The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part 7: August 1997
Note: I reviewed this article before posting it. Some inflammatory material has been removed, and will stay removed until I no longer live and work in Singapore.
Back from Sibu yesterday. Confidence bad. Can’t do content while data structure unfinished, but four months to do data structure. Train writers in VB? Kill iPower? Desperation measures? Tioman this weekend. Don’t feel much like taking time off. Fiddling while Rome burns?
Excerpt from my journal, October 7, 1996
I have been stalling in the writing of this segment. The original header date is November 22, a very long time ago measured against the life span of Games Online. Originally I stalled because I was lazy. Hey, these things don’t write themselves, you know. But then, as the events of this last winter began to unfold, I stalled because it was clear that the story of GOL was reaching its climax. The only way that I could do justice to this epic, the only way that I could tell it properly, was to wait for it all to resolve. Now, with the proper retrospective framework (amazement), I am pleased to present the latest and greatest Report from Singapore, a tale to tall that it could only be told on the Internet. A tragedy so acute that Hamlet seems jolly. A comedy to rival the most enlightened work of the Stooges. A farce that would bring tears to Dante’s brimstone clouded eyes. Heroes, villains, maidens, and monsters, they’re all here in this hyperbolic tearjerker that I like to call…
I guess we have to come to grips with it now. Games Online is dead, and has been for about six months. It wasn’t an easy death. It was a wheezing, hacking, ugly, premature death. It was painful expiry come before its time. Some might say it was murder. Some might call it a mercy killing. Others thought that GOL should never have been born in the first place. But it is dead, and no amount of sulking will bring it back. Frankly, we lasted longer than we should have, and certainly longer than we were supposed to. But that didn’t make it fun to watch.
The deathwatch began early December, when Joe and I went for a meeting with Chris Teo and Wong Seng Hon at Boat Quay. We were told that Sembawang Media’s financial position was shaky and that the company was retreating to its core businesses. We were not a core business. Seng Hon was not eager to kill us. His plan was to try to find another investor to capitalize us for a year or more in return for a share of the company. But the deadline was the end of December, less than one month away. In the end we looked for an investor for three months, until the end of February. It didn’t matter. No investors were found. On Tuesday, February 25th Nick Lee, the COO of Sembawang Media, came down to our offices, paid us off, kicked us out, and changed the locks.
So how did this all unfold? Why was no investor found in three months of searching? What lead up to the final death rattle of GOL? What was going on at Sembawang Media to precipitate these decisions? Why did it take so goddamn long for me to write this installment? Read on.
The Last Blissful Days
In September, all still appeared well. We had been in full production for a month, having laid in the last of our computers the previous month. The great computer purchasing debacle was behind us, and we felt re-energized, and ready to go. At long last, the preliminaries were over, and were going to be able to get on with the business of making computer games. What a long road it had been. When we had first come out to Singapore in November 1995 there had been talk of being in production by February 1996. It had taken us until August to lay in all of our equipment, though. That forced us to pushYear of the Rat back and to concentrate on iPower and Cyberpunk Online (Breaking Glass). We were still short of qualified programmers, but we at least felt like we could begin serious work. Until we got the last of our computers we had been keeping people busy with pen and paper, and making do without a full complement of machines.
We were still teaching the Computer Games Industry and Design Course for Ngee Ann. The class had been held an average of two or three times monthly since July, and we were enjoying it. It had been going smoothly except for one week when we became pre-occupied and forgot about our lecture.
There was still talk about a US office in September. Late in the month Chris, Joe and I had talked about possible locations. There had been some disagreement about where we would locate in the States, but it seemed forgone that it would happen at some point, most likely in the Spring of 1997.
There was even time for recreation. The diving season was winding down in November as the Winter monsoon closed in. On the last weekend in September, Joe, Mike, Jim and I went on a live-aboard diving weekend up to Pulau Aur, where we had re-discovered diving the previous June. It had been quite a nice trip, producing my first really good underwater photographs, and some very nice late-season diving. There had been some minor hairy incidents on the trip, though. The boat was owned and run by Captain David Tan, an old, Malaysian Salt who had been diving for decades. The boat was nice, if a bit slow, and it had an auto pilot system to keep it on a pre-set compass heading. On our way home from Aur to Singapore I was asleep in the forward compartment in the middle of the night. I woke up and looked out of the small, sliding window by my bunk. I could see the mangrove-shrouded coast of Malaysia low against the water, a mile or two away in the darkness. I drifted off again, and a short while later I opened my eyes again to see the coast even nearer. I closed my eyes for a while longer, and when I opened them again the coast was distinctly near. Everyone on the boat was asleep, with the helm guided by the auto-pilot. Somehow we had gotten off-course and were steaming right for the shallows along the mangrove swamps. A panicky short while later we were on course again, but I resolved never to sail on David’s boat again without a human pair of eyes on watch. Later that same night we were stopped by the Singapore coastal police, who played their lights over the boat and came on board for a brief inspection. Upon finding that we were simply a crew of weary divers with Singapore employment passes, they let us go. And that’s the low-rent live-aboard experience for you.
The week after we got back from Aur we were visited by Jeff Liebowitz, the president of Engage Games Online in the States. Engage was a company dedicated to putting games on the Internet, much like TEN or Mpath. Despite the similarity of their name, they were not related to us. They were the owners of the American gamesonline.com domain, however, which we had asked Sembawang to reserve for us some months earlier, when it was still available. That nasty chicken had come home to roost. Jeff was in town to talk with Pacific Internet, and was making a general tour of Asia. We gave him the GOL tour and showed him Cyberpunk Online. He was enthusiastic, and told us that he would like to putCyberpunk on Engage. We were encouraged, since we’d had little advanced warning of his visit and had delivered an on-the-fly presentation. A relationship with Engage seemed like a possible answer to the issue of how to distribute CP Online, although it raised some financial questions, as the return per-hour would not be very high and none of the online game services were making money. Still, it meant an outlet and a possible marketing partner. Engage had weaker content than the other Internet gaming services, and we thought Cyberpunk would make a nice addition to their catalogue. We stayed in touch with Liebowitz until GOL was closed down, keeping him updated on our progress (or lack thereof). We thought he might provide a link to Engage’s parent company, Interplay, when we were looking for investors, but nothing ever came of it. Nick Lee, CEO of Pacific Internet and COO of Sembawang Media built on his relationship with Liebowitz, however. Very recently, Pacific Internet bought ten percent of Engage and signed a licensing deal to operate Engage in Asia. Good luck, guys. You’re gonna need it. The pay-per-hour Internet game service business is looking pretty pale right now.
The last worthy development in September was that I was asked to emcee two Sembawang Media events. The first was an Internet advertising seminar organized by Chris and presented to local advertising agencies. Chris was looking to drum up ad revenue for SembMedia web sites, and trying to stir up Internet ad revenue in Singapore. The second event I was asked to Emcee was the first (and hopefully last) Pacific Internet “Best of the Web Awards,” in which ten of the “best Web pages in Singapore” were presented to an audience and panel of judges, and the three best honored. That alone was a bit nauseating, since most of the sites presented were bland, corporate sites. (My opinion here is exacerbated by the fact that my favorite didn’t win. The winning site was not bad, in all honesty, and it had the added advantage of being represented by a knockout, young lady who was quite pleasant, even if she did over-run her time allowance grievously and come dangerously close to being dragged off of the stage by me.) What was truly onerous, however, was presenting the new Sembawang Corporation web site. I did my best, sincere, enthusiastic, disc jockey bit as I delivered my overly sweaty patter. I felt like a shill, though. Still, it bought me lunch, and the chairman was there. It’s always good to look like a trooper for the brass.
Lotta good it did me later.
Love in the Afternoon
Mike and Karen sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G?
Excerpt from my journal, October 3, 1996
And so October flapped in, on big, flat clown feet. With it came Autumn, and the beginnings of serious cracks in the dyke.
But all was not gloom yet. In October the second GOL romance began to bloom. Rob and Leshia had already been together for some time, and in October I began to suspect that Mike MacDonald and Karen Ng, one of our artists, were more than just friends. They had been spending an awful lot of time together, and Joe and I had our theories as to what was developing. Karen was quite conservative and traditional, and I found it odd that she would become that close to an American, but she and Mike were spending a great deal of time together, including many long evenings in our apartment. A couple of weeks after I first noticed their connection, I asked Mike, and he ‘fessed up. I was all in favor of it. Karen was quite nice and Rob’s relationship had turned out well, even though it was an intra-office romance. Hey, if Rob could do it, I figured that Mike could.
October also brought the first glimmerings of the Christmas holiday season, which lasts an ungodly long time in Singapore. On October 3rd we were driving by the Tanglin Mall on Grange Road, near Orchard, when we saw out front what could only be described as a giant pair of Santa boots. “No,” we thought to ourselves, “there’s no way they can build a Santa big enough for those boots…”
How wrong we were.
Within two days, a fifty-foot Santa Clause stood astride then entrance to Tanglin. As if that alone wasn’t bad enough, a scaffold went up behind Santa, supporting a cadre of equally huge elves. Finally, the fake-snow blowing machine was set up in front of the whole works, and everything was lit. The combined effect was blood curdling. I had visions of the giant Santa tearing loose from his foundation and striding down Orchard Road, eating tourists. Hooo, hooo, hooo…Merrrry Deathmassss… Later we learned that the Tanglin Santa was certified by the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest, free-standing Santa Clause in world history. I feel so privileged to have seen it.
Santa was up for three (count them, three) months. And then he underwent a sinister transformation as Lunar New Year approached in February. Before our eyes, the giant Santa transformed itself into a giant Chinese prosperity god. It was enough to stretch your sanity to the breaking point. It was March before the prosperity god was disassembled. We had endured nearly five continuous months of intestine-twisting holiday cheer. And I thought it was bad in the US…
I treated myself to an early Christmas present to dilute the chill of the giant Santa. I bought a full scuba diving rig, with a good regulator, BC jacket, computer, and a few ancillaries. I’d had just about enough of rental gear by this time. Of course, the season was drawing to a close, and there weren’t going to be too many more opportunities to use all that nice equipment. So I broke everything in at the swimming pool at my friend, Jim’s apartment. Needless to say that earned us a few odd looks from the security guards, but it held me until we made up to Pulau Sibu for some diving a couple of weeks later.
Reality Sets In
Aieee. Want to go home for a while. Need a local ear. Feeling like selling off my stuff and bugging out for life on a desert isle.
Excerpt from my journal, October 7, 1996
We came back from a pleasant weekend at Sibu at the end of the first week of October. We were immediately greeted with the harbingers of doom. We had been working over the previous few weeks on fully documenting Cyberpunk Online and iPower. iPower had been designed from scratch and needed a full doc set to lay the groundwork for development. When we had been planning on building Cyberpunk on the exiting Minion engine we’d only had content documentation, but as it became clear that we would need to build a new engine from scratch it became necessary to do a full engine document. So the work had been divided up in August and the crew had been working for several weeks to nail down the specifications of both games. Now the specs were coming together, but as they did we began to see the enormity of the task that lay before us.
iPower was the game that Joe and I had originally envisioned making. We’d had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to approach it. It was going to be a complex and difficult project. But it was going to be as nothing compared to whatCyberpunk was turning into. As the documentation began to come together it became clear that we were setting out to develop a server and simulation engine of vast complexity. We already had doubts as to our collective programming capabilities, and with its ground-up redesign Cyberpunk had evolved into a project that would have challenged even a seasoned team of game programmers. Our guys were bright and capable, but had zero games experience, and were being asked to learn a great deal on the fly. It began to dawn on us that we had become simply too ambitious, especially in light of the delays we had encountered with staffing and, especially, computers (Report from Singapore 6). At the same time as we were discovering the magnitude of the task we had created for ourselves we were falling under increasing schedule and financial pressure.
Redesigning Cyberpunk snowballed into a litany of problems. For example, theCyberpunk world was dependent on the integration of a huge amount of content: all the information, graphics and text that would define the world in which the players would operate. The writers at GOL were hired to produce that content under the guidance of Paul Deisinger and Mike. But creation of the content couldn’t begin in earnest until we had locked down a database structure for the server. And by our reckoning, creating a new data structure with the necessary sophistication was going to take us four months. So what could we do to use the writers productively in that time? We had some of them learning Visual Basic. Others were drafting up general content that could later be refined to fit the ultimate data structures. During this time Paul Naylor also finished the second World Builder tool, so we spent some time testing that. But no matter how looked at it we were far from optimum performance. And always the schedule was the light that made our problems glare.
In this panicky situation we began to look at the reality of having to kill iPower to makeCyberpunk work. This was devastating. We had already pushed Year of the Rat back a year in the wake of the computer purchase fiasco. Now to delay iPower…the game we had originally wanted to make. It was a depressing option for all of us. But there was no way that the guts of Cyberpunk were going to come together until we consolidated all of our programmers onto it. We didn’t have enough experience to split up our teams and still produce what we needed to produce. Naturally, this prospect was particularly depressing for Rob, who was in charge of iPower. Rob was already sitting on the fence as far as staying in Singapore, and now we were going to jerk the rug out from underneath him altogether. By this time Rob was seriously considering going home. “I don’t want to ride this thing [GOL] into the ground,” he told me. I totally understood.
Joe and I scheduled a meeting with Chris and Seng Hon to discuss the situation. The prospect of that meeting terrified me. We had already pushed back Rat, and now we were going to tell them that iPower was in the hopper too, and that we were putting all of our resources into ‘Punk? A feeling of dread swelled within me, and grew all week. We were planning our second trip to Tioman the following weekend, only a week after I had gone to Sibu with Rob and Mike and Jim. I wanted to go back to Tioman very much, but we were planning to take a day off to make this trip. I couldn’t suppress a feeling that it was a dreadful time to be taking days off. The cloying sense of dread and depression made the trip seem like the sheerest folly, fiddling while Rome burned around us. On the other hand, there was no doubting that I desperately needed another weekend on the beach to let my mind settle.
All of these circumstances conspired to drive me into one of the deepest funks that I had experienced since moving to Singapore. For the first time in a while I became acutely homesick and began to question whether or not I wanted to stay in Singapore. I thought about selling the stuff I had accumulated, boxing everything up, and moving home. A growing sense futility lingered around everything we were doing. But I never made that jump from thinking abstractly about going home to actually considering it as a serious option. I was too attached to what we were doing, and, homesick and depressed as I was, couldn’t bring myself to retreat in such a bald fashion. The idea of quitting while there was still some hope of making GOL work was unthinkable. But I often wonder, in retrospect, what it would have taken to push me to into making that decision. At the very least, I understood some of what Rob was going through.
Later that week Joe and I went for our meeting with Chris and Seng Hon, and we dropped the bomb about iPower. Despite my overwhelming anxiety it turned out to be less painful than I though. We explained the situation and our reasoning, and told them thatiPower had to be pushed back as we were feeling the cumulative effects of equipment delays and programming experience. We also explained our planned reorganization of the staff, in order to shift the entire GOL workforce over the Cyberpunk.
The next day we got to experience the joy of actually breaking the reorganization news to the staff. Most of the staff took the announcement well. Cyberpunk had long ago metamorphosed into our flagship product, and it was critical that it move along. I was disappointed though, as iPower was the project that I had always been most interested in. ‘Punk had the potential to be a great game, though, and we all knew it. Unfortunately, Rob did not take the news as well as some of the other staff. iPower had been his project and his responsibility, and by postponing it and shifting him to working on one segment ofCyberpunk we were diluting his role. Rob did some serious thinking that week about whether to stay in Singapore or return to the States, where his year leave-of-absence from his old job would soon be expiring. He had until late December to return to his old job at the Naval Research Lab, if he chose. Leshia and I lobbied Rob to stay, although I think we both did it for selfish reasons. Leshia and Rob were involved, and I considered Rob a very good friend, and didn’t relish the thought of him leaving. After a few days Rob’s spirits improved and he decided to stay. It would turn out to be only a temporary reprieve, however.
Return to Paradise
Stress level much lower than previous couple of weeks. Maybe self-delusional?
Excerpt from my journal, October 26, 1996
On the second weekend in October we made our second trip to Tioman. This time it was a much smaller crowd, the expatriates plus Paul Naylor, Honi, and GOL artist Alfred Toh and his girlfriend Gwat. Rob, in a fit of introspection, decided to stay behind that weekend so that he and Leshia could work through some issues concerning his possibly leaving Singapore. In most ways our second trip to Tioman was as good as our first. We stayed at the touristy but pleasant Salang Beach, where there was remarkable snorkeling. Just finning about in ten to twenty feet of water we saw giant humphead wrasse, full grown barracuda, blacktip reef sharks, turtles, grouper, and other fish. Mike, Joe and I rented some tanks and made a beach-entry dive, and I did a pleasant if unspectacular night dive with the local dive shop.
The highlight of the trip came when, on my way to Ben’s Dive Shop to participate in a morning boat dive, I managed to hurl myself from the front porch of my cabin. The cabin was on stilts, six feet off of the ground with a narrow stone path that ended at a very steep series of plank steps that lead to the deck. I was standing on the deck hefting my dive bag, complete with forty pounds of equipment, as I took the first step. The bag caused my balance to shift, and where my foot expected the first step there turned out to be nothing but air. I did a completely graceless faceplant onto the stone path below, taking out the plastic faucet at the base of the steps on my way down. I had enough flight time to think to myself, “this is really gonna fucking hurt” before I landed face down with a resounding thwack. I lay there stunned for a moment as water from the broken faucet pooled around me. I could hear Alf and Gwat’s expressions of concern, as they had seen the whole thing from their deck.
After a moment of rueful self-collection I sat up and began feeling for broken bones. I had a sprained wrist and badly bruised hip, but nothing was snapped or out of joint. Unfortunately I had hit my elbow against a ridge in the rock and I was bleeding copiously from a short but deep gash. I held my elbow under the free-flowing water pipe and realized immediately that I needed stitches. I could see clear down to the bone at the base of my forearm, right above the elbow. Unfortunately, although Tioman is a tropical paradise, it is not noted for top-notch medical facilities. After carrying my bag back up to my room I took my bleeding elbow to the office of the chalet operation we were staying at and asked for a first-aid kit. I was greeted with a wave of complete indifference, and briefly considered inflicting some damage on one of the locals so that they would have to use the first-aid kit and lead me to it. But, deciding that I would rather be merely bleeding, as opposed to jailed and bleeding, I opted for tact. I asked where the nearest medical facility was, and was informed that it was at Tekek, which is Tioman’s major village and home to the airport and customs office. I was told to wait for the sea-bus, due in fifteen minutes at the Salang jetty, and take it to Tekek. On the way we stopped at Ben’s Dive Shop to inform them that we had to cancel our bookings for the morning dive. Ben himself kindly offered to sew me up (sincerely), but I politely deferred, preferring to get my stitching in the meanest of medical facilities rather than a dive shop.
Mike, trooper that he is, agreed to accompany me to Tekek. So we went out to the jetty, me holding a compress of toilet tissue on my elbow, and waited for the sea-bus. Unfortunately, what we discovered while waiting for forty-five minutes was that the sea-bus had already stopped running for the season. So we trudged back to the Indah Salang office where we were rented a speedboat and driver one-way to Tekek for the usurious sum of thirty Ringgit. At least it was quick. But when we got to Tekek, we still had to locate the medical facility. Eventually we found the customs office, and they told us that the “clinic” was a five-minute walk down the beach. Sure enough, we found the clinic. It consisted of a large, sheet-aluminum shack with two rooms. Both rooms were locked, although loud rock music was blaring from one. Mike and I pounded for a few minutes to no avail before asking the woman who lived next door where the doctor was. She pointed down the pathway, where a young and decidedly un-doctorly looking Malaysian man was walking towards us.
Doctor turned out to be an exaggeration. The young man was a “medical technician.” But, to my relief, he turned out to be pretty competent. He took me into the small treatment room, which was crammed floor-to-ceiling with medical supplies, slightly dusty equipment, and bottles of ethyl alcohol and iodine. After a brief inspection he informed me that he would have to “sew me up.” He disinfected the gash, gave me a shot of local and three quick stitches, jotted out a pain-killer prescription which he filled himself, and gave me a tetanus injection. It was all handled competently and quickly. For this grand regimen of medical treatment I was billed the princely sum of ten Ringgit, or about four bucks US.
I love socialized medicine.
….On the other hand, I don’t think I’d want to convalesce in Malaysia. The boats to-and-from the clinic cost 35 Ringgit each for Mike and me!
The medic informed me that I could still go diving. Since this incident had eaten up half of my one full day in Tioman I was eager to get back into the water. When we got back to Salang I slipped into my skinsuit and gear and Mike, Joe and I did our shore dive. My elbow as fine as long as I didn’t bend it too much. A greasy antibiotic cream kept the seawater out of the cut. Unfortunately in the few hours since the fall my bruised right hip had stiffened up so much that I could barely walk, let alone with a tank strapped on my back. But in the water, weightless, it was perfect. I made the night dive later that evening. The next day we headed back to Singapore without Honi, who stayed an extra day. A week later I pulled the three stitches out myself. It took another three months for the knot of scar tissue in my elbow to subside and for my wrist to regain full motion without pain, but now there is just the faintest little scar where the gash was. My souvenir of our second visit to Tioman. I have resolved to not need medical treatment when we make our third trip.
Countdown to Armageddon
Slipping into the depressive stage of my cycle. Seriously thinking about bailing, a month after I urged Rob to stay. Feel generally superfluous, doomed to failure, etc.
Excerpt from my journal, November 4, 1996
The last few days of October were the swan song of our period of relative stability. One interesting thing that happened was a visit to GOL by Robert Harris, of the San Francisco venture capital firm of Unterberg/Harris. We gave Bob Harris the GOL tour. We were not explicitly looking for investors at that time, but I think the thought had already crossed Chris and Seng Hon’s minds. Mr. Harris was cordial and interested in what we were doing. He was also fairly complimentary of our efforts. But he was clearly suspicious of the revenue-generating potential of online games, and had no faith that a sound business model existed for publishing such games. Over two months later, comments made by Bob Harris to Sembawang’s man in the Bay Area would be presented to us as one of the justifications for the closing of GOL.
Bob Harris wasn’t our only high profile visitor during that period. We also entertained two gentlemen from the Bandai Corporation of Japan. Bandai maintains a Singapore office, but it is mostly concerned with distribution and marketing, and not with development. We gave the Bandai guys the tour that would later be a near-daily task, showing them the core of Cyberpunk, and the concepts that we were developing. Bandai were obviously being felt out as potential investors or distributors. As you would expect from good businessmen the Bandai reps were extremely noncommittal during the meeting. Later some comments filtered back to us, though. Apparently Bandai was “interested” in what we were doing, but they were concerned with the violence that was part and parcel of the Cyberpunk milieu. It was a matter of some concern that people died in the course of our game, rare though that is. My heavens, I hope they never expose their delicate sensibilities to Quake, Command and Conquer, Warcraft, Diablo, Mechwarrior, or many of the other most popular computer games of the last few years!
But it was also understandable. Bandai’s major success in the US had been built around the harmless-to-children but lethal-to-anyone-over-ten Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which was actually a Saban Inc. adaptation of the Japanese Go Rangers series. Why screw with the formula for massive success? We would hear more from Bandai later, as it would turn out.
Chris and Seng Hon were both present for the Bandai meeting. It was after that meeting that Chris told us that he felt that we had a “20 percent” chance of being killed off in the budget review. He explained that he was beginning to look for alternate financing to keep GOL alive if Sembawang got cold feet. This was the first mention of the unmentionable, and a foreshadowing of developments over the next couple of months. Jim invited me back to Pulau Sibu the following weekend, but I had a bout of financial paranoia, and decided I could serve myself best by saving some money.
Chris started spending a great deal more time in the GOL office. Apparently he had been told during the budget meetings to start paying some first-hand attention to what was going on at GOL. It did not bother me too much to have Chris around, although we had gotten used to a certain laissez-faire attitude from SembMedia as to what went on at GOL. But with the second of our three games biting the schedule dust apparently certain forces felt that it was time for a more hands on approach. We were Chris’ baby first and foremost, so he got the duty and started spending some time in the previously unoccupied visiting-manager’s office at GOL. I resolved to strangle any visible lollygaging going on in the office during business hours. There was no doubt that the massive periods of enforced inactivity before we’d had computers had engendered a certain free-and-easy approach at GOL. It didn’t bother Joe and me so long as people finished the work that they were assigned to do, but I didn’t want reports of office hours game playing or uncontrolled netsurfing coming back to haunt me.
During this time I got a little touch of home sent out from the States: election junk mail. I had registered to vote at the US embassy in early October, and being halfway around the world did nothing to dissuade the local and statewide Democratic Party offices and several candidate organizations from sending me their literature and voting states. Now I have to make something perfectly clear: From the far side of the planet I genuinely don’t give a fuck who sits on the SF board of supervisors. So stop sending me yer goddamn literature. At any rate, since I am no longer a California resident, and the next national election is four years off, I suppose it won’t likely be a problem again.
Had to smooth some ruffled feathers over the late-to-work/stay late vs. game play issue. Discipline has been better. I have had to make fewer public bustings recently. Really looking forward to trip to the states.
Four days shy of a year.
Excerpt from my journal, November 13, 1996
It is a difficult thing to take a team that has been forced to sit in varying degrees of idleness for six months and forge it suddenly into a productive organism. The GOL staff didn’t have a full complement of computers until August, and Joe and I had scraped to find busywork to fill spaces within that long stretch. Now, all of a sudden, there was an overflowing plate of work for everyone on the staff, and we were asking the team to shake off months of entrenched habits developed when there simply wasn’t enough to do. It was a difficult thing for everyone, and the staff bit into it as well as I could have asked. The problems were compounded by the fact that there had been a great deal of reorganization of the teams and tasks, as two of the three originally planned games had been postponed. People had been shuffled and re-arranged, and there hadn’t been much time for the staff to grow into their new roles within the reformed ‘Punk development teams.
Joe had gone to Japan for a week for E3 Tokyo, and I was left in charge of the office. Wishing to keep the tiller straight and the crew focussed I arranged for weekly team meetings so I could keep a finger on progress and attitudes. The scheduled meeting approach was a break from Joe’s philosophy, but I felt it was the best way for me to have a handle on how the different project segments were progressing and where fires were most likely to erupt.
Clutching my printed goals and schedule sheet, I convened the first set of meetings on Friday, November 1. There were 6 teams: Client programming, server programming, content, systems, 3D art, and mannequin art. The client programmers were lead by Paul, and were concerned with developing the front-end and interface. The server programmers were lead by Jimmy, and were developing the server, scripting language, and interpreter that would be the heart of the world. The content team was lead by Mike and was made up of writers, developing the plots, characters and locations that would flesh out our digital realm. Systems was lead by Rob, and was concerned with blocking out every process that would have to be implemented and programmed to make Night City functional. The 3D artists were developing cut scenes and object art, and the mannequin artists were producing character and fashion artwork for the avatar system. All of the teams had specific goals and schedules to meet. As with any game or large software project there was a huge amount of interdependency.
Most of the teams seemed to be doing well. Object and mannequin art were advancing, and content and systems had clear objectives and were progressing, and the front-end programmers were working on necessary tools and interface development. Unfortunately all of that was meaningless without progress on the server, the most complex and most critical part of the development. Jimmy, Nico, and Vince were the programmers responsible for the server, and they were all good. But Vince and Nico were inexperienced, and learning on the fly, and Jimmy had a huge burden as the only experienced man on the server. It was then that we really began to feel the ill effects from being denied Eric Nelson and Tom Spencer Smith, the two most experienced programmers we had tried to hire. They had both been too expensive for Sembawang’s tastes. But you can’t replace experience with manpower, which was what we had tried unsuccessfully to do, especially when no one on the island had any hard-core games programming experience. It was time to pay the piper for the hiring decisions of months before. We had the best people we could get, but the job was simply beyond their reach. And that is no slam against their abilities. It would have been difficult for experienced game programmers to do in the time we had. For our one experienced and two eager but inexperienced guys it was impossible. Maybe with a year they could have done it. But we were asking them to develop the kernel of the server, the Game Method Interpreter, or GMI, in six weeks. They knew how important it was. The GMI would define the data structure that would allow us to begin coding content. And I pleaded with them to put everything they could into delivering it by January. They did their best, but ultimately there was no way that it was going to be possible. And with no functioning GMI, everything else would slowly wind down to a point where little more useful work could be done. We did pick up a little extra programming help in the form of Mark, an instructor at the Polytechnic who was assigned to us as a staff attachment. Mark was pleasant and eager, but also not experienced. He ended up working on our avatar system, the basic groundwork for which had been laid by Arthur Lim, one of our other programmers.
In the wake of the team meetings I published a progress report on our Intranet so that all the staff could easily see how all the segments of work were going. In the progress reports I mentioned that one of our artists’ work was proceeding a little slowly, so I got called on the carpet by the artist in question. The fact of the matter was that it was going slowly, much more slowly than the rest of the art. But it didn’t affect any other work, and I wanted to avoid generating any ill-feeling at such a delicate time. So I reworded the progress report to be more neutral and things blew over. The fact was that if the GMI wasn’t going to be finished, it didn’t matter what happened with anything else.
There were other staff ripples during this time. One thing Joe and I had fostered at GOL was informal hours. We allowed people to come late as long as they worked late and put in their eight hours a day. Some degree of moderation was enforced. We wanted the entire staff to be present for the core of the work-day. But if some staff wanted to come in at ten or eleven and work until seven or eight that was okay with us…as long as necessary work got done. On the whole this policy worked out well, but with Chris spending more time at the office and us entertaining more guests and potential investors I became concerned about appearances. I was particularly concerned that some people were coming in late, intending to work late, but then getting sucked into the Command and Conquer orQuake games that invariably sprang up after 6:00 PM. I made an announcement expressing my concerns and asking people to keep their hours relatively sane and keep the game playing to a minimum. This, unfortunately, caused some indignation among people who felt that they were being singled out, even though I had made a point of stressing that it was something that we were all guilty of at times. After some patch-up diplomacy here and there all the ruffled feathers were smoothed out, and there was a decent improvement in office-hours discipline.
At the same time as I was driving the teams and dealing with personnel fallout I was also absorbing a big chunk of the content development for ‘Punk. Koji and Paul D. had been assigned to the systems team, under Rob, and I had to work on the content sections that they had been responsible for. It would lead to my busiest time in the office, with one six week stretch over Christmas where I was in the office every single day.
Smoking Guns and Rolling Heads
The word is that anyone who hasn’t been zapped in the budget yet won’t be zapped, but we are in an interesting position, what with Chris being persona non grata, and we being Chris’ pet project (and perceived that way by everyone, apparently).
SembMedia is way behind where they want to be now. Instead of millions in profits they are taking millions in charges.
No wonder the guns are smoking and the heads are rolling.
Excerpt from my journal, November 20, 1996
In November a much clearer picture of Sembawang Media’s fortunes began to emerge. We had known for a while that morale at the head office was hurting. Our friends at 82 Boat Quay had said as much. But it wasn’t until mid-November that we really began to be able to draw a picture of how bad things had become. In fairness, I have to point out that most of this chapter is based on gossip from friends, and there may be some factual errors where numbers are concerned. But there is no mistaking how acutely SembMedia was hurting, and the effect that was having on the staff at Boat Quay. And there is no mistaking how the ripples from Sembawang Media’s misfortune spread to Games Online.
The first I learned the details of what was going on with Sembawang Media was on the thirteenth of November when I was at Boat Quay for one of the Live@BoatQuay cybercasts I was occasionally co-hosting. These periodic trips to Boat Quay ad been useful to me as they were an opportunity to talk with many of my original friends from Sembawang Media. It was also a good time to pick up on company gossip and gauge the company mood and morale. While I was there that evening one of my friends brought me up to date on what became the first great Sembawang Media crisis.
SembMedia had a corporate Internet solutions department called Contact. Contact had been set up amid high hopes, and with a high profile. They had expensive offices at the new Suntec City Towers and a large staff. Contact was the company you would call if you had a business that you wanted to wire to the Internet with a leased line. They’d arrange the leased line and sell you servers, routers, hubs, and so on, and integrate your Net access with your LAN. A growth industry, especially in high-tech Singapore. Or so you’d think. Contact was supposed to be a cash cow for SembMedia, and I heard reports that possible first-year revenues of up to ten million dollars had been expected. Contact’s overhead was high, but against ten million in gross, certainly not prohibitive. Contact’s success was supposed to provide the financial cushion to support the rest of SembMedia’s more speculative Internet ventures…such as Games Online. There was a problem with the plan though. It’s all well and good to plan on getting ten million in gross. It’s quite another to actually achieve it. What I heard — and I stress that this is simply what I heard— was that Contact had, in fact, lost several million dollars. Sembwang Media was a year-and-a-half old company started with less than two million dollars, and now one of their subsidiaries had swallowed up two to four times that amount!
The numbers might be inaccurate, but what did happen without a doubt was that the CEO of Contact offered up his resignation. Although the resignation was not immediately accepted, the man in question was on an extended vacation shortly thereafter, and the resignation was accepted and he was out within a short time after that. SembMedia staff at Boat Quay could already smell trouble, and the Contact debacle was not reassuring. I talked to several people that evening, and my take on the mood at Boat Quay was not encouraging. Everyone I talked to seemed cynical, and slightly paranoid about his or her job. There was a stark kernel of suspicion that Sembawang Media was going to swan dive, and that the failure of Contact was just the first symptom. The question lingering over everyone’s head was when the next blow would fall.
For the staff at Contact the next blow would fall almost instantly. In the wake of the revelations of disastrous financial performance Contact was reorganized. Although initially only nine of about sixty were cut, in the end nearly half of Contact’s staff, including several of my friends, would lose their jobs. Contact would be forced to give up its posh offices at Suntec City and move into much lower rent digs. What those digs eventually turned out to be I will tell you later.
A week later I got together for drinks with a friend of mine who worked in the front-office at Pacific Internet. This friend passed on to me some more gossip about how the Contact debacle had come about and why it had been revealed all at once, rather than having been addressed early on before it snowballed into disaster. Essentially the Contact books had been presented in the rosiest manner possible while trouble was brewing. My impression was that everything was legal, it was simply that the numbers were self-deluding. For instance, no matter what kind of figures you rack up for your department in inter-departmental sales, it is still money out of the parent corporation’s pockets. Apparently there was also some dispute between Contact and other SembMedia subsidiaries over who should get credit for some sales. What I heard was that the smoking crater of Contact’s finances was revealed when Nicholas Lee, the fiscally conservative CEO of SembMedia’s successful Pacific Internet subsidiary, was called in to review the numbers.
No matter how it originally brewed, the fallout was that Sembawang Media was suddenly millions behind where it was supposed to be financially. Instead of generating a pile of revenue and profits with Contact it had bet the farm on the corporate Internet business and lost. Contact was to be the rocket that would propel Sembawang Media. Instead it would be the anvil that would drag it down.
Contact wasn’t the only Sembawang Media department that was coming under sudden, close scrutiny. Multimedia Studios at Boat Quay had also come under the financial microscope. Chris Teo himself was one of the early casualties. Like Yu Min before him, Chris was exiled to Games Online, his portfolio of management reduced to the increasingly vulnerable GOL. Chris became a five-day-a-week presence at the GOL offices, and concentrated his efforts on trying to find an alternate source of financing for us. Our sense of desperation ratcheted up a notch as we realized that our major patron had fallen from grace. We had always been perceived as Chris’ baby, his expensive pet project. Chris had been responsible for our formation, the recruitment of Joe and me, and the general continuance of Games Online within Sembawang Media. We had watched him burn up his political capital to keep us and his other projects alive, and now that capital was exhausted and Chris was relegated to the provinces to save his most expensive ship, or to go down with it.
Back at Boat Quay the reigns of control of Multimedia Studios were handed over to longtime American expatriate Peter Schoppert, one of my early friends from SembMedia. My impression was that Peter wanted the job about as much as he wanted to be appendectomized with a spatula. Although liked and respected throughout Sembawang Media, and with a lot of authority, he wasn’t a full-time employee. But, for the time being, he was in charge.
This may have a ring of “I told you so” pettiness about it, but, in truth, neither Joe nor I was surprised by Sembawang Media’s turn of bad fortune. Joe and I had been scholars of the Internet business back in the States long before we moved to Singapore, and we’d seen the cycle of flush growth and shakeout that had claimed so many companies in the US. Now we got to see that same cycle repeat itself in Singapore, and we got to watch Sembawang Corp make many of the mistakes that destroyed companies in the States. Sembawang Corporation bet large on the emergence of the Internet as a source of revenue before the true value of the Net as a commercial commodity was established. Sembawang Media was to be the tool of SembCorp’s emergence as a regional information technology power. But the company spent money like success was assured before they’d even started, renting extremely expensive office space at Boat Quay for the headquarters, and equally pricey digs for Contact at Suntec City. A great deal was riding on the creation of Web content, and Multimedia Studios was a very slick operation with talented people and good equipment. But it started large, and it was high overhead operation in low margin business. Personally I have always felt that talented kids working out of their parents’ basement do best web design. Give me one good HTML/Shockwave page design person, one good Java/Database programmer, and a Photoshop wiz, and I’ll cough up whatever content and functionality you want. We also worried about Contact, well before problems began. The Singapore market was small, and, to our way of thinking, Singapore Telecom was holding all of the infrastructure cards in a regulated market. Contact should have worked its way up, rather than starting large and banking on success. Even the creation of Games Online was a questionable business decision. Game development is a long-term, expensive proposition, and there is a good deal of risk involved. I don’t want to argue against our own creation, but SembMedia should have started as a stripped down company and run that way for two years while the realities of the market were established. But in image-conscious Singapore it was built from the beginning to be a showpiece. Now, as it comes apart, it is a highly visible catastrophe.
Two things happened to me around this time. First, I started to have acute paranoia about my own job stability. I’d had my mood swings and feelings of insecurity before, but now I could see the writing slowly being etched onto the wall. I started doing a lot of mental math concerning my savings and what it would cost me to ship my accumulated junk home. The second thing that happened to me was that I started having a lot of dreams featuring retired army drill sergeant turned screen actor R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket). I have no idea what that means, but I am pretty sure that it is indicative of some deep, underlying psychosis.
My moodiness and insecurity wasn’t hard to trace. As SembMedia’s fortunes went, so went ours. I was becoming acutely concerned about our viability. The word that filtered down after the first wave of post-Contact budget meetings was that any project that hadn’t been cut yet was essentially safe for the upcoming budget. I filed that piece of news under “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But I continued hoping for the best, even through my funk. But I wasn’t the only person on the GOL staff who’s morale was being affected, or who heard the gossip from Boat Quay. Other SembMedia staff had friends at the headquarters, and rumors of the troubles upstairs spread through GOL. The staff started getting edgy, and worrying about their security. I already suspected that Arthur Lim, one of our programmers, was considering leaving. He had been taking a lot of half-days off that smacked of job interviews. I didn’t blame him. Arthur had always been an outsider at GOL, and with the postponement of iPower he had ended up doing programming work that was different than what he had signed up for. But Arthur wasn’t the only one we worried about. We noticed that one or two of our other key staff were working on cover letters.
One thing that agitated the GOL staff was that no one had been confirmed yet, despite the fact that many of our staff had been on board for much longer than the six-month confirmation period. Joe and I had submitted the evaluation paperwork recommending that everyone on our staff who had passed the time requirement be confirmed. They all deserved it. But confirmations throughout SembMedia had been frozen, an extremely bad sign. I asked Chris to look into the confirmations, and he agreed. Two weeks later, on November 27th, the first batch of confirmations came through. It was a major morale booster at GOL. In the end, everyone on the GOL staff would be confirmed. But some of them would only be confirmed for a day.
November 28th was our second Thanksgiving in Singapore. The previous Thanksgiving Joe and I were still living at the Mandarin Hotel on Orchard road. We had been in Singapore for a little over a week, and the arrival of the other expats was still over two weeks off. Joe and I had celebrated that Thanksgiving at the buffet at the Triple 3 restaurant at the Mandarin. There was nothing there to acknowledge that uniquely American holiday. This year was big step forward. We invited several of our friends over and roasted two turkeys, which we served with mashed potatoes, gravy, salad, and pumpkin pie. The American Club itself couldn’t have provided better.
The Winter of our Discontent
Chris and Seng Hon are coming to speak to the staff on Monday. We wanted Chris to speak on Friday, but he said to move the meeting to Monday to allow the staff “a good weekend.” That was our first clue.
Uh oh, Spaghettio!
Excerpt from my journal, November 29, 1996
We had barely begun to digest our massive, heart-popping meal when the darkest of clouds descended on Games Online. On Friday, November 29th, the day after Thanksgiving, Joe and I went to Boat Quay for a meeting with Seng Hon and Chris. At the meeting, Seng Hon began by bringing us up to date on the situation with Sembawang Media. He told us what we already knew; that Contact had piled in and was hemorrhaging money. He told us that the Sembawang Corporation, our parent company, was having a very bad year, which was exacerbating the problem. He explained that Sembawang Media had been ordered to become self supporting. Consequently, they were going to have to retreat to their “core competencies.” He went on to tell us that he and Chris wanted to come down to Games Online on the following Monday and explain the situation to the staff. “Why not come down that afternoon?” we asked. Chris replied, “I want the staff to have a good weekend.”
My stomach dropped like a shot duck.
Seng Hon went on to explain that Sembawang Media couldn’t afford to pay for Games Online any more. They were going to have to find a third party investor to buy a stake in the GOL, and provide an infusion of capital that would allow us to completeCyberpunk. The most damning thing was that we only had until the end of the calendar year — five weeks— to find this investor. We asked what might happen if no third party investor was found. Seng Hon told us. “The worst case scenario is that we close down GOL.”
There it was. Out in the open for the first time. The threat of closure. Five weeks to find an investor to cough up 1-2 million dollars. Enough capital to finance another year to eighteen months of operation. Five weeks to keep the heart beating. We had been in full production for four months, since the last of our computers had arrived in August. We had nothing sexy to show after only four months of production. A pile of documentation, some software tools, art, and 3D animation. And that had to convince an investor…an investor most likely unfamiliar with computer games. An investor who would have to listen to us, read our documentation, look at our art, and see in their head how it would all come together into a successful product.
Seng Hon explained that there were other options. Two that he mentioned were operating in a stripped down form, or helping to steward a management buyout of the assets of GOL so that it could continue operating independently from SembMedia. But stripping down GOL would mean altering its focus entirely. And conducting a management buyout from Sembwang, as attractive as it was, meant still having to find some kind of financial backing. Even the best-case scenario was not exactly stupendous from our point of view. The Silkworm Interactive share of GOL equity, according to ourstill theoretical contract was 12%. Selling off enough equity to fund another twelve to eighteen months of development would dilute the Silkworm percentage to a microscopic 6-7%, to be shared at that point among four people. No one was going to become a zillionaire off of 1.5% of GOL, that was for damn sure. Our decision to accept moderate salaries in lieu of equity was suddenly looking dubious.
Joe and I spent a very depressed weekend. We had been asked not to tell anyone on the staff until Seng Hon and Chris could make their announcement. On Monday afternoon, December 2nd, the two of them arrived at GOL, and we brought the entire staff into the conference room to hear the news. Seng Hon and Chris laid it on the line, complete with the threat of a shut-down at the end of the year. The staff took it pretty well, all things considered. I think they had been wondering when they would hear that speech. If nothing else, all the cards were on the table now. After Seng Hon and Chris finished Joe and I kept the staff in the conference room for a while longer, presenting our side of the story. When we were done, many of the GOL staffers came up to us and pledged their support until the bitter end. It was really quite touching. I don’t think either Joe or I had expected such a show of loyalty from the troops. We must have doing something right.
The first of our employees had been confirmed for slightly less than a week.
One thing that emerged from the meeting was that we had to do some kind of playable demo to show to investors. This had been raised as a prospect over the summer, but Joe and I had argued against it. Our position was that a playable demo would have little to do with the construction of the actual game, and it would suck up valuable time and resources. Now it was made clear to us by Seng Hon and Chris that investors would expect to see some kind of interactive demo that would illustrate some of the key Cyberpunk Online concepts. It was their belief that the investors we were likely to be entertaining wouldn’t be able to synthesize a picture of the game in their heads from the docs, art, and other materials. They would want to see some kind of working software. Of course, we were months away from having any component of the actual game that wasn’t either a tool, piece of server code, or similarly un-sexy bit of foundation. But that’s the way it goes in building a game. There is a lot of groundwork to be laid and grunt coding to be done before you draw your first pretty picture on the screen. So Joe and I set about planning a working ‘Punk demo. Our deadline to finish it was mid-January, two weeks after the supposed cut-off. But it was impossible to do it any faster, even with groundwork that had already been laid. Either we would get another lease on life from Sembawang, or the demo would be something that we would use to look for new backers in the States, after moving home.
The next day the unofficial Board of Inquiry arrived at Games Online for a look around. It was a decidedly un-warm-and-fuzzy experience. Sitting in tribunal were Seng Hon, as our token ally, and Pacific Internet CEO Nicholas Lee and SembCorp group finance officer John Lau. Nick Lee, reputed to be a conservative and hard-boiled fiscal manager, had been appointed COO of Sembawang Media in the wake of the Contact fiasco. We perceived Lee’s appointment as a dilution of Seng Hon’s authority, and a harbinger of what you might call some unpleasant budgetary decisions. John Lau was the chief finance man at the Sembawang Corporation’s New Business Group, the parent division of SembMedia and Games Online. Joe and I gave Lau, Lee, and Seng Hon the tour of GOL and showed them what we were working on. After the tour we retired to the conference room, where Joe and I were grilled for an hour over budgeting, schedule slip, and what we were attempting to do. Nick Lee and John Lau clearly thought that we had bitten off more than we could chew, technologically. This was not an earth-shattering conclusion to come to. That fact had become obvious to Joe and me months before when we began to see the effects of our programmers’ lack of experience. But we maintained a degree of conviction that was clearly lacking in the senior management. After the meeting Joe and I talked about what we could do to placate SembCorp and extend our lease on life. For the first time we talked seriously about the possibility of shifting focus to small projects and stripping down the staff. That would give us a shorter turn-around time and a lower overhead. But it would also give us a less interesting product and concede all the work done in the previous four months to the scrap heap. Ironically, however, it would also move us closer to the situation Joe and I had first envisioned when we arrived in Singapore, planning to make iPower in one year with twelve people.
The next day the investment rat-race began, and we marched our first post-edict candidate through the office. Thomas Ng was the managing director of the Technology Development Fund, a government backed investment fund that supported the emergence of new technology businesses in Singapore. Mr. Ng seemed smart and interested. But would he plunk down any cash? We didn’t know. Although TDF remained one of the most promising potential investors, their participation was always dependent upon an industry partner or a private investor. And that was something that we never found.
And Then There Were Five…
Obviously, Lee thinks that we are way out of control and have been mismanaged from the beginning. The question is, will we be worth saving?
Change is in the wind. Cancelled my Christmas ticket.
Excerpt from my journal, December 10, 1996
And so we continued to bathe in the good cheer of the holiday season until Rob made his announcement. He had decided to pack it in and go home. I was upset, but I couldn’t fault his decision in the least. Rob knew we were riding GOL into the ground like an exhausted rocket, and he was going to bail out before impact. He wasn’t doing anything that hadn’t crossed all of our minds at one point or another in the previous few weeks. But for most of us the prospect of quitting GOL and Singapore and moving back to the USA was always a bit abstract. Rob had a very real issue to consider. When he had moved to Singapore to join us he had not quit his job at the Naval Research Labs in Washington DC. He had taken a one-year leave of absence. Up until that year expired he was free to return to his old job, which he had enjoyed, unexcited as he was about living in Washington. The leave was due to expire right before Christmas, and Rob had to make the tough call. Would he ride out GOL until the end, and thereby sacrifice his opportunity to return to NRL, or would he quit while he could make a graceful return? In the end, he decided that he had to go with the sure thing. He decided to leave Singapore.
I talked to Rob at length after he made his announcement, and I had to support his decision. Faced with his dilemma I might have made the same choice. I had no job to return to in the states, though, and so I didn’t lose anything by riding out GOL. Besides which, despite my bouts of professional depression, I essentially enjoyed the experience of living in Singapore. But Rob also had another issue: his girlfriend. The relationship between Rob and Leshia was not a casual thing. They had become extremely close over the months, and it looked like there were long term possibilities. Leshia was not taking the news of Rob’s departure very well. Rob also admitted that his social life during his year at GOL had been far better than anything he’d had going in Washington DC. But the professional realities were enough to counter all of that, and the decision was made. Rob would leave Singapore before Christmas, the first of our original band of expats to quit, and the first person to quit GOL, period. On the fourteenth of December, just short of a year after his arrival, I drove Rob to the airport and put him on a plane back home. Leshia would go on to visit Rob in the States in April. (At the time of this writing, they are officially engaged. Congrats!)
Rob wasn’t the only person facing a tough decision at that time, although his decision might have been the most difficult. Mike, Paul and I had all planned to go home for Christmas and spend some time with our families. The Christmas trip was particularly important to me. The others had been home in August, when Koji and I had been the only expats to remain behind. I hadn’t been home since the previous May, and was missing my friends and family a great deal. And even the Christmas trip was really a postponement of my planned August trip, with the others. I’d stayed behind because the budget couldn’t support sending us all to GenCon, in Milwaukee. And someone needed to stay behind and run the show. Now it looked like I was going to have to postpone again.
We began to have serious doubt about the Christmas trip early in December. The instability of GOL alone was enough to make us wary of spending the money, and being gone for two weeks. But the staff was also being asked to bust their asses to get the playable ‘Punk demo done by mid-January. Word reached me through Mike that there had been some grumbling among the staff about three of the expats running off for two weeks in the middle of that flurry of activity. Looking for some guidance I sent an e-mail to my family informing them of the likelihood of having to cancel. Naturally my brothers wrote back absolving me completely of the decision to stay, and my mother followed suit shortly thereafter. If anything, their collective support made me feel more guilty. Frankly it would have been easier if they had said, “Come out here or we will kick your ass.” But they realized, as did I deep down, that the best decision was to stay in Singapore. Reluctantly, on December 10th, I cancelled my ticket. It was two weeks before my planned departure. It would be four more months before I would make it back to the States, for CGDC in late April. By then I had been out of the country for nearly a year.
Paul and Mike made the same decision, and, in the end, we would all be in Singapore for Christmas. All except Rob, who would be back in Washington, as depressed as the rest of us, but for different reasons.
A few other interesting issues popped up in early December. In the wake of Rob’s departure, we learned a little bit about his relationship with the staff who had been on his original iPower team. We had known that Rob’s communication with Isaac, our 3D Studiowhiz, had been strained. For a while we had assumed that it had been due to Isaac’s artistic intransigence. But, in the wake of Rob’s decision to leave we learned that it was more complex, and that it had been a cultural failing on our part. Isaac was among the most traditional of the GOL staff, and a person to whom face, respect, and authority were all very important. No one had ever doubted Isaac’s talent, he was superb. But Rob had dealt with him like he might deal with one of us, or like he dealt with the more westernized members of the GOL staff. That didn’t play very well with Isaac, a man to whom diplomacy and tact were essential. Friction had developed from there, and the two of them had never been comfortable with each other. When Joe and I took a new tack with Isaac our communication with him improved a great deal. Although Isaac did remain prone to lavish a little too much attention to detail in some of his deadline critical efforts, he also went on to produce some of his most spectacular work. I don’t fault Rob for this. We were all guilty, we all made assumptions about the attitudes of our staff at various times, and we all learned cultural lessons the hard way. Singapore is deceptive in that way. It is just westernized enough to lull you into a false sense of security, and then you forget that it is very much an Asian city at heart. And that’s when you screw up and embarrass yourself, or someone else.
Something else came out of our investigations into the staff culture issue. There were definite opinion leaders within the Asian members of the GOL staff. We had been surprised at the loyalty and dedication of our staff, and we learned that it wasn’t always because of Joe’s or my exhortations or entreaties. There were two or three of our local staff who commanded a lot of respect from the other Singaporeans. Often it was their decisions and opinions that influenced the others.
During the first weekend in December Rob had breakfast with Chris. The two of them had a long conversation, which Rob thought was quite interesting. Among other things, Rob gained some insight into Chris’ personality, and the competitiveness that drove him. Chris also offered to help Rob find another local job if GOL folded and he still wanted to stay in Singapore. Predictably, Rob was not swayed from his decision to leave Singapore. The most interesting thing was that Chris warned Rob that the possibility of a management buyout, raised by Seng Hon and greeted as a fairly attractive option by Joe and myself, was remote. If it came down to it we could expect very little help from SembMedia or SembCorp in arranging a buyout. We would be on our own. That warning would come back to haunt us later when the prospect of attempting a buyout became more concrete, at the very end.
The investment dance continued full speed throughout the month of December. Seng Hon, Chris, and Nick Lee paraded an endless chain of potential investors through GOL as we worked to complete the demo. In the end, our lease on life would be extended through January and into mid-Feburary, and we would entertain visitors from TDF (again), the Economic Development Board of Singapore, the Pico Corporation, United Overseas Bank Venture Capital Group, Electronic Arts, the National Computer Board, EDB (again), Electronic Arts (again), Net Results Holdings, Wearnes Technology (Pte.) Ltd., Imagine Interactive (Pte.) Ltd., Music Pen Inc. (I don’t know why), Lawton/Yeo Design Associates, and more whom I have forgotten over time. I gave the fucking tour of GOL so many times that I was locked into complete autopilot by the end, paralyzed into a routine of enforced enthusiasm that lay like a thin carpet over my bulletproof fatalism. It was miserable. We got the same response from pretty much everyone we entertained. Polite feigned interest, and a promise to look into the possibilities. Net result: zero. Sort of. But I get ahead of myself. There were some wrinkles.
One odd thing about the final month of tours, between mid-January and late February, was that the GOL studio became frozen into a kind of time loop. We finished our playable demo in mid-January, as promised. But there was nothing else that we could do until we knew that we had financing in the bank. At that point even the product we were pitching had changed, a development that I will explain shortly. So the office was locked into a kind of stasis for a month where nothing ever changed. Every time there was a tour we would take people around the office and show them the exact same things. Everyone would have the same display on their computer that they’d had the previous day. All the same animations and tools would be demonstrated. I felt like I was in the movie Groundhog Day, destined to relive the same miserable experiences into infinity, never progressing, never succeeding, never failing. Make no mistake, we weren’t idle. We just had the staff working on anything but Cyberpunk. By the time the inevitable happened, Cyberpunk as such had ceased to exist.
By mid-December Joe and I were determined to cover our bases as much as possible. We didn’t have much faith left in Sembawang by that point, so we worked on forming some contingency plans of our own. One thing that we did was to begin talking to people at the Institute of Systems Science, a computer think-tank attached to the National University of Singapore. ISS had spun-off several commercial ventures, including one called StarGlobe Technologies. Star+Globe was lead by a woman named Virginia Cha, whom Joe and I had met when we spoke at the Information Superhighway Summit/Asia show the previous Spring. Virginia had asked me to come and speak in January at another conference she was participating in. When everything started to cave in at GOL and I had to withdraw from speaking she took an interest in what was happening to us. Virginia suggested that investment money could definitely be found in Singapore. Over the next few months ISS would go on to play a central role in the unfolding of events.
Joe and I also spoke to the American computer game company 3DO in December. The 3DO saga began on the 14th of December when I discovered a voice-mail message time-stamped 5:00 AM at work one morning. The message was from Steve Sellers, one of the team responsible for the creation of the Internet multiplayer game Meridian 59 and one of the leaders of 3DO’s Internet product development group. My friend Scott Ruggels, a 3D artist at 3DO, had apparently spread word of our plight, and Steve Sellers had been interested enough to give us a call. Naturally, Joe and I were intrigued. 3DO was in my neck of the woods, and it seemed like an option worth pursuing. I phoned Steve back, and we arranged for a conference call between Joe, Myself, Steve, and members of his team.
We faxed copies of our game concept and major design points, along with some art samples, to 3DO. It was all based on copyrighted material, so we didn’t worry too much about it being stolen or abused. Three weeks later, after two postponements that completely unnerved Mike, we had the conference call. We talked about ‘Punk and what we were trying to do for a while, and what our possible options were for working together. Steve pledged to distribute our information (and investment prospectus) to his team, and they would get back to us after they had reviewed it.
We never heard from them again.
That the 3DO thing didn’t go anywhere didn’t bother me too much. It had been a long shot, and worth talking to them. We had looked at Meridian 59 and been less than impressed, so we could see why they were looking for new ideas. But a little research also revealed that their department was in trouble, and that they were looking for new engines rather than content to put on top of their existing engine. We were a long ways from a working engine and, indeed, if we had worked with them the first task probably would have been to put ‘Punk content on the Meridian engine. That they didn’t have the balls to contact us again in person and let us know how things had shaken down was somewhat annoying, though. Since they went through the trouble to contact us, it seemed like a pretty fucking elementary courtesy.
During the whole time that we were dealing with 3DO Nick Lee continued to bring people through Games Online, and Chris continued to wheel and deal for alternate financing from his office at the GOL studio. We had a chance to closely scrutinize the dynamic between Chris and Nick.
They hated each other.
As you would expect in polite, open society, it was all pretty much unspoken. But we had ample opportunity to talk to both of them at length, and it wasn’t hard to read their feelings on each other. It didn’t make us particularly confident to know that there was this lethal tension between our fallen General Manager and the man who would ultimately decide if we lived or died. In retrospect, I think that our choice of who to confide in, between the two of them, was unfortunate. But it probably wouldn’t have changed much either way. Suffice to say that, today, I’d happily split a pitcher of beer with Chris. I can not say that I would do the same with all of the other parties present in those dark days. Whatever complaints that we might have had over the lifespan of GOL, I think that Chris was sincere in his desire for GOL to succeed, and that he spent a lot of his political capital on us. Some of the problems that Joe and I blamed him for at the time originated, I suspect, further up the chain of command.
A Christmas Story
We have a colony of ants living in the trunk of our car.
Excerpt from my journal, December 12, 1996
One early December day, in a perfect example of what it is like to live in Southeast Asia, we discovered that an ant colony had set up shop in the trunk of our car. It explained why we kept on finding dozens of ants inside the passenger compartment every time we went for a drive. Leshia conducted a search-and-destroy chemical attack and that was it for the ants.
The next day we had a visit from the home office. They were there to account all the equipment and update the tracking tags. We had a bout of collective paranoia that this was fraught with some kind of dire message until Joe reminded us that they did equipment inventory every six months, and that it was, in fact, time for the check. That appeased us somewhat, but we all got little hikes in our blood-pressure when, after inventorying the equipment at GOL, they went to our apartments and inventoried all the company equipment there, including our washing machines, air conditioners, etc. That’s the price you pay for having the company provide everything, I guess.
That weekend Joe and Akiko had a visit from some family friends from Malaysia. The visitors were a Malaysian Sikh investor, and his wife, who, due to her family, had the status of “Princess of the Realm,” the realm being Malaysia. Joe spun our tale of woe to the Sikh, who sat and patiently listened. When all was over he said to Joe “It is Divine Providence that I am here this weekend.” Apparently he thought he might be able to rustle up some investment for Games Online. Well, we weren’t about to say no to anyone, particularly if they had access to 10 million Ringgit (about 6 million Sing) in investment money. Nothing ended up coming of the Divine Providence, at least in time for GOL. The mysterious Sikh emerged as a factor again when we tried to set up our new company in the wake of GOL. Ultimately, though, I guess divine providence wasn’t enough.
In mid-December some new dish about Contact emerged. By that time twenty of Contact’s sixty employees had been let go. Everyone who was left was ordered to go to a morale building class. Attendance was mandatory. Now, is it me, or is this the business equivalent of sending forty starving people to look at rubber food? It reaches levels ofDilbertism that I had never expected to see in real life. You want to build morale, stop sacking people. Personally, I always feel much higher morale and company loyalty when the first thing I look for in my mailbox every day isn’t a pink slip. As Joe said, “Der floggings vill continue üntil morale improofs!” We also learned at this point that Contact was not only paying huge rent at Suntec, but that they were locked into a three year lease. All before anyone knew if they would succeed. Well, kids, that’s confidence. Too bad it was misplaced confidence. Contact would end up having to break that lease.
And so, by the end of the month, the intrigue surrounding GOL and SembMedia had reached fever pitch. Joe had been dropping some files on Chris’ desk and noticed Chris’ datebook lying open. Written on the top page, which was January 6th, was “D-day. Resign.” We had suspected as much, but it was interesting to see that there was actually a timetable. (I feel obliged to stress that Joe was not actively snooping, and merely stumbled across this…although he did tell me.) Shortly thereafter Chris was off in Hong Kong, prowling for investors we assumed. TDF made a repeat visit, and brought along some consultant who asked a flurry of utterly vacuous and pointless questions about what we were doing. Nick lee had been lying low for a couple of weeks, since our most recent visit from EDB. Seng Hon had become the invisible man, surfacing once when we had a visit from the local contingent of Electronic Arts. We were still nursing 3DO along at this point. All in all, nobody had a clue how anything was going.
But it was Christmas, the holiday season, and we were going to have a good time or die trying. Karen, it turned out, had an artificial Christmas tree. Now, personally, I find artificial Christmas trees objectionable under most circumstances. Sure, they don’t leave pine needles all over the carpet, or turn brown before Christmas day, or entice the dog to urinate on your pile of neatly wrapped presents, or spontaneously burst into flames, or any of the other things that real Christmas trees do. But you don’t get the ritual of going out and picking one that you like, and you don’t get that infusion of pine scent throughout the house (unless you spray everything with Pine-Sol, or do something similarly desperate). In Singapore, however, a real pine tree has to be air-flown in from New Zealand, or Kamchatka, or some such, and they tend to cost about $200 Sing. So we welcomed Karen’s artificial Christmas tree, and by god, we trimmed that baby. And then we went out and bought presents, and wrapped them, and put them under the tree. And it was just like an honest-to-god, real-life, temperate zone Christmas, except that it was still 85 degrees and humid out. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas was a big step up from the previous year. We had friends, we had presents, and we had a tree. All in all, it was a nice time. I went to work on Christmas day, but only after we opened our presents. New Year’s was also good. We spent the evening swimming in our friend Jim Myran’s pool and quaffing Kirin’s. It was a pleasant step forward from the previous New Year’s Eve, spent sitting in our unfurnished living room morosely drinking noxious Tiger Beer and watching the groovy video light-show thoughtfully included as a setting with every 3DO video game machine.
There was a slight damper on our Christmas spirit, however. After a year of safe driving on the often hair-raising Singapore roads we had two accidents within a week. I am pleased to report that neither of them was serious, and that most of the damage done to the (insured) car was cosmetic. Joe was person who initiated this mini-trend by rear-ending a guy in a Toyota Hi-Ace van. He then called the car rental company, City-Limo, and dutifully informed them of what had happened. Mike then finished the job by getting himself rear-ended by someone else, which caused some consternation at City-Limo, when we they got their second call from us before they had even sent round their representative to check the damage from the first accident. The car was gone for a few days for repairs, and then returned to us. It never quite recovered, though.
And so the holiday season played itself out here in Singapore, where Santa doesn’t visit because his reindeer are unlicensed. Nick Lee subtly turned up the heat on us, reminding us of how dire the situation was. Singapore held an election, which generated, if anything, even less excitement and suspense than an American election does (although at least they get high turnout, since voting is mandatory). Jim, Joe, Mike and I spent a merry day at the Sungei Buloh mangrove swamp nature preserve on Singapore’s northern coast photographing monkeys, monitor lizards, and the colossal, Southeast Asian dog-eating spiders that infest the wooded areas. My friend Rob Mills and I spent another day wandering around our own neighborhood, sticking our heads into the temples, local shops, and other places we had never thought to explore before. It was the lull before the merciless storm of mid-January and February.
A Brief Entomological Aside
As long as I am remarking on the spiders up at Sungei Buloh, I feel obligated to visit, for the first time, the subject of Singapore’s cockroaches. After all, we can’t spend all of our time rehashing the desperate and depressing last days of GOL. Cockroaches here don’t work quite the same way as cockroaches back home. In the San Francisco bay area there is, essentially, one kind of cockroach. It is about an inch long, coffee brown, and fast but not dazzling. It is generally non-airborne, and when you see one you can pretty much be sure that there are a zillion others lurking just out of sight.
In Singapore we have two distinct kinds of cockroaches: turbo roaches and mega roaches. Turbo roaches are small, similar in size to the common American roaches. The problem with turbo roaches is partially illustrated by their name. They are fast! I mean like The Flash. These roaches travel fast enough to make tiny little sonic booms. They travel so fast that their relativistic increase in mass can distort local space-time and suck the contents of your refrigerator into a tiny black hole. They travel so fast that small children, pets, and Austin Minis are often dragged along in the slipstream.
And they fly.
This is particularly disturbing. It’s bad enough that they move so fast that they can set your wallpaper on fire, but when even that isn’t enough they will actually take wing and fly around your bedroom, invariably landing on the grilled closet doors, on which they are completely invisible. This causes many sleepless nights because, as we all know, you can’t sleep with a roach in your room. It might start running windsprints in your nostrils while you sleep. A friend of mine actually had one of these things charge her and land on her thigh while she was naked. Just thinking of that makes me squeal like a catholic schoolgirl in bondage. Casing my room for a turbo roach often engenders the same desperate, sweaty sense of danger and futility that I imagine was often felt by American dogfaces prowling the Mekong Delta for Victor Charlie (which, for the geographically impaired, happened about a two hour plane flight northeast of here).
There is only one thing worse than turbo roaches. And that is the Singapore Mega Roach. The mega-roach is a truly disgusting insect. And I tell you this from a country that is populated with the kind of insects you only see on the Discovery Channel in California. There’s a beetle here that looks and sounds almost exactly like a fully loaded B-17. Mega roaches are an oily dark brown, and approach a colossal two inches in length. Sometimes, at hawker centers, you see them in packs. The first time I saw that I thought I had disturbed a mouse family. No shit. There is no way to kill them. Even if you could, the thought of bringing your foot down on something that large and crunchy is enough to cause nausea, sweating, and heart palpitations. It would be like crushing a chihuahua (a creature only slightly less odious). The only way to deal with them is to negotiate a settlement and cede them territory in hopes of appeasement. It was exactly this policy that cost Neville Chamberlain his job, but in the face of superior forces, what can you do?
The solution is to live on the upper floors of buildings. It’s more expensive, but your chances of being overrun are lower. And, if you are, you can always hurl yourself to your death.
“You’ve heard the Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times?’ Well, these are them.”
Joe Pantuso to Ooi (GOL Programmer Ooi Szu Khiam), 1/10/97.
Excerpt from my journal, January 10, 1997
On January 6th, Nick Lee had a brainstorm. Too bad I didn’t have an umbrella handy.
We had just shown one of our myriad potential investors around, and Nick Lee, Mike, Joe and I were sitting back near my cubicle talking. It had always been Mr. Lee’s assertion that we were over-ambitious. (A correct analysis considering some of GOL’s limitations.) He though that we should have set our sights technologically lower and done a simpler product. As we were sitting around talking it occurred to him that the work we had done so far could make the backbone of a good Internet chat system. The client/server mechanics would be similar to Cyberpunk, but much simpler, and we could use the same content and theme to give it character. We could, he theorized, develop a chat system as a quick-and-dirty first product, and then build towards the fully realized Cyberpunk Online from there. The chat system we could sell to Internet service providers to serve their clients, eventually networking all of our chat servers into a web of theme areas through which customers could explore and interact. By this time we were all grasping at straws, and it seemed like a fine idea to us. Our enthusiasm was stoked by news that if we didn’t have an investor and a viable plan by January 17th, eleven days hence, we were dead. We went to work writing the idea up and putting it into a form that we could present to investors. The chat bubble would begin to burst less than two days later, as Joe and I examined the market.
The next day we had a visit from Virginia Chia, our friend from StarGlobe Technologies who had assured us that there was investment money to be had in Singapore. She brought with her a man named Gurminder Singh, a pleasant Sikh fellow from Canada who was the Creative Services Director for the Institute of Systems Science computer think-tank at the National University of Singapore. We had met Gurminder a few days earlier at a meeting with Virginia at ISS and had arranged to give them the tour of GOL. At GOL they bumped into Chris, whom both of them knew. Chris looked a little surprised to see them there, but he had been incommunicado in Hong Kong when we had arranged the visit. Gurminder and Virginia looked at the work we had done and at our staff, and said that they though that we could very well work together somehow. The next step would be for Joe and me to go over to ISS and take a look at some of the stuff that they were working on, and to see if it looked like it could all dovetail together.
The positive feelings from the meeting with Virginia and Gurminder were tempered by the results of our investigation into the realities of the Internet chat market. It was saturated. There were a dozen companies, including Microsoft, operating or selling Internet chat systems to ISPs, private companies, individuals, or anyone else who could pony up anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $150,000 depending on the system. This looked like a major monkey wrench in our plan to sell a “PunkChat” server to ISPs for $30,000, which was the number that Nick Lee had come up with. Other companies had gone before, some with original ideas, and they were foundering commercially on exactly the same plan that had looked so good to us two days before. Our only solace lay in the fact that most of the systems suffered from obvious shortcomings of design or content. But were we the people to come up with the first Internet chat product that avoided all those pitfalls? We had our doubts. But we were so desperate for something to cling to at this point that we went into a murderous little cycle of preliminary design, trying to find the twist that hadn’t been done before. Every time we came up with the idea we’d have a flash of enthusiasm until we uncovered some previous incarnation or attempt that had failed. It was an exhausting and self-destructive way to try to conceive a product. There was no way that anything productive would ever come to it.
But if you’re going to go down, go down flailing. And flail we did to try to come up with some last minute solution. In retrospect we should have given the entire chat idea the finger and stuck to our guns. We had two ambitious but good game designs that, with the right crew and approach, could have been realized. Cyberpunk and iPower were what we believed in, and the only things that we could sell with any sincerity. Everything else was lip service offered under duress.
On the eighth of January Nick Lee and Seng Hon came back to GOL with an old friend. Goh Yu Min, who had resigned Sembawang Media after being assigned to Games Online full time months before, had been temporarily lured back into the fold. Nick Lee had hired him as a freelance consultant to draft a business plan around the Internet chat idea. It was interesting to see Yu Min again after all that time. He was, as ever, pragmatic and slightly aloof. He explained to us that he was not even sure that he would take the job, although in the end he did. During the meeting that we talked about what our approach to the Internet chat business would be, and what numbers would be offered to prospective investors.
The numbers in question struck Joe and me as goony. Nick Lee was offering 20% stakes in Games Online for $1 million each, which, with a brief Sesame Street level calculation, reveals an implied $5 million valuation for Games Online. As Gates is my witness, GOL was not worth $5 million. GOL wasn’t worth $2 million, which was the actual amount of total investment dollars that we were looking for. GOL, ruthlessly boiled down to its component parts of equipment, intellectual property, and the component chemicals of the staff was worth a grand total of about $750,000. A best-case stretch for investment purposes might have justified a $2 million valuation, if you factored in intangibles. But, unlike NFL scouts and Jehovah’s Witnesses, it turns out that most venture capitalists aren’t interested in intangibles. Go figure.
By this point Joe, Mike and I were on about draft fifteen of the Internet chat server approach, looking for a viable angle. Our latest fever-crazed scheme involved real-time 3D (incorporating work done by ISS), a cross-networked server system, rich content, and a tool set that would allow commercial clients to customize their worlds or promotional purposes (e.g “Paramount presents Star Trek Chat, with Star Trek avatars held in the starship Enterprise, etc.). Even with this candy-coated plan Joe had flat out told Nick Lee that we thought the revenue numbers were bogus and unsupportable. We believed that there was no hope for constructing a decent business plan around any chat system that we were likely to develop in 7 to 9 months (which was our target schedule). We were told that it didn’t matter, and to proceed anyway. Needless to say, this did not do sparkly wonders for our nascent enthusiasm. While Nick Lee continued to work on the plan crafted by Yu Min, Joe set about drafting an alternate and vaguely more realistic business plan based around dirt cheap servers and free clients, which was the only option that we considered remotely viable in light of the burgeoning competition.
On January 10th, at about the same time as the dueling business plans were being born, Joe and I went down to ISS to take a look at the product that they were developing.History City was a real-time 3D, multiplayer, online environment for children. The content was a recreation of Singapore in the 1870s, with, villages representing different ethnicities, a trading/economics game, and music and sound effects. There was voice and text chat, and the plan was to add stories, jokes, and other content to amuse children between the ages of about 6 and 10. Joe and I had a mixed reaction to History City. On one hand they were clearly on to something with regional content and a focus towards kids. On the other, the content needed a vast amount of enriching and polishing, and the display engine, built on the Renderware system, was slow. History City had been fully funded by the Singapore National Computer Board, and was heading towards a live beta test in May and national roll-out in June. At the meeting Gurminder explained to us that the plan was to spin-off from ISS a new commercial venture that would develop the beta version of KidSpace into a viable commercial product. It was conceivable that, instead of creating a brand new company as a spin-off, that an existing one, such as GOL, could form a partnership with ISS to take on the commercial development of History City. Joe and I were excited. At long last this seemed like a really solid break. Although we both knew thatHistory City was a long way from being a successful commercial product, it’s transformation into one was just the kind of thing that the GOL staff could do. The bulk of the engineering had been done, but the content was raw. GOL had always been short on engineering and long on superb content people. The potential was real. Or so we thought.
While we were at ISS Joe and I looked at some of their other projects, including some fascinating audio tools that were being developed by two affable, audio-inclined propellerheads named Peter and Lonce. I spent some time doing the audio geek shuffle with the Scots Peter and American Lonce, who were friendly and enthusiastic. They were hardcore theorists and inclined to rhapsodize about subjects beyond the grasp of knob-twisting sound-effects editors such as myself. Joe and I both got excited about the potential of the tools that they were developing, however, and decided to see if we could get their work folded into any potential deal. We arranged follow up meetings with Gurminder.
Around this time the already strained relationship between Joe and Nick Lee began to get downright frosty. Joe was abrasive, had some strong opinions, and spoke his mind openly. It was clear that he though that we were only being paid lip service by Sembawang Media as far as saving GOL. My impression was that Nick Lee considered Joe uppity and arrogant. The situation deteriorated to the point where Nick Lee began pointedly excluding Joe from investment meetings. At first he had me do the talking during presentations, and later he decided that he and Seng Hon should do most of the talking and I was used only to explain certain things and answer questions. Joe fumed about being excluded, and eventually wormed his way back into the loop, but there was no love lost between him and Nick Lee. I was more political, and maintained a semi-cordial relationship throughout.
One week after our first substantive discussions with ISS our early optimism had faded. We had arranged for ISS and Sembawang Media to talk, and the result had been a resounding thud. There was clearly going to be no deal between the two companies. Joe and I kept talking to ISS, but we changed focus. Now we discussed the possibility of going to work for ISS in the wake of the likely collapse of GOL. GOL would have to die first for anything to develop between ISS and us. Meanwhile, the Singapore National Computer Board had expressed some interest in GOL, and offered a grant package, but like TDF’s investment it was dependent on a private investor coming in. At that point the best case scenario seemed to be that we would muddle along for a further six months or so before biting the bullet, not a very fulfilling prospect either from our point of view or from Sembawang’s. All our moods went into the toilet as a new wave of fatalistic depression swept over us. We thought about simply conceding defeat. Joe slipped into the depressive side of his mood-swing cycle and allowed his confidence to evaporate. I started taking my personal stuff home from the office. At that point my greatest hope was that we wouldn’t alienate Nick Lee or Sembawang so badly that they wouldn’t pay our repatriation and last-month’s salaries in lieu of notice. The emotional roller coaster had stretched all our nerves like taffy.
I could tell that the entire process was damaging my mind when I wrote the following (excerpted from e-mail) to Christie, in the states:
I think that we are looking at near-term solutions that increase our experience and liquidity, and further the goal of creating our own company in the States sometime in the next three years. To which she replied: Your last sentence sounds like a line of garbage that one would find in a business plan or a presentation to senior management to justify a company’s, group’s, or department’s existence–*not* something that friends sit around and discuss. It’s simply not English and therefore not useful for me. She was right. My brain was obviously ruined.
Another symptom of impending mental collapse was rampant paranoia. One theory that we advanced among ourselves at that time was derived from Sembawang’s insistence on selling two 20% stakes to other investors at $1 million each. Because then Sembawang could maintain a controlling share. $2 million would recoup the money that they had spent on us. They could sell the stake and balance their books, and then, with a controlling interest, close us down in two months anyway. Later rational examination pointed out the vast flaw in this little fantasy. Singapore is a tiny island, and if Sembawang Media had pulled a stunt like that they would have alienated the two other companies completely. No one likes to be scammed for a million bucks. In the end, the numbers were based on one thing only: the amount of money necessary to fund our projects to completion and begin generating revenue.
Schrödinger’s Game Company
Well, the meeting just ended. I told Joe afterwards that I am swimming in a bullshit sea, towards a bullshit island, as a bullshit sun blazes across a bullshit sky.
Excerpt from my journal, January 15, 1997
On January 15th we had our largest meeting of prospective investors ever at GOL. Representatives of Flextech, EA, Bandai, UOB Ventures, the National Computer Board, and the National Science and Technology Board were present. We gave the tour, showed off our newly completed Cyberpunk playable demo (now billed as a ‘PunkChat demo) in which people could chat and explore and shoot each other, and gave our spiel about Internet chat, progressive product development, and necessary investment. The numbers drafted by Nick Lee and Goh Yu Min were still at the heart of the investment proposal, as was the development and marketing of an Internet chat system to Internet service providers. 20% stakes at $1 million each were on the block. During the meeting the representatives of each investment group were handed a piece of paper. On the paper was a space for them to write in which investment group they were, and three options, each with a little check-box next to it. The three options were: 1) We plan on investing, 2) We are interested but need more information, and 3) We are not interested in investing at this time. That was it. Our future reduced to a single multiple-choice question.
The meeting went well, as always. We had refined the tour and pitch to a well-rehearsed art by this point. At the end of the meeting Nick Lee asked the representatives to fill in their forms and check the box that represented their level of interest. The completed forms were quickly examined, and some pleasantries spoken, and the meeting was adjourned. At the end of the meeting I found myself in possession of the six pieces of paper. I flipped through them and found, to my complete lack of surprise, that option two had been checked on all six of them. What else could it be? No one was going to commit on the spot. At the very least any group that was seriously interested would have to go through a due diligence check. On the other hand, it would have been an abrogation of Asian manners to check option number three. In Asia a “no” is often delivered in the most couched and delicate terms possible. Checking the “not interested” option would probably be considered unthinkable. Nonetheless, I chose to interpret the results as six rejections in order to prevent heartbreak.
After that meeting it was time for some psychological balm. On Thursday, January 23rd, Mike, Joe, Jim and I left for three days of world class diving at Manado, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. That glorious trip is covered in self-indulgent detail in my journal article 20,000 Geeks Under the Sea: The Report from Manado. If you want to know how great this trip was for me, consider this, I missed the Superbowl and didn’t care! We returned to Singapore much refreshed, and ready for the worst that fate could dish out.
On the day after we got back from Manado we had a meeting with Wong Seng Hon and a new set of representatives from the Singapore Economic Development Board. Seng Hon had worked for EDB before joining Sembawang Media, and he still had ties there. We already had an grant from EDB for $800,000 over two years (none of which was ever used, we learned in retrospect), but now they were being courted as potential part owners. It was necessary to make sure that everything was above board with EDB, however, as Sembawang Corporation chairman Philip Yeo was also EDB chairman, and any s conflict of interest had to be avoided. In the meantime a letter of intent emerged from TDF, which was good news. TDF managing director Thomas Ng had returned from the states apparently enthused about the possibilities of Internet entertainment. There was a catch, though. We still needed a “strategic industry partner,” which is to say a private investor with no government links. TDF (and the other government-related investors) wanted reassurance that other private corporations thought that we were viable. It seemed that with every bit of good news there was some attendant catch that invalidated it. I began to seriously think about other jobs in Singapore.
The following weekend I went to Pulau Sibu, Malaysia, with Jim, Kazumi, and Jim’s friend David, an American expat living in Tokyo. David told us that he was currently experiencing one of the pitfalls of life as an expat. He was paid in Japanese Yen, in a sum that was not directly linked to an American dollar amount. In the time since he had negotiated his salary the Yen had plummeted from 80 to the US dollar to 120 to the dollar. He was taking a massive hit, and faced having to renegotiate his salary. Fortunately for us, the Singapore dollar was pretty stable.
To get to Pulau Sibu it is necessary to drive for about two hours up the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. A bit north of Kota Tinggi there is a small coastal village that is separated from the island of Sibu by a straight one or two miles across. There is a small restaurant there that sits in the middle of a wide expanse of coastal grasslands and scrub. While we were waiting for the speedboat to show up the four of us got to watch the restaurant’s small trash-fire ignite the adjacent brush, and turn into a substantial wildfire that consumed a huge stretch of the coastal grasslands. It was raging as we boarded the speedboat, leaving Jim mildly paranoid about his parked car. Thirty-six hours later, when we returned, the fire was still burning in patches hundreds of meters away from where it originally started. A huge swathe had been charred. “Not to worry,” said one of the locals. “This happens once or twice a year.” Sure enough, every tree in the region had sings of previous burn damage. Someday it’s going to turn into a real rager.
On Monday, February 3rd we were back from Sibu. There had been a meeting planned for that day with Suanne Ambron, a senior VP from Motorola who was apparently interested in what we were doing. Unfortunately Ms. Ambron fell mysteriously ill, and the meeting was cancelled. Just our luck. The local paranoia meter jumped again. At this point despondency had set in. The demo that had consumed six weeks of work was done, and it was pointless to start work on the games again until we knew if we were going to live or die. We began to float ideas for small projects that would keep the staff busy and allow them to learn new skills until we knew what our fate was to be.
On February 5th a new factor emerged. The Pico Arts company, the largest corporate exhibition company in Asia, had been brought in as a potential investor. At this point we had progressed beyond even the ‘PunkChat idea in diluting our original mission. Pico was moving into contract 3D animation and video production, and was eyeballing Games Online as a content studio. If they were to buy in, games would be out the window completely, and we would be nothing more than hired guns creating made-to-order graphics. The straws were there to be grasped at. Pico expressed interest in having our 3D guys do a piece of contract work for them. The Pico guys showed our 3D artists the storyboard for a piece of animation requested for an upcoming presentation by the Singapore Ministry of Home affairs. It seemed like a good political move to undertake the job, and Sembawang Media consented. Pico wanted the finished animation in just over two weeks. It was an incredible rush job. We felt compelled to prove our worth though, and we figured that the billing would be a feather in our financial cap for the month. Our Softimage guru, Michael, was put in charge of the project. Joe, Alf, Isaac, Shawn and I also all worked on it, with Joe contributing video editing and me handling sound effects and music. As the Pico project got under way we also decided on a project to occupy the rest of the staff. We put them to work on writing, producing, and shooting a short video based on a humorous idea conceived by Michael. We figured that this would occupy everyone until the end of the month, by which time we would know if we lived or died. For two weeks there was actually a sense of routine at GOL. It was the first time in several months. It would also be the last time.
At the same time as Pico emerged there seemed to be something of a mood swing up at Sembawang Corporation. Apparently the chairman had put in a good word for us and there was some thought that the noose might loosen a little. Sembawang Media had also reduced its target ownership stake in GOL from a majority to 30%, conceding for the first time the possibility of relinquishing control.
In mid-February I went to the Indonesian island of Lombok with Leshia, Mike and Karen. It was a spectacular trip, covered in the usual excruciating detail in the as-yet unwritten One Over from Bali: The Report from Lombok. I’ll be tackling that journal as soon as this piece is finished. On February 16th I returned from Lombok. The first thing that I did was to phone Joe and inquire as to whether there had been any news in the last few days. Joe was exuberant. “We’re going to be in Singapore for a long, long time!” he gushed. I only hoped that he meant we would be somewhere other than Changi prison for the duration of this long time.
The next day at work Mike and I got the details of Joe’s vast, positive mood swing. While we had been in Lombok Electronic Arts had re-entered the picture. They had come in the previous Friday, the day after Mike and I had left. Joe hadn’t known of their impending visit until he got an early wake-up call from Florence, our administrative assistant. Joe had rushed into the office and was joined shortly by Nick Lee and two men from EA: The Vice President in charge of Asia, and the Asia-Pacific regional director. These were guys who could make deals, which had not been true of any of the local EA representatives we had met before. At the meeting the EA reps asked penetrating, intelligent questions (and were among the first of our potential investors to do so). Joe spoke his mind. At the end of the meeting EA offered to have an answer back to us within a week. “Not fast enough,” said Nick Lee. EA then said that they would try to have a reply to us by the following Monday, three days away.
The next day Joe was at an awards dinner honoring Singaporian IT leaders along with Seng Hon and Nick Lee. At the dinner Seng Hon told Joe that EA had come back with an answer already. The answer was yes. Yes! They would put up $1 million, and we would get a further $1.3 million from the government. We were capitalized for a year and a half! Suddenly it looked like we had broken through the gloom and emerged victorious. Even though Seng Hon was equivocating the very next day (Sunday) about EA’s involvement it seemed like a breakthrough for us. The following Monday Joe gathered the staff and told them that EA was in. Games Online would continue.
It was at this cheery Monday meeting that I delivered my “Schrödinger’s Game Company” speech, thus creating the science of quantum game company mechanics. It went something like this: The physicist Erwin Schrödinger created an elegant if over-simplified example to explain quantum probability theory, which proposes that a particle exists in all possible states until it is measured. The example suggests (in my paraphrasing) that you picture a cat in a completely sealed box through which no measurement is possible. Along with the cat is a vial of poison that has, in any given span of time, a 50% chance of releasing its poison and killing the cat. Quantum theory suggests that until you actually open the box and look at the cat (i.e. “measure” it), the cat is neither alive nor dead. As far as the universe is concerned the cat exists as a hybrid probability state, 50% alive and 50% dead. The speech compared GOL to Schrödinger’s cat, and was delivered for yux at the whiteboard in the GOL conference room where was a hit with the staff, who had been living with uncertainty over our fate for three months.
That week I went down to SembMedia to do Live@BoatQuay with Ben and Gerrie for the first time in weeks. While I was there I got a good look into the health of Sembawang Media. If I had been a doctor I would have shipped the patient to intensive care. Or the morgue. Morale there continued to be in the crapper, and fewer of the old familiar faces were visible there than ever before. Art director Angela Leck had resigned, and seemed very cheerful about it. Darius (see Report from Singapore 1) had resigned, and Earl was contemplating it (he has since left also). Dennis, one of the chief engineers there resigned, as did the man who was to replace him. Isaiah, a young man we had interviewed for Games Online and who had been a bright prospect who lost out amid our many talented writing applicants, told me that he was contemplating leaving. Sito Tuck Seng, another principal engineer there and an old friend, would leave soon thereafter. Rumors were circulating about imminent departures by Peter Schoppert, the man who had replaced Chris as GM of Multimedia Studios, and, possibly Wong Seng Hon. Both of them have since left, the news of Seng Hon’s resignation being most recent. CTO Jek Kian Jin resigned, although he had an unusual reason, as he had to be in the US to be with his son, who was receiving medical treatment. But there had been stories of clashes between him, Seng Hon, and Peter Schoppert. It was clear that Boat Quay was on its way to being a ghost of what it once was.
In the glare of all of this, our team wrapped up the project we were doing for Pico Arts with a flurry of last minute work. For a hastily assembled project it was a quality piece of work, which was to be expected, as our guys were some of the best. But our crew nearly fainted en masse when they found out how much Sembawang charged Pico for their two weeks of relentless labor: six thousand dollars. On the open market it was a thirty thousand dollar job. So much for balancing our books a little bit with that piece of work. Isaac, Michael, Shawn and Alf were somewhat miffed when they found out what their talent had been deemed worth. That didn’t stop Isaac and Shawn from going to work for Pico in the wake of GOL’s closure, but we did hear some grumbling about how dull they found it.
As the final days passed a new and intriguing prospect was raised: a management buyout of the assets of GOL. Joe had been talking to Seng Hon, who had raised the prospect of a buyout, which would proceed with his endorsement. The price would supposedly be nominal, and what we would have to do is find enough capital to purchase the assets of GOL, and then locate our own funding to continue development. It seemed, in our somewhat addled and desperate state of mind, like a reasonable possibility at the time, particularly with Seng Hon’s tacit support. Hindsight tells us that it was really an opportunity for the onus of failure to be shifted onto our shoulders. But is amazing how much like tree trunks a few pieces of drifting straw can seem as you are being swept along the rapids towards the waterfall. But at that moment a buyout looked like a great way to organize an orderly bailout from Sembawang Media. If they didn’t want us, and we needed third party investment money to continue anyway, why not do it on our own, and take control? Well, because it will never work, of course. At the time we didn’t consider that little factor.
On February 24th Sembawang Media opened its sealed box, measured us, and declared us dead.
Joe had a meeting with Seng Hon on Sunday, Fenruary 23rd and delivered the brutal truth to the rest of GOL the next morning. Instead of that orderly bailout from Sembawang Media we were ejecting at high speed. Robert Harris, the man from the San Francisco venture capital firm of Unterberg/Harris who had visited us some weeks before, had been meeting with Sembawang’s man in the San Francisco area. During that meeting, which was concerned with issues completely unrelated to us, Mr. Harris said that he thought our prospects for crafting a good business plan were extremely dim. This opinion filtered back to Sembawang Media, where it apparently tilted the scales once and for all. No more extensions, no more reprieves, no more chances. Termination and closure as soon as possible. After facing this prospect for months, it seemed unreal when it actually came to pass.
At that time we were still chewing on the prospect of a buyout, and were riding an unnatural wave of optimism based on this zany scheme. Our rationale went like this: Thomas Ng, of the Technology Development Fund, had indicated that they would put up half of the buyout price and half of the salaries, if a private investor could be found to cover the remaining half. We already knew that we could get government grants for over a million dollars if we could line up private investment. In our eyes, EA became the linchpin. If we could recapture EA’s interest in our studio we thought we might be able to pull this off, possibly within one or two weeks.
This after our experience with Sembawang, the company that didn’t deliver Mike, Paul and Koji their air tickets to move to Singapore until they were at the airport, and who had swallowed our contract without a trace.
It’s amazing what three months of continual hyperventilation will do to your thought processes. It was yet another cycle in the ninety-day series of emotional crests and troughs that had pounded us relentlessly since we’d had the first ultimatum in early December. But really, at that point, there was only one issue left. How would it all end?
Unpleasantly, it turned out.
The Monumental Ramrod Girderfucking
How can I describe the last week? It is such a monumental ramrod girderfucking as to beggar description.
Excerpt from my journal, March 5th, 1997
It went down something like this:
Tuesday morning, February 25th, Nick Lee, Sembawang media human resources managers Maggie Thien and Eve Lee, SembMedia financial controller Anthony Tan, and Sembawang New Business Group financial controller John Lau all came down to GOL. Nick Lee gathered our staff and made a speech in which he remarked on the tight financial situation at Sembawang Media, and the lack of success in finding an investor of GOL. He reminded us that we’d had two months of reprieves, and still no investor had stepped forward. He informed the staff that they would all be terminated that day. We would have the rest of the afternoon to clear out our desks and collect our checks, and then they would lock the doors. End of story.
The GOL staff listened stoically, having all been prepared for this the day before by Joe. When Nick was done, Joe and I asked for some time alone with the staff so that we could present our side of the story, and decode the corporate byline into what we thought was the real chain of events. It was a solemn crowd we addressed, but we tempered the catastrophic news with our continuing plan to arrange a buyout of the assets of GOL.
After we turned the staff loose to begin boxing up their things Joe and I had a meeting with Nick Lee and John Lau at which we pleaded for permission to use the office for one to two weeks to coordinate our buyout efforts from. Nick Lee was in the improbable role of good cop in this meeting, with John Lau as the intractable Voice of the Corporation. The outcome was never in doubt. We would not be allowed to continue using the office, and the locks would be changed. This was all “for your own good,” as heaven forbid that something go missing and we be held responsible. The whole meeting inspired depths of anger in me that I’d not known I possessed. As a small concession, however, Joe was allowed to borrow his work computer and the laser printer, with his severance check held as security. Plus the servers would be left running so that could check our e-mail. At least it was something.
At the end of the day, most of the former GOL staff had cleared out their personal possessions under the watchful eye of Anthony. Most of that went smoothly, although there was minor meltdown when Honi burned some of her artwork to a CD for her portfolio. Anthony and one of the HR women suspected that she was either going to erase her hard drive or smuggle intellectual property out of the building, and they confronted her and would not allow her to remove the CD from the property. That was stupid, but Honi then exacerbated the situation by overreacting, resulting in a mighty brouhaha that need never have happened. Honi (along with Florence, whom Honi blamed for precipitating the whole affair) was the last person out of the office, so Joe and I weren’t around to clear this up. But the woman from HR called Joe’s handphone during the fracas and explained the situation to him, saying that she had our best interests at heart. In the course of two lengthy phone calls Joe explained to the woman that Honi had our blessing to burn a CD. No intellectual property that she could take from her computer was of any use to her or to anyone else except as portfolio material, and even if she did erase her hard drive, which she wasn’t going to do, that it wouldn’t fucking matter because everything of importance was already backed up to DAT tape and burned to CD.
Needless to say, this resolved nothing. Honi eventually broke the CD in two rather than let Anthony take possession of it, which did not reassure Anthony as to her integrity. Two days later I took Honi into GOL and let her burn another CD, again under Anthony’s watchful eye. At least he trusted me in person that this was all entirely appropriate. Of course, Joe and I, along with other staff members, had been burning personal files to CDs for weeks, in anticipation of the closure. In fact, we were clearing up loose ends at the GOL offices for a couple of weeks since some of our staff had been away during the actual closure. (Welcome back! Yer fired!)
So, there we were, unemployed in Southeast Asia. With the cancellation of our employment passes we were all on one-month tourist visas and we had a one-month grace period on our car and apartments. Money wasn’t a big problem, as we’d all received decent severance terms, but everything else looked pretty shaky.
It was time for plan-b.
There were a few possible options for plan-b. In order of desirability they went something like this: organize an investor-backed management buyout of GOL, set up a joint project with the Institute of Systems Science to develop their KidSpace project into a commercial product, find other jobs in Singapore, admit defeat and move back to the USA, panic.
Joe was still high on the buyout option at this point, and it seemed like a worthwhile option to the rest of us. Any continuance of GOL would depend on our being able to keep the office space at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and locate substantial financial backing. We knew that the chat server idea was a terrifying sinkhole, so we wrote off that idea. We went to work crafting a reasonable business plan to attract investors to back the continued operation of GOL. Joe pitched his “Gear” concept for small Internet games to the Technology Development Fund and to the Economic Development Board, but that alone wasn’t going to be enough. It was time to go into serious discussions with ISS on folding KidSpace into our plan, plus we wanted to try to woo EA back into the fold. We also needed to recruit support from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, as we expected competition from Sembawang Corporation for the old GOL office space. In order to grease the wheels Joe and I kept teaching the game development class on Wednesday afternoons. We went into discussions with Computer Science department head John Choo and we lobbied two instructors prominent in 3D art and animation for support. We got word that Seng Hon was lobbying the Polytechnic on our behalf as well, but we were extremely suspicious of that. Seng Hon’s principal concern was his own struggling company, and he stood to save a lot of money by moving his struggling corporate Internet division out of their expensive Suntec City office space and into the old GOL digs. Our suspicions would be confirmed later. At the time, though we were still quite optimistic. In my journal I rated our chances of success at 50/50. That was naïve. Something like 5/95 would have been more in line.
We went to work putting together a serious business plan based around continuing our GOL work and developing ISS’ History City and a few other products. Joe recruited a business consulting company called VIA International to help with the business plan. Our good friend Jim Myran also jumped on board. Jim was a business processes analyst and an experienced businessman working for DuPont. I met Jim on my August diving trip to Redang, and he and I and Joe had formed a natural relationship based on our common high-tech geekness and love of diving. Jim had a strong entrepreneurial streak, and was enthusiastic about making a go of it.
The Brief Life and Quiet Death of Box Media
The ugly truth is out. SembMedia wants to put Contact in our space at the Poly! Contact, our old Nemesis! The company who’s failure began all this misery in the first place. So, who’s side is Seng Hon on? Was he at the Poly last Tuesday to scope the office for Contact? Or is he still lobbying on our behalf? If he is lobbying on our behalf, who is pushing for Contact?
Many questions… Few answers.
Excerpt from my journal, March 8th, 1997
By the end of the first week of March, the business plan was beginning to come together. We completed the first of what would eventually be seven drafts for amounts ranging from two to ten million dollars worth of investment. On Friday, March 7 we had an assembly of the GOL staff at the office. It would be the last official meeting of the entire GOL staff. At the meeting Joe announced what we were attempting to do, and asked the staff to keep us informed of their status.
In the aftermath of this final meeting, Joe slipped into one of his moody and depressed states. Joe had always had mood swings, a sort of manic depressive cycle. He would oscillate between states of infectious, upbeat confidence and moody resignation. This had been happening to some degree as long as I had known Joe, but the stress of the last few months of GOL had really brought it out. Three weeks of confidence and assertiveness would be followed by about a week of black funk. We had all gotten used to dealing with Joe’s moods at GOL. As long as things were relatively stable around the office, we had learned to leave Joe to himself when he was in a funk. When Joe was in his up state his natural salesmanship and pitching ability really shone. Unfortunately, when Joe was in his down state he would have trouble selling boats to castaways. We were embarking on a critical step here, and I needed Joe to be enthusiastic about the project.
Although we felt fairly good about our independent prospects we also knew that success was far from guaranteed. We set about trying to cover our asses by lining up jobs we could take if our business plan fell through. ISS was the natural first place to look. We had been talking regularly with Gurminder Singh and Virginia Chia for a couple of months, and Gurminder had already raised the possibility of us coming on board to work at ISS, and then joining the spin-off company that would eventually launch History City as a commercial project. Joe and I were not very concerned for ourselves, but we were projecting a clean start for our independent project, and we worried that it might be a few months before we could bring Mike and Koji on board. Paul Deisinger had already made up his mind to return to the States. Ultimately, Koji would return to the States as well, and only Mike would end up working at ISS, along with Karen, Constance and Mei Ching, three other GOL veterans.
On the eighth of March, our suspicions about Sembawang and the Polytechnic were confirmed. We learned that Sembawang Media planned to place the struggling Contact corporate Internet subsidiary into our old offices. Contact had once been sixty people based at the swank Suntec City office towers downtown. Now they were pared down to thirty people, helmed by a new CEO, and relegated to the Ngee Ann Poly office space that was perfect for GOL, but which represented exile for them. The new CEO is actually a very pleasant fellow. I hope he has better luck than his predecessor did.
The revelation about Contact and our office space served to undermine our confidence in Seng Hon’s support. My understanding was that he was pushing us to the Polytechnic, but that had always seemed to me to be at odds with his best interests as CEO of the still struggling SembMedia. He stood to save a great deal of money by moving Contact to the Poly. A couple of days earlier we had bumped into Seng Hon on the campus. We had been meeting with Computer Science department chief John Choo, pushing our plan to form a new company and telling him that we were interested in assuming the old Memorandum of Understanding that had allowed GOL to set up shop on the Poly. At the time we wondered if Seng Hon might be there to meet with John Choo or vice principal Vasanwala on our behalf. The buyout still seemed a prospect at that point. After we learned of the plans to put Contact in Ngee Ann Poly we knew that he had been there to arrange that. Two days after we heard verbal news about SembMedia’s new deal with the Poly we received an official e-mail from Seng Hon informing us that we had taken too long, and that the prospect of a buyout was now officially withdrawn. It had been two weeks since the doors had locked at GOL. Thanks, guys.
I wonder now if Seng Hon was miffed that we were talking to the Polytechnic directly, and not working solely through SembMedia and the buyout angle. Frankly, I considered the buyout and the maintenance of the MOU two separate matters. I can see how Seng Hon might have been put out by us doing something that he perceived as going behind his back. On the other hand, considering SembMedia’s spectacular record for dithering while we twisted (air tickets, staff, computers, contract, etc.), and our repressed suspicions of their motives, I wouldn’t have trusted them with the whole process even if I had considered it. We could have ended up with the whole office full of equipment and an expired MOU accompanied by an eviction notice. Wouldn’t that have been special.
Now I have to be catty for a moment. I knew that if we were in direct competition for the old office space with SembMedia that we had no prayer. I had just hoped that the rumors I had heard of Contact being placed at Ngee Ann were false, and that Seng Hon was truly interested in helping us perpetuate GOL with independent backing. Clearly the rumors were true and Seng Hon was telling us what we wanted to hear. No surprise there. But I still think that the Polytechnic lost out in not renewing the MOU with us. Their relationship with SembMedia had always been rocky. GOL had done a great deal to uphold the MOU, with Joe and me teaching the computer game class and with GOL programmers devoting their spare time to a project for the Polytechnic. And as an opportunity for professional attachments for students and instructors GOL offered some truly unique opportunities. But this is Singapore, and between forging a continued relationship with a powerful government backed corporation and forging one with a startup run by a bunch ofang moh who had gleefully piloted their last project into oblivion, they made the obvious choice.
So all hope of us forging a new MOU with Ngee Ann Polytechnic was now dashed. Joe and I promptly stopped teaching the class, although we informed the Poly graciously both because I don’t believe in burning bridges and because Ch’ng Beng Hin, the Polytechnic lecturer who was our contact for the class, was a very cool guy who deserved better. This failure opened a new can of worms. With no MOU we were now going to lose our apartments at the end of March. That was a worry that we could have done without while we were trying to create a new company. The urgency of the situation was driven home in the middle of March when NP staff apartment superintendent Mr. Lim (first name unknown) knocked on our door to see if we were still living there. Yes we were, we informed him huffily, and would be until the end of the month, so back off you vultures! Actually, I didn’t say that, but it did go through my head.
I didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding an apartment and paying deposits and such while there was a chance that I might have to leave Singapore within a month or two. I made arrangements to stay with a friend in the same apartment complex through the month of April. I also found a crash pad for Mike and Karen with some other friends. Joe had his family to consider though, so he rented a small house on Upper Thompson road, a nice area that suffers from the mild disadvantage of being miles from anywhere. Jim, in the meantime, informed us that decent apartments could be had for about $2000 Sing per month, as long as you didn’t want a pool or suchlike. He also suggested that you could save big bucks by finding a place with bad feng shui or numerological traits. As a Westerner that wasn’t a bad option, but in the wake of the vortex of evil that was GOL I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to continue tempting the evil spirits.
We still had three weeks before we had to deal with moving out, so we concentrated on drafting a decent business plan for Box. Joe and I took the plan through several revisions, with input from Jim and Liz Arrington, the business consultant with the firm Via International. With the help of a local accountant we incorporated in Singapore under the name Box Media. As the business plan came together, copies went out to Gurminder at ISS, and a few other key contacts. Our failure to preserve our MOU with the Polytechnic had put a chink in the business plan, but it wasn’t insurmountable. A new problem was looming, however. ISS wanted Box to be a very small company initially, with no more than ten to twelve staff. So who would we invite on board right away? There wouldn’t be room for Koji or Mike in the initial staffing; they would have to wait six to nine months. We would only be able to preserve the tiniest nucleus of the GOL team.
On the 12th of March I had breakfast with Chris Teo, our former general manager, and a man who had been on the receiving end of many of Joe’s and my frustrations concerning GOL. Chris was running his own company, Cybersoft, and he had a few SembMedia refugees working with him. Chris told me that if Box fell through, he might have a place for me on his team there. I took Chris’ offer quite seriously, which surprised many people. But by that time I had come to realize a few things. First, many of the things that we had blamed on Chris had been beyond his control, and, all other things aside, he had always wanted for GOL to survive. Second, I did want to stay in Singapore, and Chris was doing things that I was interested in. Finally, on a personal level, I had always gotten along fine with Chris. Ultimately I would not end up working for Chris, but it was good to know that there were opportunities if Box fell through.
The period from March 14th to March 21st was a watershed for Box. On Friday the 14thwe made our one and only official presentation on the Box concept. At ISS, Joe and I presented to Wee Way Kiat, the deputy general manager of Cyberway, one of Singapore’s three Internet access providers, and a competitor of Pacific Internet. We were a bit disorganized going in as neither of us realized that it was a formal presentation. But we did have a solid draft of the business plan, and we didn’t do or say anything stupid. What wedidn’t do was follow up. At all. We never spoke with Way Kiat again after the meeting, nor did we send e-mail, although I urged Joe repeatedly to contact him. Joe said he didn’t think that Cyberway was enough of a player to be worth our concerted attention, although that was clearly a self-destructive attitude. And I didn’t call him on it. What was really happening was that Joe and I were both exhibiting symptoms of the same thing. We were both fairly apathetic about the Box concept. We didn’t feel that way all along. In the two weeks right after the collapse of GOL we put a huge amount of work into Box, and we felt reasonably good about its chances. But as the plan evolved, reality and a creeping malaise began to sink in. People at ISS would say later that we didn’t seem hungry for it, that we weren’t driven to make something out of box. That was completely true. When it came down to it, we weren’t driven to make Box succeed. We had lost our office, we had lost our place to live, and we had seen our plan to save the GOL team dwindle into a plan to save a core of eight or ten people. The killer was that we had never been particularly infatuated with History City, which would have to be the core of our first major product. At most we had judged it an acceptable start from which something commercial might be developed. Box was a make-do plan, and not one that we were passionate about, at least not in the same way that we were passionate about GOL. Our cohesion began to unravel.
It wasn’t all over yet, though. On March 17th Joe and I had lunch with Peter Schoppert, a good friend from SembMedia who had taken over most of the reigns when Chris had left. Peter was in the process of resigning (as was just about everyone), and Joe and I wanted to sound him out for some kind of involvement in Box. Peter passed on some good ideas and some good SembMedia gossip, and Joe and I mentally filed him as someone we should keep in contact with.
The day after our lunch with Peter Joe and I went to talk to talk to Takayuki Morishima, the general manager of the multimedia department at Bandai Singapore, located in Suntec City. Bandai had been one of the potential investors who had gotten the grand tour of GOL before it was closed. That week contacted Joe and invited us down to talk to him. He was curious about the collapse of GOL and our plans for Box, but he also admitted that Bandai made an unlikely investment partner. They were in the process of negotiating a merger with Sega, and money was likely to be tight until the merger was completed the following fall. (The merger failed recently.) He did suggest that Bandai could be a potential distribution partner when we brought our first product to completion.
That afternoon Joe and I went back to the Polytechnic to talk to John Choo for what would be the final time. We scheduled a pitch meeting for the vice-principal, Vasanwala, for the following Monday. At this point the only things that we were hoping for were a shot at some alternate space at the Polytechnic or a consultancy relationship so that we could stay in the apartments. We would end up canceling that meeting a couple of days later, after determining that there was little of real value that we were going to get out of perpetuating any relationship with Ngee Ann. That was probably a mistake, as I would have been quite happy to preserve just enough relationship to keep the apartment, and not have to move. But it was quite clear that we had no chance of forging a real MOU with them, or securing any other office space.
There was another intriguing possibility, however, Nanyang Polytechnic. Nanyang was another polytechnic school, and a rival of Ngee Ann. Although considered less prestigious, Nanyang Polytechnic had an excellent program for developing multimedia, 3D art, and game development skills, and they were building a brand-new high-tech campus in the Ang Mo Kio district of Singapore. Victor Chua, the computer-games group coordinator, contacted us and asked us to talk with them. This was a change. Someone was soliciting usfor once! It seemed promising, so we went down and had a chat with him, and got a tour of NYP’s facilities. We left feeling like it was a good possibility. But, like so many other possibilities, it would get lost in our general apathy over Box. I would later bump into Victor at the Computer Game Developer’s Conference, in late April. He was cruising the job fair, possibly looking for people to recruit to Singapore.
We continued this way until early April, working on the Box plan in a halfhearted way. Joe was clearly losing interest, and I had never been excited enough about it to assume the reigns. After going to work for ISS Mike would tell me that people there were wondering why he and I didn’t take over Box and run it ourselves. The answer was because we didn’t want to. I was certainly not interested enough to want to try running it myself.
On April 2nd, two days after returning from my third diving trip to Pulau Aur, the final nail was hammered into Box’s coffin, as far as I was concerned. T.K. Wong, the CEO of SilkRoute Ventures, a local Internet company, e-mailed me and essentially offered me a job. T.K. was very clear that SRV was something to consider only if Box didn’t work out. But it was an enticing offer, and with Box crippled by across-the-board apathy I considered it seriously from the outset. I’d had one other job prospect, at the SembMedia farewell dinner for Peter Schoppert, in early April. Nick Lee had sounded me out about returning to Pacific Internet. They had just bought a ten-percent stake in Engage, the Internet game service from the States, and had obtained the license to run Engage servers in Singapore. Because of my games background, Nick thought I might be interested in coming to work with them. Under some circumstances I might have been, but at that time it was hard for me to accept going back to work for Nick Lee, cordial as our relationship might be.
Nothing else interesting would develop with Box. By the time in early May when Joe and I returned from CGDC in California Joe had decided to return to the USA, and I had decided to talk to TK, and accept any reasonable offer. The idea of Box, as promising as it had once seemed, died a quiet, apathetic death. A few old GOL hands were hanging on to see what happened, but most of them had found other work by then. There would have been little of GOL in Box at that point. The last hope of saving some vestige of the GOL team and spirit had expired.
With that, GOL was truly laid to rest.
Other Victims of the Internet Wars
Recently Gerrie [Lim of Sembawang Media] called a staff meeting at which Peter [Schoppert] told the attendees, with regards to their futures at SembMedia,
“Bend over, grab your ankles, and take it like a man.”
Excerpt from my journal, March 19th, 1997.
On March 30th I returned from my third diving trip to Pulau Aur. I had made the trip both because I was feeling like I wasn’t getting enough diving in, and also because the one-month tourist visa I’d received when my employment pass was cancelled was about to expire. The trip left on the 28th, which was the same day my visa expired. A bit too close for comfort! The plan was to catch a 9:00 PM train from the Tanjong Pagar railway station up to Johor Bahru, from where we would drive to the harbor outside Kota Tinggi, our regular jumping-off point to Aur. When you catch the train in Singapore, you clear immigration out of Singapore and into Malaysia right there. There is no immigration on the far end. My Singapore visa was cancelled, and I was stamped into West Malaysia. And then we missed the train.
Well, we didn’t exactly miss the train, it’s just that it was too full for us to get on, it being the Friday night before a three day weekend. Our whole crew watched in misery, shouldering our heavy diving gear, as the train pulled away with people hanging out the doors. I was surprised that there weren’t people on the roof, like you get in India. After we morosely watched the train pull away, the panic began. One of the organizers of the trip got onto his cellular phone, and came up with a brilliant plan. We would catch a taxi to the causeway and then walk across. Great, just what I wanted to do. Walk a kilometer and go hiking through Johor Bahru with a fifty pounds of diving and underwater photography equipment worth in the neighborhood of seven thousand dollars.
We crossed back through immigration. Our Malaysian entries were cancelled, and the cancellation of my Singaporean visa was voided. So there I was in Singapore, standing at Tanjong Pagar with three hours left on my visa. Then the geniuses from Friendly Tours (my former regular diving outfit) changed their minds and decided simply take the next train at 10:00 PM. Well, brilliant, Einstein! Why didn’t you just leave me on the platform? We crossed back through immigration again. This time the woman from Singapore immigration got testy and gave me an earful as she voided the voiding of the voidation of my visa, stripping me of my remaining three hours. Hey, lady, talk to the man with the phone. Malaysian immigration didn’t really seem to care. In, out? What’s the difference as long as the little white card is filled out? They were only too happy to un-void my entry, and let me back in. It was the quickest I ever burned up a whole page in my passport.
The trip was good, but the interesting stuff didn’t really begin until I got home and checked my messages. Among them was an e-mail from T.K. Wong, the founder and managing director of a company called SilkRoute Ventures. SilkRoute Ventures or SRV as it is colloquially known, was an Internet development house that T.K. had founded three years previously. They did commercial web-site design, electronic commerce implementation, and Internet consulting. The company had been on a growth track, and had expanded from just a handful of people to nearly fifty in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. What was most interesting, though, was that SilkRoute had been part of the Sembawang Media empire. After founding the company and guiding it through its rocky initial phase, T.K. Wong had sold out a controlling interest to SembMedia. But T.K. was a smart guy, and he’d been one of the first to see the rocks that SembMedia was steaming towards. He bought back a controlling interest of the company before the Great Implosion finally came. I had met T.K. a few times over the course of the year, and had been impressed by him. I was very intrigued by the offer. Of the three offers that I received in the wake of the GOL collapse, SilkRoute was the only one that I gave really serious consideration to.
Around the time of the third Pulau Aur trip I had a chance to get together with my old friend and Live@BoatQuay conspirator, Gerrie Lim. Gerrie had always been my gossip window into the company, and he remained so until he finally threw in the towel and resigned in June. The latest poop was juicy as usual. A new feng shui man had been hired for $5000 to make an appraisal of the Boat Quay office. Naturally, his recommendations were the complete opposite of the feng shui man who had originally examined the office. The expenditure caused some grumbling among staff with frozen wages. Meanwhile, another old SembMedia friend, Peter Schoppert, had finally resigned after deciding that his input had been ignored for long enough. It was clear that Peter had also had enough of the schism between Boat Quay and Science Park, where Pacific Internet was based. The Pacific Internet influence on Boat Quay had grown steadily since Nick Lee’s appointment at COO, and the situation was chafing some of the old SembMedia hands. In one example of the lack of solidarity between the once-parent company and it’s only successful subsidiary, there was a meeting before the entire staff at which Peter mentioned how “we” (meaning the entire company) were retrenching. Answering back in, what I must assume was his capacity as CEO of Pacific Internet rather than that of COO of SembMedia, Nick Lee said, “No, you’re retrenching.” In doing that he distanced himself from the layoffs and other fallout of the SembMedia failure even though he was the man who had been brought in because of his notoriously tough management style. Peter let slip his attitude about the company at another meeting with the SembMedia managers. When asked about their collective prospects, he advised the attendees to “bend over, grab your ankles, and take it like a man.”
By the second week of April, Peter had left to concentrate on his publishing business. SembMedia was deprived on one of its most creative managers, and another nail was driven into the coffin.
There was a large farewell dinner for Peter when he left. He was highly placed and well liked, and many people were sorry to see him go. I was invited to attend despite having been out of SembMedia for nearly two months at the time. At the dinner I was seated between Mark Hobson, the new general manager of SembMedia, and Nick Lee. At the time I still had rather hostile feelings about Nick Lee, as the death of GOL was fresh in my mind. I’d also just surrendered my company car and apartment and was crashing with a friend. There is a time for diplomacy, however, so I chatted up Nick and Mark, and made polite inquiries about how the company was doing, and how Pacific Internet’s deal with the American online gaming company Engage was progressing.
In the course of the dinner, Nick Lee recruited me. I nearly fell out of my chair. I hadn’t thought that he liked me, and I was pretty sure that he regarded the entire GOL management as a tribe of loudmouth, incompetent idiots. But Nick seemed to think that I might be useful with Pacific Internet’s acquisition of a 10% stake in Engage, and their acquisition of the license to operate Engage’s service in Singapore. I told Nick that I had other offers (primarily SilkRoute, although Chris had also talked me up), but that I would consider it. On some level I was amazed that Nick would recruit me, but looking into myself I knew that, emotional as the response might be, I still considered Nick the enemy. Perhaps someday I might be able to go to work for him —he is, after all, known for treating his own employees well— but at the time the events of recent weeks were still weighing heavily on my mind. Mark Hobson, too, would contact me a few weeks later and ask if I was interested in freelancing for SembMedia, but by that time I had already accepted SilkRoute’s job offer.
Besides being the first person to inform me of Peter’s resignation, Gerrie ran some other interesting stories by me, both then, and at another dinner after he himself had resigned. It seemed that Peter wasn’t the only high-profile departure. CTO Jek Kian Jin, one of the coolest people at SembMedia, had also tendered his resignation. Jek had various reasons for leaving, among which was moving to the US to seek medical treatment for his sick son at the prestigious Stanford University medical center. But there had been friction between Jek and Wong Seng Hon, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that professional issues also played a role in his decision. Jek had been the God figure to SembMedia’s core of engineers, and when he left so did many of the junior engineers. And the engineers weren’t the only one’s bailing out. Maggie, the HR woman, and Anthony the finance man, both of whom had been detailed to oversee the shutdown of GOL, resigned, as did Maureen, the longtime PR manager. An engineer hired by Gerrie to replace resigning longtime SembMedia engineer Dennis, lasted only days before quitting. Wendy, the receptionist resigned, and then had to be persuaded back to work for a while when here replacement quit in short order.
It was during this time of Exodus that people at 82BQ started to analogize Nick Lee to Darth Vader. Apparently some staffers at Boat Quay took to humming the Imperial Marchfrom The Empire Strikes Back whenever Lee made an appearance. Among his own staff Lee had a reputation as a tough but fair boss, and someone who took care of his own. To many of the Boat Quay staff, however, he was the Angel of Death. But ultimate when I consider our ultimate political enemies at Sembawang Corp I look beyond Nick Lee and see Sembawang Corp’s New Business Group, the branch of the corporation that included SembMedia. It is my suspicion that GOL was in NBG’s gun sights from day one, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that many of the delays we faced in acquisitions and funding were due to battles between Chris and the New Business Group front office. It was from the SembCorp New Business Group that the pressure for SembMedia to be self-sufficient had to originate. Word on the street was the NBG was having tough going with many of its subsidiaries, and the pressure was on.
The Café@BoatQuay became another victim of the financial pressure. It had never been a moneymaker, and with the full-scale retrenching taking place that spring, the Café was put up for sale. Another café chain operator bought it out shortly thereafter. In June the Café, once the pride and showpiece of Sembawang Media, closed its doors. Boat Quay was slowly being reduced to a ghost town. Dozens had been fired or resigned, others had transferred to the PI offices at Science Park, and much of the operations staff had been transferred to a corporate office in the Wisma Atria tower on Orchard Road. Without the cyber café as a centerpiece, and with on-site staff dwindling, the stylish offices at Boat Quay became an expensive albatross. The final blow came when it was announced that during the summer all remaining SembMedia staff would be transferred to offices at Science Park, where Pacific Internet was based. By time that announcement was made, in July, there was only one person left at Boat Quay whom I counted a friend: Ben Harrison of Live@BoatQuay, a former member of Gerrie’s team. There were no engineers and no designers, only a marketing staff for commercial web design that was supported by freelance web designers.
The cycle began to close. When Joe and I had visited Singapore in September of 1995 the shop house at 82 Boat Quay was under renovation, and one of a few sites being considered by SembMedia, which was still slumming in the SembCorp head office at Ngee Ann City Towers, on Orchard Road. Soon, the office would be surrendered again, and everything that had been dreamed of at Boat Quay, including GOL, would fade into vapor and nostalgia.
Articles of War
The key to Sembawang Media is its people. The company is staffed with an enthusiastic team of young, dynamic professionals who are not afraid to venture beyond the traditional boundaries.
SembMedia Web Site Copy, “Our People” Page. (The page still lists Seng Hon as CEO.)
One man was constant throughout all of Sembawang Media’s existence; Wong Seng Hon. He was there at the creation, he was there for our recruitment and the formation of Games Online, and he was there when the plug was pulled. But with the complete collapse of SembMedia in the Spring of 1997 the inevitable happened, and Seng Hon resigned. I heard the news from Gerrie in late May, and in mid-June the Singapore Business Timespublished an article on his departure. The article was a perfect piece of corporate doubletalk. Here is the text:
From the Singapore Business Times:
SembMedia’s founding CEO quits after restructuring firm
Company moving focus away from technology to the bottom line
By Toh Han Shih
SEMBAWANG Media’s founding chief executive officer, Wong Seng Hon, has quit the firm, sating his job is done.
In an interview with [Business Times] Mr. Wong dispelled rumors that SembMedia, a group of online businesses owned by listed Sembawang Corp, is in any financial trouble.
Insisting the SembMedia is in stronger shape than ever, he said that his departure follows a restructuring that will include a shift in the company’s staff composition. SembMedia is boosting its sales staff this year as part of a move away from a technology focus to a “bottom line focus.”
SembMedia’s Singapore staff has shrunk from 255 in October of last year to about 195 in April. The staff reduction was aimed at becoming profitable by next year.
But SembMedia’s total staff has increased, due to expansion in Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Mr. Wong, a former National Computer Board senior staffer, left SembCorp last week to start up new Internet related ventures, but gave no details.
SembMedia is now headed by its chief operating officer, Nicholas Lee. It is not known if a new CEO will be appointed.
Mr. Wong, who is in his early-40s, founded SembMedia in Feb 1995 with a handpicked group of talented individuals who left their jobs to jump into the uncharted Internet business. Most of the original “dirty dozen” have moved on.
Mr. Wong told [Business Times]: “My job is done. It’s time to go on, Sembawang Media at this point needs a different kind of talent—operations management.”
He noted that such a shift is typical of high-tech startups in the United States, which are started by technology visionaries who later take a back seat and let professional managers take over operations.
Among the SembMedia pioneers who have left are Gary Koh, formerly general manager of Contact, a Sembawang Media subsidiary, and Chris Teo, formerly general manager of SembMedia’s multimedia studio.
Explaining the restructuring of the last seven months, Mr. Wong said: “Now we’re in good shape after housecleaning. We’re left with businesses that are profitable or close to being profitable.”
He said SembMedia will evolve into a holding company with less hands-on management of its subsidiaries.
Nicholas Lee, who is also CEO of Pacific Internet (PI), the local Internet service provider (ISP) majority owned by Sembawang Media, said PI forms the bulk of SembMedia’s business and is “operationally profitable on a month to month basis.”
I like Seng Hon a great deal; he did a lot for us and I’d cheerfully work for the guy again under some circumstances. But I feel that it is necessary to decode excerpts from this article in light of my perspective as a witness of this whole process.This, of course, is a game attempt to make it seem as though the chaotic self-destruction of SembMedia was an orderly part of some master plan. “We meant to blow a huge wad of cash, make grievously bad business decisions, chase off our entire creative staff, and make a panicky reorganization of the company before surrendering the entire entity to Pacific Internet, our former subsidiary.”
|Original Phrasing||Will’s Handy Translation|
|SembMedia’s founding CEO quits after restructuring firm.||SembMedia’s founding CEO ejects from company at high speed after disastrous year.|
|Mr. Wong dispelled rumors that SembMedia… is in any financial trouble.||It’s no longer a rumor. It’s a fact. Sugar daddy SembCorp cut them off.|
|SembMedia’s Singapore staff has shrunk from 255 in October of last year to about 195 in April.||Contact was pared in half, GOL was closed, and there were mass resignations from BQ, balanced by expansion at PI.|
|But SembMedia’s total staff has increased, due to expansion in Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines.||They bought out some foreign ISPs when things were still going well. Expansion was largely PI.|
|It is not known if a new CEO will be appointed.||Will one be necessary? The company is subsumed into PI.|
|Mr. Wong told [Business Times]: “My job is done.||Much in the same way that General Sherman’s job was done when he reached the Georgia coast.|
|Sembawang Media at this point needs a different kind of talent—operations management.”||SembMedia, at this point, needs anyone talented. Hello… Anyone?|
|He noted that such a shift is typical of high-tech startups in the United States, which are started by technology visionaries who later take a back seat and let professional managers take over operations.||Of course, those companies have usually succeeded, and the technical people who founded the company are retiring with millions in stock options. Furthermore, in those cases, the operations people are usually invited.|
|Among the SembMedia pioneers who have left are Gary Koh, formerly general manager of Contact…and Chris Teo, formerly general manager of SembMedia’s multimedia studio.||Gary Koh: Forced to resign after Contact piled in. Chris Teo: Forced to resign after MMS piled in, and he conflict with Nick Lee.|
|Mr. Wong said: “Now we’re in good shape after housecleaning…with businesses that are profitable or close to being profitable.”||We gutted everything that required further investment, and the rest was absorbed by PI.|
|He said SembMedia will evolve into a holding company with less hands-on management of its subsidiaries.||SembMedia will become an empty shell, no more than a thin layer of bureaucracy between PI and SembCorp.|
|Nicholas Lee…said PI forms the bulk of SembMedia’s business and is “operationally profitable on a month to month basis.”||“I’m the sole survivor…”|
Plying the Silk Route
Went into Contact [SembMedia] Friday, nine days ago. Talked to Harish about buying some of the old GOL sound equipment. Some wag had taken down the Games Online sign and rearranged the letters to spell “Gone.” I took the “O,” which was the GOL crosshair logo.
Excerpt from my journal, June 8th, 1997
On May second I returned from this year’s CGDC. I knew that I was most likely not going to be working in games for the next two years, but wanting to keep my connections nonetheless. I fired off a few resumes while I was there, but only in the most halfhearted and cursory way. I knew I had an offer from SilkRoute Ventures, and I wanted to stay in Singapore. But CGDC was entertaining as always, and it was a chance to see Paul Naylor again. Alfred Toh, one of GOL’s artists, was also there along with his girlfriend. One of Paul’s former roommates from Singapore, a programmer from New Zealand named Tom Spencer Smith was also at the show, looking for a games gig in the states. Paul was one of the programmers that we had tried to hire for GOL but had been unable to get approval for his salary. Westwood Games hired Tom after CGDC. I think he was worth the money. Paul Naylor also found a gig at Brøderbund’s new games division, Red Orb. I was very happy for Paul, who deserved the opportunity. I miss having him in Singapore, but he’ll be in the Bay Area when I move back there.
As always, the trip home was refreshing. It had been nearly a year since I had last been in the States, for E3. That was too long, and I felt very out of touch with my friends and family. After ten days back I felt more connected. Coming home to the Bay Area was easy and natural. I had been warned about reverse culture shock, but it felt very much like home. It was with some regret that I departed for Singapore. There was an extra bit of excitement on the flight back when our plane was delayed, and we had to spend a night in Seoul. A night in a real bed was a nice way to break up the marathon flight, however. And Singapore Airlines took decent care of us.
Once I was back in Singapore it was time to start settling matters once and for all. I had been crashing with my friend Rebecca during April, and in May Mike, Karen and I had arrangements to use the apartment of other friends vacationing in the US. But we needed a place of our own by the beginning of June. I also had to finalize my job arrangements by accepting T.K.’s job offer at SilkRoute.
A job was the first key step. Getting an apartment wasn’t going to do me much good if I didn’t have a job and employment pass. Possibilities had been raised by Chris and by Nick Lee, but by far the most attractive option for me was SilkRoute Ventures. SilkRoute is a local commercial web site development studio and electronic commerce development company. It was founded in 1994 by T.K. Wong, an MIT graduate who saw a commercial future in the Internet. SilkRoute had been quite successful in its three-year life, growing from just a handful of people to nearly fifty in Singapore and Malaysia, and achieving profitability. Sembawang Media had bought SilkRoute out, but T.K. had chafed under SembMedia and had arranged a management buyout of the company to re-establish its independence. I had met T.K. several times in the course of working for SembMedia, and had been impressed by him. Once I visited SilkRoute’s offices, in a renovated shop-house near downtown Singapore, and met the people and saw the operation it didn’t take much for T.K. to recruit me. We came to terms quickly. I asked T.K. for a week to consider the offer, but I asked for the time mostly as a cooling-off period to make sure I was comfortable with the decision. By this time I wasn’t seriously considering working anywhere else in SilkRoute. A week later I gave T.K. my answer, and signed on to SilkRoute as senior producer. My responsibility was to manage the production staff and overhaul the production process. Shortly after I got everything ironed out with SilkRoute Mike’s own job crisis was addressed when he was offered a job at ISS, working with a group assembling an online interactive environment called Music City. Mike would later grow to hate that job, but that is his story to tell.
I was relieved to have a good job with a company I liked, but I told T.K. that I wouldn’t be able to start until June 1st. There was still one big problem looming. Mike and I had to find a place to live. We’d lived on Sembawang’s dollar for a year and a half, and we’d been crashing with friends for over a month. We needed someplace by the beginning of June, or life was rapidly going to become uncomfortable. We started hitting the newspaper and looking at places. The early results were not promising. Mike and I trooped out to look at several HDB (public housing) apartments that were for rent. We had seen Karen’s old HDB apartment, as well Florence’s (our admin assistant from GOL) and we knew that there were nice HDB flats out there. We didn’t see any of them. The flats we looked ranged from marginally inhabitable to blood chilling. We decided to change tactics. We persuaded Karen to join us, thus upping our overall budget, and started concentrating on cheap houses and private apartments. Joe had rented a fairly nice house for a modest sum. The penalty was that it was in the sticks, or at least as close to the sticks as you can get in Singapore while not being in Malaysia yet.
It’s funny how Singapore distorts your perspective. When the entire country is the size of San Francisco, Daly City, and Colma, you apply a new set of standards. Living on Upper Thompson Road, near Joe, is roughly equivalent to living in the Sunset in San Francisco; a little far from the center of things, but still largely accessible. And without the goddamn fog. But to us, after a year and a half here, it seemed like renting on the rings of Saturn (but with a 7-11 nearby). Naturally, the first place that we found that we actually wanted was out there. It was a small, painfully beautiful, semi-detached house in a very quiet neighborhood. It actually had a garden and a view, a nearly unbeatable combination. We put in a bid for it, and were crushed when it was taken off the market when the owner made an unscheduled return from the US. In the end we looked at 17 places, most of which we were escorted to by a pleasant real estate agent named Das, who informed us that he usually places people in three visits. I guess we were tough to please. The places we looked at ranged from an ancient, traditional straights-Chinese fixer-upper to a large walk-up in fashionable Holland Village, to an unbelievably slick new apartment in a glistening complex, to a huge house in a neighborhood that abuts the Bukit Timah nature reserve and is filled with temples because no one wants to live there for some reason. It was gruelling and miserable.
Eventually we found our home. It is a three bedroom apartment in Bukit Timah Plaza, an old complex five minutes walk from the Ngee Ann Polytechnic staff apartments, where we had been living. The Bukit Timah Plaza/Sherwood Towers mall and residential complex is distinguished by its ugliness. Long before I knew I would be living there I spent half a roll of film on the taller of the two towers, so captivated was I by it’s hideousness. When I entered the United States on my trip for CGDC customs singled me out as young, long-haired man travelling alone and gave me the works. In the course of searching through my toiletries, folded underwear, and diving magazines the woman who had picked me out of the crowd at the carousel came across my photographs and noticed my fifteen shots of Sherwood Towers. “What’s the significance of this building?” she asked. The thought that naturally leaped into my head was, “Oh, well that’s where I buy my smack,” but self-preservation intercepted the smart remark on the way to my lips and replaced it with the honest, if slightly weird answer, “It’s hideous.” She made me close up my suitcase and leave.
So now I live there. It isn’t so bad on the inside. We have an aquarium and a cat, and a little slice of the view, and four monster air-conditioners, and all the noise generated from the nearby PIE. After two months there, it feels like home. Of course it now takes me nearly an hour to get to work in the morning, but that’s the price I pay. On the bright side, the basement of our tower is a mall with a supermarket. I can literally take an elevator right into the supermarket. It encourages me towards sloth, but what the hell, it’s convenient.
And Mike and I completed the transition from our old life in Singapore as GOL/SembMedia employees to employees of SilkRoute Ventures and ISS. Koji moved home. Paul moved home. The Hell Kitty was chased off by Joe because no one had the strength of character to take him to the pound (although it turns out that the Singapore SPCA does not euthanize adoptable cats). Joe began winding his life in Singapore down and preparing to move home at the end of June. I began assuming my new professional role. In late May I emceed two events for SilkRoute, one in Singapore and one in Kuala Lumpur. On May 27th I began working regularly at SilkRoute’s offices, slowly adjusting to my new role as a senior producer there. I’d been messing with games for a year and a half; now it was time to return to the Web, the thing that had drawn me into the whole Internet biz in the first place.
I kept my lines to SembMedia open. Gerrie Lim gave me regular gossip updates until he resigned in July. Now I have other sources, but as the company slowly fades the stories become less interesting. I’ve been talking with Harish Pillay, the current managing director at Contact, buying off some of the old GOL equipment and, hopefully, some of the computer equipment as well. In the meantime, SilkRoute is all of the things that SembMedia was once, before the cancer of despair ate away its spirit. The people there are young and enthusiastic, if raw, and there is a sense of excitement about the company. It’s good to be back in a company where optimism is still the rule.
On the 24th of June we had a farewell dinner for Joe. 15 people from GOL showed up, along with some miscellaneous family members and Jim and Kazumi. We met at Spageddies, the restaurant which Joe and I had happily discovered 19 months before, when we had been culture shocked by our move to Singapore and starved for a good western meal. The evening was loud and boisterous, with a great deal of nostalgia. It was nice to see so many of the old faces together again. After dinner the crowd was milling and talking in the near empty dining room. As I stood a little distance back from the crowd and watched, I felt myself getting a little misty. Watching the group together I was reminded of our greatest success at GOL. Despite everything that went wrong, all the panic, and all the disappointment, we assembled the finest group of people that I have ever worked with. They were inexperienced, temperamental, and out of their depth, but they were also sincere, enthusiastic, loyal, and bright. The worst casualty of GOL’s demise wasn’t our personal fortunes, egos, or the projects. It was that team of people, still the most creative in Singapore, to my mind. Every one of them deserves whatever success they find in the next few years. It is good to see that many of them are still friends with each other.
At the end of June, Joe moved back to the USA. When he stepped onto the plane the GOL era officially came to an end. He was the last straggler, the last one left in Singapore without direction. I spent the next few days depressed and morose, the lid of GOL’s coffin hammered firmly down, the crown of the last nail flush with the pine.
Don’t Look Back in Anger, I Heard You Say…
After dinner the ex-GOL folks were milling around in the restaurant, talking and catching up. As I looked over the crowd, all people I consider my friends, I actually felt a lump in my throat. By some accounts, GOL is a failure or a costly mistake. But it will always be something special to me. There was no finer group of people in Singapore. No bitterness, no regrets. They deserve whatever successes come their way
Excerpt from my journal, June 24th, 1997
GOL has been dead and buried for going on six months now. We’ve all gotten on with our lives, some still in Singapore, some back in the States. We were angry for a while, but with the passing of time I find myself looking back with a more contemplative eye. It is true that we failed in our ultimate goal at GOL: to create a good game and build a business. But I took too much of value out of the experience to feel bitter about it.
Best among my prizes from GOL are the friendships. GOL solidified my friendships with Joe, Rob, Mike and the other Americans, but it also introduced me to people like Paul Naylor, Alf Toh, Michael Yeoh, Vincent Phua, Nico Chan, Karen Ng, Ooi Szu Khiam, and all the others that I have not mentioned here. My bond with some of these people will fade with time, but as with any cohort, there will be those few that I stay in touch with for years. I pleases me that I am still in touch with several of the ex-GOL Singaporeans, and may have a chance to work with some of them again.
The experiences I accumulated this year are impossible to price. I learned a great deal, much of it the hard way. The things I learned at GOL will pave my way at SilkRoute, and in other endeavors. Taken as a whole, the entire experience was exotic and outrageous. The audacity of what we tried to do amazes me in retrospect, but it was audacity founded on a sincere desire to succeed. I moved to Southeast Asia to try and start a computer game company. Well, there’s something you don’t do every day. Often I wonder what my life would be if I hadn’t made that decision. Coming to Singapore rewrote the boundaries of my life, and shattered the comfortable, mundane cocoon that had become my life in San Francisco. It is impossible to conceive of where I would be now. Not necessarily in a better or worse situation, but in a life so divergent from this one as to beggar speculation. I have no regrets about the decision to come here, and I don’t think that I ever will.
But I do have some regrets about how we went about GOL. There are a thousand little things that I would do differently if I could do it again, and I am sure that the others feel the same way. But there is only one big thing that I would change. When Joe and I first came to Singapore in September, 1995, to enter into talks with SembMedia, we came to pitch one game: iPower. We had a clear conception of the game, and we envisioned a staff of ten or twelve to bring it to completion in a year or eighteen months. In those very first meetings the scope of GOL grew from one game to two and then until, and our staff needs from twelve to twenty-eight. Our eyes were filled with stars, and we lost our way in a maze of grandiose expectations. We were too inexperienced to make three games or even two, but we could have made one. No guarantees, but it would have been possible, which anything more proved not to be. Our own inexperience, the isolation of Singapore from the industry, the lack of seasoned game professionals out here, ballooning expenses, SembMedia’s collapse, and Sembawang’s ultimately wavering commitment conspired to kill us. It wasn’t thing, but rather a lethal chain of misjudgment that made GOL untenable. If I had it to do over again I would resist the stars, and stick to one game and ten people.
I also regret some of the things I felt and said in the months during which GOL began to unravel. I trace the beginning of the slow disintegration to the computer fiasco, an incident which Joe and I largely blamed Chris Teo for (Report from Singapore 6). Looking back, we made Chris the villain for many of our miseries, more because he was there than because anything was actually his fault. Chris had his weaknesses as a manager but in retrospect I think that most of the things that we blamed on him were beyond his control. I have no doubt that, above and beyond everything else, Chris genuinely wanted GOL to succeed. It was his concept and his creation, from Sembawang’s point of view, and his fortunes were directly tied to GOL. Chris spent much of the late ’96 and early ’97 at war with SembCorp, and when he left we lost one of our few real patrons. Chris is running his own company now, with several old SembMedia hands, and I wish him success.
Likewise, during GOL’s terminal phase it was hard for me to see Nick Lee as anything but an enemy. His hand was the one that would cut our lifeline, and he was the most visible aspect of those parts of Sembawang that wanted to close GOL. On a personal level, I don’t think I could ever work for Nick. My perceptions are too tainted by my experiences with the closure of GOL. Furthermore, I think we were paid way too much lip service when we were trying to find backing for GOL. There are too many things that I can point to that undermined that effort for me to ever think that it was taken seriously. But from a business standpoint, I can’t argue with the decision. GOL was expensive, there was no operational business plan, and the projects were bogged down both for reasons within and beyond our control. The combination would curdle the blood of any COO, and from his perspective I can see where there was no other choice. As it is, our lease on life was extended a month further than I expected. Furthermore, my friends who work for Pacific Internet report that Nick Lee is a good boss.
There is no one person to blame for what happened to GOL. There were too many obstacles. GOL’s fate reflected SembMedia in microcosm. SembMedia was lavish, and started amid high expectations, but two years after its founding it was a ghost of what it once was. Only Pacific Internet, under Nick Lee, thrived. The rest, including GOL, withered on the vine.
I wrote before that it was audacious to even attempt GOL, and I stand by that. There was a crystalline moment during our first visit to Singapore when Joe and I knew that we were stepping out of our depth (Report from Singapore 1). There were too many factors…inexperience, working in Asia, the vast amount of money at risk… But what do you do when someone offers you a shot at all your dreams? How can you turn away? If I hadn’t come to Singapore, if I hadn’t attempted GOL, I would be doomed to spend the rest of my life thinking sullenly about that one moment when an adventure was presented to me and I backed away. That would be a regret that would far outweigh any I accumulated from GOL. So what can I say about this whole experience, looking back at nearly two years, and all the fun, all the anxiety, all the mistakes, and the little victories and crushing defeats?
I’d do it again.
A short story from SembMedia.
Some time back a fengshui man—a Chinese geomancer—came to Sembawang media to examine the site. He made many recommendations about how the office should be arranged and maintained in order to conform to the ancient tenets of fengshui. Among the things he noticed was a large potted plant in the middle of the second floor.
“This plant must be kept alive,” he said. He was quite clear on that matter. The plant on the second floor must be kept in good health.
And for a time, the plant was kept in good health, lovingly maintained and watered. But the day came when someone finally became too busy, and the plant was neglected. And then, one day, someone noticed that the plant had finally died.
On that day, the large clock outside SembMedia’s front door stopped. Shortly thereafter, the company’s difficulties began.
Singapore, 24th August, 1997