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What’s In A Game: A Look Inside Streamline Studios
The first thing we saw entering the studio was its big logo embedded to the wall. Upon a closer inspection, there was a bit of decoration being put there. “It’s an Iranian thing,” our PR contact explained. And it indeed it was, the table near the reception area was full of descriptions of Norooz Day, an Iranian New Year celebration. Close to that was shelves of action figures. The Play Arts Kai model of the four boys from Final Fantasy XV was there, alongside a few figures from Street Fighter.
This is Streamline Studios. Located in the upscale office areas of Bangsar South, the office we entered is one of the most established game studios that is headquartered here in Malaysia. Streamline started out in the Netherlands but today, the studio employs 220 people and has various branches across the world (Frankfurt, Tokyo, Las Vegas), with the bulk of the development team is here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Most of the staff here are Malaysians. About 64% of them are local talent. we were told. With a good mix of international talents from 29 different countries (including the co-founders themselves), it’s no surprise when the US government issued a travel ban for immigrants early this year, Streamline Studios responded with a video statement in solidarity of those affected by the new ruling.
For the bulk of our visit at the studio, we got to sit down and talk to John Flannery, the Technical Producer here in Streamline Studios (who is also seen in the video above). He has been in Malaysia for a year, but the Baltimore, Maryland native has spent 11 years already in the industry, starting out his career here in Streamline, then moved on to several studios including Big Huge Games before returning back to Streamline. “I love Malaysia. I love the food,” Flannery answered as we asked him about the country. He is also fond with the “timeless” look to the country as we don’t observe a change of the four seasons here.
From there we were able to get some interesting insights- from the company’s origins to their current line of work. As a bonus, we managed to get some thoughts on the game development scene in Malaysia and some advice for those who are just starting out and wishing for a job in the industry.
What Is Streamline Studios?
Streamline Studios was founded 16 years ago by Alexander Fernandez (CEO) Stefan Baier, (Director Of Products And Services) and Renier Banninga (Global Art Director). Before Streamline, they went by the name of Rewolf Software and started out with a Half-Life 1 mod called Gunman Chronicles. The mod was later picked up by Valve to be released for retail in 2000. Rock Paper Shotgun has a quick piece of this interesting FPS that “had aliens, dinosaurs, spaceships, Mayan temples, a deranged AI, Western and Civil War-inspired soldiers.”
And from modders, the team went to realise the huge undertaking of game development and opted a different direction- leveraging their talents to support other game developers. Nowadays, Streamline is known for their artistic capabilities, the backbone of the studio, and has lend a hand in almost 250 AAA titles- their first big break was working with Gearbox Software for the PC version of James Bond 007: Nightfire.
The philosophy here is to deliver outsourcing tasks while working on their own IP on the side, which is similar to how Rocket League developers Psyonix, as documented in the Noclip documentary series, started out. To date, they have released two games of their own: HoopzWorld for the Nintendo Wii (available on the e-Shop) and Axon Runners- an advergame in conjuction with Coca-Cola for iOS devices.
A Look Into Outsourcing In The Games Industry
In some line of work, the idea of having contractors- additional employees outside of normal payroll contracted for a project or timeline- is simple enough. They come, do the job, and go. Though the outsourcing of these contractors may not be so obvious in the gaming industry.
When it comes to who is responsible to a game, we usually latch to the developer and publisher and rarely do we see other parties are being mentioned in name. If you to see Streamline Studios in the credits of their latest games they worked on- Final Fantasy XV and Street Fighter V– that means you really went your way to find them. They are not seen in the game ending credits but the credits sequence that’s in the main menu. The average gamer will probably never noticed the names, or even the company that contributed from outsourcing. Hence, these contractors are the gaming industry’s unsung heroes.
Currently, we do see a different trend- as the hardworking men and women behind the scenes have now been able to highlight their work. Usually studios like Streamline have strict NDAs (non-disclosure agreement) that prohibit them to say much about their contribution, but we now see them getting more opportunities to open up a bit more.
Flannery explained how Streamline was involved with 2016’s Street Fighter V. At first we thought that they were just given instructions by Capcom and follow design documents, but interestingly, they did more than just that. Essentially, some of the team here got to be really involved with the design process of the characters and see it to finish- that includes integrating the assets into the game. So Capcom was collaborating with various studios to craft the initial batch of fighters and stages for its latest iteration of the long-beloved series. There is still the usual back-and-forth of submitting works to Capcom for approval and make changes if requested, but the team is responsible for creating some of the art in the game. Streamline calls this process “Artsourcing”.
Of course, that’s all we can ask: we cannot know for sure which characters or environments that the team was directly involved in creating. But hearing from Flannery how there’s many old-school Street Fighter fans on the team, it’s safe to say they (as well as the rest of the developers) did a job well done- the returning fan favourites are both faithful to their original look while still looking great, and the stages capture the lively feel the series always have.
As for Final Fantasy XV, the breakout title that saw the studio’s name being in the spotlight of Malaysian media, the collaboration goes deeper. Flannery refers this as “co-development” where Streamline provides expertise programming to help out with the development for the main dev team. The term does imply that Streamline has contributed a lot in the long-troubled development of the RPG, which eventually delivered, as per our review.
While Streamline may not have much of an upfront, consumer-facing reputation, Flannery explained that Streamline is pretty known in the game industry. “I believe we are [well respected in the industry],” he said. “In the past Streamline wasn’t the most publicly known to the average person in the street. However, a lot of the behind the scenes folks know us.” He gave an example of when he moved to Big Huge Games, the team there instantly recognise Streamline and its key people when he brought up his, at the time, former workplace.
Their strong portfolio- the countless games they have contributed to- is one of the keys that land them such high-profile projects. Here’s a bullet list of the games they have contributed to recently:
- Street Fighter V
- Final Fantasy XV
- Bioshock Infinite + Burial at Sea
- Pillars of Eternity
- Star Citizen
- Killer Instinct
- Armored Warfare
- Gears of War
- Saint’s Row 1 and 2
- Unreal Tournament 3
But what does it feel like only working behind the scenes and not having much recognition from the public? The answer Flannery gave was indeed interesting. “It’s not a conversation I actually brought up with anyone. I always focus on the work in front of me,” he said. He joked about this being the reason he never started his own business, but the mindset of just getting the job done is not unique to him alone.
“For me and the most of the folks here, we focus on the goal itself”. Getting to work on interesting variety of games, like working on Street Fighter V- as mentioned before, many of team are fans of the series, is enough to drive them to get work done. There isn’t much glory hunting in the games industry: the satisfaction comes elsewhere.
For Flannery, there was no need to introduce himself as working for Streamline to the average people- saying he’s a game developer is enough to get a conversation about games rolling. Though things are changing for Streamline as they are moving towards making the company more known to the public, they won’t be unsung heroes for long.
The State Of Malaysian Games Industry
As Streamline is gearing up to make a bigger move in the gaming industry, we were curious about the state of the development scene here in Malaysia. Flannery has a lot of good thing to say about this, especially the emerging young talents that are currently in schools. ” So far I’ve been able to talk some students and visited a couple of schools. There’s a good amount of energy, some good talent.”
We too can confirm this. Our recent visit to Comic Fiesta last year saw at least one student group from secondary school embarking on a game development project, and there were many other college students showcasing their projects, including final year projects that are full games. Talking to some of the students there gave a really good impression that they are ready for game development.
Plus, these students have even caught the attention of an industry veteran whose been working on AAA games like Flannery. That’s a strong praise. Though he also has seen first hand at what Malaysian talent is capable of within Streamline. “We are providing high-quality assets to all over the world, AAA level stuff. And most of the staff are from Malaysia,” he said.
“These kids are good. They are really helping out.”
However, teaching game development currently is still something new. Defining a proper syllabus that maintains relevancy to industry standards is still a work in progress. But Flannery is convinced the schools here are on the right track.”The teachers I talked to, they seem genuine at teaching high-quality material. They’re doing a pretty good job,” he said. He’s also impressed with some of the prototype games and projects the students have created. While we have yet to figure out the proper way to teach game development, rest assured that what the students picked up over the years will certainly benefit them to land a job later in the industry.
While Streamline Studios might be one of the biggest game development house headquarted in Malaysia, it’s not the only one. There’s plenty of studios doing outsource work for art at a AAA level. Given the abundance of talents here, especially in art creation, it’s highly likely to see the country reach global game development standards in a couple of years. “It seems it’s ready to take off. It’s going to be fun to be here,” Flannery added.
How To Start As A Game Developer?
We asked Flannery of any tips for would-be game designers, programmers and artists that want a break in the games industry. His advice started out simple: just start doing. “Luckily the tools for creating games or at least participating in game development are, if not cheap, downright free,” he said. Game engines like Unreal and Unity are available for free for personal use, so those who wanted to do game design and programming, you already have the tools to do so online.
Flannery also mentioned how strong the modding community is on Unreal which are really supportive of people who’s just learning the ropes of making mods, so mod making is a good start for aspiring game devs. It will also help you understand how a game engine works- valuable for both artists and programmers, as well as help build a reputation of building good content, which will certainly help when applying for a professional gig.
“The key is to do it. If you are looking to do art, you have to produce art, preferably for games. For programmers, coding games and build something. The tools are there. ” he added. He also suggested for artists to showcase the technical aspects of producing them, like a video of the whole process.
But what about taking a proper education in game development at college? While he could not comment much of the courses as he has not seen any of the content, it all depends on how disciplined you are. For some, getting the right skills for game development can all be self-taught, especially with the abundance of resources freely available in the internet nowadays. But there’s nothing wrong going to school for game development. Having proper schedules in schools can has its benefits.
Another thing to note for aspiring developers: at the end of the day it’s a team effort. “Game development is inherently collaborative,” he said. “If you haven’t had any experience working with others, it’s going to be difficult, like working a company of 200+ people. That can be overwhelming.”
One last advice from Flannery for aspiring art modellers: work on low-polygon stuff. It’s a common complaint from art directors and leads when it comes to art assets. “When crafting models and games a lot of time was spent on high-polygon things- sculpting elaborate, beautiful constructs that are utterly useless.”
While high-poly assets can be baked down to a lower-poly count, it’s better for artists that can make low-polygon assets that are both beautiful and not taxing resources as much. Flannery then shared an experience of one of his colleagues on how it is such a struggle to optimise a level for 60fps- there are many quirks that needs to be addressed and adjusted that only with experience and some trial and error can help solve, so having less resource hogging assets in the first place certainly helps the process.
Also, reading in general always helps. “Science, mythology, history, everything,” he said. General knowledge in various fields help give you a more rounded worldview that will help in approaching problems and thinking during the development. It sounds cheesy, Flannery admitted, but it will help.
Future Of Streamline Studios
So what’s next for Streamline Studios? It look like they are gearing up for some bigger projects of their own. Currently they have two in the works: A VR project that Flannery mentions the team are having a lot of fun developing, and a new AAA IP codename Unbounded, a “mission based structure to a fast-paced, co-op FPS”, as mentioned in their official site. Alongside the new exciting projects, expect them to see them continuing to expand their portfolio by contributing in more games in the future.
Hopefully these new projects will put Streamline Studios, as well as Malaysia and Southeast Asia, on the map for all the gamers in the world. We can’t wait to see that happen, and we will be along for the ride covering what happens next.
What’s In A Game is an interview series where we highlight the blooming game industry in Malaysia and Southeast Asia by having a chat with the men and women involved. Whether it’s AAA or indie, we want to hear and share some insights of what the effort involves in making a video game.
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