OUR STREAMERS
Clockwise from top left: yours truly, Benny Chan, Eshan Jayatilaka

Not Door Sellers

To most of you out there, Cellar Vault Games is probably a name you haven’t heard of before, and that’s okay – we’re here to change that. With a current permanent workforce of only two strapping young lads; game designer Benny Chan, and artist Eshan Jayatilaka, the capable duo is best known for their award-winning horror game, Short Creepy Tales: 7PM.

Originally intended to be called “Cellar Door Games” – after the most beautiful sounding phrase in the English language, they had to change its name when they were getting it registered. “When we went to the government agency to register our company, they told us if you’re not selling doors, you can’t have ‘door’ in the name!” shared Benny (a fortunate decision that prevents any possible confusion with another indie game developer, Cellar Door Games of Rogue Legacy fame).

Since he was alone, he texted his teammates in a group chat for suggestions, and they settled on Cellar Vault Games. “They were okay with 'vault' and we don’t even sell vaults!” Benny Chan laughed, recounting the experience.

They weren't really bothered by the name change, and after some time, it stuck with them. “It also gives us some nice imagery to work with,” said Eshan. “Games in a vault, and vaults in a cellar...”

The duo met when they were in KDU University, enrolled in the same game development course. Benny was initially interested in technical aspects of programming and coding software, and it was only the final year of his diploma where somebody pointed out that he was suitable for game design, and so he made the decision to major in it. Apparently, whoever told him that was right as he found his calling and aced the course.

"When I played games, I was always curious about how developers achieved these kinds of standards and experiences in the games I was playing. I was a kid with bad results, I didn't get As for SPM, my parents said you should go try it and see how it goes. If it doesn't work out you can always do something else."

Eshan was just a kid who after playing Beyond Good & Evil (a classic action-adventure), realized that games could be used as an effective medium to tell good stories. His interest in the medium grew, and so did his dream of wanting to tell stories through visuals. When he was picking his major, he was advised to give game development a shot, and that's how he ended up studying it - and that's how the two met and started working together.

The Plight

The story behind their final year project was an interesting one - a classmate asked Benny if they wanted to work on a horror game together, and he agreed despite not having touched a horror game in many years. He thought it would be a good challenge to go in blind, but that year it seems that the stars aligned for his team.

P.T. - one of the scariest games of all time was released (despite being a mere teaser) and gave the team something to draw inspiration from. Gary Napper, the lead designer of Alien Isolation, gave a talk at their campus. And Red Barrels, developer of Outlast, one of the inspirations for their project, were very helpful in answering his questions about game and level design. It was like the universe wanted them to make a horror game - and that's how The Plight was born.

State of Emergency

Team M8, Benny is second from right, YouTube

When they graduated from university, Benny worked with some friends on Ejen Ali: MATA Training Academy, after they won the Ejen Ali Game Jam and Eshan found work elsewhere as an artist. Initially, they wanted to continue making games together, doing it on the side but after six months they realized that they weren’t making any progress. When Benny became tired of making games for other people and Eshan felt his job was going nowhere, they decided to quit their jobs to focus on Cellar Vault Games. Because they led relatively affordable and low-maintenance lifestyles, it wasn’t too difficult for the duo to commit to what could only be described as an uncertain future.

"Why do you want to join game development as a business when you can join other businesses? There are so many other careers out there," said Benny on the topic of working in the industry. "The grind is part of the game industry. What brings people into the game development industry is passion – but don’t let other people abuse the passion you have. You can have passion, but be aware of people who abuse it. When they do, you have to stand up."

Regarding the state of game development in the country, the duo was very vocal about big companies taking advantage of its people. "We are in a critical state right now. Just because big companies decide to set up shop in Malaysia, it doesn't mean it's good. They're just taking advantage of our weak currency," said Benny. "If you want to work at a reputable company right now, chances are you'll be at a company that mainly works on outsourced projects because they have incredibly talented directors and leaders. Of course, you'll want to go there but they don't have their workers at heart."

Benny Chan in his younger days

"Like any creative industry, the game industry is complicated – sourcing things and talent is never going to be straightforward or ethical. What we’re doing now is not sustainable. People from and outside Malaysia – we’ve got good people working here, and because of the exchange rate, it’s cheaper. That’s how outsourcing companies are competing – we can match the quality of western studios for the price or less. Combined with the Southeast Asian mentality of 'hard work is king', it leads to a very toxic environment where people are undervalued and they expect it. It’s problematic in a region like Southeast Asia – it makes unionization difficult. People are exploited and nobody fights back. This problem has been brought up by People Make Games – an informative video breaking down how outsourcing in game development works," said Eshan.

"People who are talented and passionate now - they have this idea that they have to be in a large company to make something beautiful - and all that passion gets burned away when they enter it if they are not prepared. For example, take a look at Cyberpunk 2077's disastrous launch. How many people got hurt, burned, ruined friendships while working on the game? They come out feeling - screw this, I don't want to do this anymore. This is not my happy place. I'm going to do something else and leave the industry. What else could that person have made if they had stayed on? We'll never know because they're never going to make games anymore. That thought is really disappointing to me."

"Big companies need to do better. It's hard to listen to everyone - you have to listen to the community, your investors, any source of income, and clients. But you also have to listen to the people who work for you. When people are happy because you treat them well and listen to them, they become happier. If they become happier, they'll deliver better work," said Benny. "There needs to be a bridge of communication for employees to voice out, and for employers to listen. I know these things are easier said than done but I hope to see results two to three years later. If I don't see it, I will be disappointed."

They mentioned that if Cellar Vault Games gets big enough, they would love to focus on the health of their employees to take care of them. They would try to be successful on their own grounds and set a good example for others to follow.

Eshan Jayatilaka at Level Up KL 2017

"If I'm ever at the point where I abuse my employees, I have an agreement with a friend that gives her the right to slap me," said Eshan. "We have to rethink our priorities. We have an unhealthy definition of what it is to be successful or happy. Some people might be happy with money, while money does make the world go round, it isn't something that makes everybody happy. Nobody knows what makes every single person satisfied or happy. The problem is we're not acknowledging what we don't know. If we don't know, we need to start asking, we need to start reshaping the industry to cater to that. The whole point of being a company is to make a good thing but in the process of making a good thing you make four bad things (i.e. you stress out your employees), it would be considered a failure to me. If companies feel that a toxic environment is not something that they want, they need to take concrete steps to stop it."

"You can't stop selfish people from being selfish. How do these big companies want to help the Malaysian industry? Let me see balance. Create more options for people working at your companies. We're in a critical transition period right now. If things get worse, we're screwed. We always get screwed in the same way. It's one-sided. If it keeps going, it will be impossible to change."

The pair also mentioned that they would like to see developers make more games set in Malaysia - there aren't enough of them. There's a lot to be explored, yet nobody is doing it, and they are puzzled as to why that is the case. It was one of the reasons why they decided to create Short Creepy Tales: 7PM.

The Twilight Moment

Short Creepy Tales: 7PM

When 7PM was made, it received quite a bit of buzz, but the game tanked in terms of sales. They weren't able to recoup the investment spent on the game. "It was like throwing money into the sea," said Benny. Despite the game being made on a shoestring budget and being priced at a very fair RM15 ($4.99 in the US), it didn't sell enough. However, the duo didn't take it as a sign to give up.

The feedback they received from the few people who played the game, was encouraging. The multiple SEA Games Awards they won last year validated the decisions they made when making the game. All they need is to get the game into more hands and are looking for a suitable publisher to help with that.

"It would be a waste to throw away something just because it didn’t make money. We have something good going on, we just have to work on it a little more," said Eshan.

They learned a lot from the experience of making 7PM - which was completed in less than a year by a team of four (two of them and two contracted staff). One of the challenges they encountered was knowing when to stop adding content in order to focus on polishing the game. This led to a higher-quality and more focused experience instead of a larger and less-polished one. It's something the studio wishes to continue doing: putting out premium games.

On the topic of free to play vs premium games, they believe that there is no better model - it boils down to what a developer is trying to achieve. "Premium games should be contained, and complete experiences. People who spend money know what they are looking for and are willing to pay for it. Free to play games are meant to go on and on and change over time," said Benny. "Deciding which model to use will boil down to the direction of the game. How long does a developer want to spend recouping their costs? A year? Two? Three?"

"Neither one is better than the other. However, it restricts what kind of games you can make. If you want premium, people expect a complete and packaged experience. When it’s free to play, there’s no feeling of ‘oh I spent money on this’ it’s more ‘let’s see what’s going on here?’" said Eshan. "At the end of the day – it’s still the games industry. People are there to make money. If it’s not profitable or sustainable, you won’t see game developers making such games anymore. They need income to survive too."

At the moment, Cellar Vault Games won't be creating any free to play titles - they prefer narrative experiences and don't want to interrupt stories or gameplay with ads. "If you like what we did, you can expect this. When you pay for this game, you know what you're going to be getting," said Benny.

"If we make a free to play game, it would mean that we're already established for some time and want to experiment," said Eshan. The duo also mentioned that they will explore other genres eventually - they have been focusing on horror because they are comfortable with the genre.

The Long Road Ahead

The Long Road Ahead

Even though every month of operating expenses come out of their own pocket (the duo work from home at the moment - no offices for them any time soon), there's still a lot of fight left in Benny and Eshan. In fact, they're hard at work on their next title while you read this. It's going to be part of the 7PM anthology - and that's as much as they're willing to reveal. Perhaps we'll see some familiar faces or locations. As for long term goals, Benny claimed that he has enough game ideas for games to last a lifetime, while Eshan expressed his wish of returning to one of his University projects or trying out Augmented Reality. They also hope to return to The Plight one day.

I asked them if they had any advice for people who were looking to join the industry, Benny had this to say, "there's no magic formula. Play more games - the opposite of what your parents tell you to do. Games are your study materials. Know a game inside out. Why did a developer do this or that? Why did they make those changes? If you understand why developers do what they do, you'll be able to make games. Being a designer is not a simple task. I will always ask designers why they think their design will work. I will make them prove it to me. If they think it doesn't work, then why will I think it can work? What would consumers think? The majority of consumers will say how they feel about a game and not try to understand why. If it's good or bad, they move on. But as a developer, you have to think of such things."

"In terms of art and design, before you decide that game development is something you want to do, join as many game jams and attempt as many small projects as you can. There's a scholastic environment to learn those technical skills, but when you get your hands dirty, you will learn more than by just attending classes. And make sure you find and know your value. Don't be exploited. It would be great for people to interact with those who have been exploited before, and learn from their mistakes," advised Eshan. "You need a tiny shot glass of cynicism with an understanding of how much your work is valued at and a lot of practical experimentation."

Check out Cellar Vault Games on Steam, itch.io and Facebook.


Stay tuned to eGG Network for a detailed feature of Short Creepy Tales: 7PM and more behind-the-scenes features on the Malaysian game development industry!


The senior programmer of Gameka had a brief stint as a League of Legends esports player before conjuring up video game worlds.

To celebrate women who have contributed to the growth of esports and gaming in Southeast Asia, this series of profiles aim to tell the story of five women who have made a positive impact in their respective fields.


It’s not uncommon for the video games industry to be repeatedly labelled as “male-dominated” across the board, implying that females in the gaming scene are always mistreated. But, like the concept of yin-yang, there’s both good and bad in every aspect of this great big universe. And the same goes for the gaming world - although our previous Women in Gaming articles gave a glimpse of its darker sides, it’s not all grim and glum for women with gaming professions. One such woman who has been fortunate enough to be on the lighter side of the industry is Joanna Khoo, who was briefly in the esports scene before moving on to game development.

Nothing is binary

“I haven’t experienced any blatant discrimination or anything like that, so it’s actually been okay for me so far,” said Joanna “Orangeroo” Khoo Sook Wing. It’s a breath of fresh air knowing that, because it’s a testament that women who embark on video game-related careers aren’t necessarily doomed to be mistreated. Even so, she doesn’t deny that there are women in gaming professions who face such injustice from their peers.

Related: MLBB esports player, Qiann is more than just the only female player of MPL-MY/SG Season 5.

Joanna and the women of Gameka at a game development meet-up by WiGout.

“I’m glad that the culture in my company (Gameka) has been pretty good,” the Malaysian said. “So, in a way, I’m protected from such issues.” With the local game and app development company instilling such a positive culture, it’s no wonder that Joanna was drawn to Gameka in the first place. When her interest in game development was still, well, developing, she was merely a “stalker” of Gameka on social media. “I was curious about game companies in the country and wanted to support their page by giving them a ‘like’,” she recalled, working as a senior software developer at the time. When she decided to join the company, she reached out to a friend who was coincidentally working there. After he recommended her to give it a shot, she went to check out the workplace environment. “I liked the vibe of the office and the people, which is why I decided to join.”

As a senior programmer at the Malaysian game and app development company, Joanna has two separate job scopes for her two-worded job title: the “programmer” side, which requires her coding in game features (article); and the “senior” aspect - teaching younger programmers and staying in-the-know of the latest toolkits in game coding to improve the company’s resources. Joanna was also in charge of audio design (creating sound effects), music composition and audio implementation (coding sound into the game) for the games they create, which she’s more than happy to do due to her interest in making music with friends. It’s a pretty dynamic role that Joanna has taken upon, especially when audio and programming require very different mindsets.

Related: Your guide to the ins and outs of game development.

Joanna started her side job on game audio with Combat Wombat.

“I like the logic of coding, because it’s like solving puzzles,” she explained. “Plus, you have the ability to create anything on a blank slate.” On the other hand, audio is a lot about expression and creativity for her, requiring her to think outside the box to execute it well. “You can create sound out of anything, literally.”

Developing a career or two

Believe it not, Joanna was fascinated by the science of programming as early as her primary school years, after stumbling upon a software to self-learn the craft. “I’ve always loved games since I was a kid,” she recollected, gaming since the days of Pac Man and floppy discs. A fan of tactical shooters such as Rainbow Six, the then-aspiring programmer got hooked onto League of Legends during her formative years in college, even entering the esports scene briefly as a competitive player in 2011. She proceeded to participate in various Garena tournaments and even placed top 10 in the 2011 World Cyber Games with her team.

Joanna wasn't joking when she said "you can create sound out of anything", at the Sepang International Circuit for a secret project.

“It was fun! I enjoyed the camaraderie and the dynamic of working together with my teammates,” Joanna reminisced with a smile. Back then, she and her friends were juggling their daytime jobs and nighttime scrimming with other teams from overseas to keep their passion afloat. After playing for roughly two years, “I got a little burnt out because training and working at the same time was getting too much, not to mention that tournaments were slowly tapering off.” Even though there were other esports-related roles she could’ve explored (such as a coach or an analyst), she’s happy with her role as a game developer.

Take a walk on the bright side

“Game programming is a mix of what I love, which are coding and gaming,” the Animal Crossing: New Horizons fan said. “It’s a combination of what I like, what I’m good at, and what I can make money with.” Besides that, Joanna relishes the fact that even though the local gaming industry is still young, it has a positive culture of sharing knowledge between each other without being secretive or overly-competitive. “It’s a really good mindset for the community to have, and it’s something I appreciate a lot about the industry.” And what habit does she think that future game developers should adopt to do well in the industry?

Showcasing Gameka's game, Combat Wombat, at Level Up KL 2019.

“Work hard to be good at your craft,” Joanna advised, saying that joining game development communities and meet-ups would be extremely beneficial in learning the ins and outs of game development. These include hackathons - such as Game Jams, where you and your team have to create a functioning game in two days - and club meet-ups by WiGout (for women) and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Malaysia. “These are good ways for you to gain exposure in making games.”

All smiles at the Unite Singapore 2019, a Unity Creators Conference.

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This is the first Apple Worldwide Developers Conference to be held in an online format, accessible by millions of developers.

Now is arguably one of the most tense moments in recent memory worldwide. With Malaysia on movement control order (FYI not a full-on lockdown; essential supplies can still be acquired, albeit sparingly), things can feel pretty glum. However, corny but truthfully, there are silver linings among these dark clouds. With their previous on-ground attendees capping at 6,000, the now-online Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2020 (WWDC 2020) is now more accessible to millions of developers.

Set to take place in June, this is the first time that the formerly on-ground Apple event will be conducted online, most likely due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, that wouldn't be the case - consumers, developers and the media are still able to get their yearly dose of updates regarding Apple's latest discoveries in the software landscape, plus new app development tools for their perusal.

The Apple Arcade, a subscription-based game service ala Netflix, was released in Sept last year.

To share their learnings and educate budding or professional developers, the 31st edition of WWDC will feature a fleshed-out program that comprises an online keynote and sessions with Apple engineers to learn the new software tools granted by the tech giant. No details of the program has been revealed yet, but they'll publicise it soon enough.

More info will be shared before June by email, in the Apple Developer app and on the Apple Developer website.


Gamers naturally fantasise working on games they love, but is it something that any gamer can just walk into?

With international studios like Sony Interactive Entertainment and Larian Studios (developer of Divinity: Original Sin II and Baldur's Gate 3) branching into the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia has indeed cemented its status as the go-to destination for game development needs. This may come as a surprise to some, but in reality, the local games industry has been around for almost three decades now - the first Malaysian-developed game was made for the 16-bit Super Nintendo (a.k.a the SNES): Ghoul Patrol by Motion Pixel Sdn Bhd in 1994.

Ghoul Patrol received favourable reviews for its delightful shoot-em-up action and vibrant visuals.

But, what exactly qualifies as game development?

We figured it would be fitting to ask this question to Hilmy Abdul Rahim, a producer at Gameka who oversees and manages various projects in the game and app development company. Not only is he a former member of game development companies Gamebrains and Titoonic Asia, he was also a lecturer at KDU University College (now UOW Malaysia) and Lim Kok Wing University.

Hilmy (left) has been an educator in game development for at least 15 years. (Image source: Gameka)

The big picture

“Fundamentally, video game development is the process of combining together various forms of media into a new type of content that allows interactivity,” said Hilmy, who joined Gameka exactly one year ago. Using the analogy of filmmaking to explain its team structure, he explained that like films comprising audio and visual, video games contain those two, plus texts and interactivity. Although games are packaged in discs or mere digital files, it’s a misleading representation of the vastness each of them holds, requiring a diverse team to bring it to life.

According to Hilmy, ultimately, there are three streams within every game development team:

Art

“It’s what makes games look good,” the ex-educator explained. “It’s about creating assets to be used in-game and inject artistic elements that includes visuals and, even audio.”

Programming

“It makes a game function, using programming language to tell the computer what to do, specifically to create programs that give the game the interactivity and effects the medium requires.”

Design

“This makes games fun to play. Similar to a theatre director, they plan out what assets to appear - and even when to pop up - in-game, in terms of both programming and art. It requires an understanding of how to use the two elements to convey the game properly to players.”

Malaysian studio, Passion Republic, worked on the "cinematic moments and gameplay animation" of Gears 5.

Despite being somewhat standardised over the decades, he clarified that the line between art and programming are slowly blurring, to the extent that we might not be able to differentiate between the two anymore. For example, artists can have a basic knowledge of programming to fully utilise the tools they have on-hand.

However, the makeup of each team can differ from one another, as it “depends on what kind of vision you have for your medium”, what kind of product they’re producing. For example, visual novels (a text-driven genre akin to an interactive digital graphic novel) would involve more artists than programmers in the team, in contrast to the graphics-, visual effects- and physics-heavy first person shooters (FPS) that they entail, which emphasises manpower for programmers instead of artists. But generally, game development teams would have at least three of these streams, with additional ones opened up to meet the game’s vision.

The nitty gritty

"Video game development is the process of combining together various forms of media into a new type of content that allows interactivity." (Image source: Gameka)

Even if the components vary from one another, the daily grind encompassing the trio remains the same. “On a typical day, the producer would check and delegate tasks among everyone in the team,” Hilmy shared, reflecting on his own role at Gameka. He added that each department will then let their department head(s) check their work before sending it to the repository, a storage space which houses every single game asset.

“It’s like an orchestra: the juniors play their own part while the seniors make sure everyone is working well together.”

Hilmy Abdul Rahim

But, if you’re working on a game that’s supposed to sell well, it takes more than the game development team to bring that to life. “Selling a game requires adding a business model into development,” Hilmy said, which means a marketing and business strategy stream would exist in this scenario. “You’d need to analyse your target audience and know what’s valuable to them, so that they’ll exchange your game for their money,” which is why games are usually promoted before it’s finished to know who the game resonates with. Thus, the whole process of game development can include departments for business, quality assurance, social media, online support and even streaming.

Don’t stop me now

The makeup of a game development team largely “depends on what kind of vision you have for your medium”. (Image source: Gameka)

To those worried that game development is just a momentary trend, turn that frown upside down, because Hilmy noted that interest in the industry has never been higher. “The idea of game development is so normalised now, that even parents are interested in enrolling their children in university programmes for the field.” He attributed its accessibility and intrigue to the Malaysian government, who has been promoting and encouraging growth for the industry extensively.

Even though there are educational courses for game development, Hilmy believes that a certified qualification isn’t entirely necessary. “A Degree doesn’t say what you can really do, it only certifies what you know.” Instead, showcase your skills to prove that you can work in the industry, which can be learned for free on game engine sites, such as Unreal Engine and Unity Learn.

Combat Wombat is Gameka's upcoming free-to-play mobile game that combines puzzle, turn-based strategy and RPG elements.

Having said the above, he acknowledges that the lack of a Degree can be a dealbreaker for employers, especially in Malaysia. So, he advised that when discerning the various university programmes, keep a lookout for ones that teach the fundamentals well, such as focusing on the C++ programming language. “Tools change all the time, but the basis will always stay the same.”

And last but not least, it’s of utmost importance that aspiring game creators have the passion to make games if they want to stick to the industry. Aside from being willing to hone and expand your skill set, “making games is about doing what you’re good at continuously, which is why passion is so important. Ask anyone who works on games, and they’ll tell you that they’re doing it because they love it.”

Interested to find out more about Gameka? Check out their website to know more about what they do.

For more insider knowledge on the world of gaming, be sure to follow eGG Network on Facebook.

The Gameka team (Image source: Gameka)

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