So this is my first time ever writing a blog.
Many people have been encouraging me to write one for some time now, but I’ve never really got down to doing it, mostly because I didn’t think I had anything substantial to say, nor that I would be much good at writing one. But here goes, so do cut me some slack.
Briefly I’ll say that this blog is an insight into my philosophy with regard to entrepreneurship, and by extension, life in general. It will also take a deeper look into the story of Rats to Riches over the past year, and shed light on the struggles and lesser-known aspects of the journey thus far.
Often times I get asked ‘how did you make a game?’ or ‘how did you become an entrepreneur?’ Well, I find that the questions in themselves already imply a certain mindset with regard to reaching these end states and attaining such ‘titles’. By asking ‘how’, you condition yourself to think that achieving these things comes as a result of ‘doing’ things. How do you get from Point A to Point B? You follow a set of specific directions, or actions that, if others replicate, they too can reach the same end state.
I highly disagree. Game developers, past and present, have all had their own ways of approaching the development process. So too have entrepreneurs. Sure, I have had some key decisions that shaped my path, and some tips for others who want to do something similar. But as I look back, to the times when I had to face those dilemmas and make said decisions, I find that it wasn’t so much a matter of ‘checking off boxes on a list’ or even a matter of doing anything.
Instead, it’s a matter of being.
Being an entrepreneur is just that; being. Call it a lifestyle, a philosophy, or a mindset. But the truth is, your being, your core principles, your authentic energy, are what will drive everything else. Sounds really fluffy, I know, but it honestly is the way that I perceive my journey thus far. Therefore, I section this blog into the key aspects of being that I feel define my experience thus far as an entrepreneur and game developer. In no way do I think these are pillars of philosophy for everyone else to use, nor should they guarantee success. I believe that you make your own truth, and you live it. This just happens to be the way I live mine.
The first key aspect of life as an entrepreneur is being Different — standing out from the crowd, challenging the status quo, venturing to uncharted waters. In primary school, I was put in the ‘D’ class (not for any issue of incompetence, but just the school’s way of numbering its classes; but subtly, yes, we all felt like it was kinda because we weren’t very good). Our class teacher used to say that the ‘D’ stood for ‘Different’, because we were special in our own way. Good save. Classic.
Yet somehow, I feel like this stuck with me throughout my schooling years; many a times getting me into trouble, but mostly as an excuse for me to wander off, do my own thing and not worry about ‘fitting in’.
Was it a good thing? I don’t know. I guess, if anything, its good for cultivating creativity. Or stepping out of the ‘mainstream’. With regard to Rats to Riches, it has definitely been very integral. In the first place, why would anyone even think of making yet another finance game? We already have Monopoly, The Business Game, The Game of Life, Cashflow, among so many others. Who in their right mind would even consider such a project worthwhile?
Somehow, against all the possible doubts I could have had about diving into this, in my head I told myself that all the aforementioned games are bad, and there was room for someone to step in, innovate and create the next Monopoly. Its that stubborn, rebellious and really crazy mentality that kept me going on this path until today.
But what is this ‘path’? The path of entrepreneurship? It’s a path of freedom. You decide when you want to work, what to work on, when it happens. Sounds great, right? You get total freedom, yes. But with total freedom comes total anarchy. Total chaos.
Why would I say that? Well it’s pretty simple actually. You don’t answer to anybody. No one cares about what you are doing, and no one knows if what you are doing will even turn into anything substantial. You are literally creating something from nothing. At any moment it could turn back to dust. One day you decide ‘okay let’s rest’, and that’s it. No progress is made. No stable salary. No stable, well anything, really. Do you even know if you are going on the right track? If people will buy your product or buy into your idea? There are so many uncertainties, but no guarantees. No security. Anarchy. Chaos. Boom.
You want freedom? You got it. You can be your own boss. But you better be prepared for what that actually means. When you have total control over your life, you actually don’t. Imagine a grassy field with some sheep on it; fenced up so they have a limited space to roam, graze, etc. One day you decide to remove the fencing altogether. What happens? The sheep roam free, yes. But they are lost. Why do you think mental health issues are such a common struggle for entrepreneurs? Because it’s tough. Zero accountability, maximum uncertainty. Day in, day out. It eats at you. Drives you mad. Makes you super stressed.
I’ve met lots of people who see entrepreneurship as the side where the grass is greener, as compared to working in a traditional corporate bureaucracy. While the romance has its truth, so does the reverse. One of the benefits of being in a formal organization is that responsibility is shared; each person only takes care of a small part of the larger whole. This is important, because it gives people that stability, that assurance, that focus.
As an entrepreneur, you are the business.
To put this into context, in the period of time I started to really take Rats to Riches seriously (around November 2017 to April 2018), my typical routine was one of non-stop work; literally waking up from my flat just to shower, make breakfast, head to the office to work on Rats, then head back for a night’s rest before repeating the same thing the next day. To make things even better, I brought clothes, my towel, slippers and breakfast supplies over to the office so that I never needed to head anywhere else. I was eating £0.80 meals more for the efficiency it brought rather than the cost savings. I could have 2 ham and cheese sandwiches toasted in 3 minutes, consumed in 10, and back to work immediately after because I didn’t even need to leave the room. It was a pretty crazy life, and one that I am not really looking forward to as I go back for my final year in Manchester. Nonetheless, it was what it took to get the job done, to develop the game, and the brand. And it’s a path that’s different, that’s for sure.
In my opinion, the role of an entrepreneur is in making what is currently bad, currently unknown, into something of value. When we learn entrepreneurship theory (took a few courses about this in my second year), the key advantage of being an entrepreneur from a Strategy point of view is the ability to conceive distant opportunities that others can’t, and to exploit those while others are doubtful or too focused on what they have in front of them; scrapping just a little more of the bottom line. It’s because an entrepreneur has that freedom to imagine, explore and combine things from all over the universe that makes him/her so dangerous, so disruptive.
In the board game industry, we have 3000 new games published every year. That means every single day, you have 10 new competitors to beat. That’s just non-digital, table top games by the way. What you are developing is merely 1 out of that insane number, and most of these games come from corporations with more experience and much larger pools of resources than you do. How can you beat them? For me, I explored. (to be fair, I haven’t beaten anyone. Yet.) I thought about how I was going to develop a better game than others could, and what I would need to make that happen. All I knew was that I wanted to make a finance strategy game about rats. These were the only constraints I gave myself. So, for a start, I researched lots and lots of other top games that dealt with strategy or finance or economics and tried to sieve out what key mechanics made them good, and what could be better about them.
With all that exploration, I tried new combinations, new versions of the game, while bringing in concepts from all sorts of other games that had nothing to do with finance or strategy. Play-testers also played (yes pun intended) a big part in this. I had players young and old, game geeks and non-gamers, Asians and Europeans trying out the game. Perhaps that’s also because I really just needed play-testers, and didn’t want to keep pestering the same few people, but nonetheless… Bringing in the opinions of all these different groups really helped to expand the possibilities and ideas I could work with, and brought with it a more coherent picture of where I should take the game forward.
This is true even on the ‘business’ end of Rats to Riches. When Rats to Riches got onto the start-up accelerator programme Accelerate ME (casual plug, go check them out, they are awesome), I was put together with 7 other start-ups all working on their own crazy stuff. By virtue of all of us working in close proximity, we shared and learnt and helped each other out. One of the biggest takeaways was with regard to social media marketing and management, and particularly, influencer marketing (big shout-out to Love For The Streets and Tap In for these nuggets of wisdom). There were a few start-ups that successfully grew their brands through influencer marketing (i.e getting people who have large amounts of followers on social media to endorse your product and post/share about it). For example, HiSmile (the product that looks like a pacifier but whitens your teeth) sent out units of their product to thousands of influencers for free, and when these influencers started using the free stuff, they liked it and shared about it. Soon, it became a ridiculous hit because it looked as though everybody was using it. At least, every important person on social media was using it, which is the key part to the success of this strategy.
I thought what they did was amazing. Unlike typical, traditional marketing on billboards or television or newspapers, influencer marketing was really about getting as close to the end consumer as possible, and in as authentic a way as possible. That, to me, was very important. Everyone’s on their phones, following a whole spectrum of people from their friends to local fashion icons to politicians. So, hitting them where their attention really was made sense. The best part was, influencer marketing was basically non-existent in the board game industry. Its not that we didn’t have influencers; we absolutely do, we’ve got lots of them. But nobody was executing the influencer marketing strategy in the same way that say the fashion industry does. I guess for the board game industry, we would classify them more as ‘micro-influencers’, meaning those with followers from 1000–10000, as compared to the much higher follower counts in other industries.
Anyways, I decided to try it out. PM-ed hundreds of board game micro-influencers, all over the world, told them we were about to launch our BETA and we wanted to hear what they thought about it. Got about 200 who said yes, so we mailed sets of the game to them, they had a go, liked the game (with a few exceptions), naturally posted about it on their social media platforms, and created quite the buzz. I’m really, really proud of this. This micro-influencer strategy has been easily one of the best business decisions I’ve made ever, and it came from a sharing from other entrepreneurs in completely different fields. Had I been stuck in the ‘board game industry’ bubble, this would never have happened and I would have been like every other game developer. And that’s key. To fight 10 new competitors every single day, I couldn’t afford to be like them. I had to be different.
The best part about this is, because of the buzz we created through the influencer campaign, I actually got a game company approach me, asking me to licence Rats to Riches to them. You have to understand: in the games industry, much like in writing books, the publishers hold the power. They are the gatekeepers to you getting your product manufactured at large scales, being distributed internationally, and on the shelves at retail outlets like Waterstones or Popular. The power distance between these large companies and us small game developers could not be further. True, the creative life-blood of the industry stems from us, but we are at their mercy when it comes to business.
Kickstarter has helped with this, empowering the smaller guys somewhat. But even the games on Kickstarter now have been invaded by these big companies who use Kickstarter as a launch platform for a new product. This has raised the standards expected out of all game developers, independent or corporate alike, to levels that are unsustainable and very risky to match. And it doesn’t change the fact that getting your product to retail will still require the help of a distributor or publisher. Game companies like Hasbro or Asmodee still get thousands of game developers every year pitching their game ideas to them in a mad scramble for power. You could even compare them to a bunch of rats clawing for just a taste of some riches (hehe).
To get a game company approach me instead of it being the other way around is a huge deal, and came as a big, albeit pleasant surprise for me. Its not Hasbro or Asmodee, just to be clear, but these guys aren’t some small fry either. Anyway, the important thing here is that its because of a certain approach I took to exploring ideas and solutions that I was able to get where I got today. In an industry so highly saturated and competitive, the only way I could have stood out was to be different. And that has made all the difference.
For a long time, I’ve been a pretty ‘independent’ person. ‘Independent’ is a very nice way of saying it, because it implies that I am comfortable being alone, and it is something that is within my control. The key thing is the choice of words. Being ‘independent’ sounds pretty good, and even has that professional vibe to it. Being ‘lonely’ doesn’t. It sounds miserable. Why? Because it sounds like you are seeking company, that the state you are in is not ideal. In many cases, far from ideal. So then why is being ‘lonely’ a core aspect of being an entrepreneur? Shouldn’t entrepreneurs be the networking gurus or social butterflies of any social situation? How are they supposed to excel at their job if they aren’t good at making connections?
Well, as I said before, this is about my experience thus far, so it may not apply to all who venture down this path. Perhaps there are entrepreneurs who maintain that solid base of core relationships, and don’t face this problem. But I know for a fact that I’m not the only one, and I am among the majority. In the early days of my journey with Rats to Riches, it was a really lonely time. The ideal, the goal, for me at least, as a game developer, is to make others happy. Those who have heard me speak before (or watched The Greatest Showman) would know the quote: ‘the noblest art is that of making others happy.’ So naturally, the desired state would be for people to enjoy my product, and for me to be able to share in that joy. But the reality points to the contrary.
Time for a little history: Rats to Riches started out as a social enterprise project under Enactus, which is a global social enterprise organisation that grows and supports student-led social enterprise projects. I was volunteering with one of these projects, where we were teaching finance to secondary school kids in the Greater Manchester area. The project wasn’t going very well; we struggled to find volunteers to teach week after week, and it was bad both for the schools we were teaching in and also within the project. So, I came up with the idea to create a product that could teach finance without us being there, so that we would no longer be dependent on volunteers. And, since we were teaching kids, I thought: why not a game? I recruited two others to help lead this project (I became VP of Enactus, so I wanted to delegate this job to others), and over the summer of 2017, tried to see if the idea was feasible. I developed the first few prototypes and play-tested it mostly with friends and family.
When I went back to Manchester in September, I had what I thought was a decent game already and was ready to hand it over to the new leaders to continue pushing it further. Tragically, both of the new leaders quit because they wanted to work on ‘more interesting stuff’ (go figure). It was a pretty bad blow to my ego, a difficult time for me, and a key point in the journey. See, all along I was working on Rats to Riches under the impression that one day, Enactus would welcome the product with open arms and under its brand, it could really become something special and impactful (nothing against Enactus by the way, I think it’s a very good society and has definitely shaped my life as a leader and entrepreneur). But faced not only with failure, rejection and my own ineptitude in leadership, I was very much alone. It was not ideal; it was not ‘independence’ or ‘solitude’. It was cold. When I normally talk about my story, I tell others that I was the only one ‘crazy enough’ to think that this idea could work. I guess that’s true, but it makes light work of the reality then. The truth is, I was effectively forced into taking Rats to Riches forward on my own.
Not too long ago, during Singapore’s National Day celebrations, I thought about how it must have been for Singapore to have been cut off from Malaysia. Now that we have been through 50 plus years, it’s easy to say that ‘gaining independence’ was one of the best things that happened in our country’s history. But, it must have been really tough, really painful, and really lonely. Perhaps it’s the fact that we as a nation were thrown into that situation against our will that we are strong today. It was because there was no other way out. Nobody else was going to help us, so we had to do it ourselves.
Sounds like a noble thing: standing up for oneself and taking ownership of one’s situation. The end results are good, of course. Whether its Singapore as a nation or myself as an aspiring entrepreneur, being thrown into that situation and coming out of it inherently makes one stronger. But at what cost?
Working on Rats to Riches honestly took a toll on many friendships and relationships in my life. During the time that I was eating those £0.80 meals and literally calling the office my home, I was so sucked into work that I didn’t even realize what was happening. In exchange for new ‘acquaintances’ and ‘business connections’, many other friendships paid the price. I attribute it to several factors. First was my own mental state; I was very stressed, burning out, being super moody and snappy. Second was the all-consuming nature of the work; without separation from work and ‘life’, I started to see other people in terms of the ‘value’ they could add, almost as though I treated any social situation as just another networking event. Hyper-efficient, no wasting time, just business. Lastly, and kind of related to the second point, is time; I simply shut myself off from the ‘real world’, pouring everything into the game and the business. I literally did not have time for anything or anyone else. Yes, occasionally I still played some video games or went to see movies, but these were more as ‘de-stressors’ necessary to keep me from burning out rather than for the genuine joy of the activity or the company I was doing them with. The worst part is, when I was in that state, I didn’t see anything wrong with any of it. To me, it was all about the grind. The hustle. The work.
Lots of friendships got strained; lots of ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘emotional outbreaks’ and whatnot. Super bad Insomnia. Like, being unable to sleep until 9am kind of insomnia. Got really paranoid. (I’d rather not share the details of these on a public platform like this, but in person? Maybe.) Some friends started to see a marked change in me; among them, some were genuinely worried and asked if I needed help, others just thought I had turned into a proper jerk. Either way, I was deteriorating. Fast. I ignored all of it, at least for the first few months. But, after a while I myself could barely hold it together. I cycled through all sorts of odd videos on mindfulness, meditations, religious mantras, calming classical music, desperately trying to find a solution to the madness. It was bad because I felt like I was the only one going through anything like this; everyone else seemed to have their life in order, or at least the stuff they were complaining about were nothing compared to the kinds of concerns I was having. I felt like I couldn’t share about it with anyone, because it would just make me look weak, burden others with my own problems, and get judged by them. Even now, as I try to make sense of these things that have happened already, I still struggle to mend or rebuild these connections.
Throughout the Rats to Riches game development journey, it was critical that I get other people, not just friends, but strangers too, to play-test the game so that it can progress forward. This was even more important in the earlier stages of game development, when the product was still really bad. In June 2017, with the first ever iteration of the game, each game took 20 minutes to set up, lasted more than 2 hours, and players were either completely bankrupt or way too rich. Everything was out of whack. Oddly enough, when I was in the library printing out the prototype files, I was looking at them going like, ‘these guys are going to have the time of their lives’. Feelsbadman.
So, to get people to test the product, sacrifice a significant portion of their time for you, without any guarantee that it would be a good investment of their time (actually probably a guarantee for a bad time, if anything), it became clear to me that I needed to be nice. And what does being nice mean? Well, it was about understanding how important their roles were, and to really appreciate that when I meet them, or even when I am trying to set up a session beforehand. It also means understanding my own role as a game developer and entrepreneur. Our job is to provide value for others, yes. But, particularly for a game, which is an emotional product, part of that emotional package comes from the experience they have with you.
Okay so let me break that down.
Although a game is a collection of rules, components, artwork, etc. the end product is really the emotional experience that players go through as they play the game. Each game creates its own unique concoction of emotions, be it happiness, competitive zeal, collaborative warmth, frustration or satisfaction. For Rats to Riches, I wanted that ego-feeding joy of building an empire, the satisfaction of using one’s wit to sabotage or outplay other players, and the competitive anxiety of fighting against the clock in a race. Players judge the games they play by the immediate emotional response it gives them. That’s why it was very important to me that I was there for as many games of Rats to Riches being played as possible, so that I could see and feel it for myself. Feedback forms are great methods of data collection, but they pale in comparison to the kind of pure feedback I receive when I am there in the moment, sharing in the experience with the players. It’s about being in those social situations, 3 times a week, each time taking the liberty to set up the game and explain the rules. When you do that, you start to understand what it would be like for anybody else to try to do the same.
To be honest, it really started to drive me mad. In a slightly more positive way. Imagine this: 3 times a week, you sit down at a table with some university friends, ready to play-test your cool new game. You slowly take the game out from your bag, the cards are in different piles, you sort them out, pour out the coins, all the while everyone else is just awkwardly waiting for you to start talking. Then, you do. You start explaining the rules, but there’s 14 pages worth of them. People start to get lost, drift away, bored. Then you start playing, finally, after 20 minutes. As the game goes along, the players encounter more situations that need clarifying. You pause the game and explain. This happens dozens of times, until finally, after 2 hours, you finish one game. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. 3 times a week.
It gets to you. I mean, even I was getting frustrated and bored listening to my own voice saying the same things over and over. I felt bad that I was wasting other people’s times, and really hated the awkward starting atmosphere of setting up the game and whatnot. I also imagined how it would be like if I was not there. Would other players be able to religiously set up the game and explain 14 pages of rules? I didn’t like the thought of it. So, I made it a point to make the game as simple to set up, and as easy to teach as possible. Sure, the game would still have depth, through all the different cards that come up and how they interact with one another and how players decide to use them. But the core set-up and how-to-play have to be super quick to execute. I know of other game developers who pay people to test their game for them. I think that’s ridiculous. It’s either they are really bad at making friends, or really bad at business in general.
Another thing about being there during the play-test sessions is the idea I touched on earlier; how you as the entrepreneur also contribute to the emotional experience of the product. If you are there, caring for the players, being patient as they learn the rules, adding to the joy of the situation (at least I hope I have), it definitely makes a difference to how players remember the game experience, and also how likely they are to continue helping you on your journey.
There is a community of board gamers in Preston, about an hour away from Manchester, where I am based. Its called the Preston Gamers Guild. When I launched the BETA, I made it a point to head down there personally, join the community for a couple of games (not necessarily Rats to Riches), and yes, to play-test the game too. By that point in time, this was my de facto modus operandi. Whenever I wanted to test the game with a new community, I would first go there like any other board gamer, sit down at a table, play one other game and get to know the people there before going like ‘hey you guys want to try something I made?’. Works super well for me. Creates that authenticity and humility that is so important to getting someone to trust you and want to support you.
So anyways, back to Preston. After that session on a Tuesday evening, I spoke to the organiser/social media manager of the group, handed him a set of the BETA, and told him to hit me up if he had any clarifications or feedback. So, a couple of weeks later, I saw on their Instagram that they were unboxing Rats to Riches and play-testing it. I asked the organiser how it went, and he said the game needed a lot of work (it was phrased slightly worse than this). Rules were messy, cards were not balanced, etc. He said that if he were to write a review about it, it would really hurt my brand. But, he also said that he was not going to, and will just give a *neutral* summary of the game, mainly because his interaction with me has been very positive. He said he really appreciated that I travelled an hour just to personally hand him a copy of the game, and was overall very pleasant to work with, as compared to other game developers who have sought his help for getting feedback too.
Some decisions are really about the cost-benefit. But not everything can be narrowed down to ‘a simple calculus’ (looking at you, Thanos). Being nice is one of them. Someone else could easily just have mailed a copy of the game over, rather than make the trip himself. Would have saved some time, that’s for sure. But would you sacrifice building a positive relationship with your consumers just to shave off some time?
I truly believe that if you ‘build the crowd, they will build the business’. It’s a Lean Start-up philosophy, and I think it has really helped me on the journey thus far. I am just one guy. How far can I go if I am the only one pushing my product out? The only one talking about the brand? This reality became apparent very early on, and it was always a goal for me to empower others to help carry the brand forward, play the game with their own friends and family, post on social media, etc. I need that to happen, or I can’t survive. But it would also be a testament to how good the product actually is, if other people genuinely share about it with their friends and family and on social media.
Perhaps this is more evident for a game, because it is an inherently social product. But, either way, kindness is extremely important and very powerful in business. How else did I get 164 people to try out the game (pre-BETA) within 8 months? *humble brag*
At the end of the day, the overarching thing that encapsulates all the rest is to be yourself. Super cliche, but very true. Somebody else put the same situations as me would make very different decisions. Or, even in the context of this blog, would be very different and have their own key aspects of their lives that are vastly different from mine. And that’s absolutely fine.
“Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde