Navigating digital realms, defying challenges: M’sian game developer Kaigan Games blazing a trail to a global stage


Founded in 2016 by brothers Shahrizar (middle) and Shahazmi Roslan and Jeremy Ooi (right), Kaigan is today a leading indie game developer in South-East Asia, having garnered numerous international awards and millions of downloads for its games, including ‘Sara Is Missing’ and the ‘Simulacra’ series. — Photos: Kaigan Games

Amidst the South-East Asian tech revolution, Malaysia is becoming a hotspot for innovation, giving rise to thriving game developers like Kaigan Games.

Navigating the complexities of the industry and facing challenges head-on, Kaigan exemplifies resilience and vision as it aims to secure its spot as a top-tier global game developer.

Founded in 2016 by brothers Shahrizar and Shahazmi Roslan and Jeremy Ooi, Kaigan is today a leading indie game developer in South-East Asia, having garnered numerous international awards and millions of downloads for its games, including Sara Is Missing and the Simulacra series.

Ironically, none of Kaigan’s founders had a formal education in gaming. CEO Shahrizar, 40, pursued Industrial Physics at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Skudai, Johor and briefly worked at a corporate training company before taking the leap to establish his own venture.

Reflecting on this rather unconventional path, he adds that his sibling Azmi, who is Kaigan’s lead developer, graduated with an Accounting degree.

“After his graduation, we casually developed our first game over a weekend, setting us on a trajectory of game development for the past 12 years!”

The company, formed in collaboration with Ooi seven years ago, has been a cohesive unit ever since.

What new projects is Kaigan planning to undertake in the upcoming year to further solidify its position in the gaming industry?

Shahrizar shares that after the launch of Simulacra 3 last October (following the release of Simulacra, Simulacra Pipe Dreams and Simulacra 2), Kaigan has been working on two new games: the first being Nullspace and a new horror title.

Senior concept artist Rex engaged in a ‘character study’ for Kaigan’s Nullspace.Senior concept artist Rex engaged in a ‘character study’ for Kaigan’s Nullspace.

He says: “Nullspace is a real-time space strategy game set in a hard science fiction universe, meaning that it is inspired by real science and not fantasy science. For example, in Nullspace, there are no plasma guns or magical ship shields.

“We are so committed to our hard science fiction direction that we had a theoretical physicist as our consultant to help write the lore and science of the Nullspace Universe.

“Most of the terms that we ended up using in the game are based on cutting-edge theories in astrophysics.”

Shahrizar says this IP is a completely new direction for Kaigan and also much bigger in scope, which has resulted in the company expanding its 3D and animation team.

The second project that Kaigan has been working on is a new horror game, marking another new IP for it.

“The game explores a new type of horror narrative with an interesting setting. Set in an abandoned theatre building, you will play a recently hired assistant to a mysterious play director. He is set on rehearsing a supposedly cursed play, and that is the extent of what we can share for now!” Shahrizar says, revealing very little!

“Players will know more when we make an official announcement very soon.”

Kaigan enlisted the help of a theoretical physicist to craft the lore and scientific foundation of the Nullspace Universe.Kaigan enlisted the help of a theoretical physicist to craft the lore and scientific foundation of the Nullspace Universe.

Interestingly, Ooi, who is Kaigan’s game designer, was quite active in local theatre after abandoning his Accounting degree, occasionally even directing and producing his own plays.

In the beginning

In the early days, Kaigan’s mystery-horror games revolved around the “Found Phone” genre, inspired by the interactive games Replica and Her Story. Azmi developed Kaigan’s own prototype Found Phone format, which became the foundation for many of its games.

“We were not the first to make a Found Phone game, but we do believe that we were the leading studio globally making games in this format,” Shahrizar says.

Kaigan’s mystery-horror series, like the Simulacra series, revolve around the Found Phone genre.Kaigan’s mystery-horror series, like the Simulacra series, revolve around the Found Phone genre.

“Found Phone refers to the experience of a player launching a game and finding that their phone has changed into someone else’s device.

“The wallpaper is different, the apps are different, and suddenly someone calls you and speaks to you. They say the owner of the phone that you are holding is missing, and they need your help to find them.

“You agree, and explore the unlocked phone. You ‘hack’ their email password by finding their mother’s name in the contacts list; you find their pet’s name in a social media post; you guess their birthday from the wishes their friends have left in a chat group, etc.

“This is the experience that our Found Phone games bring to our players. It is highly immersive, and we have garnered multiple international awards for our innovation and storytelling.”

Given its expertise in the Found Phone genre, how does Kaigan plan to innovate and stay ahead of gaming trends in 2024, especially considering the dynamic nature of the industry?

Instead of banking on a tried-and-tested formula, Shahrizar says that for the next few years, Kaigan will be taking some time off from making new Found Phone games.

“This doesn’t mean that we have abandoned our Simulacra franchise,” he says. “Far from it. We are researching new and interesting ways to bring the franchise forward. There are many cool ideas that we are exploring right now, and it will take some time before we know which of these will make it to our next Simulacra game.

“In the meantime, we are pushing our skills forward as a company by developing games in different genres and styles. Ultimately, this will make us better game developers, and we believe that these improvements will come across in future Simulacra titles as well.”

From uncharted territories to a global stage, Kaigan Games’ journey unfolds, offering insights into its unconventional origins, current projects and the challenges shaping its path.From uncharted territories to a global stage, Kaigan Games’ journey unfolds, offering insights into its unconventional origins, current projects and the challenges shaping its path.

Apart from its numerous accolades – just last year, Kaigan took centrestage at the SEA Game Awards by Level Up KL, securing not just one but two prestigious awards, Best Innovation and Best Technology, for Nullspace and earned a Best in Play at the Game Developers Conference 2023 – one of the key indicators of its success has been its growing fanbase.

“We manage an online community on our Discord channel with over 15,000 members. As game developers, the challenge is finding out where our fans are and providing them with a space to meet and engage with them. We found out that our player base is very young and very active on Discord,” Shahrizar reveals.

“So we mostly engage with them there, provide them with a space to express themselves and talk with our developers, as well as share their fan art of our games.”

Kaigan’s fanbase is also spread across the globe, and its community events are always done online.

“We have held writing contests, art contests and even meme contests multiple times on our Discord. Unfortunately, with our team being very busy with our new games, the community events have definitely slowed down recently.

“However, it should start picking up when we get nearer to our game launches this year.”

Not as simple as it looks

As for challenges, Shahrizar reckons the biggest impediments are access to funds, specialised knowledge and specialised talent.

“Coming from Malaysia, we do have an amazing push by MDEC (Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation) and the Malaysian government to help game startups with grants and soft loans. However, access to private and corporate funds is very hard to come by. There are very few investors who know the industry and have the cash to invest in the region.”

Shahrizan also says there is a shortage of specialised knowledge, which is industry- specific knowledge, that exists in Japan, the United States and Europe because the game industry has been there for so much longer and the scale of projects there is much bigger.

Through its trials and triumphs, Kaigan claims that the secret to its success lies in the strength of its employees.Through its trials and triumphs, Kaigan claims that the secret to its success lies in the strength of its employees.

“For us, we have to learn by trying and making mistakes; basically, we are learning how to do things from the ground up, and sometimes these mistakes are costly and time-intensive.”

In addition to specialised knowledge, there’s also a need for specialised talents.

“A game company from Tokyo has the ability to hire a senior engineer from Tokyo with over 20 years of experience to solve a specific problem.

“We do not have these options, so we end up having to learn from scratch or hire foreign talent at a premium. With work from home being more common nowadays, these sorts of arrangements are getting somewhat easier. However, it is still an uphill battle.”

An additional hurdle involves platform access. Companies in South-East Asia often encounter difficulties obtaining development kits or securing the capability to list their games on specific platforms.

“To be fair, this has improved tremendously in recent years, but it remains a challenge, especially for smaller studios,” he says, adding that access to deals is just as difficult.

This is because publishers and investors in the game industry favour studios coming from mature markets.

“None of the globally renowned publishers are from South-East Asia. So let’s say a Malaysian studio and a British studio pitch their games to a French publisher.

“If both games pitched are of equal quality, the British studio will still have an edge just because doing business with Britain is more common and convenient than doing business with us.

“This is not to say our studios do not get deals from international publishers. We do, but often we have to show that our games are not just equivalent, but better than the rest.

“We have to convince the publishers and investors that we are straight up making amazing games to close these international deals.”

Through its trials and triumphs, Kaigan claims that the secret to its success lies in the strength of its employees.

“Ever since the founding of Kaigan, Azmi, Jeremy and I have made it our goal to always ensure a good work-life balance for our team, probably because we value our personal time and want that to be reflected for all at Kaigan,” Shahrizar says.

“Working overtime is a big no for us. I have personally asked my staff to get off our Slack if I see them messaging after work hours.

“We also make sure to consistently ask our staff if they feel challenged with their work or overwhelmed. Another thing that we practise is making the effort to have everyone’s voice heard. In meetings, we encourage all attendees to give their feedback.

“These might seem like basic things, but I feel that many companies do not actually practise these fundamentals.”

However, he says, game development being what it is, there are certain times that the team has had to work at odd hours or overtime.

“For example, we had a game launch that went live at 12am. Many of the core team members stayed awake to make sure the game launch went smoothly.

“When there was a critical bug reported by players at 2am, our developers had to rush and push out a fix while our support staff had to message and help players. What we do at times like these is give additional days off to make sure our people have enough rest.”

As Kaigan continues to forge ahead, its story encapsulates the essence of passion, creativity and a collaborative spirit.

“From the early days of crafting Found Phone games to venturing into real-time space strategy and horror narratives, the company exemplifies adaptability in an ever-evolving industry.”

As the imaginative settings of its new games unfold, one thing remains certain: Kaigan is not just navigating the challenges, it is defining the future of gaming in Malaysia and beyond.

Shahrizar underlines this by saying: “At Kaigan, we have always believed that every game we do must push the skill ceiling of our developers. We never sit back and say, ‘Let’s do that exact same thing again’.

“Our two new games are so new and different that our team is learning new skills and exploring new ways of accomplishing our vision for these games. This has invigorated them because every month we do a game playtest, and they can see what we have accomplished.

“Things that we once said we couldn’t do because we had no experience have now become core features of our new games. This has given us a huge sense of accomplishment as we continue to craft our games.”

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