IT WAS mid-2017, and The Gentlebros' second-ever game was in the final stretch of production - but the local game developer was unsure if it would ever be launched. Months before the game was to be rolled out, the company had run out of money.
The game, Cat Quest, also stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the projects of The Gentlebros' neighbours in one-north's Pixel innovation space. Other developers were working on free-to-play games, which were all the craze then; in contrast, Cat Quest was designed as a premium game to be sold at a fixed price.
"Everyone seemed to be having so much fun and they were super happy. We were the only ones saying: 'How are we going to survive this? Is this going to be our last game?' We were the only guys doing premium games so we felt very alone," recalls co-founder and chief executive Desmond Wong in an interview with The Business Times.
"Those few months were really hard. We had no money. We didn't know if the game was going to succeed, we didn't know if we were doing the right thing. But we just kept pushing because we believed in the vision that we had for Cat Quest," he shares.
The gamble eventually paid off, as Cat Quest far outperformed expectations. "Internally, we had a lifetime revenue goal of US$300,000... and I remember we blew past that target within the first week of sales," Wong says.
Building a franchise
Cute cats going on fantasyland adventures turned out to be a winning formula. That year, the game bagged the Excellence in Visual Art and Design award at the regional SEA International Mobile Game Awards, and Best Art Design at the Intel Level Up Contest, sponsored by tech giant Intel. The company went on to release a sequel, Cat Quest 2, two years later.
With over 2.5 million copies sold, the Cat Quest games have collectively raked in S$8.5 million in gross profit.
But The Gentlebros will not stop there. Wong quipped: "We want to make nine Cat Quest games, because cats have nine lives."
Aside from growing the Cat Quest franchise, the company plans to create new characters and concepts.
It intends to grow its headcount from seven now to 15 in the next two to four years. This will let it have two separate teams working concurrently: one on the Cat Quest games and the other on developing new intellectual property.
That also means the developer will be able to release one game a year, an improvement from its current development cycle of one game every two years. "This will really help with the sustainability of our company, because it's typical that with game companies, there is a huge spike in revenue when the game first launches... but sales will definitely slow after a while until the next launch," said Wong.
Asked how it will fund these plans, Wong says that the company has some reserved funds and investment money from game publisher Kepler Interactive, though it could not disclose the sum.
The Gentlebros' next project will launch in November 2023, though Wong is keeping the title a secret for now.
Manpower and costs remain the biggest challenges for Singapore's relatively nascent gaming industry. "Singapore is one of the pricier countries within South-east Asia, so hiring talent here... will (cost) substantially higher. We also have a smaller pool of talent to pull from, so having the right talent is definitely one of the challenges," says Wong.
The local gaming scene has also lost some steam. In the last seven years, the free-to-play wave has died out - and so have the companies which bet on it. Bigger firms which have come to Singapore have also struggled to launch their games, notes Wong, citing the example of Ubisoft Singapore's Skull and Bones, which has been in development limbo for the past eight years.
Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about the industry's potential: "What I see happening is, hopefully, once people realise that you can make a successful game in Singapore, the people working in these big companies will want to come out and start their own indie companies like us."
"Doing so will really help the local scene because we need local homegrown products like Cat Quest. We can't keep helping other people make products. We need to have Singaporean-made stuff and be proud of it."
Wong founded The Gentlebros in 2015 with two colleagues from Japanese video game company Koei Tecmo. The trio decided to strike out on their own as they wanted the creative freedom to come up with their own concepts, after years of playing smaller roles when working for bigger publishers.
The independent studio released its first creation in 2015: a free-to-play mobile game called Slashy Hero. This was picked up by United States publisher Kongregate and earned the company a total of US$70,000 in lifetime revenue.
Asked where he sees the company in the next 10 years, Wong replies that he hopes Cat Quest can gain a bigger audience, with spin-off merchandise, books and even television shows. "We want Cat Quest to be a household name," he adds.