ever achieved.
"Our most pressing problem is that people are now comparing us with AAA games"
"We don't plan anything while the campaign is moving," he says. "We pre-plan everything. In our team culture, preparation is 95 per cent and luck comes in for the last 5 per cent; luck will only magnify the end result if you're well prepared."
The money Magnus Games had when the campaign ended in August 2017 was enough to make the version of Re:Legend that DC had imagined, but the speed of its ascent had encouraged him and his brother to think bigger. There was also the sheer vim of the game's community, which can leave as many as 1000 comments after one of Magnus' monthly updates. There is a sense, DC says, that Magnus Games must now rise to meet that level of expectation.
"Our most pressing problem is that people are now comparing us with AAA games," he says. "No matter what, we're definitely going to deliver what we promised, but in order to make a better version we definitely need more funding."
In Malaysia, raising funding for a games business is no small feat. The local industry is still too young to be well understood by the country's VC community, and so the government has stepped in to help with support and subsidies through organisations like MDEC, and initiatives like the one evolving at Komune. Magnus Games has had some success in getting extra investment, though, and it is now preparing to move its team (now 15 people) out of Komune and into a brand new office space nearby in Bangsar South. Publishers have also started to come knocking, from smaller, boutique publishers to "big listed ones", covering territories as diverse as Europe, North America, Japan and China.
Three years ago, Magnus Games decided to abandon the much-hyped riches of mobile and free-to-play to chase its dream, and in doing so has found itself on the precipice of something bigger than it thought possible. The challenge now is no longer survival, but to satisfy its audience without dropping the ball; or, as DC so eloquently puts it: "Don't fuck up."
"We are making every move very conservatively; making sure we don't get bloated, making sure we don't get carried away," he says. "We really feel this is a critical situation, and we need to solve it, but we're not sure how. So we try to reach out to as many advisors as possible, to make sure we're on the right track."