“More than anything else, I am the product of the education system in Singapore. I have successfully failed my way through school,” says Ian Gregory cheerfully. Wearing Khaki bermudas, black shirt and sporting a flat cap, he stands out from the crowd. Before the interview proper, he says that his hat-wearing tendencies have gotten to the point where he is unrecognisable without one.
Despite not having any formal training in video game design, Gregory’s company, Witching Hour Studios, is set to release their first major title Masquerada on PC, Mac and Playstation 4. “Before this I was in advertising, although I was actually in school when it started,” he explains. Their previous works have all been on the mobile market, but he doesn’t consider it a transition.
“For us, mobile games were a low barrier of entry,” he explains, saying that even though he and his fellow founders prefer games with substance, they had no idea about how to create games when they started out. “We always wanted to make a PC and console game, what you see now is a culmination of a lot of choice we made early on.”
Boutique game design
Gregory has a great deal of love for his team. “They are my extended family,” he says when explaining how he is able to retain talent in an industry infamous for high turnover rates. He reveals that whenever team members leave, it is to go on for better things. “It is always something that they feel passionate about,” he explains.
The close-knit nature of his team is down to his personal philosophy. “I always consider myself the least useful person in the company. The only thing I really have is veto power, other than that I am open to suggestions from everywhere, and if it is better than mine we will absolutely use it.”
Compared to larger studios, such as the Singapore office of French Multi-National studio Ubisoft, Gregory feels that being small allows for this approach. “Even if you have a good boss,” he explains, “once you get past 30 employees you cannot know everyone.” With a team of 15, Gregory says he is able to immediately suss out someone having a bad day.
He reveals that he would like his company to stay roughly the size it is now, arguing that it is big enough to take on bigger projects such as Masquerada.
Substance over style
Video Games are big business, with large studies spending incredible amounts of money to make their latest offerings the biggest visual spectacle possible. Gregory feels that this is going in the wrong direction. “Art is beautiful, but it does not last, it is ephemeral by nature,” he says. For him, the mark of a video game that sticks with you is the story.
“I used to play a lot of Baldur’s Gate,” he goes on, referring to a role-playing game released in 1998. “There is a character called Minsc, who has a pet hamster.” This brought up some chuckles in response, and Gregory pointed out that these bits of story and character make games stay in the memory.
Nonetheless, visuals are still an important part of game design, as Gregory says that Witching Hour Studios made sure to give Masquerada a unique colour palette.
There were also hard decisions they had to make according to their budget. “We could have either chosen a branching storyline,” he explains, “where every decision affects how people treat you, or we could have had the entire game have voiced dialogue.” They chose the latter, which allowed emotion to show through.
Proud son of the nation
Part of what drives Gregory in his approach to work is his pride. “I am very proud to be a Singaporean, it shows in my work.” His example is once again Masquerada, where the game’s setting is a city-state that is a nation of immigrants. He feels that Singapore has a great deal to offer in terms of artistic identity.
“Our office is mainly filled with Singaporeans, which is quite rare. When we were getting voice actors for Masquerada unfortunately we could only get non-Singaporeans, but it was not for a lack of trying.”
In the future, Gregory wants to make sure to present other Singapore art in his games. “Similar to how Grand Theft Auto has an in-game radio station, I want to do the same for the next game, but only have Singaporean musicians on there.” Gregory believes that Singaporean culture has a place worldwide, and if it is through games, he is even happier.