The changing culture of working in a games studio in Singapore

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Koh Shi Xiang, Director at Lionfish studios, speaking at Gamescom Asia (Photo: Gamescom Asia)
Koh Shi Xiang, Director at Lionfish studios, speaking at Gamescom Asia. To his right is Koei Tecmo director Raymond Wai. (Photo: Gamescom Asia)

For game studios in Singapore, the pandemic has perhaps changed the culture of the workplace.

Working from home has become the de-facto standard, with new colleagues having yet to meet face-to-face. For some, that has grown into an extended family experience.

"COVID has probably brought the good and the bad. Working from home has allowed some individuals to have a bit more flexibility in working and keeping in touch with their family," said Raymond Wai, Director at Koei Tecmo, at a panel on the games industry culture in Singapore at gamescom Asia 2021.

"When we were in the office, we were a family, but now that the windows to the home are also open, it's kind of an extended family. Like 'oh, hi, it's the wife'. There's a bit more of a personal closer touch, sometimes welcomed, sometimes maybe not, but it opens up different aspects of the people you work with."

However, that doesn't mean the insight into each other's personal life is enough to bring people together. Wai said that besides having face-to-face chats between managers and employees, it was also important to have corporate-wide activities to "pull people together", which are missing in this new normal.

Additionally, while the pandemic has also opened up the job market, gaming studios still value the "quality of ideas", Wai said.

"While you can hire someone to work remotely, or for local talents to work remotely, there's still a difference when discussing or challenging ideas over Zoom versus face-to-face," said Wai. "People are still looking for the social cohesion of working together."

Another games company, Lionfish Studios, has what its Director, Koh Shi Xiang, called a quirky culture.

"We encourage them (the staff) to pursue some of their hobbies. We don't judge their interests... and we encourage them to grow with it," said Koh.

He added that, unlike most game companies, Lionfish actually has more women on its payroll than men, which has also created a nurturing culture within the company. 

Lionfish has worked on several games for government initiatives, such as Lion City Heroes for the SG50 celebration and Warriors of the Sea for the Singapore navy.

Changing the crunch culture

As for the controversial subject of the crunch period, when staff work long hours and overtime to meet deadlines, it's one that Singapore studios on the panel do their best to prevent.

"I'm very much against crunch culture in general," said Adam Dart, founder and Director of indie games developer Junkfish, adding that while it was talked more in the West, it was equally prevalent in Asia. 

Having experienced crunch culture and its detrimental effect on his physical and mental health, he has since changed his mind on it.

"We try to get rid of crunch as much as possible," said Dart, whose company is known for the title Monstrum. "We've made big leaps, I think we're at a stage where we can finish on time and have a good work life balance. There are ways to minimise crunch, by doing proper planning with milestones, avoid feature creep, being honest and realistic about timelines, and including buffer times for when things go wrong."

Lionfish's Koh also added that while he did not need the majority of his staff to crunch, there were a few that got the shorter end of the stick and had to put in additional hours.

"Crunch is a product of poor planning, but what we can do proactively is to improve the efficiency, improve the processes," he said.

Games as a career

Wai pointed out that the impression of the gaming industry as a career has shifted to become more positive.

He noted that a decade ago, he had encountered a new staff member who came up to his team on her fourth day of work, crying while saying that her parents didn't want her to work at Koei Tecmo, a Japanese games publisher famous for titles like Ninja Gaiden, Dynasty Warriors and the Atelier series.

Contrast this to an interview that Wai conducted with a candidate earlier in the day, who told him that he played games with his dad.

"That's a big revelation. The generation has moved so much that even parents acknowledge that this is mainstream and is something that people can do and can reasonably make a career out of," said Wai.

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