Friday, May 11, 2012

Developing in a Blooming Singapore: Envisage Reality & Protégé Production – Interview

Scanning the globe for video game and related content creation hot-spots, eyes quickly fall upon the North American, Japanese, and Western European landscape in hopes of catching a glimpse into the future of gaming, with a number of pioneers exploring the Chinese and Korean markets for hints as to what the growing global population of “gamers” look like.

But failing to examine Singapore as a rapidly emerging space for quality tech and original content creation could very well prove to be a major misstep. A culturally diverse and wealthy nation with government aid and educational support, the region is rapidly growing well beyond what may have in the recent past been interpreted as an outsourcing target. However aside from the blossoming abundance of resources, what the region may lack may also prove to be a powerful weapon for battle – not being bogged down by decades of game industry bureaucracy.

In this interview, Janelle Lee, game creator and project leader with Protégé Productions, part of parent company Envisage Reality and developers of the impressive Armor Valley available via the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, ponders the present and future of the industry in Singapore, discusses the goals for Armor Valley and the studio, and shares a bit of insight into the pros and cons of being a small developer in a growing development arena.

Active Gaming Media: Could you first tell our readers a bit about Envisage Reality? When was the studio established? By whom and with what specific goals in mind? What is the company’s relationship with Protégé Production?

Protégé Production – Janelle Lee: Envisage Reality was established in 2003 by Robin Tan, and considered to be one of the pioneer independent game studios in Singapore focused on serious gaming and real time 3D interactive visualization. Protégé Production is established in 2008, and is a sister company focusing on the new casual game industry.

AGM: Could you speak a bit about Armor Valley? How do you explain the game? What factors motivated you to create a game of this nature for this platform? What is it that your game is offering in order for it to be a stand-out experience amongst the growing library of games available on these downloadable channels?

Lee: Armor Valley is a blend of action and strategy game, where the player controls a flying ship while giving orders to ground units strategically. A lot of people compared it to Herzog Zwei, but I had not heard of that game before then [when we developed Armor Valley]. One of the goals was to create advanced casual titles, meaning games that are casual for people who have little time to play, but with a little more ‘AAA’.

AGM: The Xbox Live Marketplace is an interesting ecosystem. The production values and standards for package products, XBLA, and Xbox Live Indies are constantly evolving, to the point where people now refer to many titles as “AAA indies”. Using the platforms as a metric for determining a game’s appropriateness is getting more difficult and it seems to change every few months. With this in mind, what was it that spurred you to develop Armor Valley for Xbox Live Indies? Why was this the most appropriate platform? Do you think that it’s still the most appropriate platform? Do you see potential for the title on other services?

Lee: We had some government funding to develop [the game] so that was one of the main reason that spurred us to it! The XBLIG platform is great for indies because you don’t have to shell out tons of money for a SDK or go through lots of approval certification. There are still a lot of ideas for Armor Valley that we want to implement, hopefully for next version.

AGM: I think that the overall production values of Armor Valley are certainly an advantage, helping the title stand out amongst other games on the Indie Game Marketplace, but I imagine that promotion on that service is a bit of a challenge. What measures have you taken in order to raise awareness about the game? Do you get a sense of what has been helpful? Could you discuss a bit the challenges you’ve encountered trying to get the word out about your game and how you grappled with those?

Lee: Yes, like any other platform, you need a lot of marketing to be successful. We did not do a lot of PR other than entering some competitions and we were quite fortunate to win IGF China 09 Best Audio Award and [be selected as] one of top 20 finalists for Dream Build Play 2010. That said, more PR doesn’t hurt, and I felt there was still a lot more PR to do, but we just did not have the resources or time to do it.

AGM: How many people make up the development team at Envisage Reality? Are you able to handle all of the design and development in-house? If not, how do you handle outsourcing as a small studio?

Lee: We have a small core experienced team, and we use a lot of reliable freelancers for additional work. We do outsource parts like audio, UI design because our philosophy is to put the best resources [in charge of each] task.

AGM: Does the size of the studio allow for planning, prototyping or pre-production for future titles while working on one title, or does the work on one game take up most of the studio’s resources? How do you work around this? Is it even an issue? How do you view the advantages and disadvantages of being a smaller team working on projects with shorter development cycles, like Armor Valley?

Lee: Like many other studios, we have more ideas than we have time to develop them. We do spend a lot of time on R&D for our internal ideas, but the contracted works are given priority. We like to have more time focus on prototyping but given tight schedules (usually), we setup the development process to be able to make rapid changes easily, so we design as we go along. Shorter development cycles forces us to complete the product, whereas a longer cycle, sometimes we get trapped into too much R&D.

AGM: The art direction of Armor Valley seems very “universal”, something very approachable by a lot of players in various international markets. Was this a natural style that the art directions took on or did you make efforts to adapt the game’s art to something that you felt would be appropriate for certain region(s)? What is it that you took into consideration when determining the game’s art direction?

Lee: We did not do much [in terms] of art direction or [art] concepts due to time constraints. The art style was evolved while it was developed because mainly these are the type of games we are used to playing.

AGM: What was the development cycle and timeline for Armor Valley like? What areas went smoothly and why? What were the trouble spots or areas that required the team to pull back and think about the game’s direction or development process/pipeline, if any?

Lee: Armor Valley was developed from scratch in 5 months, and at that time, most of us did not know XNA! Midway, some of us had to juggle other contract work that paid the bills (laughs), so that certainly took some resources from the game. Due to that, there are few features which we initially planned [but] we did not manage to get implemented in time.

AGM: From what I understand, Protégé Production has been involved with Microsoft in several areas from its early stages, from being a BizSpark company to entering Armor Valley in the Dream Build Play Challenge, where the title was very well received.
I’m rather curious about that relationship and how it tied in to the process of establishing the studio, the kinds of support provided throughout the development of Armor Valley, and then what the process what like actually getting the title released. What advantages were there based on this working relationship? Are there any disadvantages?

Lee: Bizspark is useful for startup companies to access Microsoft technologies and working closely with them for development. The local government, MDA, have funding schemes which collaborate with Microsoft which helps startups companies like Protégé getting started.

AGM: Singapore is becoming an appealing home of operations for more and more companies operating in game development? Why is that? What does the region offer that’s making it so attractive these days?

Lee: The government is active in pushing this industry, and Singapore is easier to recruit worldwide talents due to culture.

AGM: Is there a good amount of young talent coming up into games industry in the region? It seems that there are a fair number of educational institutes and supportive organizations trying to raise awareness as to the potential for careers in the games industry. Do you feel that’s true? Where do you see Singapore and its place in the industry 10 years from now?

Lee: Yes and no. I see a lot of potential talents as I lecture part time in these education institutes, however, they will need discipline and perseverance to be successful in the industry. A lot of people expect [that a] game development career consists of playing games, and they will get a rude shock.
I can’t predict the future as I’m not a fortune teller, but hopefully we’ll get [the opportunity] to produce AAA titles.

AGM: What is the communication and relationship like between development studios and supporting agencies in the region? Microsoft has set up shop there, IGDA Singapore is active, the Media Development Authority is supporting game development, you have the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, as well as I’m sure many other agencies and organizations. From the outside, there seems to be a recipe for great successes being concocted. What are your impressions being there in the field?

Lee: Singapore is a small industry, so everyone knows almost everybody. It’s easier to get around and meet since we aren’t located hundreds of miles away.

AGM: What are some current disadvantages related to being located in Singapore? Are there things that you feel you could do more easily, with more efficiency, or have more opportunities were you located elsewhere? What, if anything, is holding Singapore back at the moment in regards to expanding and growing in the games industry?

Lee: Being in Singapore, it is difficult to talk to publishers in the US for deals, and Singapore being a relatively new player in games industry, there was a lot of disbelief that Singapore can produce content of international quality.

AGM: Singapore is considered one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. As a result, it would seem that individuals of different cultural backgrounds, and possibly gender, would have opportunities in the games industry. This is something that a lot of North American, Japanese and European studios are lacking, which could prove to be a huge advantage for Singapore’s games industry. Do you see a fair bit of diversity throughout the industry in Singapore? Are there a fair number of women taking up roles in the industry? What advantages do you see in relation to diversity, growth and market potential?

Lee: Singapore primarily speaks and writes English, so most foreigners do not have difficulty fitting in. We do have a variety of cultures so we do not tend to create one style of games.

AGM: A lot of studios start out developing games of a smaller scale with hopes of growing and one day getting to develop larger scale, but also larger budget, mass-market titles. What sort of outlook or plans to you have for Envisage Reality? With the expanding number of platforms and growing number of game players, there are now many more viable markets within which developers can thrive. What are your goals for the company? What are your personal goals as a game designer? How do you envision making those personal goals a reality through Envisage Reality?

Lee: Actually, more platforms means more porting headaches, soon it will [become] like the old painful days of porting. As game designers, we want to be making newer better titles, not [spending our time] porting. And moving forward, I hope to make games that engage player in a [more] cinematic experience.

AGM: What’s next for Envisage Reality and/or Protégé Production?

Lee: If I tell you, I might have to kill you (laughs) . The next version of Armor Valley is in the works. We don’t have a date yet, but it will definitely be better than the first.
Thanks so much for your time. Best of luck to you with your future projects. We’ll all be keeping a close eye on the studio and the region!

Those interested in Armor Valley can purchase it here: Armor Valley

For more information about Envisage Reality: Envisage Reality home page

* This interview was originally hold and posted in spring 2011.