SINGAPORE: When Cat Quest was first introduced to the world in 2017, the two-dimensional open world role-playing game (RPG) featuring an adorable feline protagonist quickly caught the attention of gamers and critics alike.
It earned a clutch of industry plaudits such as Gamestart 2017 People’s Choice award and shortlisted as finalist for Casual Connect the same year, while also getting a mention by tech blog MacRumors as one of the top iOS games released that year.
It was even ranked 15th in the top paid iPhone games in 2018 for Singapore, ahead of popular brand games like Hitman and Assassin's Creed.
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The local independent game studio behind the hit game started in 2015 as a three-person team; Desmond Wong, Leon Ho and Nursyazana Zainal were all colleagues at Japanese game developer Koei Tecmo before they decided to strike out on their own.
The trio went into the venture with eyes wide open, creating as much of a financial buffer as they could to make sure their passion project “lasts as long as possible”. This includes lining up a financial grant from then-SPRING Singapore and signing a publishing deal for Slashy Hero - its first mobile game title - before The Gentlebros became a reality, Wong shared.
What many people might not know is how precarious their dreams were to ending despite their best-laid plans. “Cat Quest was actually the last game we could fail (with),” shared the 30-year-old.
Thankfully for them, Cat Quest “did very well” and generated a “seven-figure sum” in the initial launch period, Wong said. To date, there are about 400,000 to 500,000 downloads of the game, which costs US$4.99 on mobile platforms like iOS and Android and US$12.99 on PCs, consoles like Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation and online gaming platform Steam, he added.
“The game is still selling pretty well … we are still getting good revenue today.”
The decision to develop the game for as many platforms as possible right from the start paid off, given that the “bells and whistles” could be added to PCs and consoles that have more computing power - thus justifying the higher cost of the same game, he explained.
While the mobile platforms had the majority of game downloads, Wong said the actual revenue contribution from the three platform segments were pretty equally split between them.
IT’S A DOG’S WORLD, TOO
Using this revenue, The Gentlebros - which added a fourth member Cheng Ding Xiang at the start of 2018 - is hard at work creating Cat Quest 2, which Wong said is a huge undertaking. The sequel of Cat Quest is taking about two years to create, longer than the one to one-and-a-half year development cycle for the original version, he said.
This is because the fictional world of Felingard and the content within will be doubled as they add a canine companion to the cast of cat characters. “We are doubling the game size, but we forgot to double the staff strength,” Wong said, laughing.
The addition of man’s best friend to the gameplay is deliberate, as The Gentlebros hope to attract dog-lovers to come onboard. It is also learning from past mistakes from Cat Quest, such as including more than one memory slot for players to save their games.
“There was quite a bit of backlash (for having just one save slot) …. but we asked for that,” Wong admitted ruefully.
Cat Quest 2 is slated for a September release, the co-founder revealed but the launch platform has yet to be decided on. He hoped that the new game mechanics and characters will hope to make the new version as big a hit as the original, and compensate for the drop-off in players migrating from Cat Quest.
“No game developer can expect (its sequel) to have the same number of players from the original,” he said. “If we have 50 per cent to 70 per cent, we’d be very lucky.”
Asked if The Gentlebros intend to continue to be such a lean outfit, Wong said the decision to stay small is “definitely intentional” as there were fears that if it grew too quickly, the start-up might lose focus.
“Today, we are all peers and we communicate on a WhatsApp chat group,” he said, adding this might not be possible if more people joined. “We hope to keep it as small as possible for as long as possible.”
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
However, the dream of staying a small and tight-knit outfit regularly grates against the reality that the team members are usually stretched and having to perform roles out of their comfort zones.
Wong said during the launch of Cat Quest, he had to take out many different roles such as managing the social media outreach and commercial aspects. The wearing of many hats meant he did not feel he excelled in any particular one, he shared.
As such, finding an experienced CEO-type figure who has the contacts to bring the business to the next level is definitely on the company’s to-do list, but they have yet to meet such a person, he said.
Such an appointment would definitely help if The Gentlebros were to achieve its long-term plan of building brands that resonate deeply with people. Wong said the plan is to build a brand that “can be as strong as something from Disney”.
“Disney focuses on building worlds, which is why they purchased Marvel (Entertainment) and Lucasfilm,” he explained. “They know the value of a universe, and we want to have something like that for ourselves.”
This is why The Gentlebros is not content to just create new games, but to build a brand and intellectual property. It is already offering merchandise like plushies and digital stickers, while things like film or TV shows are other ways he cited.
“Instead of creating a new game each time, it is much better to focus on building a universe that you can keep adding on, because as the brand grows so will the community around it,” Wong said.
This is not to say that The Gentlebros want to go down the route of established game developers like Rovio of Angry Birds fame and Candy Crush maker King.com.
“Saying we want to be like Rovio and King gives the impression that we would one day be a hundred- or even thousand-man company with branches all over the world, and that was never our goal,” Wong said.
“However, if that is needed to reach the objective of creating a strong brand, then we will do it.”
The 30-year-old also encouraged other aspiring local indie game developers to pursue their dreams, saying there is enough room for smaller start-ups to coexist with bigger, triple-A development houses.
“You just need a great idea and believe in your own product,” Wong said. “And lots of luck.”