When we talked to Streamline Media Group in 2018, the abiding impression was one of national pride. Not in the country of CEO Alexander Fernandez's birth -- the United States -- but in the place that the company had made its home. Malaysia, he told us, was a rising force in the global games industry, and on track to become the most important creative hub in the whole of Southeast Asia.
Malaysia's standing has grown since then, with PlayStation, Double Eleven, and Larian Studios all establishing a presence in the country. Streamline has grown, too, and in a direction that Fernandez didn't foresee two years ago.
"We're transforming," he says, speaking from Streamline's corporate headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada. "Obviously our service divisions are doing well -- Streamline Studios, All Pixels, Streamframe -- but the focus on IP and original products as well as work-for-hire has accelerated quickly."
"We're transforming... The focus on IP and original products as well as work-for-hire has accelerated quickly"
The path from work-for-hire to IP creation is well established, but Fernandez suggests that Streamline's own evolution has been fast-tracked thanks to the positive response for Bake 'n' Switch, a frantic couch co-op title that was first teased at Kuala Lumpur's LevelUp conference at the end of 2018 -- the clear standout among three concepts the company showed to the audience.
The sense that the game could be a hit has only grown since then. At Reboot Develop Red in November 2019, Bake 'n' Switch won three awards -- more than any other product in the competition -- including Game of the Year. The following month it was part of Nintendo's "Indie World" Direct, confirming that it would be coming to what appears to be its ideal platform, the Switch.
"Our focus on original IP took off at such an accelerated speed since Reboot Red," Fernandez says. "That generated such interest, and that was followed up by the partnership with Nintendo in December... It just took it off the charts."
Intended to be a tentative first step into a new arena for Streamline, Fernandez to both surprise and delight at the response to Bake 'n' Switch. While the company is headquartered in the US, the majority of its creative capacity is based in Kuala Lumpur, and the game was created by a multicultural but largely Southeast Asian team. While the Malaysian industry is on the rise, successful original IPs are still relatively rare from the country's developers.
"We're taking our fate in our own hands, because that's really what it's all about now"
"All we did was design something important to us," Fernandez continues. "Independent spirit, collaboration, and reinforcing the values we have as a company through the product... Southeast Asia is still an ongoing theme for us. We still have our operations here, and that's continuing to grow."
For now, though, Fernandez is working from the US again, after five years in Malaysia. Bake 'n' Switch is just one game, but its commercial potential has created a need to work more closely with platform-holders and other partners based outside of Southeast Asia.
"Bake and Switch is being published by us," he says. "I'm here [in the US] laying down all of our publishing operations. We're taking our fate in our own hands, because that's really what it's all about now. As a studio, you have to control your own destiny, and you need that control from top to bottom or you don't survive."
Fernandez is also keen to capitalise on what he believes is a structural advantage over other self-publishing studios. After years of co-development projects and work-for-hire, Streamline has a broad and diverse list of partners -- from Capcom to 2K Games to the BBC. Pursuing new partnerships is part of the company's DNA, and Fernandez is already thinking about the possibilities Bake 'n' Switch could hold beyond games -- the kind of opportunities that Tinybuild has explored so successfully with Hello Neighbour.
"Partnerships with other businesses, using our intellectual property, makes the most amount of sense for us"
"Because of our service background and where we're from, that makes total sense for us," he says. "Partnerships with other businesses, using our intellectual property, makes the most amount of sense for us. That's what we're moving towards right now.
"The majority of my time now is focused on IP -- why I'm out here [in the US] is because of IP... We're working with other media companies and entertainment technology companies that want to get into games, and we see IP as the thoroughfare. Using something like Bake 'n' Switch as the vehicle allows us to have conversations with companies that traditionally had nothing to do with games, but see games as the way to reach a new consumer.
"With Streamline, we've always been a game developer -- we just funded ourselves through our services. We never had a hit [original IP], but that's the way that Bake 'n' Switch appears to be happening."
Streamline has three more new IPs in development at present, all of which are "growing in scale and size" relative to this first attempt. If the strategy works as planned, Fernandez says, Streamline will expand its creative capacity outside of Southeast Asia, including its office in Las Vegas.
"Let me tell you how many people of hispanic descent in the games industry -- it's me and the guy pouring the coffee"
"There's talent everywhere," he adds. "And there's [untapped] talent in the US. If you look at participation in technology and creative industries [in the US] by minorities, hispanics, blacks, it's small. I'm hispanic, and let me tell you how many people of hispanic descent in the games industry -- it's me and the guy pouring the coffee. The reality is that we have to improve that. There's an untapped pool of talent here that needs opportunity."
It should be noted, of course, that Bake 'n' Switch still hasn't been released. The game's launch is scheduled for this summer, with the team at Streamline now working to add online multiplayer before that happens -- a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fernandez says, as the global lockdown has made its previous focus on couch co-op less viable. Online multiplayer was always going to be added, but it is now imperative for day one of release.
Whether Bake 'n' Switch proves to be a hit remains an open question, then, however positive the signs have been so far. What is clear is that Streamline is committed to pursuing an owned IP strategy whatever happens, and the foundations being laid now will support other original releases in the future.
"The next part of our story is more games," Fernandez says. "Making bets on IP is now, for us, part of the game. But because we're still an independent company -- we're not VC-backed, we bootstrapped ourselves up to here -- we have to be measured about what we do.
"I'd love to eat the world, but sometimes all I can do is eat a little piece. It's a step-by-step process. You want to make payroll and pay your people. And you want to avoid things... Take the time, and be measured about the type of development you get yourself into -- what are you saying, do not overcommit, and have the expertise in-house."