Sophie Azlan, M’sian game dev recognised by The Game Awards

Sophie Azlan had just returned from lunch when she saw the email announcing that she had been inducted into The Game Awards’ Future Class.

The Game Awards is an annual awards ceremony that celebrates and honours achievements in the video game industry, said to be like the Academy Awards for video games.

“My desk was the first thing you would see after entering the production area, so I couldn’t be jumping around or anything,” the developer recounted. “I did text a few close friends about it and freak out as quietly as I possibly could, though.”

A project coordinator at Passion Republic at the time, Sophie is a University of Wollongong (UOW) Malaysia KDU alumnus, a private university known for its game development programme.

As a final year student there, she had been a narrative designer and led an old-school multiplayer brawler game with six other final year students. Named “Don’t Stop the Party”, the game had been praised and won awards for its unique premise and polished nature.

Sophie posing with a Don’t Stop the Party backdrop / Image Credit: Sophie Azlan

All of her past accolades and experiences has culminated in her being listed in The Game Awards’ Future Class, a list of 50 inspiring individuals across the globes, said to represent the “bright, bold, and inclusive future of video games”.

“I woke up to my phone blowing up and realised, ‘Oh man, there it is.’”

Logging into the scene

When Sophie was three years old, her parents had given her and her sister their old Game Boy Colour and a bunch of 500-in-1 cartridges.

“My dad also had a PlayStation 1 we would play on with our cousins, until it got late and our grandmother would come in and question why we were still up,” Sophie reminisced.

In primary school, Sophie had been in a game-making club. There, she learnt how to make little maze games with exploding sheep. In her free time, she would also experiment with the Ren’py Visual Novel engine and the Twine text adventure engine.

“The story with me getting into game development though, is that I’ve been gunning to be in the industry since I was 15 or so,” Sophie shared.

Sophie on the COMIX 2022 panel / Image Credit: Sophie Azlan

Her school was participating in a game-making competition about recycling, and her ICT club was participating. After begging the teachers to let her join the club, even though the enrolment period had ended, Sophie was allowed to join and be part of the team.

“But still, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a living,” Sophie admitted. “Truth be told, I was definitely coasting through secondary school, thinking I’d become an artist because I liked to draw, but that was about it.”

Things changed when a parent of a team member mentioned she knew someone at KDU (now UOW Malaysia KDU) in the game development department and helped coordinate an after-school trip there.

“I remember the talk [about game development] itself at KDU’s computer lab,” Sophie said. “Overall, it was a relatively dry and very general talk.”

Sophie giving a talk at KDU / Image Credit: Sophie Azlan

Although she hadn’t found the talk itself memorable, the visit had changed Sophie’s mind. She felt like something was clicking in her brain when they showed her the student projects. It was some kind of team shooter game, but the characters were Malaysian.

“Something about merging the culture I was familiar with, with a game genre I was familiar with, and knowing it was made by regular students, really resonated with me,” she said. “I then knew that this was what I was going to do, and I’ve been on that journey since.”

Thankfully, her mother has always been super supportive of her goals, even from the beginning.

“She’s always had this stance of ‘if you want to do that, just be the best at it’.” Sophie explained. “So when I started getting invested in game development, we’d go to bookstores and look for game design textbooks for me to pore over.”

A blazing career

Graduating in 2020, Sophie technically only has two years of formal experience under her belt. But she’s already amassed a wealth of experience as a student, having interned for Kaigan Games (the team behind the Simulacra series).

Sophie’s background is a bit scattered, with experiences in a couple of different things.

While her diploma is in Entrepreneurial Design (a mix of graphic design and entrepreneurship), her degree is in Game Development with a focus on Game Design.

“While in university, I was also the lead of the campus radio team, even landing an internship with local station Fly.FM,” she listed.

Although all these varied experiences meant she joined the workforce slightly later than her peers at age 24, she believes all the skills she acquired was what landed her the job at Passion Republic.

“I decided to work at Passion Republic because I was such a huge fan of GigaBash, and a few of my friends said it was a very good company to be at,” she said.

Being at Passion Republic gave Sophie the opportunity to work on projects from both Japan and Europe, across different pipelines, and with different types of clients and teammates. It’s an experience that she’s very grateful for, but she shared that she has recently left the company.

Currently, Sophie has active projects with Blackfyre Media and CtrlD Studio, which are working on DevaData and OVERHOURS respectively.

OVERHOURS is a project by CtrlD Studio, a Sarawakian game dev studio

“There’s also more I can’t talk about yet, but rest assured that you’ll see my name in the credits of more things real soon,” she said.

Gaining worldwide recognition

According to Sophie, to be a part of The Game Awards’ Future Class programme, the inductees must be nominated.

“I’m not sure by how many people, but I’m honestly still shocked that my name ended up making the list,” she admitted.

“It’s this really big opportunity and I’m honestly terrified of fumbling my chance and not making the most of it, so I’m really working hard to promote and elevate the projects I’m currently on, as well as network as much as possible.”

Thanks to the Future Class, Sophie has also managed to make it onto the radar of a few people she never would’ve dreamt of being noticed by.

“I’m hoping to escalate that into potential work opportunities for, if not myself, then other members of the local industry,” she said.

Beyond being extremely validating of Sophie’s efforts, she said being part of the Future Class has empowered her to continue working hard and achieve her own goals as well as better the industry as a whole.

As a young woman in the industry, this might not come easy as she has experienced degrees of ageism. This is as she is perceived as both “too young” to have really experienced a lot of things, but also “too old” to be on the pulse of what’s currently relevant.

Sophie is also a member of WiGout (Women in Games Out) / Image Credit: Sophie Azlan

Furthermore, Sophie believes she’s been tokenised as a female developer, often being the go-to person for a dedicated female perspective on certain topics. Still, Sophie has stayed optimistic, and tries to turn those instances into opportunities.

But the biggest struggle Sophie has faced, and continues to face, is gatekeeping.

“There’s a lot of information and tools that aren’t being shared, because there are people who believe you have to ‘earn it’ or you have to ‘suffer first’ or you ‘simply don’t need to know’,” she said.

While she said it’s ultimately easier to just go with the flow and let these things happen, she believes this isn’t the best way to go about things.

Thankfully, she also sees this mindset changing in the industry. More people are open to sharing their successes, struggles, and processes among one another.

Further into the future

Going forward, Sophie intends to continue learning about different types of games and roles within the industry, and work in said roles for those games with her friends.

Sophie’s ultimate dream, though, has always been to start her development studio in Malaysia, and use that as an opportunity to work with her friends.

Sophie at a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) workshop in Vietnam / Image Credit: Sophie Azlan

“I know so many talented people and I really want to make all kinds of games with them, as well as collaborate with other local studios, where we utilise our individual strengths to make something really cool and fun, and so uniquely us,” she said. “Honestly, I already have the talents, it’s just a matter of money.”

When asked about what Sophie believes is the reason she’s been included in The Game Award’s Future Class, she shared that it’s because her work has marked her as a developer to watch, especially from an industry like Malaysia’s, which is full of so much potential and raw talent.

“I’m not the only trailblazer from here, but I’m more than happy to be the one who lights the way this time,” she said.

  • Learn more about The Game Awards’ Future Class here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about gaming here.

Featured Image Credit: Intan on Twitter

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