An Interview with South China Morning Post

Hey everyone, Chris recently had an interview with the South China Morning Post that got featured as a full article on their site. We thought, however, that you might want to see our Creative Director’s thoughts in their full, nerdy glory, so we’re publishing the full text of the interview in this blog post. Enjoy!

What was the birth of Last Regiment like – what was the eureka moment where you said, ‘we should really make this into a game’

When we started, we were really interested in making simple but deep combat mechanics that worked well with the game’s simultaneous turns. We made dozens of diagrams, sorting out how different movement mechanics would work. When we finally thought we had something, we banged up a rough prototype.

It was just a simple plain with a forest in the middle. We had 2 units: infantry and cavalry. One moved faster and the other was stronger. We played this map over and over again, and we were like, wow, this is really fun! We could suddenly see the possibilities. What if I could fly over the forest and ignore the terrain modifiers? What if I had weapons that could shoot a few hexes? What if we had roads that improved movement? What if I could get up on a hill and defend better, and shoot further?

What if it had goblins?

It all started coming together once we had that basic prototype, and the development from there was very iterative. We just kept adding things we thought would be cool!

I hear that you and your technical director Allan both have some ties and history in Southeast Asia — could you tell me more about that?

It’s a very romantic story, actually. Allan is Norwegian, but he fell in love with a Singaporean girl while in college in Scotland. Then he moved to Southeast Asia almost 2 decades ago to start a life with her. When we started Boomzap, I was in Seattle, and wanted to work with Allan again (we had worked together in Scotland) and when I started putting a business plan together, he convinced me that we should build our business around some key individuals he had worked with in Malaysia and Singapore.

I was in business school at the time, so I took a semester of my MBA at NTU in Singapore. From there, I could work more closely with Allan and learn more about the business climate in Southeast Asia. I was absolutely amazed at the quality of the people in the region, and the support Singapore, in particular, was giving to the games industry. At a number of the local conventions, we were introduced to some developers in the Philippines, realized that there was phenomenal talent there too, and quickly started hiring there and in Indonesia as well. There is just so much talent in the region.

Soon after, I moved permanently to Asia as well, near my family in Yokohama, Japan. Even though we’re a virtual studio, with everyone working from home, I felt it was important for me to go visit our staff and understand more about where they were from and how we could better support them. I’ve spent something like 30% of the last 15 years travelling the region, training our staff, speaking at conventions and universities, and getting involved with the Southeast Asian development scene. Boomzap is a proud supporter of many local initiatives, such as the Game Jam and ECTS in Manila, and Allan has been the organizer for the Singapore IGDA for over a decade.

Most of all, I’m extremely proud of the way our work-from-anywhere structure has brought real opportunity to developers who have struggled to be part of the games industry. For a lot of people in Southeast Asia, getting a job in games has meant moving away from family and going to development hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, and Manila. This means leaving family, friends, and responsibilities at home, and moving to expensive and cramped housing far away from the people they love.

Our director, Chris, in Manila promoting Last Regiment!

Our staff don’t have to make that choice. They can stay right where they are, work in games, and earn a real living wage. We’ve had people working in places like Iloilo, Bandung, Medan, and Bandar Lampung. We’ve also offered people in the suburbs of Manila, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur the chance to quit long, brutal commutes into the city and lead better lives, spending more time with their family and friends.

I should add that to date, three studios have actually been built by local ex-Boomzap staff in Indonesia and the Philippines. The owners of all of them remain good friends, and I am proud to have been part of their journey to entrepreneurship. I like to think that this is what real success in the region looks like: Training great developers, and empowering them to go on and build a larger local community.

When you first came up with the concept for Last Regiment, did you know that you wanted to make a game inspired by Southeast Asian/colonial history? When did you decide to do that? 

When we started the game, we knew it was going to be fantasy. I actually suggested WWI – but our artists quite literally demanded that they wanted to draw fantasy art, so we agreed. But we knew we couldn’t just make another game with the same old orcs and goblins. We needed to do something different.

At the time, I was reading a great book about the history of the British East India Company, and it got me thinking about where the people who were going to make this game came from. The history I was reading about was the colonization of Southeast Asia – this was the actual history of my designers and artists, the people who were going to make the game.

In a way, as an American, I’m also a product of colonialism. I can remember as a child visiting colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, or old settler ruins in Texas. My staff can easily tell you stories about how the Spanish colonized the Philippines, or about Raffles in Singapore. This history was just more a part of us than the stories of Europe, like the Crusades or the War of the Roses. So we decided to run with it.

The original “thesis question” was “What if the Age of Exploration had gone differently? What if Europeans had found a fantasy world, filled with Elves, Orcs, Goblins, and such? And what if instead of the colonists terrorizing the native populations with firearms and disease from their own countries… what if the land they found overwhelmed THEM with superior magic, technology, and it’s own terrible plague?”

It was a really fun concept. Honestly, in the beginning, I think it was more surface-level. We liked the costumes, and the technology. Elves with chainsaws, or orcs with cannons, musketeer and grenadier regiments fighting against satyrs and treants – it was just fun and original. But as we started writing the lore and the campaigns, we suddenly were confronted with the actual history and issues of colonialism. That was something our designers and writers could really sink their teeth into.

Most fantasy games out there tend to be, as you’ve mentioned before, very Euro-centric. Why do you think that’s the case?

In many ways, I would blame Dungeons & Dragons. It’s very clear that the early D&D lore was heavily influenced by a few key references: Middle Earth, Lankhmar, Conan, and a bunch of European and American fantasy novels that were popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Most fantasy game designers working today, myself included, started their career as a dungeon master in a D&D game, or playing video games built by people who come from that background, especially Ultima and more recently, World of Warcraft. Over time, common tropes from these properties became law: Orcs are stronger than goblins. Elves live longer. Dwarves are blacksmiths with Scottish accents. And so on. It all comes from a very European shared experience.

The people working in places like Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines grew up on these same references. So even though they may live on the other side of the earth from the UK, speak a different language, have a different religion, and come from a culture completely different from the one that someone like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin comes from, they still see “Fantasy” as that set of shared tropes. It can be very difficult to break free from that.

For example, our world map even still kinda looks like a classic fantasy map

The only places that have seemed to really buck this trend are places where the market for “local legend” is stronger: particularly China and Japan. And so you see a sort of “Asian fantasy” in these two countries, based either on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or old Samurai legends, or similar local stories. Much like European fantasy, they have developed their own tropes and rules about what kind of characters exist, what kind of monsters you fight, and what the world looks like.

These Asian Fantasy properties, too, have been exported successfully to Southeast Asia. But they don’t really speak to the experience of nations that are the products of colonialism. They lack the “East meets West” part of the story that defines so much of the experience of Southeast Asia.

Tell me more about Kothia. What are its parallels to real life history? (In terms of locations, races, characters, history, languages…)

The basic story is that there is an Old World – a European-style society that lives on the other side of a large ocean. They colonized the continent of Kothia before, but it went poorly, and a series of escalating proxy wars ended in a brutal arms race that produced sentient metal monsters, called Constructs, a fungal infection that imbues corpses with life-like abilities, called The Infection, and finally a cataclysmic explosion of creatures formed of the magical energy of the natural world, called the Feyborn.

As Kothia fell to this apocalyptic war of attrition, the Old World retreated, leaving Kothia to destroy itself. The assorted Elves, Goblins, Orcs, and other peoples of the continent fragmented into tribes that hid from these monsters, and over time, the continent returned to a more natural start, still roamed by these Constructs, Infected, and Feyborn.

Our game takes place at the beginning of the Reconquest, as the Old World once again rediscovers the New World of Kothia, and attempts to reconquer it. Much like our own Age of Exploration, the powers of the Old World are fighting over this new property, creating wars at home and abroad. Massive trading companies, most importantly the West Kothian Trading Company, have risen in power, and now control their own military forces and colonies.

They also own some cool horses

The people of Kothia, much like the native people of India, America, or Southeast Asia are varied in their responses. It would be easy to make “the Elves hate the Orcs” or “The locals hate the foreigners” stories, but we know from history that it’s never this simple. The French and Indian War in the States, for instance, involved France fighting England, and both sides had allies among the Native American Tribes. The English colonization of both India and Malaya involved numerous treaties with local rulers. We wanted our own story to deal with these complexities, and not depend on simple “us vs. them” storylines.

It is precisely this complexity, this constant changing of alliances and enemies, that we wanted to capture in our game. This is actually built into our Multiplayer games, allowing people to make and destroy alliances in the middle of the game, allowing players to win not just through better military tactics, but by allying with other powers against a common enemy.

Beyond just making a game that’s fun, and one that people will enjoy, what do you hope to accomplish with Last Regiment?

Last Regiment is actually the second strategy game Boomzap has made. Our previous strategy game, Legends of Callasia, was a good game, but it had a lot of key issues that we felt we could resolve by rethinking a lot of the gameplay from the beginning. Most importantly, we wanted a game that would be deep, and allow for real thought and strategy, while still remaining based on very streamlined and intuitive mechanics.

We think by these metrics, it’s a huge success, and we’ve really upped our game as strategy game developers. I’m looking forward to continuing to improve the gameplay, add new features and options, and really own the “simultaneous turn-based strategy game” space moving forward.

In recent times, we’ve seen some big studios open up branches in Southeast Asia (Ubisoft, Koei Tecmo, Bandai Namco, etc). Do you think it’s a step in the right direction in terms of letting Southeast Asian talents shine, or do you think that these big studios tend to be a little exploitative in nature?

Well, these are big corporations, and they do what’s best for the bottom line. Ubisoft didn’t build a game studio in Laguna, Philippines, because it really wants to help Filipinos. It’s looking for cheap labor. The big studios in Singapore were set up because the Singapore government gave them enormous tax breaks to do so. It’s the same reason that they built studios in Canada.

But I think we do have to understand that when the economy improves locally, labor rates rise, and the tax breaks dry up, they will leave to chase similar opportunities elsewhere. We know this. It’s what big corporations always do. We also have to remember that the actual profits from hit franchises aren’t being run through the local economies, either. Ubisoft may be making a world famous multi-million dollar franchise with workers in their huge offices in the Philippines, but you can be sure they aren’t running those profits through the Philippines! They are running their studio at cost as a work for hire appendage to the larger corporation, and running their profits through the home office.

These aren’t small numbers we’re talking about. A series like Grand Theft Auto, Far Cry, or Gears of War will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of profit per title. If that was a local Malaysian or Philippine company, that amount of money would be transformative. But as long as the Intellectual Property holders remain overseas, these incredible windfalls of cash remain overseas as well.

But that’s not to say that these studios are a bad thing. These big outsource-style studios serve as a great way for Southeast Asian developers to earn reasonable salaries, and learn how to make games on someone else’s dime. They are building local developers and sharing hard won experiences from places like America, Europe, Japan, and China and that’s great. When local developers tire of working for the big companies, and want to move to a place where they have more creative control, and share in a greater part of the profits, indie studios like us are there to support them. Over time, these local indie studios will grow, and we’ll start seeing homegrown successes.

In your opinion, why are indie studios so relevant/important for the biodiversity of the game dev world?

The games industry has grown exponentially in the last couple decades, and is now by revenue the largest entertainment industry in the world. by a rather large margin. With this growth, it has also grown in diversity. There are huge AAA games that take teams of a thousand or more people to build all the way down to little garage-shop games made by 1-2 people. The kinds of products that you will get from these teams are quite different and that’s great. The film industry needs blockbusters and tentpole television franchises as well as indie films and documentaries. This diversity is key to continuing the art form and growing new, original content.

Original content like making goblins ride iguanas into battle

My biggest worry at the moment is that the industry is doing a poor job of supporting the mid-tier independent development studios. Making a game like Last Regiment is not a cheap proposition. We needed a team of about 10 full time, professional staff for almost 2 years to make it happen, but we struggled to find a publisher interested in funding it, at least in part because it was too small to be AAA, and too niche to fit into the world of mid-tier casual/mobile games. That meant we had to take a huge personal financial risk in making it.

A studio can only take that risk unsuccessfully once or twice before it goes bankrupt. And this fear stands in the way of creators making really new, original content. But this is becoming more and more obvious, and small niche publishers like Raw Fury, Tiny Build, and such are moving in to fill that gap. Hopefully, this trend continues, because the world needs original, indie content made by studios like Boomzap. At least that’s the world I hope we live in.