Sibling squad behind top games focus on Cambodian art,culture

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Sitting in his small production studio situated in his flat in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tompun district, Piseth Chhourm makes small adjustments to the music that will provide the soundtrack for his soon to be released online game.

Chhourm is the director of DirexPlay, one of the Kingdom’s better known games development firms.

He established the company five years ago along with his three siblings, Rothana Chhourm, who is character and animation artist, Visal Chhourm, who acts as the programming artist, and Malis Roeun, who is the environment and design artist.

DirexPlay’s best known release is action title Jailbreak, the eponymous game based on Italian director Jimmy Henderson’s 2016 Cambodian blockbuster. Upon its release, it became the first game in the Kingdom’s history to be based on a film.

DirexPlay pipped 37 other local candidates – including start-ups, private sector firms, NGOs and public service institutions – to win first place at the 2017 Cambodia ICT Awards for their work on the mobile game.

“We won the first place for Jailbreak after we received a lot of positive feedback following its release. At that time, we got more than 100,000 downloads in just three months,” 30-year-old Chhourm tells The Post.

Chhourm believes that DirexPlay’s games are so successful as they strive to incorporate Cambodian identity and culture into their products.

Inspired by Nintendo

Born in 1989 in Siem Reap province, Chhourm recalls a childhood of classic gaming, rushing home from school as a boy to play Rambo on his Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

He first gained access to the internet in 2005 when he went to study at 10 Makara 1979 High School in Siem Reap city, saying it was a pivotal time for him as “he started to get very interested in technology”.

After graduating from his civil engineering degree at Siem Reap’s Build Bright University in 2010, he boldly decided to leave his family and move to Phnom Penh looking for work, taking up jobs as a consultant with several IT Companies.

But in 2014, with all his siblings about to graduate university, Chhourm saw an opportunity to break into the industry he first fell in love with as a boy.

“By 2014 my siblings had nearly all graduated university, each learning things like design, animation and programming. We saw an opportunity and decided to make a game because it is a growing and popular form of entertainment,” he says.

DirexPlay’s first game was puzzle game Hungry Obob, which incorporated aspects of Khmer culture like Angkor Wat.

It gained a lot of fans and received overwhelming positive player feedback.

When creating a new title, the studio first finds the concept, before then developing a core mechanic game prototype for testing.

After testing, they reach the pre-production stage, where they create a story and establish the game’s flow. They pay a lot of attention to geography, Khmer literature and other foreign books as inspiration.

They then select the setting and break the game down into episodes and levels. This stage is largely handled by Malis Roeun, who is responsible for designing the environment, while Rothana Chhourm works on the characters.

The production stage starts when they are ready to be combine all their work into a game, adding sound effects, a theme and background music.

Their games are released on both Android and IOS, with their core demographic being players aged 10- to 30-years-old.

DirexPlay also presented their titles at the Global Entrepreneurship Community (GEC) Summit in December 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Echelon Asia Summit in June last year in Singapore.
Despite facing shortages in terms of both human and material resources, Chhourm is proud of the “local culture” he injects into DirexPlay’s games.

In March, DirexPlay released their latest title Wrath of Fighter, which has received 62,000 downloads to date.

“Players enjoy Wrath of Fighter because it has Hanuman [a mythical monkey warrior] and Yak [an evil giant in Khmer belief]. We got more downloads than previous games; some days we even got up to 10,000 downloads,” Chhourm says.

The team is now working on its latest title Light in the Dark Age, a game inspired by Mahabharata, one of two Sanskrit epics of ancient India which influenced Cambodian culture through Hinduism in the past.

The game is “70 to 80 per cent complete” and will be released this year.

DirexPlay has so far operated on investments by the four siblings, but they have big ambitions to expand.

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