Metronomik – Wan Hazmer talks No Straight Roads, Square Enix, and more
Metronomik CEO Wan Hazmer recently lent his time for an interview with SEAGM in conjunction with AniManGaki Online. In it, he goes into detail about his experiences in Japan, in Square Enix, and founding Metronomik. Here are some of the highlights from the hour-and-a-half-long interview.
Mr. Wan Hazmer, you left the country in 2008, but you secured your position in SE in 2010. What was going on in that brief 2-year gap? If you don’t mind sharing.
“I was in Yamano Nihongo Gakkou (Yamano Japanese Language School). The reason I went to Japan in the first place was because I wanted to enter the game industry but I know that being a game designer means I need to know a certain level of Japanese. At the time I didn’t know Japanese at all. So I had to enroll myself in a Japanese language school. (What I knew) was more… anime-speak? I guess? Haha.”
“I needed to have a goal, so what I did was I created a game design proposal, and my goal was to translate the entire document to Japanese. It’s ten pages long and it’s titled “The Hero Network”. It wasn’t initially meant for Square Enix but I guess they saw it and decided that ‘it fits their genre’.”
You worked there until 2017. What made you decide to stop there and come to Malaysia?
I told my director (Hajime Tabata), even five years before I left, once I’m done with Final Fantasy XV, I have to go back to Malaysia and start my own company. Number One, I’m very passionate about making my own games, of course. It’s any game designer’s dream, basically. Number Two, I feel that Malaysia has a lot of talent, you know? I guess the problem is, that Malaysians find it hard to identify what it is that’s unique about them. It’s very hard to strike the balance between finding relevance, so that Americans, Japanese, Europeans, or whatever want to play our game, versus us not copying other people’s culture.”
So, let’s talk about No Straight Roads. As Metronomik CEO, do you have any comments on the game’s release?
“Hmmm, well, it’s our debut game, number one. Number two, it’s my first time being director- my cousin (Daim Dziauddin) became the creative director, who is also the co-founder, by the way. He used to work for Street Fighter V, it’s his first time being (a) creative director as well, and a lot of us (Metronomik) are new to the game industry, you know. You know obviously we would release our first game, and the reviews were going to be ‘not good’ lah. We were just going to accept it for what it is lah and learn from our mistakes and move on. But, a lot of the community and Metacritic and all these media reviews are proving us otherwise. The team is really thrilled to see all these media reviews. Yeah (the reviews) do mention flaws as well, but they really love how much love we poured into the game. We’re getting ranges of 7s and 8s, and even a perfect 10 from one media. That’s really crazy so…Now we’re waiting for user reviews and so far it’s looking quite okay!”
It’s been a three-year project, it encountered some delays, Covid-19 happened, of all things. Were there a lot of challenges working from home? Tell us a little more about the experience from the perspective of a Metronomik CEO.
“We were very fortunate because we run on an open communication process/philosophy. We can have the programmers complain about the art, we can have the artists complain about the game design, we can complain about anything… so yeah we’re very open in that regard. In that sense, even when we had distance between us we still can communicate well- our ideas, our feedback, and all that.”
“We have open communication, but (due to Covid-19) we were lacking physical communication…”
“Let’s say for example we see a bug in the game, they can just call me ‘Haz Haz Haz c’mere look at this bug!’ y’know? They can just point at the monitor and that’s it! Everyone knows about it. But for WFH (work from home) it’s difficult because let’s say if you do find a bug you have to take a screenshot or video of it and then you have to explain it very clearly as by what you mean as this-and-that y’know? You can’t use gestures, actions whatsoever to explain. This applies to also, not only bugs but art direction, lighting, art, those details are much easier to explain with gestures.”
“But the good thing about the WFH though is that everything that we mention, all these reports are all written, it’s documented, and it’s much clearer actually sometimes because the person reporting puts more effort into explaining the full picture.”
Is the team (Metronomik) comprised entirely of local talent (Malaysians)?
“We have a LOT of people involved in this- but in terms of (the) core development team, yes. All Malaysians, except for one Indonesian, and one Japanese.”
Are they colleagues from Square Enix days?
“His name is Niko and he’s a programmer and he used to be working with us for Final Fantasy XV via Streamline Studios.”
“…and the Japanese colleague is my wife. So she is the business development manager of Metronomik- she’s right there right now, ahahaha,” he gives off a childish smile.
So Mr. Wan Hazmer, you have a very colorful cast of characters, Zuke and Mayday. So to get the audience up to speed, why don’t you tell us a little more about the characters? What instruments they play, their personalities, and all.
“You control two characters in an indie-rock band. The main guitarist is Mayday. Mayday, she acts with her heart. Very very impulsive, everything is very, instinctive, rather, right? She reacts to situations in such a way that y’know that she doesn’t think before she acts, basically. If she’s against something she will go all the way to be against that.”
“Her partner, his name is Zuke, is a drummer of the band. He thinks with his head, so all his actions come from his head. He thinks before he talks. but he’s also very shy. He’s cool as a cucumber, but there are times in the game where he will lose his cool, so I want everyone to look forward to that lah.”
The next statement is edited for the sake of spoilers
“…I think a lot of our fans have commented on the dynamic between these two characters, and even the bosses as well. All of the bosses that the player fights have their own values and motivations on why they play music. All the battles are actually a clash of ideals between them. To really look into what drives people to play music and why they are clashing is something that people should look forward to.”
What was Priscilla Patrick’s and Uncle Ali’s reaction to being cast as the roles of Tatiana and DJ Supernova?
“It was actually a pretty interesting idea. I didn’t know that no one was doing this, so, y’know? I think they were so used to voicing animation and advertising, so I don’t know if any of them have any experience in voicing in videogames. They told me that they were quite new in this.”
“Usually what happens is, for newer companies like ours, we were advised to just get a recording studio to do the hiring. Just list down the characters we wanted and let them do the casting. But in our case, we wanted to be more gung-ho with it, so what we did was we held an open audition. So we announced on Facebook that we are having this audition and we are so lucky that Uncle Ali and Steven Bones and Su Ling and- *laughs* Priscilla Patrick was also the same because it was so difficult to find someone for Tatiana. We heard her voice and- well I’m not that young, so I do hear her voice occasionally on the radio for traffic reports and all this. So we were searching YouTube to find the voice of Tatiana and we heard Priscilla Patrick’s voice and we were like ‘Damn we need to get her in’. What we did was we just met up in Bangsar, and then we talk talk talk and then… yeah.”
*Metronomik CEO Wan Hazmer goes on to talk about the experience of doing open auditions
“When the voice actors came to our open audition, they switched on their ‘American’ voice for some reason, or some very very proper English accent. We told them to stop and to use their natural accent. We thought that this was something very very important lah. To Malaysians it’s cringey, but when we showed the game overseas, it’s a totally different reaction. To them it was something very fresh and a lot of people liked the accent.”
How did you snag huge talents like Jun Fukuyama and Ayane Sakura?
**Some clarification is needed on the mentioned studio’s name. The author is unsure if it is Sound M or Sound Amp studios. They are based in Yokohama and have worked on the sound design of the Earth Defense Force games.
Mr. Wan Hazmer, Metronomik CEO was jokingly talking about being a fan of Ayane Sakura to the CEO of Sound M / Amp studios. As the CEO is a voice actress herself, she had a large network of seiyuu. Out of nowhere, she came back with a reply of securing Ayane’s talent to be the voice of Mayday. Additionally, getting Jun Fukuyama to voice Zuke also came in as a surprise. The team had previously considered casting Daisuke Ono (Sabastian from Black Butler) and Tomokazu Sugita (Gintama).
Jun Fukuyama and Ayane Sakura flaunted their professionalism by recording their lines quickly before even the English lines were done recording. This was because they would be busy in the upcoming months.
To this, Wan Hazmer exclaimed, “I’m like ‘WHAT?!'”.
So, Mr. Wan Hazmer, you come from a Final Fantasy development team. What are some of the differences in culture between working for a Japanese company and a Malaysian one? Having experience from both of these scenes, Square Enix game designer and Metronomik CEO, what traits would you take from both Japanese and Malaysian cultures to make the “perfect” work environment moving forward?
“What I’ve learned from Square Enix’s way of working is that they design games based on their instinct rather than documents, which was very interesting to me. Before I went to Japan I was an indie game developer. I bought a lot of game design books from Kinokuniya to learn more. What I learned from this is, a lot of game developers tend to put a lot of things in text first. Only then design it and then test it. In Japan, or Square Enix, rather, they usually don’t trust any documents that you write, until you actually implement it. Until you implement it in practice with the controller in your hands. THEN only you’ll know whether it’s fun, (or not) y’know? So I think that’s a really really good idea y’know because games are now like that. Everything might sound good on paper, but it might be bad in the video game.”
Wan Hazmer goes on to describe his experience on FFXV, which is arguably one of the games that defined its decade.
“This is something related to Final Fantasy XV which is, Final Fantasy XV was a big challenge to us as developers. At the time (this was before FFXIV became very popular), the Final Fantasy IP was dropping in reputation… So the first thing we had to acknowledge was that we were no longer the king of RPGs, right? It’s very funny because the story of the game is also the story of us. The slogan of the game is ‘Reclaim your Throne’, it’s not only about Noctis but also about us!”
“So what I learned from that was that we had to really rethink how Final Fantasy was done. So our main goal was to get ‘this’ amount of sales. It’s to get people to talk about the game again, that’s how we reclaim the throne. Increasing relevance was very important to us. The user has to be connected to the game emotionally. Not just based on (the) story, but on gameplay experience as well. So the UX system was something that we developed and worked hard on to make this gameplay system memorable”
“…So I brought that UX system concept to No Straight Roads. Making the bosses change in terms of morality as you fight them and such.”
He proceeds to talk about his experience working with Malaysians in Metronomik.
“Now, about Malaysia what’s interesting about Malaysia is that you can see that we have two different sides. One side is people that already acknowledge their strength. For example, I’m a Malaysian and I’m proud to show it off, and most of these are art people.” Wan Hazmer says with a smile.
“and then we have the other half who like to look at other games. ‘Ay they did it right in Monster Hunter, so why not we do it in our game?’ So to establish this balance was quite difficult lah at first. A lot of these guys are triple A fans and of course, Japanese, Anime fans. They have this mindset where we have to make it VERY Japanese or we have to make it God of War. To a certain extent, I am learning from them, because we do need a level of relevance to our game, as I mentioned y’know? but we need identity. “
“Another thing I like about Malaysians is, a lot of people might look at this as a bad thing, but…” he takes a brief pause “being passionate yet being relaxed. Yeah because in Japan it’s you being passionate and not going home hahaha. Which, results in REALLY great products, but it does come at a cost. Anyways, I think Malaysia provides all this groundwork for this kind of (passionate/relaxed) environment. And I think what we were really grateful for in Malaysia is the government support compared to Japan.”
Wan Hazmer goes back to explaining the differences in Japanese and Malaysian culture.
“In Japan, it’s so hard to open an indie company, y’know? If you really want to be like Jun from Toho (requires clarification) then you need to be super multi-talented lah. Or else you will really lose out and I don’t know where you’re going to get the money to support yourself. A lot of indie developers in Japan actually have full-time jobs to support themselves. Whereas in Malaysia it’s totally different, especially in recent years where MDEC (Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation) supported us a lot not only in terms of infrastructure but also finances.”
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring video game creators in Malaysia?
“Identity. It’s important. I feel that one of the biggest mistakes Malaysians s fall into the trap is something like ‘I want to make an Uncharted game… with Hang Tuah'” His ‘air muka’ of his face quickly goes from cheery to unamused. This is clearly something very important to him. “It makes for a cool conversation starter,” his face quickly lightens up again “but it cannot be your core idea. The reason behind this is because, you’re just making a copy of something, right? So an Uncharted game with Hang Tuah just tells me that Uncharted is fairing better than your game, y’know? You can start off saying (Uncharted Hang Tuah reskin) but you have to really think about what is special about Hang Tuah that cannot be done in Uncharted!” He gets more excited doubles down on the methodology of creating a game with identity.
Kisah-Kisah Gamers Malaysia will be ongoing until September 16. For more patriotic content, keep it here at SEAGM. Follow us on Facebook, where we will have Malaysian personality Nabil Mahir playing “No Straight Roads”!