Nathan Gokhool from Robot Republic sits down with Gwen Guo from IMBA Singapore about the exciting and burgeoning field of game audio in Singapore and South East Asia.
RR: Tell me what your name is where you work and what your job title is?
Gwen IMBA: Hi I am Gwen Creative Director and Co-founder of IMBA Interactive we are a sound studio based in Singapore we specialize in sound fx, music, voice-over as well as implementation.
RR: Tell us about the spark that ignited your passion for game audio?
Gwen IMBA: I’ve been pretty much a gamer since I was about 5 years old onwards.
When I was about 13 I got into electronic dance music thanks to radio that introduced me to trance and house,
I decided to learn how to produce some music It felt natural to marry both disciplines together.
I started working as a game composer then I went into sound design.
Essentially what kept me in the discipline of game audio is the community
RR: How did you get your start in games?
Gwen IMBA: I was producing music on the side as well as drawing.
The polytechnic I was studying at offered an incubation program called the Singapore MIT IMBA game lab.
A joint initiative between the students in Singapore as well as the research goals in MIT Boston.
We got sent to MIT Boston for two months to work on game prototypes.
I applied to be an artist there but my art sucked, but somehow my music got in.
It was just being in the right time in the right place my music wasn’t awesome.
At that time not a lot of people thought about composing came music.
It really tested my limits I was one person handling six teams of audio great things happen when you get tested to your limits.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I can actually compose for games.
Subsequently, I got hired in the Singapore office after that incubation program; that's how I got started in games.
RR: Tell me about how that led you to VFS and what was your experience?
Some people might call My journey a bit of a… waste.
I left university halfway I graduated with a diploma in a poly technic in Singapore I wasn’t doing game audio then.
I was doing new media I decided to further my studies in a university after 1 year I left to go into game audio full time.
I really liked working full time as a game audio person doing sound design and composing in a company as suppose to studying in general…
But eventually, my skill set plateaued; I decided to pursue a sound design education.
Back in 2009-2010, there weren't many sound design schools let alone game audio most of the schools were just around music.
I went to Vancouver film school and after VFS there were opportunities to do films sound, Production audio, game audio.
Gwen IMBA: I decided to go to VFS because the paper didn’t really matter.
VFS 1 year program I wanted to learn as much as I could in a short amount of time so I could get out and work.
There you have it no sleep whatever (Gwen Jokes)
RR: What area of sound design are you most passionate about?
Gwen IMBA: Right now it's really implementation.
I love the creative aspect of asset creation, but there is also a lot of creativity to be found in implementation; It's really a lot of problem-solving.
Gwen IMBA: When I was growing up I never considered myself a technical or a logical person just a crazy creative.
Regardless of what creative engine whether it's Unreal Engine, Unity or middleware like Wwise and Fmod.
It became my playground and I feel in the zone when using those tools.
Implementation has really helped me to think logically like a programmer from there is a lot of creative problem-solving.
RR: How did you get involved with Imba Interactive?
Gwen IMBA: IMBA is a gaming term it's short for imbalance (pwning) in a game we decided to adopt that term as part of our company.
When we first started out and I had two other cofounders.
We weren't friends but went to the same incubation program we all did game audio.
We found there weren’t many people doing game audio full time except the three of us in Singapore.
Competition in such a small place is not really healthy.
When people are constantly anxious about getting paid for the gig we found ourselves subconsciously comparing salaries.
We figured why should we compete against each other decided to join forces in 2013 as of today have expanded to a team of five audio people this year is our eighth anniversary.
We chose collaboration over competition.
RR: How was the company formed?
Gwen IMBA: when we started out.
Not every creative is a good businessperson we had to learn as we went.
We didn’t know what we were doing
We realized it causes distrust amongst each other some of us would get insecure because some of us would have to work part-time jobs.
And some of us had to put in full-time jobs.
Eventually, we started to understand the realities of setting up privately limited.
when we first started out we wanted to do a collective style.
We formalized as a private limited company all the revenue that came in went into the company itself we distributed a salary from there on equal grounds regardless of who does more or less work.
We need to build trust, as cofounders especially when it comes to money this are really important.
RR: What was your goal in forming the company
When we first started out cofounders would have disagreements.
So we decided to set down values and a mission that would align all of us together.
1) It will always be games
2) We strongly believe in work-life balance (despite crunch culture in Singapore)
3) We want to raise the standards of game audio in Asia (for a time we were the only game audio studio in southeast Asia doing it full time) We had to be on our toes to keep up with technology all the time.
Our goal is to be leading in Asia’s game audio industry
4) We always give back to our community
We started game audio Taiwan we went there to network we started a chapter there handed it over to some of the game audio folks there
We set up a chapter in Malaysia we have had a lot of joint sharing sessions between these three countries which is great.
RR: Talk me through the core values of Imba and how you instil that in your work
1.We always value creativity first value systems that are easy to stay but are hard to follow certain jobs you get aren’t very creative we aren’t given that creative freedom as artists to express ourselves and that’s fine
We do get creative jobs and we are happy which keeps us quite free and empowered in the work that we do.
2. three cofounders two of us are women and when we think about hires and interns we always keep a lookout for marginalized underrepresented genders the most important thing to us is that they are creative.
3. Work-life balance the value of health directly impacts the value of work
RR: Tell me about Imba what Imba does differently that sets you apart from your competitors?
What sets us apart from others is our geographical location, which opens us to all the markets Asia secondly were based in Singapore, which is pretty stable for business
We are bilingual. Our first language is English but our mother tongue is mandarin which obviously helps with localization work.
It's quite exciting for us because the industry in china is really booming right now and we are happy to be a part of it.
We have a good relationship with Taiwanese with very few language barriers
Another thing that sets us apart is we have strong technical expertise in-game audio implementation
We cover all game engines and middle wear and have audio programmers on staff.
RR: Tell me which one of your projects are you most proud of and why?
Gwen IMBA: I like projects that set us free but are also technically challenging.
Recently we worked on no straight roads made by a Malaysian company called metronomic an action game where the whole world works with music.
EDM vs Rock Its really interesting it's trying to make a stamen on music elitism
It was great for us because we managed to collaborate with other composers from all around the world it challenged us technically.
We were given free rein over the production we had access to their unreal engine and Wwise we could spend time playing around and see what really works.
Gwen IMBA: By Red Candle games in Taiwan that was a great experience.
We felt really happy to work on this game even though we are Singaporean we get to learn a lot about the Taiwanese culture the CEO himself is a sound designer so we worked with him we worked on the same Wwise project.
He called the shots we helped to supplement the audio there was a lot of creative back and forth.
RR: Talk me through which project was most challenging?
No straight roads
Gwen IMBA: was the first music game we worked on even though it's not a rhythm game it is reliant on the whole world synching around music.
We had a more scope of how to play interactive audio the most challenging thing about it was the mix.
You're talking about EDM and rock; both of these musical genres are full and thick which means the sound effects need to be extra impactful.
To cut through the mix and be heard.
The challenge in the mix was to balance the elements together to make sure every element had its place wasn’t crowded and could cut through the mix.
RR: Just for our readers describe the Indy dev. scene in Asia?
Gwen IMBA: Taiwan Is great creatively they are out there able to create both cultural and non-cultural identities
Overall they are my friends every time there is a game conference around the region we gather together to say hi talk about each other's games
It’s a shame that there isn’t a lot of attention in this part of the world.
Hopefully, it's getting better but some of the sorties they have are really worth looking at in terms of Indi game narratives. (really great camaraderie)
Gwen IMBA: There is a lot of great stuff coming from Malaysia and Indonesia the Indy scene is very strong
What happens to countries that don't have a lot of AAA studios they are more people compelled to start their own independent studios.
They have a few outsource houses that do work on AAA games but after they leave that space they bring that AAA experience into the studio which is good for everyone.
RR: Name 3 titles that have inspired you in the last 5 years and why?
The first one is Genshin Impact because it's really full and really well done it's a game that is highly accessible its first game that is available on PC mobile and play station everyone can cross-play between devices
The great thing about free to play games is anyone can pick it up and just as play you get so much from it the story the narrative is amazing the art is amazing the music the sound design everything
It takes two
The second one I like is it takes two is a couch co-op split screen game and you don’t see many good couch co-op games it's really polished it's easy to pick up the learning curve is not that steep so whether your naturally a gamer or not it just a fun couples game to play for friends the message behind it is great as well.
I’ve recently been playing this game called Alba which is a game about a girl that goes bird watching I'm always on the lookout for games that are very wholesome and non-aggressive.
I personally really like aggressive games I play FPS all the time but Alba promotes environmentalism nicely talks about current issues.
RR: Tell me about your hopes for the future?
I definitely hope that audio and game audio is friendlier to underrepresented genders.
There is so much uproar about game companies having discriminatory behaviour I hope that changes
I would also like awareness of games towards other countries.
Games from south-east Asia from Latin America that a lot of games that receive a lot of the visibility and the marketing dollars are always from the west so that’s all that people see
China is an example once they bridge that localization gap they will take off
RR: Tell me what titles you are looking forward to?
Not really this year but next year Stray, it’s a game where you play as a cat.
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