Video games were never really part of my childhood, mainly because my parents couldn't be convinced that they were an integral part of any ~normal~ child's life.
Thus, most of my very minimal contact with video games and consoles (until I became financially independent, of course) were via friends - either when they invited me over to their house to play, or when we met up at video game cafes.
While chains like Play Nation and Saint Games are pretty much household names by now, I still remember when a dedicated space for playing video games (which weren't LAN shops) were pretty novel.
My first encounter with one was in 2011, when my close friend, a full-timer at the newly opened Saint Games at The Cathay, invited a bunch of us over to play Rock Band.
Reminding me of Teo Heng but with consoles and faux musical instruments, it quickly became a favourite for gatherings.
At the peak of video games cafes, they were also in a head-to-head competition with main rival Play Nation.
However, reality now isn't as rosy as it was previously, as more are purchasing their own consoles and building their own gaming rigs at home.
"We can really see a huge drop in walk-ins recently, and that's due in large to a rise in online shopping which kinda affects malls across Singapore," added Lee Ming Wei, co-founder of Saint Games, and my interviewee for this piece.
"Because we are now located within The Cathay, our walk-ins are also pretty dependent on big movie releases or long weekends."
GAMING HOW - A NETFLIX FOR VIDEO GAMES
Saint Games wasn't started as a video games cafe, however - it's actually a spin-off from B2B operation Gaming How, which saw its roots as an online video games rental service provider.
Started by 3 friends in 2007 - Gary Gan, Ming Wei, and Lee Teck Hou (both Gary and Teck Hou have since left to pursue other careers) - the trio were still final year students in Nanyang Technological University when they decided to come up with a monthly subscription model for video games.
"Think Netflix for video games in Singapore," explains Ming Wei.
Did you know: The name 'Gaming How' has all of their names in it? Go figure.
However, the startup didn't take off as well as planned - "I guess Singapore at that time wasn't ready for such a revolutionary concept and folks didn't see much value in it" - and they pivoted to becoming a B2B entertainment solutions provider, something that they are still doing to date.
"We offer setups like Rock Band/Guitar Hero for company D&Ds, or even racing simulators for F1 events. Some of our notable events were Zoukout, SingFest, F1 and also GameStart."
As a matter of fact, they've been supporting F1-themed racing events for the past 10 years.
"This year, one of our notable clients was PUMA and they actually had RBR driver Max Verstappen race on our racing rig. Another client is EDB who has been engaging us for the past 4 years, and this year we introduced a triple curve screen specially for them."
They have also counted big names like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Sephora as their customers.
CHANGING MINDSETS WITH SAINT GAMES
But why the decision to open a cafe, when the B2B model was already working fine for them?
Simply - the trio wanted to change the negative way that people were viewing video games.
"We noticed that a lot of our adult guests hardly had the opportunity to play video games. They also had no idea what kids were playing, and because of the media, most had the impression that video gaming is negative, addictive, bad for kids…"
"We felt a need to change that sort of mindset."
Ming Wei also noted that consoles like the Nintendo Wii Sports or XBOX Kinect also encourage people to move more, and they thus decided to create a space where families could unwind and get acquainted with "healthy gaming".
Their first store opened its shutters in early 2009 at Square 2 Novena, and the space was a mere 800sqft.
"We did spend a fair bit on furnishing and also on equipment like gaming consoles and TVs. The experience was pretty memorable because we did almost everything ourselves (all 3 of us), from setup to marketing and developing SOPs for the store."
Back in 2009, the video games cafe concept was new, and Ming Wei admitted that business for the first couple of months was pretty slow.
On the personal side, the early days were also all about [convincing] my parents that I was about to venture into my own business as compared to finding a job after graduation. It wasn't easy to convince them [and myself] that this would work and I could pull this off.
However, through social media and plugging Saint Games at their corporate team bonding events (organised under their Gaming How B2B arm), they managed to gain traction and started building a steady following.
They eventually moved out of Novena to a bigger space at The Cathay, where they've been at since 2011.
ON COMPETITORS AND THEIR LONGEVITY
But it's hard to talk about video games cafes in Singapore without mentioning Play Nation - probably the main competitor of Saint Games.
A quick check on their website shows that they were also set up in 2009, the same year as Saint Games' first outlet.
So - who came first?
"We started 10 months ahead of them," said Ming Wei.
"But I come to see us like how Singtel and StarHub are competing."
"The market has enough space for competition. In fact, their existence is important to us and to what we are selling as a service. This is because we can all benefit from each other's marketing efforts."
"I don't believe there is a dominant or single player in the market."
"In fact, when our competition is able to get one-up ahead of us with better concepts, ideas or promos, I see it as a lesson where we will be able to review where we have fallen short."
He draws a parallel to the recent escape room fad, and the sheer number of providers who have popped up just to ride on the bandwagon.
"Over the years, there were many others (with the same model) who popped up but they simply couldn't sustain. Many think that it's just opening a regular store, but over time they are just hit hard by the fixed and variable overheads."
"I firmly believe that for businesses that function on novelty and concepts, it's more important to understand the real value you are providing and understand what the real reasons customers patronise you are."
Do they feel any bitterness, though, given they were the first to come up with a concept that others have since rode, and succeeded upon?
"We are arguably the first in Singapore with this concept of entertainment that focuses entirely on console video gaming. But then again, 8 years on, being the first has no meaning anymore."
"It's about how we can stay relevant and keep providing value to customers who have evolving needs. That's more important."
GIRL GAMERS AND CORPORATE CUSTOMERS
Over the 8 years, Ming Wei and the team have also realised that there have been more many ladies who are into casual gaming as compared to before.
"Most of the ladies who visit Saint Games know how to work the controllers and can probably beat you in a game of Marvel vs. Capcom! That's quite a interesting sight, and we do typically have more female gamers than guys these days."
Their outlet also sees a healthy amount of corporate events being organised there, and has remained one of their core offerings.
"A couple of our corporate clients were actually referred by some of our walk-in customers. And through these, the colleagues will separately bring their family members down. So it's all highly synergistic I would say."
Most of these corporate sessions are mostly for team bonding, and the Saint Games team thus curates games for them that would require team work.
"Games like Raving Rabbids and Just Dance are crowd favourites! We also take the chance to introduce our latest gadgets, like the Nintendo Switch or VR."
THEIR LONG-TERM VISION: PROMOTING CASUAL GAMING IN SINGAPORE
With the increasing proliferation of professional and casual gaming, we have come a long way from thinking that video games are simply a waste of time.
"eSports will continue to rise and you can see how brands like RedBull, Razer, and even AirAsia are pumping loads of advertising money on that."
"Our local pro-gamers are also doing us proud in the international scene - peeps like Streetfighter Champ Xian is one of them. [But] for casual gaming, I believe that more will look at console gaming as a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed with loved ones."
"Though we are still a far cry from how the Japanese view, love, and worship their video games, Saint Games will continue to do every bit to introduce casual gaming to everyone as long as we are around."
Currently, they are toying with the idea of having mini-spinoffs of the original brand to cater to more specific niche groups.
They are also looking to bring the Saint Games cafe concept to emerging markets like Thailand and Vietnam, "where there is a rise of middle income families with slightly higher disposable income".
"We are also keen to explore developing workshops to educate kids and adults on good habits of video gaming, or even invite pro-gamers to give clinics on gaming techniques. There are also plans to conduct CSR by inviting under-privileged kids to our space on a more regular basis."
SAINT GAMES, 8 YEARS ON
In the very competitive world of retail, chances of survival (we're not even talking about longevity here) are decreasing rapidly due to the slump that's ailing malls all over Singapore.
The past 8 years have, to say the least, been challenging for Ming Wei and Saint Games.
Regardless, they managed to pull through, finding niches that have kept their business afloat and thriving.
Shares Ming Wei: "I truly believe that it's important to build something that somebody actually wants, regardless of whether you are running a brick & mortar store, a tech startup, or a family business."
"So I feel that it's essential for every entrepreneur to understand the concept and theory of quick validation - this will also allow you to deploy your limited resources to considerable good use."
"I recently completed my Post Grad degree and got myself a Masters of Science in Technopreneurship and Innovation, so while I learned theories from my time in school, running Saint Games actually allowed me to see at first-hand how they work and fall into place."
Saint Games Cafe
2 Handy Road, #03-06
This article was first published in Vulcan Post.