The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part One: September 1995
This is the very first report from Singapore, written in the Autumn of 1995 on the plane home from our first visit to hammer out the deal that created Games Online. A lot has happened in the sixteen months since that visit. All of it is detailed in this journal, and the subsequent ones written every 2-4 months. Reading back over the first couple, they seem hopelessly naïve and optimistic. As well as downright inaccurate in some places. It has been a long, difficult year, and our outlook now is more jaded. Still, it is interesting to read through the reports. You can see the change in my mood and outlook as we learn how things work here, and run into obstruction after obstruction. Yet Games Online exists now, and we still persevere. It makes an interesting story. Everything below is original journal, with some asides added last April.
This is the first installment in what I hope will be a long running series detailing the move of the Renegade Graphics/Silkworm Interactive core group to Singapore to design video games for the Sembawang Corporation. If the deal collapses in the next two weeks before we sign the contracts, this may also be the last installment. Everything looks good now, however. These reports are for the amusement and curiosity of my friends. I also hope to provide a practical account of setting up a large business deal with an Asian company, and moving a group to Asia to work for a year or so.
Note: I reviewed this document April 28, 1995, and made some notes now that I have eight months of hindsight. All new notes are in parentheses and marked “rev”.
Almost Blew Him Off
This whole deal began to unfold at GenCon, August 1995, in Milwaukee. I was there on behalf of R. Talsorian Games, Inc., and also Renegade Graphics, a small software outfit run by a friend of mine named Joe Pantuso. Joe and I had been working together for about a year, primarily over the Internet. We had written one book (Online G@mes, published by Brady Books, 1995), and were completing the manuscript for a second (The Complete Internet Gamer, published by J.Wiley & Sons, 1996). I had also generated some digital sound effects for two of Joe’s game projects. Despite a grand total of about five hours actual face-to-face time, we had developed quite a good working relationship.
On Friday or Saturday, I don’t remember exactly which, Joe came over to the RTG booth with a young looking Asian gentleman. “I’d like you to meet Chris Teo, from Singapore,” he said. Chris seemed a very pleasant chap, and we traded business cards. Chris immediately began explaining the wonders of Singapore to me.
“Singapore is really a wonderful city,” he said enthusiastically. “It has a bad reputation in the U.S. because of Michael Fay, but he was caught red handed on videotape and then denied everything. Really a juvenile delinquent. Actually its a very pleasant city. You should really come for a visit and stay I while, I’m sure you’d like it.”
While Chris was going off energetically about the wonders of Singapore, I was standing there with a polite smile, nodding, all the while thinking to myself, “Nice spin job, man, but what’s this all about?” As soon as Chris paused for breath, Joe explained what he was driving at. “Chris wants to bring us to Singapore to design some videogames for his company.” Well, I fixed Joe with my best ‘Oh, really?’ look, and then decided to play the game. My assessment was that this was all some flight of fancy. “I’ve heard that Singapore is beautiful,” I chimed in, as etiquette required. We traded a few more pleasantries about Singapore and life in general, and then Joe walked Chris off for his next introduction.
I immediately wrote the whole thing off. Chris looked about twenty-five (he’s in his mid thirties and worth over a million bucks, it turns out) (Rev: No he’s not. His family is. Big difference.). I didn’t expect to think much more about it, but I was at Renegade’s Booth later that day, and Joe gave me a copy of the Sembawang Corporation prospectus. They are a giant multi-industrial corporation that made its dent building cargo ships. They have one billion dollars in annual revenue, and are backed by the Singaporean government. The chairman is permanent defense minister of Singapore (rev: no, he was permanent defense secretary), and current chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board. That makes Sembawang a pretty blue-chip Pacific-Rim corporation. The company is currently diversifying as fast as possible.
Chris went on his way, and Joe filled me in on how he had originally contacted Renegade. It seemed that Sembawang was on the verge of launching an Internet access providing company called Pacific Internet, of which Chris was the director. Someone at Pacific had spotted Joe’s world wide web page, on which Joe explains some of the games he’s developing on his own. Chris found the descriptions interesting, and since Pacific Internet was on the market for online content, he fired off an e-mail to Joe expressing interest in meeting. Joe has since told me that he almost blew off the note, figuring it to be too weird and improbable to have any promise. But answer it he did, and Chris proved how serious he was by diverting on a cross country flight specifically to meet with us in Milwaukee. Had I known this at the time I was introduced to Chris, I would have been a lot less skeptical.
As the convention wound down, Joe and I discussed the deal. We were both excited about the prospect of being paid a lot to move to Singapore and develop Joe’s games for a known client. I was also a bit apprehensive, to begin with. The idea of moving to Singapore was a bit frightening, not because of anything I’d heard about Singapore, but because I was 8500 miles away from everything that I knew. I told Joe that I wanted to see all the paperwork before I committed to anything.
After the convention I found my enthusiasm growing however. Joe told me how much I stood to make if the deal went through. I’d be doing a job that I love, acting as Joe’s audio director and creating sound effects and ambiances for the games. Also, the thought of moving to Asia for six months to a year (rev: now two years) began to seem rather adventurous. I fired off a “nice to have met you” e-mail to Chris, and Joe and I began to talk seriously about the prospects of pulling this deal off.
Ants in My Pants
Joe and I exchanged a lot of e-mail in the two-weeks following the convention. I was grinding out the last manuscript pages for the Internet games book, and was often up until two or three A.M., with my computer hooked into the Net. During the course of those work sessions, Joe and I would often exchange as many as ten or twelve messages, discussing the potential of the deal, and our plans for making the best of it. We both began to feel a sense of anticipation. In an e-mail to Joe, Chris had mentioned the possibility of flying Joe and his wife to Singapore. Since his wife couldn’t make the trip, Joe asked me if I had a current passport (which I did), and told me that, if a trip was planned, I’d be the one accompanying him. I had always wanted to visit Asia. Needless to say, this excited me.
In the two weeks following the convention, Chris became extremely scarce. Both Joe and I started getting very antsy, and wondering if the whole episode had simply been a lot of bluster. At this point we were both very excited about the deal, and the prospect of losing it before we’d even had a chance seemed very disappointing. I was also burned out on writing game books, after doing two in a row, and my other job, producing talk radio on the weekends at KSFO 560 AM, was looking more and more colorless by the day, compared with the possibilities that awaited us in Singapore. After all, the money from the radio station was inconsequential next to what we could expect from Sembawang, and Joe had told me that we would be able to build a sound studio to my specifications if the deal went through. That’s a hell of a carrot for any audio engineer.
After two weeks of rising anxiety, Chris reappeared, and our anxieties were put to rest. How would we like to come out to Singapore over the week of labor day?
Well, if I must!
After some hemming and hawing, and mild heart attacks, Chris told Joe to book us tickets, and Sembawang would repay him on arrival. We had to do it this way because at this point there was only a week left before our projected travel date, and there wasn’t time to book and ship the tickets from Singapore. Joe booked us on Singapore airways. The plan was to leave Sunday, September 6, and return Friday the 11th. As Joe phrased it in one of his e-mails, “Yahoo! We’re going to Singapore!” (Rev: this should have been our first warning as to some of the later frustrations we would face doing business in Singpore, where everythign happens at the last minute.)
My friends started a pool as to whether I would have to cut off my long hair, and I immediately ran out and charged up $700 in new clothes, including a suit. (I hadn’t owned a suit since I was 7! Twenty years!) That Visa charged guaranteed that, if the deal didn’t go through, I was headed for Chapter 11. (Rev: I have yet to wear the suit).
Meanwhile, Joe, bless his industrious heart, had combed the Internet and a Lonely Planet Guide to Singapore, and had produced a 23 page primer on customs, culture, law (!), and commerce in Singapore. Like many Asian cultures, Singapore has well defined customs, including business rituals that can determine gain or loss of face. Anxious not to make an idiot out of myself, cause and international incident, or get my ass caned off, I set about memorizing the primer.
Coffee, Tea, or Sedatives?
The flight to Singapore was twenty hours, connecting through Seoul, South Korea. I had flown to Europe several times, including a thirteen hour nonstop marathon to London, but nothing in my experience had prepared me for the seemingly endless nature of this flight. At least I didn’t have it as bad as Joe. Our flight was scheduled for 3:50 PM, Pacific. Joe’s journey actually started early that evening in Tennessee, as he flew from Knoxville to North Carolina, and from Carolina to San Francisco. Joe then had a five hour layover in S.F. I didn’t even join him at the airport until nearly two, as I was selfishly watching the Niners’ game. Hey, you work on Sundays, you get your football where you can!
We were flying coach class. We had dreamed of business class, but by the time we booked our tickets, the only thing left was coach, and “premium.” which was $4,000 a ticket. We figured it would be a poor show to appear in Singapore and immediately present Sembawang with a bill for eight grand. So steerage it was. Fortunately, an Indian family asked us to trade our center seats for their three by the window, so that four of them could sit together. This provided a two-fold bonus. We got three seats between the two of us, and we weren’t sitting under the condensation leak that formed shortly after takeoff and started dripping right onto the seats we had given up. Them’s the breaks.
Unsolicited Advertising for Singapore Airlines: I have to say, if you must fly twenty hours in steerage class, Singapore Airlines is definitely the way to go. The planes are all brand spanking new 747-400 Megatops that look like they just had the static wrap taken off the instrument panels. They treat you very well on SingAir. The service is definitely a cut above the cookie-cutter US carriers. The food is a marginal improvement. The inflight entertainment is great. On the transpac flight, including the leg to Singapore, you get four movies, plus numerous short features. (Rev: and they just refit all their airplanes with personal video screens at every seat.) Some of the movies are Hong Kong flicks. The booze is free! Consequently, if you want to, you can totally zone out, drink yourself into a stupor, watch TeeVee, and, periodically, food will mysteriously appear in front of you!
Furthermore, the Singapore stewardesses are amazing (with apologies to our girlfriends, wives, etc.) I can’t imagine what the screening process is like. They are all these wispy, serene, preternaturally attractive women. They seem to have a gene that keeps them from getting surly, and they are very charming, even to steerage passengers. They also wear very flattering quasi-indigenous outfits.
Singapore girl, you’re a great way to fly.
Oh, there are also male stewards, but you don’t see them in the commercials, you’ll notice.
All of these pleasures did not stop Joe and me from pledging to fly business class on all future trips too and from Singapore. (Rev: only one for three so far.)
Interesting sidenote: Unlike most US airlines, the Singapore safety film features a male steward. I wonder if that was an Asian cultural thing, or simply incidental. You decide.
Twelve and a half hours after leaving San Francisco, we landed in Seoul, South Korea. I had already misted up at my first glimpse of Asia with my own eyes. Never mind that it was a hazy glimpse of Kamchatka through cloud cover at dusk. You gotta have some sentiment, after all. We also flew over Mount Fuji, Japan, but I was sitting on the wrong side of the plane.
I did get a great view of Seoul as we landed. We came in from the south, to avoid North Korean airspace. There was a great view of the city as we came in. Seoul is huge, and it sprawls along a river. The city is high-rise apartment hell, rows and rows of identical high-rise apartment buildings. You couldn’t live more anonymously if you wanted to. Nonetheless, the city was attractive from the air at night. Of course, what city isn’t? One thing that I was interested to notice. They street lights in Seoul have a bluish tint, so the entire city looks blue from the air. There is little of the orange glow from the sodium lamps ubiquitous in the US.
Before landing in Seoul, we were warned that it is illegal to take pictures in the Seoul airport. Seoul is only thirty or so miles form the DMZ, and there is a palpable air of paranoia. As it turns out, the warning not to shoot pictures was superfluous. No one would want to take pictures in the Seoul airport. It’s too depressing. The terminal looks like it was built and furnished in the nineteen sixties. It looks like the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, gone badly to seed and without the videophones. Furthermore, although we arrived at 8:30 PM, the airport was completely empty.
Yes, completely empty. Ours was the only active gate. Only one other flight was expected that evening. Joe and I figured we’d get a bowl of noodles, or such, but every stall was closed. And this is a city of 10 million people! So we bided our time in a lounge overlooking the terminal concourse, and a giant sign that said: Seoul Airport: The New Gateway to Northeast Asia.
Keep at it, boys. The 1990 Olympics were a long time ago.
As if that wasn’t depressing enough, we still had six more hours to fly!
On the second leg of the flight I finally managed to drift off to sleep. For ten minutes. I dreamed that the plane crashed. That was that for sleep on the plane.
Six hour later, we landed at Changi International Airport, on the island of Singapore. Built on the sight of the notorious Japanese WW II Changi Prison Camp, Changi Airport is everything that Seoul International isn’t. Changi is what the 2001 space station would look like if the movie was made now, with a Jim Cameron sized budget. It is spacious, huge, modern, well signed, filled with plants, and 100% immaculately spotless (like everything else in Singapore it turns out…see below). You would be happy to rent a room in Changi Airport. You would fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco through Singapore just to connect through Changi Airport. If there was an international airport derby, Changi would win, hands down.
Okay, so its still just an airport, and as such, inherently bleak, but you get the picture.
After everything I had heard about Singapore, I feared the worst from Customs. I had taken my earrings out, and debated whether or not to pony-tail my hair. Both Joe and I were expecting at least a luggage search, and at most, body cavity inspection.
It was so fast I barely knew I’d been through customs.
I guess they figure that the giant, red stamp that says “Warning: Death for Drug Traffickers in Singapore” on the immigration card that you fill out on the airplane is dissuasion enough. If you have the balls to try to smuggle something in after reading that card, more power to you, brother. If they catch you, they will hang you. Americans included.
It was 2:00 AM, Singapore time. Chris was waiting to meet us. It was off to the posh Mandarin Hotel. We drove on the PIE, the major freeway across the island of Singapore. It was wide and tree-lined, with apartment highrises and office buildings visible behind the trees. We were in Singapore for the first time. Might as well have been in Burbank, as nothing had sunk in yet.
So we arrived at the Mandarin Hotel, Singapore, at around 3:00 AM. The hotel is on Orchard Road, Singapore’s main upscale shopping drag. There was some minor hassle with our room reservation dates, but in the end, everything worked out. Joe and I were placed on the same floor and ushered up to our rooms. Naturally, we did the two things every American does first when in a new country. We checked the mini-bar and turned on the television. The mini-bar was lavishly stocked with everything from beer to liqueurs to potato chips to chocolate. We were a little miffed at the television choices. The first thing we encountered was a rerun of M*A*S*H. The second thing we encountered was a CNN International recap of the day’s events in the O.J. Simpson trial. There simply is no escape from American pop culture.
It was time to call it a night.
The alarm went off at nine the next morning. I hopped out of bed, eager to open the curtains and get my first glimpse of Singapore by daylight. My 15th floor hotel room didn’t look towards the financial center, but it did give me an idea of what the city looks like. It is green, with many high rise buildings and wide roads. There is also plenty of construction happening throughout the city.
Chris Teo was scheduled to pick us up at ten AM. Chris took us to the Sembawang Media offices on the eighteenth floor of the Ngee Ann City Towers, a huge, red granite edifice that boasts twin towers and a main entrance pavilion that would humble Julius Caesar. Ngee Ann City (pronounced nee-ahn) also hosts a huge underground mall, and Takashimaya, a very toney Japanese department store and supermarket. The entire complex was just across the street from the hotel, on Orchard Road. The Sembawang Corporation main offices were across the hallway from Pacific Internet. Sembawang’s lobby looked very nice, done in the same red marble as the building exterior, with a giant metal version of the stylized seahorse Sembawang logo. The Sembawang Media offices were a little more hectic and homey, jammed with cubicles, computers, and people scurrying back and forth. Sembawang Media was actually “slumming” in unused Sembawang office space until they moved to their permanent home later that fall. Chris introduced Joe and me around. Some people had Western nicknames, many did not. It made it very difficult to remember people’s names. Fortunately, many of the people we were introduced to had business cards. This was our first introduction to the business card ritual, which is taken very seriously in Singaporean business. Here’s how it goes:
The senior individual is introduced first. If a card is to be exchange, it is presented with two hands, with the text oriented so that the recipient can read it. The recipient takes the card, also with two hands, and both people hold onto the card momentarily. The recipient then scrutinizes the card for ten or fifteen seconds before pocketing it. Then, the recipient offers his or her card back in the same manner. Other people’s business cards must not be written upon or placed in a hip pocket, either of which is a sign of disrespect. If you are sitting at a table, you arrange the cards in front of you in order of seniority. Mind you, this ritual is not formalized. It is done as a matter of course. It is, however, observed, and Westerner’s journeying to Singapore should be prepared for it.
Chris sat us down in a conference room and blocked out our schedule for the next three and a half days. First, a trip to the Information Technology Institute to appraise a tank combat game that had been created by some programmers there. Chris wanted our opinion as to whether it was worth buying. Next, a visit with the chairman of the Sembawang Corporation. Then, rest time and dinner. On Wednesday morning, Joe and I would make our presentations on the games we were planning to make for Pacific Internet (rev: there was no inkling at that time of the size that deal would balloon into, or of the founding of a separate company for the games). That afternoon we would all troop down to a company called Symbolic Technologies for some computer demonstrations. Then dinner. On Thursday morning we would talk turkey, and draft up the numbers for the deal. Thursday afternoon was tourism and shopping time. Friday morning was breakfast, and then it was off to the airport for the marathon return flight.
After the meet-and-greets, Chris took us for a breakfast of chicken rice, a famed local delicacy, at the Chatterbox restaurant at the hotel. Pacific Internet business development director Goh Yu Min joined us as well. Chatterbox is one of those hotel restaurants where a glass of juice is six dollars. I privately thanked God that Sembawang was sporting for breakfast. Chicken rice is a fine dish. Beware the pink chicken juices, however. Fortunately, no salmonella was reported.
So it was off on our first assignment.
Consult This, Round Eyes!
Our first stop was the Information Technology Institute, a government research organization about twenty-minutes drive from Orchard Road. We were issued guest ID’s, and ushered into the offices where we were introduced to a group of young programmers and computer engineers who had developed a rudimentary 3-D networkable tank combat game. Chris told us that he wanted to evaluate the game, and give him our opinion of whether it was worth licensing or not. We had immediately been thrust into the role of consultants.
Chris and Yu-Min explained to the ITI staff that we were there only to evaluate their game, and make recommendations. I think that they knew that we were there to give it thumbs up or thumbs down, however. They were cordial to us, but also somewhat suspicious. They asked what our qualifications were, what games we had worked on, and what games we were planning for PI. Chris said that we were under a nondisclosure agreement, which, technically, we were not, so we ducked most of their questions about what we were working on.
We took a look at the ITI tank game, and some of the other things that they had developed. There was no question that they had talented programmers and designers working for them. They had a 3-D terrain simulation program that was quite impressive. The tank game itself was completely undeveloped, however. It allowed two people to duel head to head in real-time in a 3-D environment. The environment was totally flat, however, there was no strategic element, no variation in weapons or vehicles, no sound design, and no developed interface. Adding to our concern was the absence of the person who had programmed all of the network communications driver, and much of the game engine itself. Many of Joe’s technical questions went unanswered.
After leaving we gave Chris our opinion. “It’s a long way from being a finished game,” I said. Joe agreed. “It would be just as easy to start from scratch and design from the ground up as it would be to adapt that [game] to a finished commercial product.” Furthermore, both Joe and I had questions about the practicality of real-time combat over the Internet (rev: which we have since addressed in our own projects, as have other groups, like Domark and id). When ping times are slower than about 250 milliseconds round trip, real- time combat games become impractical under most circumstances. ITI’s game will not be developed by Pacific Internet, at least any time soon, but Joe and I expect to see some of the ITI guys on our staff over the next year (rev: a prediction which has since come true in spades).
Joe and Will Meet the Chairman
After we wrapped up at ITI, we hopped back into the car and hightailed it back towards Ngee Ann City Towers for our meeting with Philip Yeo, the Chairman of Sembawang. Our meeting was scheduled for 3:00 PM, and one does not keep the chairman waiting. We made it back to the office with literally one minute to spare
Of course, at the time, I was not really aware of all this. I had imagined meeting the chairman of SembMedia. Not the chairman of the entire Sembawang corporation; a man who is also the Defense Secretary of Singapore, chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board, and who lunches with Steven Wozniak, Bill Gates, and other computer luminaries.
After an appropriate amount of time in the waiting room, we were ushered into Philip Yeo’s office. Mr. Yeo was dressed informally, as were we. After an exchange of business cards, we got down to business. It turned out that Philip Yeo was a major computer geek. The man was completely wired, with two computers in his office and the largest collection of CD-ROMs in Singapore. No joke. Mr. Yeo was an accomplished net surfer, who had spent many hours cruising the byways of the Internet. He knew his way around the Internet, computers, and entertainment software. There would be no bullshitting him, even if we had wanted to.
We spent an enthusiastic hour discussing computers and computer peripherals. Mr. Yeo was amazingly energetic, and it was often difficult to keep up with him. We also discussed a personal interest of his, educational software. The possibility of developing an educational online game was raised.
After our hour was up, Mr. Yeo ended the meeting. There was no mistaking when it was over. Mr. Yeo walked us out into the hallway, and that was that. Joe and I had some anxiety about the meeting, and whether we had shown the proper respect and deference to Mr. Yeo. Chris settled our anxieties by telling us that Mr. Yeo seldom sees people out of his office, and to walk us all the way out to the hallway was a sign of respect. Chris also told us the next day that Mr. Yeo had been impressed. Needless to say, Joe and I were relieved.
One thing Joe had noticed, but that I had missed, was that Mr. Yeo had and assault rifle in his office. Private ownership of firearms is illegal in Singapore, and is a capital offense, punishable by hanging. Mr. Yeo is apparently the only private individual (or one of few) in Singapore who has a firearm. It turns out that Mr. Yeo had arranged the manufacture of the assault rifle, the first model to be produced domestically in Singapore. Chris and Yu- Min pointed out that if that weapon was found in any of their offices they could be hung. Mr. Yeo must have a lot of political capital and friends in high places. Understandable, I guess, for the man who is permanent Defense Minister.
I suggested to Chris that Sembawang Media, an Internet oriented company, was in a good position, since the chairman of the parent corporation was a total net-head. Chris said that they were all acutely aware of their good fortune.
Shop Till You Drop
After the meeting with the Chairman, both Joe and I needed some time to decompress. we had dinner plans with Chris later that evening, but that left a couple of hours to stroll down Orchard Road, and eyeball the upscale shops and malls. It was our first real chance to do any exploring, and see some of the city on foot. Of course, defining Singapore from a walk up and down orchard road is a lot like defining all of the Bay Area from a walk around Union Square.
Orchard road is lined with shops and malls of every variety, from Armani to 7-11. It is a very interesting walk, and it served as our introduction to the commercial livelihood of Singapore, a city state with greater foreign cash reserves than all of South America, and our first introduction to the heat. I was wearing black jeans as we wandered through the sun dappled streets. I’ll never make that mistake again. One degree above the equator, the sun crosses the zenith directly in Singapore. Even at four in the afternoon, when direct sunlight hit me, I thought I was going to burst into flame. (Eight months later I’m still not used to it.)
Joe and I wandered past the Singapore Marriott, which is shaped like a giant, tacky pagoda, down to a mall and cineplex called the Lido. Along the way, in two smaller malls, we were spotted as tourists instantly as people tried to hawk suits and gift items at us. The lesson we learned is to always look like you know exactly where you are going. If you dawdle, people will attempt to sell things to you.
At the Lido, Joe and I explored some of the shops and the movie theater. The theater was promoting Batman Forever in a big way. Good thing we didn’t see it, as it was shown on the plane home. It was also plugging the new Jackie Chan movie, Thunderbolt, which was also being promoted on large billboards throughout the city. Supposedly the most expensive Hong Kong movie ever shot, we didn’t have a chance to see it, much as we wanted to. There was simply no time. Hopefully it will still be playing at the end of October, when we return.
I was interested to see what I thought was an HDTV set in one of the electronics store, but it was not the case. In Singapore, you can routinely get televisions that have a movie screen aspect ration of 16:9, rather than a standard aspect ratio of 3:4. That means that letterboxed movies fill the whole screen. Regular broadcasting can either simply use the middle of the screen, or can be distorted to fit the widescreen format. It looks very cool for movie fans, and most of the sets are quite large. Unfortunately, the start at around $2400 Singapore for a smallish JVC, so I don’t suppose that we’ll be getting one. And no importing them, either, since they use the British PAL broadcast format in Singapore, rather than the NTSC format used in the U.S. and Japan. (Rev: Wrong. Virtually every piece of home AV equipment in Singapore is multiformat, NTSC and PAL. I now have the full-on 16:9 home theater, and you better believe that I am bringin’ it home.)
After browsing, we joined Chris for dinner at the fashionable, touristy, Clarke Quay district. We went to a Thai restaurant where we learned something wonderful about Singapore. All the Asian food is delicious and 100% authentic. Unfortunately, that comes with some pitfalls, as well, as we had a spicy Thai soup in which Joe encountered a pepper that nearly blew his head clean off.
You can’t get it like that in America, you know.
By this time, it was close to 10:00 PM, and jet lag informed my body that it was time to switch off. I slept as soon as I hit the pillow at the Mandarin, despite the racket from the all night construction happening at the site next door.
I woke up at 6:30. That was it. My body was raring to go. Anyone who knows me will be skeptical, knowing my tendency to sleep to ten or ten-thirty when left to my own devices. Not this time, however. We weren’t due to rendezvous with Chris until 10:00 or so, and I had plenty of time to kill. I ended up doing what any red blooded American would do in the same situation. That’s right, I watched TV. I watched a good bit of news and all of the movie Ensign Pulver on HBO Asia before it was even time to shower. By the way, that is a pretty representative example of the programming you can expect to find on HBO Asia.
Aside: Ensign Pulver is not nearly as good as Mr. Roberts. It doesn’t even have James Cagney or Jack Lemmon in it.
At 10:00 AM Joe and I walked over to the Sembawang Media offices in Ngee Ann City. Joe had prepared eight plastic folders with the information on our marquee game, iPower. I had a similar number of papers detailing the audio studio needs, and explaining our approach to the audio design. We had nothing prepared for our games based on the Minion MUD engine, since we didn’t plan on using it. That was to change, as would soon find out.
Waiting for us in the conference room at the Sembawang offices were Chris, Yu-Min, a fellow named Jek who was the CTO of Sembawang Media, and a number of technicians and other Sembawang Media/Pacific Internet employees. There were six or seven of them, in addition to Joe and myself. Joe and I had experienced some anxiety about this presentation. We were worried about having to sell them on the projects, and we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to talk for the three to four hours that Chris had set aside for the presentation. Neither issue was a problem, as it turned out.
We rattled on for some time about our games, Joe talking about design and implementation, and me talking about audio and content. The group from Sembawang had some excellent questions about the game, and knew their stuff. It was not like the meeting at ITI the previous day, where the group had seemed unfocused. These guys had some distinct questions and interests. Fortunately, we were able to satisfy them.
Two things emerged during the meeting that were very interesting. First, the Sembawang boys started talking seriously about producing two games, a strategy title and a role-playing title. Joe and I had envisioned doing the strategy title, but had really only loosely batted around the idea of the fantasy/role playing game even though Joe had a good existing engine. We had discussed it to some extend with Chris, but did not seriously expect to do it. Chris was very enthusiastic about it, however, and it soon became clear that were going to expect us to do two games at once. (Rev: now three!) The second surprise was also part of that equation. They were prepared to furnish us with a large staff to do the games. Joe and I specified the staff we would need to do both games at once on the Sembawang timetable: twenty one people (rev: now twenty-six). To our surprise, Chris and Jek were quite receptive. This was our first inkling that this deal was going to be much bigger than we expected, and out responsibilities were going to grow accordingly. If only we knew…
At the end of the discussion, some four hours and one order of dim-sum later, we had a clear responsibility of what they expected from us development-wise, and the boys from Sembawang had a clear idea of how the games were going to be designed and programmed. Everyone seemed extremely pleased. Joe and I were extremely relieved, both that we’d had enough presentation materials, and that we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves. We knew what we were talking about, and a late night discussion we’d had the evening before made sure we both knew the game designs as well as possible, and in the same way.
One thing that was amusing during the meeting was that Chris and Yu Min’s cell phones went off incessantly, and the two of them had to keep excusing themselves from the room to talk. I began to think they were calling each other! This was a pattern that continued through the whole trip. It did not make me want to own a cell phone. Talk about no escape.
After our presentation, at around 2:30 PM, it was time to head to a company called Symbolic Technologies for another presentation. Neither Joe nor I was exactly sure what we were supposed to be seeing there, but a number of the Sembawang guys were going out as well, and they all seemed quite enthusiastic about it. We drove out to the presentation with Jek in his Mercedes. It seemed to us that all of the SembMedia guys we met were doing quite well financially. Hope that we’re doing the same after working with them for a while.
The Symbolic Technologies offices were in a building in the industrial outback of Singapore, but inside they were quite nice. We weren’t in there for long before we saw that they had a nice selection of equipment around. We learned that they were the Singapore distributors for high end computer graphics equipment and software, including SGI systems, the Alias/Wavefront 3-D modeling and Alias/Power Animator software suites, the Lightscape architectural suite, and the Turbo Cube nonlinear video editing system.
All of this seemed very interesting, and indeed, Joe and I were salivating over the SGI/Alias demonstration. The Alias 3-D modeling suite would be very useful for designing our strategy game, which is has a great deal of 3-D art in it. We had originally anticipated having to do all of our 3-D design on P-5 PCs with Truespace or some such other low-rent software. The Sembawang guys were obviously impressed with Alias as well. (Rev: we are now developing on SGI and NT based Softimage, NT based 3D Studio Max and Lightwave.)
Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. We also had to sit through interminable demonstrations of Lightscape, an architectural design program, and the Turbo Cube. The Turbo Cube demonstration was interesting to me, as a former broadcasting student, but by that time the demonstration was stretching into three and a half hours, and both Joe and I were getting antsy and bored. The Sembawang people were interested in the Turbo Cube for their fledgling video-production outfit, so Joe and I paid polite attention until it was all over. It was a very slick system, I must admit.
Once the demonstrations had concluded, we gathered up our Symbolic promo binders and made our way back to the cars, and then the hotel. A pleasant Sembawang staffer named Darius was assigned to chaperone us that evening. Darius had been at our own presentation that morning, and seemed pleased to join us for dinner. We walked over to the shopping center in the Ngee Ann City Towers, and had some coffee and a good Indonesian meal. After a few Tiger Beers (the Budweiser of Singapore, but nastier), my brain was ready to take a powder, so we headed back the hotel and called it a night. We had to be ready for the all-important business discussions the next day.
Thursday was Business Day. The morning had been set aside by Chris to discuss the nuts and bolts of the deal. At this point we knew the scope of the deal had grown, but we had no idea how it would be reflected in numbers. The only thing that Joe and I were armed with were ballpark salary figures. We had not thought much about percentages or stock options. Our plan was to retain US rights to the game for our own distribution, and make our residuals off of selling those rights to a US distributor. (Rev: current plan is much different. Sembawang has all rights and we get a percentage of all sales as well as part ownership of the company.)
Our perspective was rearranged shortly after we walked into the conference room. A host of numbers were already written on the dry-erase board. The numbers were the result of Sembawang’s early analysis. The largest number on the board was 39 million Singapore (27 million US), representing total production, distribution, and promotion costs projected over several years. The smallest number on the board was 5.5 million Singapore (4 million US), representing the budget for the Games OnLine R&D department, or, functionally, the money Joe and the rest of us would have to work with. There were several other million dollar sums also written on the board. There was a classic moment when., asked to explain what we were bringing to the table, Joe went up to the board and wrote $0. But that was reality. We were bringing a staff of 4-6, our ideas, one engine, and the keys to one content license. Everything else was up to Sembawang.
At this point, Joe and I both looked at each other, and thought the same thing. We are way out of our depth. We are so far out they won’t even launch a search party when we sink. In this situation, there are two things you can do. You can throw all of your stuff into the air and run screaming from the room, catch a taxi to the airport and never come back again. Or, you can suck it up and pretend you know what you’re doing. Given the situation, we opted for number two. In reality, we weren’t clueless, we were just far behind the Sembawang boys in analyzing the big picture. We might also have had a fundamentally more accurate view, however. Sembawang had some mighty precarious numbers in terms of costs and revenue decline over three years. As they had the numbers arranged, the deal was non-viable, which was a little unnerving.
After some discussion, we rearranged the numbers a bit to generate what Joe and I thought was a more realistic, and, fortunately, a more favorable prediction for Games Online. Some things stayed the same. Games Online still had a 5.5 million Singapore development budget. The predictions changed a bit, however. Nonetheless, Sembawang still budgeted a healthy chunk for marketing and distribution.
There were a couple of major perturbations in our plan. First, Sembawang asked us to relinquish our US rights in return for an overall percentage of worldwide distribution. With an offer of 10%, and an aggressive worldwide distribution plan, that seemed reasonable. Sembawang sweetened the kitty by offering us 4% (bargained down from our request for 5%) of the profits from all other GOL games, whether they were produced by our little group, or brought in from outside. If GOL establishes a large catalog, that could become very lucrative. GOL also threw in another carrot. They offered to make our little group of four people 16% of the Games Online corporate entity, which they plan to incorporate and take public in the United States. Simple math reveals that the equity in GOL could be worth quite a bit with a good IPO. (Rev: our profit cut is now generalized, across all GOL products, which is nice.)
Another chit was thrown on the table as well. Chris told us that Sembawang planned to open an office of GOL in the San Francisco Bay Area once we were done in Singapore, with the intention that we return and run that office. That presented the prospects of high-paying jobs for all of us back in the states after our stint in Singapore was over with. It was particularly attractive for me, since I would be able to return to my home in the Bay Area, and my friends.
All of these candy-apples didn’t come without a price, however. First, as an act of faith demonstrating our absorbing some of Sembawang’s considerable financial risk in this venture, we were all asked to take a salary cut. Chris asked us to cut 20% off of the group salary request. That was a killer, since Joe and I were already concerned about wooing programmer Steve Burg away from PKware, where he was doing quite well. With the long term financial benefits looking very promising, we hoped that there would be enough incentive to keep everyone happy despite lower up-front salaries. Chris and Yu- Min left the room to allow Joe and me to rearrange the salaries. The new structure had Joe, Rob, and me all making roughly the same amount of money, with Steve getting a premium for his programming skills. Ideally, if the deal goes through, we’ll all be set in 3-5 years anyway, and the salaries will be a minor part of that. Joe and I plan to revise the salary structure if we forge a successful department and return to the States to run a US office for GOL, however. (Rev: Steve never came on board, so now there are six Americans, with Joe making the big bucks, Rob McKnight and I making the nice bucks, and Mike MacDonald, Paul Deisinger and Koji Goto making the respectable but unglamorous bucks.)
Once the salary matter was settled, everything looked good. Chris and Yu-Min returned, and we had an agreement in principle for a deal that would capitalize the R&D department, allow for marketing and distribution, pay us all enough to live on comfortably in Singapore, and reward creative success with long-term financial gain. Chris and Yu-Min said that the deal would have to be approved by corporate, but that everything looked good. We were happy. They were happy. Everyone was happy. (Of course, it’s been two weeks, and we still haven’t seen a legal contract.) (Rev: now eight months and the final contract points are still being hammered out. There have been three revisions. Rev2: There never was a signed contract. Read on.)
With the business concluded, we were handed over to another SembMedia regular, Earl Tan. Thursday afternoon was our designated recreational time, with plans for dinner with Chris and Yu Min that evening. Earl was cheerful and friendly, and he took us to a large indoor mall jammed with about 100 identical computer shops (Sim Lim Centre, and also Funan Centre) each selling computers, laptops, peripherals, and software, all jammed into little cubbyholes. We discovered that all of the knockoff software in the universe is available in Singapore, a great deal of it shipped in from Hong Kong. Joe investigated one underground disk that featured pirate versions of 50 high-end windows programs, all the way up through the Win 95 final beta. Joe and I also saw our OnLine G@mes book on sale in a couple of shops. We also visited Singapore’s giant computer superstore, Challenger, and checked out some audio equipment stores. The superstore was interesting simply because it might just as well have been a CompUSA or Fry’s. It had the exact same selection of software as you find anywhere else, with the exception of a slightly larger selection of Mandarin language versions of operating systems. There was little interesting audio equipment to be seen, since it was all consumer equipment, not professional gear. Joe and I were encouraged to see our book on sale in a couple of places, but it made us realize just how badly Brady had lowballed the royalty figures when we were negotiating the contract. I mean, the damn book was on-sale in Singapore! So much for doing business with Brady. Hopefully the Internet Games book we just wrote for J. Wiley will also be on sale in Singapore. We saw many other J. Wiley titles on the shelves.
This afternoon was our first experience with the Singapore subway system. It is absolutely, immaculately spotless. You could eat off the floor. There is not a spot of graffiti or a scrap of litter. The system runs smoothly and efficiently, and looks good. One amusing thing that we noticed was a “no durians” sign in the subway station. A durian is a Southeast Asian fruit notorious for smelling really awful, although, supposedly, tasting okay. We caught one whiff of it from a street stall when we were strolling, and Joe’s described it as smelling like a dumpster sitting in the sun. My father has described it as “vomit.” Apparently that overpowering smell can fill up a subway car in a hurry, so throughout the subway system you can see little signs that have a picture of a durian with a circle and a slash through it. Joe took a photograph of one of the signs. (Rev: I’ve grown to rather like the smell now.)
After we got back from shopping we had a bit of time to relax, and then it was off to Boat Quay with Chris and Yu-Min for a passable Japanese dinner. This was also an opportunity for us to see the offices where Sembawang Media, the parent of GOL and our sister company Pacific Internet, will be located when they move out of their temporary quarters in Ngee Ann City Towers. Boat Quay will be a marvelous place for them to be located. It is right at the edge of Singapore’s showpiece financial district, along the river front, and appears to be the tourist/yuppie hangout area, with plenty of bars and restaurants. It is expensive office space, however, and Chris pointed out that we would probably not be able to locate the Games Online offices there for two reasons. First, there simply wouldn’t be room in the offices. Second, there would be very serious security concerns with the expensive equipment that GOL would need to have on site. Chris said that we would swing by the office park where GOL would probably end up, and also look at some apartment blocks.
Oddly enough, Boat Quay was also the only place where any sort of indigenous wildlife was visible in Singapore. There were hundreds of tiny geckoes on every storefront and awning along Boat Quay. That was the only place we saw them. The only other wildlife was birds, and they were scarce. There weren’t even any bugs at night. Pretty strange for a tropical island right above the equator, and a bridge away from peninsular Malaysia and mainland Southeast Asia. Oh well, I guess the bugs have all been busted.
After another refreshing night’s sleep in my icicle-ridden hotel room, we awoke for our final morning in Singapore. We had a pretty brief agenda. There would be breakfast with Chris and Yu Min, a tour of our prospective offices and apartments, a couple of hours of kick-back time, and then off to the airport.
Breakfast was divided among cultural lines. Chris and Yu-Min had pungent Chinese soups for breakfast. Joe and I, feeling western-deprived, had eggs and sausage, all at the lovely, and hysterically expensive Chatterbox restaurant where we’d had our first lunch on Tuesday. After breakfast, we piled into the car and drove to the apartment blocks that Sembawang had in mind for us. Upon seeing them, Joe and I had pretty much the same reaction. “Can we live at the hotel, instead?” We never saw the inside of the apartments, although they are supposedly pretty reasonable. Outside, they were drab, drab, drab, anonymous high-rise buildings browned by tropical heat and moisture. Apparently they are pretty typical for Singaporean middle class housing. There were some live chickens wandering around, which Chris pointed out were illegal. We had seen nicer apartment blocks around, but if the insides are all right, we imagine that we can take it. Our main complaint was that it was a little remote from downtown, requiring a bus ride and a subway ride. On the positive side, the apartments were literally a five minute walk from the office park where we would most-likely be working (rev: we now live and work in a completely different area). That would be a great convenience considering our likely brutal hours for the first few months. Also, Chris said that we would most likely be able to get a company car for the four of us, so there would be transportation available if we needed it.
The office buildings themselves looked just fine. Again, we didn’t see the insides of the buildings, but from the outside they looked like any industrial park buildings such as might be found anywhere in Silicon Valley. The office buildings were in an area called Science Park, where there are offices for several high-tech companies. There is an employees gym there, which might be nice for Steve and myself, but other amenities remain mysterious.
After the tour, we returned to the hotel to finish packing. With a couple of hours remaining before we had to head for the airport, Joe and I strolled over to the ritzy mall in the Ngee Ann City Towers for a little shopping. It was a very typical mall, with your standard assortment of department stores, shoe stores, sport stores, etc. One of the most interesting things that we saw were a stall devoted to selling objects commemorating Kiasu, the Singaporean spirit of getting what you want, as represented by a pushy, Japanese-style cartoon character. The other interesting thing was the Takashimaya Cold Storage Japanese supermarket. Joe and I made a thorough, aisle-by-aisle exploration of the well-stocked market, enjoying the large assortment of Japanese groceries, and also marveling a how much American stuff was available. If you want to live on Rice Krispies and Campbell’s Soup, you can do it, although it might cost you. Despite what I expected, beef was also available at pretty reasonable prices, and pork and fish were common. Joe and I made a mental note that this supermarket might be a valuable resource for us. Joe even found a couple of his favorites from Japan, including Pocky candy and an instant yakisoba noodle dish with the unlikely name UFO and packaging to match. Upon discovering the soft-drink aisle, I suggested that we might want to stock the office with a couple of cases, but Joe reminded me that Sembawang owns the Singaporean Pepsi distributor, so we should be able to load up for free. That turned out to be wrong. Sembawang owns jack for soft drinks, and we buy them ourselves. All the beverage distributorships in the region are owned by Chinese beverage magnate Yeo Hiap Seng. We browsed around some of the other stores, pricing appliances, Doc Martens, and the like. In the mall we also saw our first Singaporean cop on foot patrol. Finally, after a Swensen’s milkshake, we returned to the hotel to meet Chris and ride out to the airport.
We bid Chris goodbye at the airport amidst a mood of general optimism. Several security checks and two of the most heavily armed, badass airport cops we had ever seen later, we were at our gate waiting to board for the marathon flight home. We both felt pretty good about the trip, and expected positive word back from Chris.
Hong Kong Cavaliers
The plane flight back was essentially as brutal and tedious as the flight in. There was a slightly better selection of movies, including Batman Forever, a zany Hong Kong romance comedy that was offered in English, or in Cantonese with English and Mandarin subtitles, and While You Were Sleeping, which I slept through. There was another interesting feature on the flight home. The airplane had a Global Positioning System satellite receiver, and whenever there wasn’t some movie or show on the screen, you could watch a graphical display of the plane’s heading and position superimposed over maps of various scale. Periodically you would also get a display with airspeed, tailwind or headwind, distance to destination, and distance to the nearest reference point of some interest. It was quite interesting.
The highlight of the trip home was the stopover in Hong Kong. I learned something important. You don’t want to fly into Hong Kong. It is absolutely hair raising. The approach is a zig-zag, and the final approach is a sharp turn that takes you literally through the city of Hong Kong. The upside is that you get a fantastic view of one of the world’s most scenic cities. The downside is that you take years off of your life. As you approach the runway you turn sharply at about 1000 feet of altitude, and if you look out of the window you look straight down into the streets of Hong Kong. At this point you are almost skimming rooftops. Two thoughts run through your head. One: you are going to hit a skyscraper. Two: you are actually going to land in the city, on a sidestreet.
Despite how it looked, we made it safely onto the ground at Kai Tak international airport. Kai Tak is far too old and small for the amount of traffic it handles, which is why they are building a brand new airport, of course, which will open just after the PRC takes over. It also has only one runway, which seems amazing. There were no open gates to park us at, so they sat us out in the middle of the tarmac. Everyone had to get off the airplane for cleaning and security check, so they bussed us to the terminal. All transfer passengers got new boarding passes and little blue stickers for their shirts, and were told to proceed “down the hall, up the stairs to gate one or two.” Well that sounded simple, but “the hall” was fully a quarter of a mile long, and “the stairs” could be anyway. With intrepid spirit, Joe and I headed down “the hall” to find “the stairs.” It turned out to not be a problem as a woman had been stationed in the hall to redirect all of the Singapore transfer passengers to the stairs. She did it by spotting everyone who had a blue sticker on their shirt and pointing out where they needed to go. It seemed like a tenuous system. If she had missed anyone, Joe and me for instance, we would have been wandering down the 1000′ hallway looking for these mysterious stairs, and likely spent the night in Hong Kong.
Having been correctly steered, however, we got to the security check. We were given a list of objects that were not allowed to be carried back on to the plane, including all liquids, toiletries, toothpaste, etc. We were run through three stages of security check, although the new passengers got it much worse than we did. New passengers actually had their luggage searched, tubes squeezed, etc. We merely had our tickets and passports checked at several stops. The upshot was, I carried my tube of toothpaste back onto the plane unmolested, and if it had been filled with C-4, no one would have caught me. Airport security. They win a few…they lose a few… Again, however, our plan to get a bowl of noodles was foiled. In Seoul, everything was shut. In Hong Kong, we spent so much time going through security checks, there wasn’t any time for noodles, and once at the waiting room at the gate, there was no leaving.
Kai Tak airport is everything that Singapore Changi isn’t. It’s crowded, old, smelly, and ragged looking. here’s hoping that the new airport is an improvement. I didn’t see if it had the squat-toilets that were so common on Singapore, even in high-class establishments. (Not everyone likes to sit, you know.) After a longish wait in the dilapidated waiting room, we were ushered back onto the bus, driven to the airplane, and re-boarded. Finally we could relax. Twelve hours later, we were back in San Francisco.
As of this week, Friday, we have been back for exactly two weeks. We have had only very scarce contact with Chris, and the contract has not been forthcoming yet. Both Joe and I are getting a little anxious, and the plan is for us to contact Chris on Monday for an update. I have just finished a meeting with RTG, arranging to steal one of their employees as a senior writer for Games Online and discussing licensing terms for one of their games that we will be developing an online version of. I have also been developing sound specifications. Joe has been dealing with licensing of an engine he built some friends, and other bureaucratic issues such as insurance. Until there is a contract, however, none of it means anything.
Looking back on the trip, it was interesting. We feel good about the deal, but we are in limbo until we see a contract. The Singaporeans are very uncommunicative over a distance. When we were waiting to make our trip out, we heard almost nothing for about two weeks, and then everything happen very quickly. We expect it to happen the same way this time.
Sembawang Media is also definitely a startup, and they have several problems to deal with. We can understand why Chris’ attention is divided. When we were out there they had literally just gone online, and they had already had a devastating modem-pool screw-up, customer service problems, a huge disc-drive crash, and were suffering line and gateway problems that were slowing all international transactions to a crawl. Hopefully these situations will be resolved soon (rev: har).
Did we mentioned that a T-1 line in Singapore is about $750,000 US per year, or about 63 times as expensive as it is in the US? There is definitely room for improvement.
In other developments, Joe and I have come up with a name for our group of four people, which we are going to incorporate in the U.S. We will be Silkworm Interactive, and our domain will be kaiko.com. Kaiko is Japanese for silkworm, since every variation of silkworm, silk, or work was already spoken for, domain-wise. Even if Singapore collapses, Silkworm will continue, and we will attempt to develop the games on our own, or sell the ideas to someone else. We hope for the best, however.
So now we are waiting to see a contract, and to hear back from Chris. Stay tuned for the next chapter.