Like many Singaporeans, Fadzuli Said spent much of his childhood enraptured by video games.
He and his younger sister would be glued to the screen for hours together, challenging themselves to conquer boss fights without taking damage.
Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe, and Bomberman were some of his favorites. To him, they were “a way to go on exciting adventures in different worlds.”
Little did he know that one day, his love of games would earn him a privileged mention by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In his 2008 National Day Rally speech, the PM lauded a then-25-year-old Fadzuli for turning his passion into a profession when he graduated with a masters degree in entertainment technology, and scored himself a stint building games at Disney.
Fadzuli never looked back since then, and even leveled up to co-found his own game studio in Singapore.
“This Was What I Was Meant To Do”
Despite where he is now, teenage Fadzuli never imagined he could make a career out of games.
It was the furthest thing from his mind when he navigated his next steps after ‘O’ Levels. With an L1R5 score of 29, it wasn’t easy to secure a place, and he only managed to enter Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP)’s IT course on his second try.
Then came a moment of fate—while he was halfway through his studies, NYP launched a new game development course.
“It felt like a sign that this was what I was meant to do,” Fadzuli says.
With his mind made up, he wasted no time bridging over to the new course. But he would then realize that going from player to developer was a huge mountain to scale.
“Game development was a steep learning curve because I failed ‘O’ Level mathematics, and there’s actually a lot of math involved in creating games,” said Fadzuli.
While it took “a lot of blood, sweat, and tears” to catch up to his classmates, the effort paid off when his portfolio eventually earned him a spot at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the world’s most prestigious schools for game design.
Not only that, he impressed the school so much that he was fast-tracked straight to their masters program.
Not playing around: He made it to studios like Disney, King
When I ask about his first game, Fadzuli answers the question in two parts.
Technically, the first game he worked on was a 2D, steampunk-themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), but it never made it out of the studio.
“Unfortunately, as many game developers know, not every game you work on gets released,” said Fadzuli.
Despite this setback, he didn’t lose heart.
Later, the first game he worked on that was released was Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean Online. During his internship at the company, he contributed to the game by designing combat skills for its characters.
One thing that pushed him forward was the support of his parents who gave him space to figure things out, even if it was hard for them to understand his choice.
As they watched his career take shape over the years, Fadzuli jokes that they could finally shake off the worry that he would be a “starving game developer.”
After his Disney internship, he returned to Singapore to develop games for a few other firms, including King, the studio that created Candy Crush.
Making something with their own “Bear” hands
Fadzuli probably would have continued working for King if not for a major fork in the road.
In 2016, King closed its Singapore office after being acquired by American game studio Activision.
Fadzuli had to decide whether he wanted to take up King’s offer to relocate to Europe. He was hesitant, as uprooting his life would not only impact himself, but also his family and then-girlfriend (now his wife).
That was when he started talking with his colleagues, Simon Davis and Benjamin Chevalier, about building their own game studio.
Realizing that they “had the same vision,” they took the plunge with a pool of their savings and put together a small team of seven members.
They had to work lean, so they spent the first four months huddled around Simon’s dining table, sometimes surrounded by laundry that had been hung up to dry.
The new co-founders playfully took a leaf from Simon’s nickname “Papa Bear,” and named their studio Mighty Bear Games.
Fadzuli is the “Techy Bear” (or chief technical officer), who works with code on frontend and backend infrastructure to ensure their games run smoothly.
Between the founding members, the Mighty Bear team was seasoned with years of experience from working at renowned companies like King, Disney, Ubisoft, Gameloft, and LucasArts, to name a few.
But even with their stellar accolades, the possibility of running out of money before launching their first game was very real.
Fadzuli shares that their first Christmas together was a stressful time, as capital was about to run dry. “I remember sitting around the dining table with the founders, discussing what we should do,” he says.
“In the end, we decided to go big or go home, so we poured more of our personal savings into the studio. It was a big and very scary risk,” said Fadzuli.
Thankfully, it was enough to tide them through until they secured USD 775,000 in their first pre-seed funding round a few months later.
Learning from a legend that didn’t live on
“Our first game was very ambitious,” Fadzuli says.
It took them 18 months to build and launch their first title, an MMORPG called World of Legends, as it involved building all their processes, systems, and backend from scratch.
“Releasing it was nerve-wracking, but a great learning experience.”
World of Legends was downloaded “hundreds of thousands of times” and received a 4.8/5 rating on the App Store—no small feat for a new studio’s first title.
In retrospect, however, the co-founders felt that the game didn’t live up to their expectations of becoming a “global hit.”
Simon even once told the Straits Times, “If I could go back in time, [World of Legends] might not be what we would make as a first game.”
Fadzuli says they eventually shut it down in 2019—a difficult decision as the game was a fan favorite.
Through this, he gave us a glimpse of the struggles and limitations that small game studios face.
If they had kept World of Legends online, even without releasing new content updates, it would still require their technical and community teams to put in time and resources to maintain it, stretching them thin to work on new projects.
“At the end of the day, we want to keep our small team focused on shooting for success with the next game,” he says.
Making even “Butter” games
While saying goodbye to their first game was hard, they learned a lot from it.
Just this January, they released their third title, Butter Royale, which puts a food fight-themed spin on the highly popular multiplayer battle royale genre.
What’s most exciting for the team is that Butter Royale became one of only four Singapore-made games to clinch an exclusive deal with Apple’s game subscription service, Apple Arcade.
But the game they’ve now proudly launched wasn’t what they originally intended to pitch.
In another interview, Simon said the idea to take a shooter game and make it family-friendly came not long before they were due to meet Apple.
Throwing in inspiration from Singaporeans’ love of food, and a great pun, the concept of Butter Royale clicked with the team just two days ahead, and they immediately “smashed out” a new pitch.
“The Apple Arcade team really believed in and understood our vision for Butter Royale,” Fadzuli says.
Once they won the deal last June, they went all hands on deck to produce the game in just six months.
When Bears take over Southeast Asia
Nearing four years from their inception, Mighty Bear Games has come quite a long way.
They’ve grown from a seven-“bear” operation to a team of 20. And in this time they also moved into IMDA’s incubation space Pixel, then upgraded to their own office at Block71, and are once again searching for a larger space.
In 2018, their ambitions were also strengthened by another USD 2.5 million investment.
For Fadzuli, the journey challenged him in more ways than one. Beyond his role as a game developer, he shares that taking on a co-founder role comes with “high pressure.”
“I have to make decisions every day that don’t just shape the games we make, but also the future of the company and employees.”
One thing that’s important to him is sticking to the ethos of diversity and openness. He considers them a must for success, as he believes diverse teams are “better at making games for a large audience.” And on a personal level, they make work much more enjoyable.
Looking forward, Fadzuli shares that he wants to keep creating games that are social, accessible, and safe, like those he enjoyed in his childhood.
He also has big dreams for Mighty Bear to become the “largest developer and publisher of mobile games in Southeast Asia.”
That said, he makes sure to add that the team has no illusions about how competitive the gaming industry is.
“The odds of us succeeding are not in our favor, so we [will constantly] demand more from ourselves [in order] to have the best shot,” said Fadzuli.
He encourages more Singapore startups to think about being the best not just locally but globally. “The real competition is not from the company next door, but the global leaders,” he says.
This article first appeared in the Vulcan Post.