Chatroom: Singaporean indie games developer Joysteak Studios on birbs, burnout, and mental health

PHOTO: Joysteak Studios

Born in 2017, Joysteak Studios is a three-man squad of NUS graduates: Muhammad Hanif, Tan Kang Soon, and Chue Sai Hou. The trio has been working on an insanely adorable musical platformer, Songbird Symphony, which finally gets to leave its nest on July 25 this year.

So far, the award-winning game has already received praise from Waypoint and Alpha Beta Gamer for its relatable, heartfelt story about Birb, a lonely chick with an identity crisis. Players guide Birb on a journey to find out who and what he is, all while facing musical battles, familiar platform mechanics, and collecting special feathers. On the way, Birb meets an assortment of creatures as he learns the language of the forest.

Ahead of Songbird Symphony’s worldwide launch on multiple platforms, we sat down with Kang Soon to discuss the hard knock realities of indie game development, burnout, and learning how to fly on your own path.

Tell us a bit about how Joysteak got started.

Before Joysteak Studios, I’d already known Hanif for a pretty long time. We were friends in Temasek Junior College. He was interested in games — I wasn’t. But he kind of influenced me, like “Hey, games are a pretty cool way to tell stories.” This was around 2009. We were always doing project work together and we got along quite well. Even now, he’s a very chill person.

What kind of games did you play together for fun?

We played a lot of Left 4 Dead, and we went to a lot of LAN shops. We played some Minecraft, farming and building things together. That was when we were seventeen. But we don’t really have a lot of common multiplayer gaming experiences together, because both of us have a preference towards single-player, narrative-driven games. So there’s a lot of times when we’d be watching each other play. Another game is [Super Smash Brothers] — we played a lot of Smash together, or couch co-op games.

When did you get the inkling that you wanted to form your own studio?

The idea actually came from Hanif. He was always the one who wanted to make games. I’m always the one who was more pragmatic and listened to my parents. Everyone was saying “this is not the industry to go into, if you want to have a stable income, a stable salary.” We were in an internship programme together — it was called the Games Innovation Programme — it was a collaboration between MIT and SUTD Game Lab. This programme used to be called GAMBIT. Me and Hanif both came from there, and it made me change how I view the industry, and the viability of being in the industry. From the programme, I got to know a few people in the industry, like Shawn [Toh], and Gwen [Guo], so I thought we had a network to get things going.

How did your family respond to this?

Nobody was supportive, other than Hanif. My parents were saying that this should just be a hobby, or maybe a part-time side thing. So it was like, “You can go take on a full-time job elsewhere, and maybe in your own free time, as a hobby, you can work on this. Then if it picks up, we can talk more.”

What did they want you to do instead?

Software engineering. I come from an artistic background. I took art courses, and my main expertise was in art all the way until JC. Even in O-Levels, I took O-Level art. And until I was in JC, my parents were like, “all your cousins and everyone are doing software engineering.”

That sounds frustrating.

No, but it was not bad advice. Because if I hadn’t gone into computer science and met Hanif, I wouldn’t have known that hey, I’m also pretty good at programming. I have a pretty strong interest in it now, and I can actually combine art and programming.

Yeah, programming can definitely be creative too. You recently tweeted a very insightful thread about mental health and burnout in the game industry. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

By the time I had my burnout moment, I think my parents were already pretty supportive of what we were doing.

Oh, so they’ve come around a bit?

Yeah. So as we got some recognition for our games, my friends would come to our house to work. We have two offices — one is at one-north PIXEL, and the other is in my living room. All of us stay in Tampines, so they’d just come to my house to work on the dining table, in a very small space. My parents would go out to work in the morning, and come back at night, and every day, they’d see us working, even before they left for work. And when they came back, we’d still be working. So their impression changed. They just don’t have a very positive impression of the creative industry. But we’re all really passionate about games. We entered the industry because of passion, not for the money. When we started this project, we cared a lot about it. And the more we cared about it, the more worried we would get…

You got more invested in it. You had more to lose.

Yeah. Game design is an iterative process, and the idea that you have when you first start a project is most likely very different from what you have in the end. That is what was happening here. There were a lot of factors and reasons that caused the burnout. So there’s the long working hours. Also, the design of the game didn’t seem to be going where wanted, and we also had some financial, business-related troubles. We gave ourselves a deadline to find a publisher, but we couldn’t do it. At the beginning, we faced quite a few rejections. We even had to go overseas to look for publishers, and it wasn’t successful. It was really bad. Then I got kind of disillusioned, like, “What am I doing here? What’s the purpose? I’m working so hard, but there’s no money to it. And people don’t really recognise our stuff. Do I even like what I’m doing? Is the game even fun?”

Does it help to have a more open discourse on mental health?

Yes, definitely. So, you’ve gotta be very supportive towards one another. PIXEL is an ecosystem, there are other game developers there. This burnout issue is not something we face alone. We see other developers facing it as well, and we were able to rely on one another, to talk to one another, to counsel one another. I also have mentors in the industry who talk to us, encourage us, to tell us we’re doing a good job — Paul [Naylor] from LandShark Games, and Chor Guan [Teo]. But firstly, the person who’s going through burnout must be aware that they’re burning out. I just thought I was tired, or maybe just lazy. All the time I’d just be telling my team, “I’m tired.” But I didn’t realise it was burnout until I fell sick — physically sick. I had a stomach-ache, I was dizzy for a very long time. I went to see a doctor, and the doctor was like, “It’s burnout. You probably work too much.” It can manifest itself physically, and that’s crazy.

How are you feeling now?

Well, burnout is a thing that lasts a while. You need a lot of recovery time. But the thing is, we still have to continue working on the project, we can’t totally break off and rest. I think I’m walking out of it, as in, I’m starting to feel the passion again. So I think I’m doing fine. That’s good to hear.

You said you’re not the only one facing pressure and crunch. Do you think more developers now are stepping out and saying that this is an issue?

Just this morning I saw an article on Facebook, I think it was by TIME magazine, talking about burnout in the games industry. But in Singapore, I don’t think enough people are talking about it. In fact, I think people are very shy about it. If not for this mentorship, I wouldn’t be brave enough to talk about this issue as well. Our game, Songbird Symphony, is a very happy and cheerful game, so we have the pressure to put on a very happy facade, because it goes with the branding. It even goes down to the name of our company, Joysteak Studios.

Let’s talk a bit about Songbird Symphony. Birb’s journey is a coming of age story. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind that?

Hanif came up with the mechanics behind the game. When we were in school, we took a course on animal behaviours, and he learned that birds actually communicate with one another by learning each other’s songs. So we thought that was a really interesting idea for a music game. For me, I was thinking, what would be an engaging story to go with this? It reminds me kind of like a musical, with a good story. I got my inspiration from a lot of places, like The Chronicles of Narnia, or even parables and stories from the Bible about the prodigal son. It’s about a little chick who is trying to look for his family, and he needs to know who he is he’s trying to find a place to call home. But before he can find home, he has to go on a big adventure first, only to realise that home was under his nose the entire time.

Eh, spoilers!

[Laughs] There’s a happy ending!

Are there biographical elements to it? Do you think you put a bit of yourselves into the game?

I’m the one who gave the overall idea and kind of started it off. But the one who really sits down to write the story is Hanif. So when it comes to story, more work comes from Hanif. I think it really talks a lot about both our own personal lives. For myself, it’s trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I’m really interested in games, but there are a lot of people, like my family and stuff, who tell me I shouldn’t be doing games, I shouldn’t enter the industry. But in the end, I still decided to walk my own path, so it’s kind of like Birb.

Are you Birb? Is Birb you?

Yeah, I am Birb [laughs]. It’s like him going on an adventure. So every time he meets a bird, like when he meets the chickens, he’s like “Oh, am I a chicken?” Or when he meets a penguin, “Am I a penguin?” He wants to meet everybody, he’s looking for his identity, but he’s never a part of them. In fact, it makes him feel more lonely, because they’re always their own exclusive community, and he can never fit in.

What was it like coming together as a team for the first time? Was it your first time working together, and it was it difficult?

I’ve worked with them extensively, but separately. So me and Sai Hou, and me and Hanif. I met Sai Hou on a one-year internship in San Francisco. It was the first time we’ve all worked together, but Hanif is a very chill guy, so there were no problems. There’s pros and cons working isolated versus working together. We tried working remotely before — there’s much less stress, there’s less pressure, but work gets done slower. When we work together in one room, things go faster, but there’s more chances of conflict. Conflict in the team is one of the reasons behind the burnout as well, and conflict is inevitable.

Do you think it’s a cultural thing, for Singaporeans to avoid conflict?

It’s more like we’ve got practice how to express ourselves more. I have a very difficult time learning to do that myself as well. Maybe it’s an Asian thing? I worked with someone once — when there was something he was unhappy about, he wouldn’t express his unhappiness. Then he accumulated it, and one day he exploded. I think it’s also because of the industry. In this industry, people join because of passion, and they kind of have their own ideas of how they want a project to go. Everybody thinks their ideas are the best, and because they’re passionate about it, they will be more aggressive about defending their ideas.

You’ve talked about the lows, but what have been some of the highs of working in games so far?

The highs would be how the players react to the game. I remember the first time I watched someone playing our game and putting a video of it on YouTube. Not only did the person play the game, but he took a video of himself playing it, and his reactions. That was really fun and interesting. We also have our own Songbird Symphony Discord server, and a lot of people who joined us told us, “I love making music, I love platformers, this is the game for me.” There are also some who say they can relate to the character, Birb. So there’s this one guy, he has bipolar disorder. He actually told me through a direct message that the game helped him calm down. It helped him stabilise himself. We really want to bring joy and happiness through our games, to our players, and perhaps make them learn something about themselves, as the game did for us. Also seeing my parents’ reactions, too.

Have they played the game?

Yeah, they played the game. They said they liked it. It’s easy enough for even my parents to pick it up, and still engage the more hardcore gamers.

That’s awesome. How’s the support been from the local developer community?

It’s really good. I can’t give enough credit to people like Gwen. She really takes the extra effort to reach people who are quieter, and shy, and people who are new. People are very open about their own experiences. I’ve also seen people face deep trouble, who’ve broken down in front of me. Everyone is very passionate, and they’ve invested a lot, and we have to rely on one another for support. It makes me feel that I’m not alone, and I’m not the one who had it the worst.

Everyone goes through their different struggles. Community is good.

Yeah, it’s really, really good.

What are the top three things you want to advise aspiring developers, or people who want to make their own game?

Never lose sight of that sense of purpose, or the reason why you want to be in the industry in the first place. The reason why I’m making this game is because I want people to have fun. I want people to learn more about themselves, and let the game give them a sense of joy. Second thing is to not overwork. Know your limits. The best way to know your limits is to stick to a schedule. The third thing is to express yourself. And knowing how to express yourself is not enough, you have to be a good listener, too. Hanif is very good at this, so I follow his example. Usually when someone disagrees with him, he’ll just listen and take some time to process, instead of speaking immediately, or getting angry, which is what the other two of us tend to do. We’ve got to be quick to listen, but slow to speak, and even slower to get angry. 

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