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 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.
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."
"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.
"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.
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.
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."
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!