Gaming enthusiast Xeo Lye first launched Capital Gains Studio as a passion project in 2013. While bringing together a development team for a mobile game, opportunities started knocking on the door.
One of his first projects was for the Malaysian stock exchange. They wanted to design an educational card game for varsity investment clubs in the country. This was essentially how Xeo got into the boardgame space – pivoting from mobile games to physical tabletop games.
Timing Was Great To Pivot Into Boardgames
While competition in the mobile gaming space was only heating up, Xeo recalls that he “would have been able to count the number of boardgame designers in Singapore with just one hand back then”.
In addition, the boardgame industry was booming in the U.S. and Europe. Breakthrough titles such as German-designed Catan was challenging mainstream boardgames like Monopoly, Game of Life and Risk, which hadn’t changed much in nearly 100 years. This created a resurgent interest in boardgame design and creative and innovate new game mechanics.
At the same time, in the mobile gaming space, there was an increasing number of popular mobile card games such as Hearthstone. This increased interest level in physical tabletop games with similar mechanics. Traditional boardgame titles were also intensifying their digital version for mobile, which only added to the interest.
Today, Xeo has published eight games, as well as provide consultation for game design for clients, including Sentosa, Singapore Police Force (SPF) and Ministry of Education (MOE). Xeo also runs workshops for financial literacy as well as game design and design thinking workshops with his boardgame titles.
Like All Businesses, Capital Gains Studios Was Hurt By COVID-19
Xeo shares that his “games consultation projects were either cancelled or postponed, and our number of enquiries dwindled to zero during the Circuit Breaker period”. Some of his retailers also fell behind on payment, while his educational workshops got cancelled.
Revenue plunged more than 70% since the Circuit Breaker, but Xeo sees certain bright spots emerging.
“Our e-commerce site saw a surge of orders for boardgames as families are looking for more home entertainment avenues due to working from home.” Xeo was working on a line of family-friendly games under a new banner Mercat Game, and these came just in time to ride on the boardgame wave. These games are priced affordably between $20-$25. “Our games such as Check Out! and Happy Dim Sum did extremely well during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Sales from our games jumped 40-50% in the following months”.
Riding on what was working, his team doubled down to produce more of such games, from an average of 1 per year to 3-4 titles.
COVID-19 also taught Xeo a painful lesson on self-reliance. That’s when he collaborated with another local game designer to kickstart a distribution arm. The pandemic had wiped out majority of their brick-and-mortar retail distributors. At the same time, Xeo could also help other Singaporean boardgame developers who require this service now.
“We also migrated a lot of our game design and game testing online as we are unable to meet up to do face to face physical prototype testing, which is essential for user-based feedback. It took us a while to get used to the new norm of game development, but we got used to it after a few weeks of tinkering the system.
Xeo recently ran a kickstarter for an upcoming insurance education game titled Zombielife insurance which will be launched in November 2021. He managed to raise more than enough money from the kickstarter to pay for the manufacturing cost and was able to reach an audience base beyond Singapore’s shores.
“Kickstarters has proved to be both a boon and a curse for us during COVID-19. The boon is that we are able to sell our products to an international crowd and pitch to interested distributors even though we are not able to travel overseas to attend trade shows and market directly to our overseas customers. The curse is that the shipping rates has tripled since the start of the pandemic and our shipping rates calculations have fallen behind the actual rates by the time we start shipping the products, eating a big chunk of our profits. There are some markets which also became inaccessible due to COVID-19 lockdowns.”
The DollarsAndSense team has also regularly played his games over the years, especially the ones skewed towards financial literacy. Personally, I’ve also been involved in several game development sessions – where he was testing games out in paper format. I’m not sure my feedback was valuable as I’m not an avid boardgamer.
Nevertheless, I caught up with Xeo recently, this time for our 5 Questions With… entrepreneur column.
Dinesh Dayani (Dinesh): How do you conceptualise a boardgame from start to finally introducing it to the market?
Xeo Lye (Xeo): The game design process can be kickstarted using two methods, by designing the mechanics first or designing the theme first. We then create a prototype with the mechanics and theme using digital or paper prototype.
After which, we do a lot of focus group testing of our games with different groups of people to test our games to see if the theme and the mechanics are appealing to the target group we are reaching out to.
That’s where we decide if we want to publish the game or not and we move on to the next game design or idea of the overall concept is unable to get pass our public testing.
Dinesh: I know you were a vendor of the now defunct Naiise. You also mentioned seeing your retailers fall behind on payments for boardgames they already sold. Having gone through this experience, what do you think small business owners (and even individuals) need to be aware of when putting their products on consignment?
Xeo: The important thing for vendors to take note of is to evaluate the relationship once the retail shop starts to fall behind on payment, and do not be afraid to pull back the stock and be aggressive in chasing the owed monies.
One of the reasons why many vendors were stuck to Naiise despite being owed months of monies is the fact that there is a lack of representation for Singapore-designed goods. Vendors may feet that they have little choice but to stick with Naiise as there are limited alternatives to showcase their product. The fall of Naiise is actually a big blow to the Singapore-designed scene. However, thanks to the saga created by Naiise, it created enough attention for the bigger players to take a closer look at the products carried by Naiise and we managed to get new distribution deals despite taking a hit on lost revenue from Naiise.
Dinesh: We’re also friends (I hope you think so too) – and I know that COVID-19 has hampered your wedding plans at least 3 times. How did you juggle running a business, and planning 3 weddings in almost one year! (PS: We hope it’s 3rd time lucky!)
Xeo: Lots of small naps and pray for things to go according to plan (which doesn’t most of the time).
Dinesh: Can entrepreneurs benefit by playing boardgames?
I will say that there are two main benefits, training the mind to think critically, as running a business is like playing a game. You need to be nimble and react quickly base on what other people do. A more tangible return is the opportunity to network with others through boardgames. You never know who you will meet and you can create business opportunities along the way.
Dinesh: A common phrase we hear is “When you enjoy what you do, you never have to work a single day”. You enjoy playing boardgames and now you’re working on taking new boardgame concepts to market, so, how true is it?
As the CEO of the company, I spend more time doing non-design work these days than design work, leaving most of the design work to my design team. So, there are a lot of “unenjoyable red tape stuff” that I need to crawl through, but that is part and parcel of every business.
We have a dedicated game testing and game playing day where we test out games submitted by other designers for us to evaluate, test our own games, or just play games designed by accomplished designers and learn from their design. That is one aspect of my job that I look forward to!
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