“These two words come to mind: worth it”.
That was the sentiment of Tan Kang Soon, Co-founder of Joysteak Studios, on the entire experience of developing a game as his company wraps up development on their first and upcoming rhythm platformer, Songbird Symphony.
Though, calling it a company might give a different impression on how big the team is. Along with Producer/Artist Kang Soon, the studio is only comprised of two other members; Lead Programmer Chue Sai Hou and Writer/Sound Engineer Muhammad Hanif.
During production, all three divide their time working on the game between two locations: Kang Soon’s home in Tampines, and the office space given to them by PIXEL Studios – a co-working space for digital content creators and game developers.
Like the team, the office where they do their magic is small; a far cry from the vast 80,000 square metre workplaces afforded to triple-A game developers like Sony Santa Monica, or even our very own Ubisoft Singapore.
To put the size into perspective, the team has no space to display the awards garnered from various gaming conventions and festivals around the world, such as Singapore’s GameStart 2017’s “Judges Choice Award” and South Korea’s Busan Indie Connect Festival 2018’s “Excellence in Game Design” Award, just to name a few. Instead, the awards are placed on the same table that they do their work on – not a bad idea for work motivation actually.
Joysteak Studios’ office is furnished fairly rudimentarily; a single large workstation with four swivel chairs to conduct their work, a television with a stand holding Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 development kits to test the game, and two whiteboards (one being a marker-erasable wall) for them to conceptualise level designs or assets.
Despite the limited area afforded to them, the team are wholly satisfied with the place; considering the peace and silence of the office to be very conducive for their work. Size has never been an issue.
“Our space is small, but our studio is small anyway, so it’s fine,” said Hanif. “We have enough space for a TV and to display the marketing material that we have accumulated through the years.”
Sai Hoe agrees. He said, “We’re very thankful for the working space. It’s actually a very conducive environment and it’s a great ecosystem. There are many other small companies here, and we can network with each other.” He also pointed to the foosball table and game stations in the vicinity which they utilise to de-stress.
Indeed, this working space has been a second home for them since October 2017. And with it, comes a multitude of memories and trials associated with the place.
The studio was born in May 2017, the culmination of the friendship formed between Kang Soon and Hanif back in their old stomping ground, Temasek Junior College. Both enrolled in NUS’s Computer Science course, and it is during that period that the idea of forming a game studio came into fruition.
While Hanif was already harbouring aspirations of becoming a game developer, joining the game industry was something that Kang Soon did not envision doing after his graduation.
Kang Soon said, “He (Hanif) is the idealist, while I’m the pragmatist. (My) parents told me that there’s no future in the creative industry, so maybe we shouldn’t just study game development in school; instead, we should study software engineering.”
Then came the Games Innovation Program, a program by Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) Game Lab in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that pulls students nationwide to make games for clients.
It was during this program where they rubbed shoulders with experienced people in the industry, such as Shawn Toh, Chief Executive Officer of BattleBrew Productions, and Paul Naylor, Founder of Landshark Games. It was only through the experience of developing their passion for creating games and establishing a network of contacts within the industry, that caused both Kang Soon and Hanif to realise that forming their own studio was possible.
Shortly after graduating from NUS, Joysteak Studios was formed by Kang Soon and Hanif along with another co-founder who was with them during the Games Innovation Program. It was deemed to be the start of something big for the trio as production started for Songbird Symphony.
Unfortunately, life has a way of not making things simple. Bumps during the development of the game meant that the game had to be rewritten not once, but twice.
“We did three prototypes in total. There was a lot of redeveloping and trying to find the right design that the gamers would feel like they were having fun. So that took about a year with some crunch time. At the end of it, we were all tired,” Kang Soon said.
Eleven months passed by, and with only two completed levels and little progress being made, the third co-founder decided to make his exit from the studio. It was a significant setback for the new studio then. Kang Soon understood why he had to leave, especially since they were not able to draw themselves a salary for that entire period of time.
Luckily for both Hanif and Kang Soon, the team did not have to stay even-numbered for long.
“Three days! I got count!” Kang Soon exclaimed as he waved three fingers in the air – that was how long it took for the team to find someone to help. He explained later that on the day the third co-founder requested to leave, he gathered his friends in the night for an emergency meeting to ask if they wanted to join the team.
Among those friends was Sai Hou, who Kang Soon got acquainted with during their days in university. Both of them were in a year-long internship for the NUS Overseas College Program in Silicon Valley, where they worked extensively together in the same company.
Upon returning to Singapore, Kang Soon introduced Sai Hou to a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) group: NUS Game Development Group. They worked together on a game, Facility X13, a puzzle game where you play as an alien parasite trying to escape captivity from its captors. It is here that Sai Hou also met Hanif.
The trio was separated for a brief period when Sai Hou graduated a year before them. When the SOS came, he was already cutting his teeth working full-time in another game development studio.
“That was the longest three days because it was a hard decision,” said Sai Hou. The prospect of losing a stable income was something he had to consider as Joysteak Studios still had yet to receive funding for their game. But what swayed him was the experience of his workplace.
“I was actually quite happy. But my main gripe was that I was sort of working alone there. I didn’t have anyone above or below me, I was just working as a solo person. So the environment was very good, it is near my house and MRT and work-life balance were okay. But I felt stagnant there, (and I am) not learning anything new.”
Sai Hou joined on May 2018, and while one piece of uncertainty was resolved relatively quickly, they still had to resolve the issue of looking for a publisher to fund their game.
As the game’s producer, rejection was something that Kang Soon had to get used to. Getting publishers to invest in their game was a particularly difficult task for the studio as they were still new and had yet to prove themselves. “We just got to take them in stride,” said Kang Soon.
Eventually, their persistence was rewarded when they found PQube, a UK-based video game publisher. They signed a deal with them in July 2018, and with funding accounted for, they could finally afford to give themselves an allowance from September 2018, although it still was not as much as a full-time salary.
Kang Soon described the deal as a relief; they were finally getting compensated for the months of work done.
Like anything involving games development, the word “crunch” is something that pops up often. Crunch culture has been a hot topic within the triple-A games industry of late, with stories of employees working 100-hour weeks just to hit deadlines set by their bosses.
While they may not have had it as bad as that extent, the crunch was still something Joysteak Studios had to face. The Joysteak Studios team estimated that about half the duration of the game’s over two-year long development was spent on crunch. Some of it was also done in Kang Soon’s home, where clocking more than 12 working hours a day was commonplace, such as working from 8 am to 9 or 9.30 pm.
Doubts would creep up on the team when the game was not turning out as planned. Describing it like starting a new relationship, the team’s initial feelings of infatuation was replaced with shared feelings of unworthiness as they are starting to see flaws in the game, and in themselves.
It was only by accepting those flaws and limitations that the team was able to move forward. As the Joysteak Studios team tells me, not everyone can make a game like Ori and the Blind Forest.
It is perhaps very apt that their debut game, Songbird Symphony, is modelled over their entire experience within the games industry. The game follows Birb, a jovial and optimistic character, as he navigates through the world and faces challenges by using the power of music and rhythm.
Despite the Disney-esque visuals of the game, Birb’s journey to find a place to call home has darker undertones as he deals with self-doubt. This mirrors the studio’s journey in wanting to belong somewhere in the industry and to be accepted by their peers despite being inexperienced.
The optimism displayed by the titular bird is also what motivated the team whenever they were down, and it is something that they want to share with all their players.
“We want our players to feel a sense of joy and optimism as they play the game. (We hope) to let the players know that no matter how tough the going gets, Birb is always willing to help others even though he may have his own problems.”
Of course, the whole journey was not all dark for the team. They cited seeing people coming up to play their game at the various conventions and also discussing the game online on YouTube as something incredibly humbling and memorable for them. In fact, they are now personal friends with a fan who messaged them to share that playing Songbird Symphony has helped to calm him down.
With the game completed and releasing in just under a month, Joysteak Studios finally has a period where they can relax and work at their own pace. The team do not have an idea on what their next project will be yet, but they reiterated their desire to stay indie.
Kang Soon concludes, “We want our next game, whatever it is, to be of a small, complete package of digestible size. I think that’s the philosophy behind a lot of indie games, so we still want to remain indie.”
Songbird Symphony will be released worldwide on 25 July 2019, and it will be available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Steam.
For more information, visit the official website at https://joysteak.com/.
Photos by Brandon Neo of the DANAMIC team. Interview video by Angelica Sanchez and Feriadi of the DANAMIC team. Game visuals courtesy of Joysteak Studios.