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'Life's a video game and I'm taking on my next level': Hotshot entrepreneur


On Feb 21, Atomic Heart - a sci-fi shooter set in a 1950s Soviet Union infested with robots - was unleashed on the gaming world.

Mr Jacky Choo with marketing collateral for Atomic Heart. Sales for the game in Asia made up 49.6 per cent of total global sales as at April 2023. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

In just two hours, the game, developed by Mundfish, raked in US$2 million (S$2.7 million) in sales in Asia, recouping the investment of co-publisher 4Divinity, a subsidiary of GCL Asia, a Singapore games and entertainment software company.


"We outperformed our original forecast by 200 per cent. And we have five years to milk the IP


(intellectual property);' says Mr Jacky Choo, founder and chairman of GCL Asia.

The triumph is especially sweet since Atomic Heart - which reeled in five million players in the first three weeks of its launch - is 4Divinity's first outing as co-publisher.

Thanks to the company's marketing efforts, Asia made up a whopping 49.6 per cent of the title's global sales as at April 2023.


This is no mean feat, since the European and US markets have historically accounted for the larger share of sales for games.


The giddy success has accelerated GCL Asia's expansion plans. The way Mr Choo, 4 7, sees it, it will not have time to slow down.


"I'm ready to go on the global stage, not just Asia;' declares the gaming entrepreneur, who hopes to take GCL Asia - whose revenue is expected to jump from US$82 million (for the financial year ending 2023) to US$180 million in 2024 - public in the next 12 months.


It is a heady new chapter for Mr Choo, who decided, early in life, to make a living out of his passion: gaming.


He started two decades ago setting up gaming websites and publishing gaming and tech magazines before founding GCL which, besides 4Divinity, has three other main subsidiaries.


Epicsoft Asia handles games and entertainment distribution, as well as game publishing relationships, marketing and creative media design.


2Game is a digital video game retailer while Titan Digital Media - helmed by influencer JianHao Tan, whose YouTube channel has 6.28 million subscribers - is an influencer management, branding and marketing agency.


Mr Choo employs about 100 people.


The elder of two children of a car repair workshop owner and a factory operator, Mr Choo was interested only in "gaming, gaming and gaming" while he was growing up.

Despite spending an inordinate amount of time, and all his pocket money, on his passion, the alumnus of Jin Tai Primary School and Fairfield Methodist School (Secondary) was far from shabby academically.


Influenced by a famous doctor - a regular at his father's workshop - the triple science student tried, but failed, to get into the medical faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The Atomic Heart booth at the Taipei Game Show, a trade show for the gaming industry, held in Taipei in February. PHOTO: GCL ASIA

"One option would be to go overseas, but it would have been quite tough on my parents;' says Mr Choo, who ended up doing chemical engineering at NUS instead.

"My classmates were asking me why I was talking about video games when we should be talking about reactor engineering, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics;' he recalls.


He floundered, not helped by the fact that he was devoting more time to building his gaming website gamersquare.com.


"There was no online gaming community for PC and console gamers then, so it was basically a place where hundreds to thousands of like-minded enthusiasts and friends talked about games;' he says.


Piracy, which was rampant in Singapore then, also bugged him.


"There were stalls in pasar malams selling pirated discs for a few dollars;' he says.


"It was not good for the commercial business of gaming. The challenge was: How do we make sure that the Singapore market can be big enough for gaming companies to set up business here. "


"Gamersquare.com was set up to get people who wanted to support the industry to buy original;' says the hardcore gamer, who also founded the Brotherhood Of The Box fan club when Microsoft launched its Xbox gaming console in 2001.


The idea of working at an oil refinery - which several of his course mates ended up doing - as a chemical engineer held no appeal, so Mr Choo did not even bother looking for a job upon graduation in 2001.


Mr Jacky Choo had decided, early in life, to make a living out of his passion: gaming. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

"I was really fixated with gaming as a job. I have no regrets or worries. I knew gaming was going to be a big deal;' he adds.


He channelled all his energies into gamersquare.com.


Traffic was good - I½ million page views a month, a very respectable number 20 years ago - but online advertising was a hard slog. There were months when he did not draw a salary.


Noticing that many gamers were buying gaming magazines imported from Britain and the United States, he decided to become a publisher instead.


With an initial capital of $100,000 - the bulk of which came from his business partner, who was in gaming retail - Mr Choo became the publisher-editor-writer-marketing representative of Playworks magazine.


Mr Jacky Choo, in a photo taken in 2003, with copies of Playworks, the gaming magazine which he launched a year earlier.

PHOTO: ST FILE The early days were traumatising. They made many mistakes including overprinting ("Our extra copies were attacked by termites in the shophouse") and over-ordering printing paper ("I didn't know printing paper would turn yellow").


They burned through the $100,000 in just a few months.


"We were not stressed about the $100,000. We were stressed about the next $100,000;' he says, adding that they kept the business going by taking out SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) loans and using credit cards.


Fortunately, things took a turn for the better. Console makers like Xbox and game developers started "spending real money" on marketing and advertising.


Mr Choo also noticed that industry players needed services beyond advertising, including product testing, product launches and technical support for events, so he diversified his business to meet these needs.


"Event companies which were hired to do set-ups didn't know how to operate a console or handle HDMI cables to get high-definition audio and video;' he notes.


Thanks to his gaming expertise, his company also did brisk business setting up websites and gaming sites for telcos such as Singtel.


"We built a lot of gaming sites for Singtel. These were not easy for (marketing) agencies because they involved organising league matches like Counter-Strike and Warcraft. How do you rank, how do you eliminate - there are many ways you can do a league;' he says.


Realising he could get a bigger and more diverse pool of advertisers including telcos and makers of gadgets and sound cards, he started a tech magazine called T3 in 2005.


Things took a turn two years later when he set up Epicsoft Asia, a channel partner for games and entertainment software in Asia, and started selling these products to retailers in the region.


The year 2008 was game-changing. He hit the jackpot after clinching the local distribution rights for mega-hit Grand Theft Auto IV, which offers a good mix of action, role-playing, driving and shooting elements.


"My partner and I had to mortgage our properties to raise $2 million to bring this product in. We had to pay upfront to secure (the rights)," says Mr Choo, who is married with two children, aged 10 and 13.


Serendipity saved him from losing his pants, he says.


The game was released on April 29. The day before, the then Media Development Authority implemented a ratings system for gaming titles, sparing Grand Theft Auto IV the indignity of being banned because of its violent and mature themes.


Copies flew off the shelves.


"We had a gross margin of about US$1.8 million, and that was just sales on day one;' he says of the game which became the fastest-selling entertainment product in history at the time.


It earned US$310 million in its first day globally and US$500 million in its first week.

But it is a risky business, he says. While securing the right title can be extremely lucrative, the opposite also applies if you bet on the wrong horse.


One title which made him lose money was Call of Duty: Black Ops III. He had ordered too many copies.


His business has evolved over the years. A decade after he started his publishing arm, he closed it. Magazines were no longer viable because of the rise of the Internet and social media.


In just two hours, Atomic Heart, developed by Mundfish, raked in US$2 million (S$2.7 million) in sales in Asia.

ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE


The changing gaming landscape and how games are marketed, sold and purchased also led him to set up his four subsidiaries.


Creating games and IP has long been a dream, one accelerated by the success of 4Divinity and Atomic Heart.


"We are now talking to IP owners, we want to do more. We don't just want to produce and sell. We want to get involved in the planning of content;' he says.


"IP is the product because games are just one of the usages of IP. Just look at Hogwarts Legacy. It has already grossed more than US$1 billion, faster than the movies;' he says, referring to the game that is based on the Harry Potter franchise and which was released in February.


IP ownership, he adds, spells many business possibilities, including merchandising.

"Tian shi, di Ii, ren' he says, using the Mandarin phrase which means "the right person in the right place at the right time".


"Being in Singapore means we can cover almost half of the world here. We can cover the whole Asean market, and we can also cover Japan, South Korea.


"Then there is a very big elephant on top. The Chinese market will buy from Asia and it's a huge market today. And Singapore is a good hub;' says Mr Choo, who has set up offices in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea, and is in the midst of doing the same in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.


Non-disclosure agreements do not allow him to give details, but he and his team have been working on several other publishing deals. His work, he says, is cut out for him: how to leverage his assets and subsidiaries to do publishing on a global scale.


But he is ready for the ride.


Taking the conventional path just because everyone does it has never been his thing, Mr Choo says.


"Life is basically a video game, and I'm just taking on my next level'


Read the article here - https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/life-s-a-video-game-and-i-m-taking-on-my-next-level-hotshot-entrepreneur Wong Kim Hoh (2023, June 04)

'Life's a video game and I'm taking on my next level': Hotshot entrepreneur

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