A Singaporean shining star in the works? Read more on this exclusive interview.
These days, it’s not that hard to open up a tiny-as-heck video game company provided you have funds and you have your country’s current government having entertainment and media bodies supporting them with facilities and, you guessed it, even more funds.
That’s pretty much Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (loving acronymized to IMDA; we know “acronymized” isn’t a word) place in the gaming ecosystem they like to talk about time and again; giver of grants within reason and co-working spaces like the PIXEL Building to garage-sized indie gamers, taking their time in honing their ball-busting games and breakout indie hits.
One could argue that with all the time spent honing this sector even before 2008, Singapore would have its world-class triple-A home-made game by now, but that’s another conversation for another time. Go indie, right?
So what makes newcomer indie game development company Alpha Beta Omega different than the others? Why create a studio in a very saturated marketplace? Simple: because the co-runners of the company, CEO Michael Khoo and CTO Pavel Kuzmin, seem to be more determined and disciplined. And also realistic.
“We are big on relevancy and purpose,” said Michael. “For example, the games we build; we’re not picking any game that is trending online because many people are playing it. There’s gonna be a lot of [saturation].”
“We’re looking for game models that allow us to work with the resources we have and bring out the maximum profit. Yes, we’re passionate but we need to feed ourselves.”
We can’t be in this dream state where we can separate the two; we need to bring them together. Those are our strongest points.” Talk about going straight for the exposed vein when it comes to getting to the truth.
Who Are They Again?
Perhaps a short intro is in order before we dive right in: Michael Khoo (pic below) is a man who has been around the games industry for 8 years; he had a hand in all walks of the games media and games industry business from journalism (Playworks) to marketing (GX, PLAYe) to even mobile app development (goGame), project management, and even esports management duties.
Pavel Kuzmin’s (pic above) technological prowess is only limited by his imagination as a software engineer. He’s done it all too: from diversity-focused travel services to mobile games to even mass-production beauty service apps catering to thousands of clients per day.
And that’s not even including the odd contract or two that he urged us not to bring up for fear of breach of contract. Even with his past companies faltering thanks to geo-political issues back in Russia (the whole Russia invading Ukraine shake-up back in 2014) and the Russian ruble’s dwindled value, that didn’t stop him and his family from taking a chance working in Singapore.
The two of them met when they were at Sega subsidiary goGame for a year-and-a-half. After that, they came to an agreement to work together and found ABO because they just want to deliver fun to the gamers and players of today the only way how: through the power of mobile gaming.
And in case you’re wondering if they’re truly in it for the money, they’re both actual gamers. Michael has covered a ton of video games, interviewed a lot of developers, and even ran app production and project management, to the point where he can switch to being a game producer in your Ubisofts and 2K Games if he felt like it.
Pavel has been making games out of pen and paper D&D modules since he was 5, loves SEGA and Sonic The Hedgehog, and won a few game programming awards including the Mobile Premium Awards 2018 International competition, Russian division, ran by Appcircus.
In other words, they know what they’re talking about.
Getting It Done
Going back to those keywords “determined” and “disciplined”, Michael believes that with a small team that’s disciplined, they don’t need to bloat out and keep their game-producing budget to a realistic chunk. “A lot of (video game publishers and developers) here have this interesting stigma of going overboard,” said Michael.
“Let’s say they have a specific budget they can play with. They like to overspend it. We’ve been through many companies, 15 to 60 people, and half of [the staff and manpower] do not do anything [or contribute much]. It’s a lot of money wasted.”
“It’s not a bad philosophy for some, but we feel we can bring a certain change where we don’t need that kind of extravagant approach in developing games and apps. We just need a lean mean team to do the work that’s required, and then move on from there. This also means that if we’re given a big budget, we know how to stretch that dollar value as much as we can.”
To complement that statement, we should ask this question: how many people does it really take to make a fun game these days? If you answered “six”, you may be onto something there, according to Pavel. “It’s funny because we’re always asked: how many people does it take to make a project of a [mobile gaming] scale? The answer is ‘six’.”
“This is followed up with “How long will that take?”, to which we answer “four months”. They usually reply “are you kidding?”. The way we see it, the projects we received so far aren’t massive. “It’s an interesting project, but six people can finish that”.
“I’ve seen senior project companies who cannot handle 50 people on site. [At the end of the day], it’s not about the number of people, it’s about the amount that people contribute within a small team. Our clients have seen us work, observe our progress, and understand how things can be done properly with people who appreciate what they do.”
It also helps that the CEO and CTO run the ABO ship in its entirety. They stated that the extravagent spending and staffing made the team uncomfortable, so they decided to set out on their own. “Most of the work is done by Pavel and I,” said Michael. “We make sure every specification is doable and find the right person to do it. If there’s extra fluff we don’t need, we take it out immediately: simple as that. It saves us time, manpower, and cost; that’s good for everyone in general.”
Enough Talk; How About Them Games?
Alpha Beta Omega’s starting point in games-making involves shining a light within the dark decrepit state of the video game industry in the region. That’s probably stretching a metaphor a bit too thin, but their upcoming game is about a lighthouse shining a beacon in an unexplored fantasy-esque steampunk land. Darkless, their iOS/Android game makes players tap their way to victory, with little imps carrying resources to help power up your main function.
After playing through the most recent build, it’s safe to say that the team knows what aiming for; a zen-like clicker gaming experience tailored for all kinds of players and gamers.
Even if the demo I played is in a pre-alpha state (as the team is working on the final build as we speak), the idea and feel is already solid. Just tapping and keeping the darkness away while the game’s imps continue giving you coloured resources is simple, but there’s not time limit or penalty if you’re idle. Plus, there’s a huge portion of the game’s map to uncover as you progress further and further to make the light shine brighter and further.
It piqued the interest of the MDA, hence why ABO are working in the Pixel building in the Ayer Rajah area in Singapore. The game should be done by this month, in which they then have to decide where to soft-launch it at in Southeast Asia.
The duo and the team’s combined life lessons meet full circle to enable them to create fun and simple mobile games with a charming aesthetic. They actually have more games in their streamlined and efficient pipeline. Catris, which is a puzzle game paying homage to Tetris and the internet’s number one subject -cats- will be their next focus after Darkless goes live.
After that comes their magnum opus: Dusk Tower, a mass multiplayer mobile action RPG where you play a vampire on the hunt for power, artefacts, and dominance.
As vampires level up via destroying buildings and sucking NPC blood, they look more different and can eventually fight against other players. Thanks to their partnership with Cloudzen, a cloud gaming studio, they can make the game they want: an MMO-esque game that can support thousands of players in the same game session and is not restricted by device hardware limitations.
“We want to create [mass multiplayer] games that are streamed constantly; no need to be downloaded. The beauty of the game is you can run it off the PC. Most mobile phones cannot handle [2,000 or more players] in a single instance. With the tech we have and who we’re partnering with, we can achieve this.”
“It’s not just a technical showcase we’re aiming for,” added Pavel. “We want to make sure [Dusk Tower] is fun to play as well as have high-level graphics.” While Darkless and Catris are their stepping stone games, Dusk Tower is the big project they want to cap off with. At least until they have other new ideas in the future.
“With our direction for ABO,” added Pavel, “we have lots of possibilities with our own projects. There’s no need for triple-A game development on our end; we can do simple mobile games that are fun for all.”
Speaking of which, we had to ask the duo about their plans moving forward in the next five years. Among all the questions asked during this interview, Pavel struggled the hardest with this one to the point where he would rather reduce it to one year. “[This year] we will still move in our pipeline strategy.”
“After releasing our first game, we’ll move on to the next. We’ll move in the same speed and force, hoping to maintain our team and investment; these two will scale because our big game (Dusk Tower)will need bigger pools of resources.”
“We will still deliver cool content. Not huge ones, but exciting games nonetheless.”
We have to admit, his answer comes attached with the kind of genuine sincerity missing in most video game developers in Singapore as of late. Some talk big. Some take too long to release just one single game. Some were at their peak but faltered through due to political and/or personal reasons.
We’ve seen firsthand and, for some of us, experienced this. The one thing that’s sorely lacking in the scene is humility and transparency.
“Before meeting Pavel,” Michael confessed, “the way I did business before was much simpler. I find someone who needs this, I deliver and just do it. All of this changed after meeting him; what I learned from him is that there are things I can do without.”
“There are lots of things that need a purpose before it becomes a reality. It wasn’t all fancy when we started ABO; we correct each other’s way of thinking. Pavel needed to understand how Singaporeans work. I needed to understand how he can build such a big company in Russia before the Ukraine incident.”
As mentioned before, combining both passion and profitability is ABO’s main game. Going back to the previous question about their 5-year plan, Michael said that ABO will still do what the team likes to do, but they plan to be flexible about how they approach it.
“Our mission is to bring delight to all of our users, as gamers ourselves. We know what works and what doesn’t.”
“We are more than the games we are currently developing; we definitely can do so much more as time goes by. We are open to new projects, developments, this is an industry where things change overnight. Back to relevance and purpose; we are a dynamic team that can adapt to what a market wants.”
Before It Ends
Michael’s advice for budding game developers? Adapt.
“In the games industry,” he said, ” you have to learn a lot on your own. I had to change industry and change skillset to even do things like mobile app development; a bit of coding here and there. Immediately after the app was launched, I had to market it as a video game marketing guy. This was 3 years worth of hustling and learning”. He stressed that he wouldn’t have made it to where he was if he didn’t learn to change.
In all honesty, Michael never thought about going into game development in the first place. “Throughout my experiences,” he said, “I learned that sometimes it’s not about what you want and what you’re looking for.”
“Life just decides to deal cards to you; you have to make do with it. We’ve come to a point in time where we’re like ‘here’s what we can do, it’s doable, we have a budget to float us through our first game; let’s do it’.”