"Friends ask why I don't get a proper job": Secret Base's Raymond Teo on indie game development in Singapore

“Try not to,” Raymond Teo said, and broke into laughter. 

The man who makes video games independently for a living in Singapore reveals he tells people hoping to emulate him, to simply, not.

Teo, 31, took the leap into indie development in 2008. Six years and nine games later, the founder of Secret Base told me that there’s a reason behind him trying to scare people off.

“I usually advise against [going indie]. One of the reasons for that is to make them think clearly about what they want to do, to highlight to them some of the challenges, because when we came out, nobody was telling us anything. If you are scared off by that, then maybe you don’t want to do it,” he said.

A glance at his LinkedIn profile shows some of the challenges he talks about. His job scopes cover six different facets, ranging from art direction and game design to fundraising and marketing. How does he juggle these demands?

“You don’t sleep,” he replied candidly.

Secret Base is currently a four-person outfit, with three programmers alongside him, but they come and go. His is the creative vision behind Secret Base’s games, of which two - Tobe’s Vertical Adventure in 2011, and Devil’s Dare just last month - have been released on Steam.

It was on a different platform that he got his start. Having done design work and a short stint as a lecturer, a 2008 government grant for local games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games platform - then known as Xbox Live Community Games - served as the catalyst for Teo to go into game development.

The Media Development Authority’s (MDA) MDA-Microsoft XNA Development Initiative promised up to $50,000 to encourage game developers to “share their dream game with the rest of the world”, as it was plugged then.

So Teo did. He explained: “For me to have this opportunity to get people in to help me create my vision, that wasn’t something that came very often. I really wanted to take that opportunity to build something that was mine.”

 

Tobe’s Vertical Adventure hit the platform in 2010. In a sea of poorly-made titles by bedroom coders, Teo’s effort stood out, and while it wasn’t a great financial success for him, the exposure helped get the game on digital games behemoth Steam.

There, it did “quite well”, added Teo, and helped fund Devil’s Dare, which he revealed is his biggest project so far.

A beat 'em up inspired by 90s genre classics like the Streets Of Rage series, Final Fight and Battle Circuit, Devil's Dare sits alongside and close to 1,500 other indie games on the service as a loving tribute to the arcade games of the day. 

“Back then, I sort of thought that I can probably do the same thing. I can do art work; this game [that I saw] is more complex than what I did but I think I can handle it. I wanted to prove that to myself as well,” Teo said of jumping into indie development.

Indies are notorious for putting in extreme hours into development, slaving away for years with little income before finally releasing a game that may or may not be successful.

I asked Teo what his life was like then, and he was honest: “It was pretty messed up.”

“I worked from home so the good thing was that there was no overhead of rental, but other than when you’re sleeping and having lunch, you’re always working. I kept my expenses low, didn’t own too much stuff, obviously no cars, nothing.”

He admitted to being wracked with doubt.

“There are a lot of doubts, if whatever you’re doing makes any sense or not. You see your friends trying to climb the corporate ladder.
"People don’t understand what I’m doing, friends will ask why I don’t get a proper job. If I had grabbed a job outside, it would have been a lot easier for me.”

Why, then, did he press on?

Teo said: “There are always games that I want to make. I wanted to prove how good my ideas were, and the only way of doing that is to actually finish the product and release it.”

He added that you have to be “insanely in love with the craft”.

Luckily, he didn’t face any resistance from his parents, whom he still lives with.

“I think it’s amazing, myself,” Teo continued.

“They were concerned that the path I’m taking is very tiring. It’s not very good for my health. As parents, they’re concerned about that. But monetary-wise, they were surprisingly willing to let me try. They didn’t stress me out.”

I profess my admiration. He shrugs it off.

Teo said that he has been at this for so long that’s it’s the only way he knows how to do things.

"Every time I've released a game that hasn't done well, I feel like just going out to get a job. That would be so much easier, right?
"But I’ve been doing this for so long that risking and putting insane amount of work into all this is, to me, very comfortable, in a very weird way."

But he has a fear.

"I’m very afraid that when I look back one day, [I realise that] I spent six years sitting in front of the computer typing away.

"That’s something that is very scary to me. It’s almost my entire adult life. That is something that I worry about.”

I suggest that he has something tangible to show for it. Devil’s Dare - which Teo said is not yet a hit - has 43 positive user reviews on Steam, and that is 84 per cent of its total of 51 user reviews.

Gamers are connecting with the game. People get what he’s trying to do with it. People like it. 

One fan has spent 56 hours playing Devil’s Dare. He or she is from the United States.

Another is from the Czech Republic, one is from Germany, another is Irish.

Teo, who isn’t from a well-off family, said he has always wanted to travel, but because he spends all his time making games, he hasn’t had the opportunity to.

For now, his games will have to do the travelling for him.