I made my first game when I was 7.
It was a very simple game made in a 40-page school notebook. You traced a path with the back of your pencil through a drawn corridor that stretched across the notebook until you reached a fork in the path. There were often 2-4 choices. You chose a path, and continued by flipping the page. Often, only 1 path would allow you to go through, while the others were dead ends, or worse, traps. Hit a dead end and you just went back to the previous page. Hit a trap, and you have to start from the beginning. The ultimate goal was to reach the end of the notebook without falling into a trap.
The game was basically a pen-and-paper roguelike game from an era where digital electronics didn’t exist, or if they did were prohibited in schools. We had to make our own fun back then, and our notebooks and stationary became tools of our imagination. Little did I know that this would come into play in a big way later in life.
It wasn’t the fun of making the game that compelled me to keep doing it, although it was an extremely fun process. It was the look on my classmates’ faces when they played the game and got it right, or got it wrong. It was the fact that for those brief minutes their entire attention was consumed by a badly drawn, simplistic, game that helped break the tedium of classroom monotony. Their eyes lit up and I could almost see their neurons firing as they navigated the game. They laughed with pure mirth when they succeeded and cursed with real conviction when they failed. These precious emotions were successfully elicited by something that I had created, and the rush of witnessing someone enjoying my game stuck with me from there on end.
My first gaming machine was the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in the US). I spent countless hours battling my brother in classic games such as Sonic The Hedgehog, Road Rash, and Wani Wani World. Even then, an intense curiosity gripped me as I watched the pixels on the screen dance to my every command. I needed to know how the game worked beyond what was shown to me on that screen. I yearned for some insight into the reasoning behind the game’s design. Why did Sonic jump that high? Why is Tails invincible? How does Dr. Eggman move in that specific pattern?
The 1990s – A Curious Time
As I grew up and the internet transformed from brief fad to essential utility, the entire world’s knowledge began to become available at my fingertips. As with every curious child who grew up in the 90’s, I did a lot of internet surfing for things that interested me. More and more I found myself gravitating towards video game content, and more specifically, content about video game creators and their thought processes. As abundant as this information is available today, I must remind you that in those days you could scarcely find anything online about the video game industry. Game companies were notoriously opaque, to the point that big studios openly crediting their developers is a fairly recent phenomenon. At this point, my ambition as a game developer had not yet fully formed. I was curious about the process, yes, but I hardly realized that game dev was even a job, especially in an era where video games were generally scowled upon by uptight Asian parents.
Perhaps the most influential moment of my game dev career came when I discovered the Flash submission portal: Newgrounds.com. Back in its heyday, Newgrounds was considered THE premier website for submitting user-generated content. It was my generation’s YouTube.
Flash not only allowed for the creation of animated content, but interactive media as well. That’s right, you could make games with Flash, and Newgrounds was a veritable cornucopia of Flash games, from the most basic of silly (and often rude) soundboards, to incredibly complex fully-formed action RPG’s. Just looking at the sheer breadth of available content on Newgrounds inspired me to try my own hand at making games in Flash. I was successful in making a couple of simple titles (now lost to time), but I never really fully grasped Flash’s convoluted ActionScript language, and mostly utilized a lot of copy and pasting to make my games functional. I was able to make games, but had not truly learned to program. And programming was and remains the backbone of the game dev process.
Mid 2000s – Choosing a Path
When it came time to choose a career, I briefly entertained the possibility of becoming a game developer. Sadly, the circumstances were not suitable at the point in the mid 2000’s. Gaming was still considered a fringe industry, especially in Malaysia. Most people did not consider it a realistic career option. Video game studios did not exist in Malaysia, and if they did, they were invisible. No credible schools offered game design courses or certificates. The pathways and resources to becoming a game developer that seem abundant everywhere today simply didn’t yet exist. I made a decision to shelve those ideas, and instead chose a career in the exciting world of management instead.
It was about 3 years ago that I finally broke into game dev proper. Aged 29, 6 years out of university and thoroughly frustrated by my somewhat lucrative but ultimately unfulfilling management career, I took the plunge and signed up for a cheap online coding tutorial to learn the basics of using the Unity engine.
“Little did I know that this decision would ultimately change my life forever.”
Three lessons into my course, I’ve already abandoned them and branched off into doing my own little ‘student project’. Within a couple of months, I had published my first game on the Google Play Store. It was by no means a hit, but it was tangible proof that I could handle game development. Even more, the process was exhilarating. I had never in my life experienced something I enjoyed as much as making games. Though the task was extremely difficult, especially since I refused to use unoriginal assets for anything, the act of creation was rewarding and brought me a sense of contentment unlike anything I’ve felt before. I had, at that moment, found my passion in game dev.
A Fortuitous Fluke
In 2019, I found some success in the gaming space. Remember how I talked about classroom stationary becoming tools of our imagination? That year, at the spur of the moment, I made a little game called Rubber Wrestling. It was the first time anyone had ever made a video game version of a popular regional childhood game called eraser battles or lawan pemadam. As the name implies, the real game is played using erasers, with the main goal being to pin your opponent’s eraser under your own. I saw a Reddit post about this nostalgic game and realized it wouldn’t be too difficult to make a mobile game version of it. Within 2 days I had a prototype uploaded onto the Google Play Store. I made a post on Reddit about it, thinking that I’d probably get a few downloads at most, and went to bed with zero expectations.
I woke up the next day to find that not only had the game gone viral, but multiple news outlets had picked up on it. Nostalgic gamers everywhere installed my unpolished, janky prototype onto their smartphones in order to relive their childhood for a few brief moments. I quickly jumped back into the project and polished it as much as I could, adding many new features and updates on the fly. By the end of the week, Rubber Wrestling was the #1 Trending Free Game in both Malaysia and Singapore, and had close to 7,000 downloads total.
Players contacted me to tell me how much they enjoyed revisiting their childhood memories through my game. That long-lost wonderful feeling, the same feeling I got looking over at my friends as they played my silly notebook game, came flooding back in that moment, but amplified several thousand times. A completely unexpected event in my game dev journey, but one that I will hold dear for the rest of my life
GREYHAT – A Digital Detective Adventure
Rubber Wrestling was made while taking a break from my much larger project GREYHAT – A Digital Detective Adventure. This game is a narrative-driven hacker adventure in which you play as a parent searching for their kidnapped child by hacking into other people’s PC’s to solve puzzles and collect clues. The game takes place entirely on simulated desktops, and the clues for advancing can be found in text documents, emails, photographs and apps. The central mechanic of this game was borne out of a specific frustration I had while playing some of my favourite games like Dishonored and Deus Ex.
These masterpieces of game design are littered with documents, messages, letters and pictures that paint a broader picture of the in-game universe and allow you to dig in deeper into the story. They add context and provide a richer narrative overall. My problem with these elements was that I hardly ever read them while playing the game. They broke the flow of gameplay for me.
One moment you’re sneaking past guards who want nothing more than to kill you, the next you’re at a complete standstill reading an unrelated essay on the game world’s socioeconomic situation. They were scattered across the game world where they belonged, yet they broke the rhythm of the games themselves. I found myself collecting them without reading and immediately returning to the action. As a result, those tasty morsels of narrative snippets simply collected virtual dust in my inventory, never to be perused.
I guess I perceived GREYHAT as a remedy to that. What if you had a game that lived completely in simulated desktops? What if the ‘action’ of the game is reliant on these documents and journals and clues? These documents never intrude into ‘the main game’ because they are the main game.
Can I build an immersive, fully fleshed narrative, and funnel its exposition completely through instant messages, emails, and documents? Can I design the levels so that players discover these things organically, in any order, and still build a coherent story? Most importantly, can I make such a game, comprised of elements that I myself spurn when playing other games, interesting and engaging enough that players find it fun? These are the design questions that drove the development of GREYHAT.
On August 31st, 2020, I celebrated 2 things: the anniversary of Malaysia’s independence from the British Empire, and the launch of GREYHAT – A Digital Detective Adventure. I consider that day to be the day that I truly became a game developer. I was happy to find that critics gave it glowing reviews. In particular, they praised the puzzles and narrative. Players also echoed that sentiment. As of this writing, GREYHAT stands at a 96% Recommended rating on Steam.
It was a relief to finally see that my design instincts, borne not from learned experience or heavily invested academia, but from decades of both playing games and a curiosity about their mechanics, was ultimately well received by players. It served as an affirmation that a game dev career is the right path for me, and it is my intention to trace this path with the back of my pencil until I come to the end of my notebook.