The release of adventure game Hoodwink marks the first time a Malaysian-made title has been released through EA's online Origin platform. We talked to E-One Studio's CEO and executive producer Amir Irwan about how he started the company, his thoughts on adventure games, and the trials and tribulations of opening a company in Malaysia.
How did E-One Studio start out?
We first started out providing multimedia services, but we realised that it’s not easy to survive by just that alone in the creative industry. The competition was stiff, and we could not compete on prices. We knew that in the long term, we had to offer an original product.
As a result, we started looking into 3D game engines. That is not to say the game industry is not competitive or easier; far from it. We wanted to give our best effort in this ever-evolving industry, and be at the forefront of technology in order to make it in the creative multimedia field.
Once we felt our 3D game engine was relatively stable, we moved on to developing a game just to showcase its capability, and at the same time entertain an audience.
How many people are currently working in the studio?
Currently, we have 30 highly independent and loosely organised full-time team members.
How long did it take to create Hoodwink?
The actual production itself took about 12 months. Prior to that, the process was mostly pre-production; building the pipeline and ensuring the technical specs are met on the asset creation. Now, we can move faster, but we still have to incorporate as much feedback as possible from the community.
Tell us how the idea to make an adventure game got started?
A few key team members and I have been fans of LucasArts and Sierra Entertainment games. We were big fans of games such as King's Quest, Gabriel Knight, Monkey Island, and Full Throttle. But that was in the '90s.
Adventure games declined since then, and was almost gone by the early 2000s. However, we saw a revival of the genre with TellTale Games at the helm a few years ago. We thought, "Hey, now that people are taking notice of adventure games again, it’ll be fun for us to relive those glory days of adventure games, not just as a gamer but as a developer".
For an indie studio from this corner of the world like us, the revival of adventure games was our ticket in to gaming arena without having the financial backing of huge publishers. Also, since narrative is our main focus, naturally an adventure game would be a good place to start and take on the age-old (and never-ending) discussion of balance between gameplay and narrative.
Because of these conditions, we saw a window of opportunity to produce a quality game within a genre that we love and within our means. Our writer quickly came up with the idea for the world of Hoodwink.
Narrative has always been the key ingredient in this genre. In Hoodwink's case, the story is about how an average Joe can get trapped in a globalised world. It’s about the dangers of monolithic corporations and the homogeneity of globalisation.
We wanted to look at that aspect with a lighter tone, hence the humour and parody in the game. In other words, we’re taking a sideways view of the mainstream, and trying to convey a subtle message in there. We also felt that this genre has been deprived of some great eye candy in the form of 3D visuals, which other genres have progressed so far ahead.
Despite these features, we maintained the controls of a typical point-and-click adventure. With that being said, we will keep listening to the fans of the genre, and figure out what works and what does not, and improve on our future offerings.
With the game out already, what went right within the 12 months of development?
We felt that giving our writer the freedom and iterating it with few internal and external reviewers have produced great results, as a lot of people are commenting how much they love the story. We felt that we worked with the right composer, who understood what we were looking for and produced an outstanding work.
We also felt that we partnered with the right sound/audio studio, and choosing to closely work with them from the beginning to the end has shown great result. We did pretty well visually, I thought, and we have already started working to improve it further in the next instalment, taking into consideration the feedback that we received to take it to greater heights.
What went wrong? Was there anything in the dev cycle that your team could have improved upon?
We let the script go too far ahead than the gameplay. We have to improve the balance between the two better in the future. We left the minigames development too late into the production, which somewhat made them a bit disconnected and less rewarding to the players, as we were rushing with the development.
We didn’t produce enough paper prototypes, and didn’t have proper documentation until really late into the development. At times, different teams made too many wrong assumptions, because the information was not clear to them. We left music and sound implementation into the game too late in the development, as well.
Our control system could have been improved further; we are fixing this as we speak for the future instalments. There’s also that a delicate balance: trying to satisfy traditional point-and-click gamers and third-person or FPS gamers.
Most importantly, I think we have to listen to what the community wants, and improve further based on that wherever and as much we can. Any game companies can tell you there are thousands of things they could have done it better, but, at the end of the day, how much they can squeeze in during the development cycle is the question. Since this is our first product, we can look back at it as an important experience for us to base upon as a foundation for greater things to come in the future.
How is the game industry going in Malaysia from a developer's standpoint? Is it easy or really hard to start up a game-developing company here?
The key ingredient to a game-development business is always the people who make up an organisation. Malaysians are already known internationally for having great artists, so there are no issues there. The challenge for us is talent; particularly designers, who think outside the box and are implementation savvy, and programmers to execute these ideas.
We may have these kinds of talents tucked in the information and communications technology industry, but they haven’t made their way into the games industry yet. This industry comes with very high risks, and most Malaysians and Asians prefer job security over venturing out, so we may not see them coming our way soon.
Even if they did, they would lack our requirements. This is the key issue, so we’ve been working with the local universities here on addressing it through what’s being offered. I believe a few of our compatriots in the local industry started looking into early childhood education to prepare them better if they wish to venture into the games industry.
There's the issue of funding, of course. Malaysia and Singapore are fortunate to be among the countries where their governments provide great support to creative industry. Having said that, there’s only so much the funds can do. At the end of the day, it’s up to the developers to come up with ideas which do not just deserve the funding, but are also able to make it into the market.
Over the years, I’ve seen plenty that didn’t see the light of day, despite the huge support from the government. Granted, completing a game is an enormous challenge to achieve, but more of these failures will make the governments less supportive of future projects, and that will not be good for the Malaysian games industry.
Is piracy still an issue that isn't going to go away any time soon from your perspective?
Piracy will not go away. For me, the key here is to engage the community and create products that the community wants and feels proud to be associated with. Once we have done that, I’m sure the majority of the consumers will support us directly by buying the original game.
Pricing point also plays a role in this area; we have to take into account the socio-economic factors of the region the product will be sold to.
Among all the publishers to align with, why did you pick EA and Origin?
Origin was the first to respond to us. We would have worked with more partners had we more time to strategise, but we were running late into our development, and needed to ship the game out as soon as possible.
About a week or two after our agreement signing, EA CEO John Riccitiello came down with a statement on how they wished to be more aggressive in supporting the indie developers. I guess at the time, it all boiled down to getting the right partner at the right time, since the policies of these corporations evolve over time. Now we hear Steam talking about "Steam Greenlight", which I think is a good move as well.
At the end of the day, the indie developers stand to benefit from all this. EA also promised to deliver more promotional activities for Hoodwink via Origin. For a no-name indie developer like us, that’s a huge help. Having said that, we are taking notes on Origin’s performance and promises closely, and will see how it goes.
Will there be other projects in the work from E-One Studios?
Our micro team, Touchy Interactive, has just released Split! on iOS. We also have a Chinese version of the game. We’ve received great reviews and an average score of 78/100 for it.
We have a few projects currently in various stages by both E-One Studio and Touchy Interactive; we will share more details with you when we are closer to their releases. We have also started the development of the sequel to Hoodwink, while at the same time trying to raise more funds for its completion. We hope the fans will continue to support and grow together with us.
What's the best advice you can give to budding game developers wishing to make their mark in Malaysia?
Well, I don’t have any specific advice for Malaysian game developers, because the challenges are pretty much the same anywhere else. Building games requires a lot of patience and unwavering passion. You will meet a lot of challenges along the way, in the form of finance, product development, team cohesion, publishing, marketing, and so forth.
But, most importantly, you have to have a clear idea of what you want to create and what you wish to achieve in this field.
The team must be results oriented. Don’t get into an analysis paralysis; at the end of the day, you just have to ship it, since no game is perfect. Take feedback, listen to the community, and iterate, iterate, iterate. Eventually, you will produce something great if you keep pushing it and maintain high morale while you're at it.
The game is available now. Stay tuned for a review of Hoodwink on GameSpot.