Kurechii: Reaching For The Stars
"I told my dad, I was only going to play games, I didn't feel like creating them."
That was how P'ng Yiwei responded to his father's suggestion many years ago when he noticed his son spending many hours in front of the computer. Funny how life turned out for the 30-something Penangnite, who founded his own video games company, Kurechii.
Climbing To The Top
Yiwei was just like most other people who ended up in the games development industry - a kid with a fondness and passion for video games that stuck with him until adulthood. His interest in creating games started when he was obsessed with Hanshilu, a Chinese RPG (role-playing game). After playing the game, he found himself making his own RPGs and characters for his friends with pen and paper. Though he didn't think of it as a career back then, it sowed the seeds for his eventual journey down that road.
After graduating from The One Academy in Multimedia Design (because he wanted to make websites), he secured his first job at the college itself. Fun fact: Wan Hazmer, the founder of Metronomik, was his lecturer. He was the one who taught Yiwei that Flash's powerful scripting language, ActionScript could be used to create games as well.
Armed with this knowledge, Yiwei spent his nights coding Flash games for the world to play on their web browsers. That's when Reachin’Pichin, Kurechii's first game, was born. Featuring the work of his former-classmates, Zyen Tee and Lydia Ho, the game was pitched at IPCC 2009, where it won the Best Casual Game category. The game went on to be a hit that was eventually picked up by King for distribution.
After his first taste of success, Yiwei knew that he wanted more. Realizing that he didn't have enough hours in a day to focus on game development, he quit his teaching job to make it work. Initially, he thought of joining another company to realize his dream but back then there weren't any companies in Malaysia making their own games - they were primarily functioning as production studios for external clients. Since it wasn't what he wanted, he decided to create his own company. This way, future generations of game developers in the same predicament would have a place to go to.
He asked his former teammates to join him in this adventure, but they had to decline as they were tied to their own full-time jobs. Not missing a beat, Yiwei kicked things off by himself. He spent the next 7 months developing The King's League on his own, no easy feat as he had to handle everything from art to coding.
Fortunately, the game was a success. After being picked up by Armor Games for distribution, it did extremely well, surpassing a million players in a couple of weeks. With that accomplishment, Yiwei was finally able to convince his former teammate to join him on his quest.
Competing For Glory
As the company was getting its feet off the ground, the world changed. Smartphones were becoming the norm and mobile games the next big thing. Though Flash would remain relevant for many years to come, everybody's eyes were on the newly created market of apps.
Kurechii knew this but didn't have the expertise to develop games for mobile devices. They had to hire coders to help them create mobile games. Unfortunately, for the small company, their first mobile game, Diggonaut, was a failure.
"The game had less than 30 downloads!" recalls Yiwei. "It was so bad, we took it down." They went back to making Flash games and then porting them over to mobile devices. Kurechii began to see more success with this workflow.
"Think big, start small, one step at a time." While the quote goes against what some success gurus who recommend long-term planning, might preach, it's how Yiwei has been handling the challenges thrown at him.
From a skeleton crew with no office and working out of restaurants and cafes, to an 18-person strong team with their own studio, with multiple award-winning titles under his belt, he's come a long way from his humble beginnings.
Yiwei used to handle all the non-game development activities on his own. But as the company was tasked with more and bigger projects, it was necessary to expand. He couldn't wear all the hats at once anymore - there needed to be other people in charge of player support, maintaining and updating existing games, PR, marketing, administrative duties and more.
"When I started basically, it was very simple. I just wanted to make games. It wasn't about managing people, growing the company and so on. So when it came to a point where we really needed more hands to do things, then we unlearned, learned new things, changed our mindsets and moved forward."
Despite being a leader, he still takes the time to get involved in the games his studio produces. While he doesn't have to code or draw anymore, he's still a big part of the game design process. However, he does find himself getting lost in the moment every now and then and has to remind himself to take a step back into his leadership role.
"I do realize that now our teams have more people, we need people to give proper directions, oversee things, solve problems, optimize the workflow and so on. I try to get involved as much as possible, after all, it's why I started Kurechii - I wanted to make games, not because I wanted to run a company!"
The Changing of Times
Kurechii has seen its fair share of success, but not without going through hardships and hurdles. One of the most recent challenges has been working from home during the pandemic. For a team that was used to constant communication while working, not being in the same space introduced some problems.
"The way that we make games in Kurechii is by talking a lot. We are always looking for ways to make things better, so we throw out a lot of ideas and have discussions. However, since we're not in the same office, we never know who's busy or free for discussion. When sending messages, it can be hard to explain what you're trying to say. This led to fewer discussions within the team, which made development very linear. It was just 'get this done' and the team would get it done."
Since then, they have set up many group chats, scheduled weekly calls, and ensured multiple points for communication to take place. Though it's not ideal, they're doing the best they can in the current situation.
Other obstacles include adapting to the needs of consumers in addition to the platform and marketplace for games. Yiwei had a few things to say about the pros and cons of the different gaming platforms:
"Making games in 2009 was very different back then. It used to be an accomplishment just to finish a game. These days, with the plethora of tools available to the public cheaply or for free, it's not that difficult anymore. But now, the challenge has shifted making your game stand out from the millions of other titles out there."
"Security issues aside, Flash is a very open platform where everyone can make games and keep them updated very easily. People can also play Flash games for free and very easily, all they have to do is load up a browser, click on a game and they're there. Making Flash games, there are fewer concerns or considerations when putting a game out. These days you have to worry about the processes to get your game out onto Steam or a mobile app store. People on app stores also have higher expectations for games when compared to people who left comments on Flash game websites."
"It's also not just about making the best game with the most beautiful graphics - these days you've got to worry about things like battery drain on a player's phone! Sometimes people might just want to play a simple game that won't drain their phone completely. So it's a balancing act between making things look as good as possible while also making sure it's optimized."
He also laments about the fact that his studio only became recognized as "legit" after they successfully released a mobile game. Before that, people didn't see Kurechii as a real game development studio!
Since the company's success, many doors have opened up, but the main benefit has been the boost to their own confidence. Knowing that they were capable of making good games gave them the tenacity they needed when tackling new projects. That meant much more to him than any other business opportunities that came their way.
In addition to the transition of game platforms, Yiwei had to change his mindset about premium vs free to play games. As a PC gamer, he was of the camp of paying premium prices for complete games - but over the years he has realized that there are benefits to both Free to Play and Premium game models.
"Premium is like a movie - players pay upfront, go in and enjoy everything, and that's it. Free to play is like drama, there are a lot of episodes, ads, merchandise, and so on. Initially, we wanted to stick with one business model, but over the years, I've learned that it depends on your game. If your game needs to have one solid experience, you'll need to go with the premium business model, where it will help you to sell the game to deliver the experience you intend it to. However, if your game needs a lot of players, you might want to try free to play. That way a lot of people can get in and you can slowly get them to see value in your game so they'll invest money into it. I determine which model we go with based on the game idea, and we'll pick the best one that works for it and its audience. Premium is not better than free to play or vice versa, it depends on what we want to accomplish."
Yiwei considers himself in a very fortunate position. Since the company is small and doesn't have any financial investors who have a say in what they get to do, Kurechii has the luxury to put out what they want and take as much time as they need.
While it is a blessing, he realizes that there are also drawbacks to functioning this way. "Players are waiting for your games, and if you take too long, it might not be relevant anymore in terms of content, gameplay or visuals. Art and assets that look amazing a few years ago aren't going to be impressive now." He constantly thinks about whether a game is ready to be released to the public.
He also has high hopes for the scene and industry in the country. "Malaysia's game development scene is maturing. We now have a better ecosystem compared to when we started back in 2009. If we can have more Malaysians recognize and appreciate games, the game industry will be able to attract more talents. This will result in better games that can be made, and level up the game industry in Malaysia."
To those interested in working in game development, he stressed the importance of communication skills. "You will need to know how to communicate your game idea to your teammates, to get the idea to be accepted or implemented. You also need the skill to pitch your game to the public, to sell it, or to get investment. Oh ya! Communication is not just talking, but listening too!"
As for the company's ultimate goal - he hopes to retain this freedom and creativity while still making games for the years to come. The company would also like to expand its horizons by combining 2D and 3D for its next project, but first - it has to release Postknight 2.