Pressing start: Anino launches the video gaming industry in the Philippines
The Finishers: Learn First-hand from the Philippine Founders Who Willed Their Startup from Idea to Exit was written by Ezra Ferraz in 2017. This book documents the stories of 11 local founders who were able to scale their startup and exit. This excerpt, titled “Pressing start: Anino launches the video gaming industry in the Philippines,” which focuses on the journey of Anino and its founder, Niel Dagondon.
When twenty-two-year-old Niel Dagondon founded Anino Games in 2001, he did so to accomplish what every boy had dreamed of at one point or another.
“I want to make games for a living,” said Niel, a computer science graduate from De La Salle University who jumpstarted his training by reading through Windows Game Programming for Dummies. “And I want to be based in the Philippines.”
The first part of Niel’s goal was tough but doable. The industry at the turn of the millennium saw the rise of the next generation console wars, with Dreamcast, Playstation 2, XBox, and Nintendo GameCube battling for market share above television sets; the evolution of Game Boy Color to Game Boy Advance, like so many of the Pokemon displayed on those handheld screens; and a stronghold of simulation games on the personal computer market, with The Sims and three expansions (The Sims: House Party, The Sims: Livin’ Large, and The Sims: Hot Date) nabbing spots among the top ten best-selling titles. In short, there were many games that needed to be made, and warm bodies were needed to make them.
It was the second part of Niel’s goal—the bit about doing the above in the Philippines—that would have forced any professional in video games to unprofessionally suppress their laughter. Niel may as well have said that he was developing the nation’s first space program, and he was hiring his first batch of rocket scientists and brave astronauts. Pleasing personalities needed! Experience with zero gravity a plus!
Just as the Philippines did not have the resources, infrastructure, or ecosystem to support the Elon Musk-esque entrepreneurs with visions of going to the moon or Mars, it was also not equipped to bolster game makers. The video game industry in the Philippines was a ghost town, populated only by dustballs that every now and then rolled across the main street.
No university taught game development. There was not a single major video game studio creating original titles in the country. There were no indie studios, either. There were two local branches of Japanese companies doing outsourced artwork, and another developing games for the now-defunct Palm Pilot—such was the extent of the industry.
Any Filipino with serious interest in building a long-term career in some element of video game making—programming, design, testing—had already set sail, portfolio in hand, to hubs like Tokyo, Japan or Los Angeles, California, where they would fight for a big break that was something between indentured servitude and an apprenticeship: You had to keep your head down and put in work.
Niel’s decision to form Anino Games was thus done as much out of necessity as out of desire. “There were no game development studios to apply to in the Philippines, so I had to make my own,” he said, reflecting the can-do entrepreneurial sense that got him to this position in the first place.
During his third year at DLSU, he had turned a loan from his parents into a successful post-production house, ran out of his own apartment. He catered mostly to students working on their film thesis, along with the occasional event like debut or wedding. As demand grew, Niel’s 35-square meter apartment was taken over by four editing bays, one in every corner, rendering low-budget movies and life milestones around the clock, and he had to move out from the claustrophobic heat.
In time, he handed over the business to his brother-in-law, and set his eyes on making video games, his true passion ever since he had learned to tweak configuration files to boost his character’s stats. Even with earnings in the bank, along with another loan from his parents, Anino’s first title had to be a resounding success.
“To survive as a game studio, I was counting on our first title to bankroll our future projects,” Niel said, before ominously adding, “That was the plan.”
That first title was to be the role-playing game, Anito: Defend a Land Enraged. The game would not only be the first video game made by an all-Filipino team, but it would also be the first based on Filipino folklore.
Niel recruited five Filipino fresh graduates who bought into the vision of both Anino the studio and Anito the game. He hired a sound designer and an art director away from two ad agencies. Together they were going to prove to everyone that games could be made in the Philippines, never mind the fact that Niel did not have a business plan and no one on the team had any experience releasing a retail title.
There were instances in video game history when an odd assemblage of professionals accelerated the industry forward precisely because they lacked experience—not knowing where the bar had been set enabled them to hit targets above and beyond what anyone had reached for before.
One such case happened only four years earlier, in 1997. A small development team of ten, eight of whom had never worked on a video game, were given the reins to a movie tie-in title that they approached with what one member called “joyful naïveté.”
Rather than prioritize level design and the placement of objectives and entrance and exit points, the designers focused purely on creating interesting environments. Only after they designed the levels did they place objectives and other key markers, resulting in levels that were nonlinear, allowed for multiple paths, and contained rooms and locations that served no specific purpose to the game, surely as a secret agent, the game’s protagonist, would face in real life.
Other innovations in this game, including stealth elements (firing a gun without a silencer alerted enemies within a particular radius), a zoomable sniper rifle, context-specific hit locations, multi-objective based missions, and multiplayer deathmatch on a console, were also borne out of this joyful naïveté.
Anyone who had a Nintendo 64 in the late ‘90s will of course remember this game as Goldeneye 007, which went on to receive critical acclaim as a pioneering first-person shooter, gross more than a quarter of a billion dollars, and test friendships everywhere with that one buddy who always chose Oddjob and dashed for the golden gun.
Could Niel and his ragtag team create the same magic?
Niel and his fledgling Anino team overshot the target release date for Anito by a full 12 months from their humble office in Alabang. “It was two years of burning money with seven and a half guys,” he said, the 1⁄2 guy referring to the sound engineer contracted for—perhaps luckily for him—only a portion of the unwieldy development cycle.
Part of the delay was because they had to build everything from scratch. Unlike today, there were no open source or cheap game engines, which is somewhat like it sounds: it puts everything together—the animations, the physics of the world, the sound, the friendly and enemy artificial intelligence, the memory management, and a myriad of other technical tidbits—up and running as one, so the player experiences the environments seamlessly.
One of the game engines Niel scoped out cost $10,000, which even as one of the cheapest on the market was still prohibitively expensive for Anino. They thus built their own game engine, drawing on Niel’s experience of clobbering one together during college for his thesis.
Gabby Dizon, a designer at Anino at the time, found inspiration in treading new ground. “Knowing that we were doing something that had never been done before in the Philippines was a huge confident boost. It meant that there were no established players and everyone else was just making it up as they went along—including us,” he said.
More and more instructional resources about game development became available as the making of Anito dragged on, but none prevented them from making inevitable mistakes as first-time developers.
One of the biggest was rooted in ambition. Originally designed as 2-D game, halfway through the development of Anito they decided that it was better off as 2.5-D, where the characters would still be restricted to a 2-D plane, but some of the graphics would be rendered in the more appealing 3-D, as in the Crash Bandicoot or Super Smash Brother series.
Re-doing the content was time- and cost-intensive and the game still suffered as a result—this was not going to be Rare, circa 1997.
“In the final release of the product, you can see a lot of graphical glitches because we were unable to convert some of the assets. Some of them would slide through the floor,” said Niel, who vacillated between programmer, project manager, and all-around business development guy.
Despite these bugs, Filipino gamers responded favorably to Anito, waving the Philippine flag as they tend to do when any countryman achieved a first. They enjoyed the fact that it was not only the first Filipino-made videogame, but that its story was built on Philippine lore.
But therein lay the problem with Anito: It only had innate appeal to Filipino gamers. To everyone else, Anito was a game crafted around a strange premise, a fact evident in its sales. The biggest market for Anito was of course the Philippines, and following a close second, Russia, but only due to the sheer number of gamers in the country. In all other markets, the English version of Anito fared poorly.
“In hindsight, it was a mistake to build a game based on local culture. As a game developer, even if it’s your passion that ropes you into the business, you cannot make games for yourself. You need to have a market-driven approach,” Niel said.
Gamers who gave Anito a shot applauded the story as well as its modularity. “You get to choose your character from two siblings, and each has their own path to find their father and save the world,” said Gwen Foster, a veteran game producer and the co-founder of gamemaker community, Let’s Play Manila. “It’s a refreshing take on the hero’s journey and good versus evil storyline.”
On the minus side, Gwen felt the controls were difficult, an opinion that the all four of the reviews archived on Metacritic agreed with. Anito scored a 63 overall, indicating a mixed critical response.
The Independent Games Festival (IGF) was more bullish on Anito, recognizing it with their Excellence in Audio award in 2004.
“IGF to game developers is like the Sundance Film Festival to filmmakers,” Gwen explained. “To be a game studio made of local developers, and to receive that award shows that homegrown talent can achieve great things in the industry.”
While the award was prestigious, it did not lead to commercial success as some prizes are wont to do (think of what a selection for Oprah’s book club could do for a novel). Sales were encouragingly high for the first two months, after which Niel and his team were hit with a surprise. “As a retail product, we did not foresee the product life cycle. There’s that initial burst of sales, then it’s all long tail,” he said.
Sales were affected not only by the shelf life of a video game, but by piracy. From day one, Anino’s customer service hotlines were flooded by players who could not get the game to work. The representative would ask the customer where he bought the game, and the person would name some notorious back-alley place, seemingly clueless that the copy was pirated. Evidently, the pirates, who are not exactly the standard-bearer of quality assurance, had simply copied the Anito CD-ROM and released the facsimiles to the gaming public. With the digital rights management (DRM) for Anito still intact, players needed a legitimate CD key to access the game. Despite their vocal frustrations, all the rep could do was encourage these players to purchase a real version of Anito.
After two to three weeks, the angry calls stopped coming in. No news was bad news. Anito’s DRM had been cracked. This hardly surprised Niel. “DRM’s just a wrapper. You only need to figure out where it begins and ends, and you overwrite those parts,” he said.
The company had to eat such piracy as a loss. Niel estimated that for every one copy of Anito they sold, there were probably four pirated versions. In their defense, gamers just wanted to play the game, regardless of where it came from. “I know a couple of friends who got their copies of Anito from street vendors in Quiapo,” Gwen admitted.
Niel had poured more than $100,000 into Anito, and total sales came well short of recouping the investment. “With the money running out, we had to immediately shift business direction—if we were going to survive,” he said.
Just say no to grass and rocks
Niel set his sights on the world of outsourcing, but not in the way it was typically done.
At the time, outsourcing in the video game industry was big business. A game developer would need to design 1000 weapons and cars, 90% of which it would outsource to a smaller studio that was often halfway across the world, like Anino. In turn, that subcontractor would sometimes sub-subcontract some of their work to even smaller studios, creating a virtual assembly line for assault rifles or armored tanks that snaked across cities and continents, as though they were made of real raw materials.
Niel found this type of work demeaning.
“How much recognition would you get if you said, ‘I have helped with X global hit.’ ‘Oh, what did you do?’” He paused for dramatic effect. “‘We did all the plants and rocks.’”
Apart from a lack of recognition, doing this kind of commoditized work would also put Anino in a tenuous position. As soon as someone was willing to do it for cheaper—and there were a lot of these studios operating out of China itching to underbid you—your company would be out a contract and your people out of a job.
So strong was Niel’s stand against this type of work that when Triple-A studio, Naughty Dog, of Crash Bandicoot fame, came calling years later to do art for action-adventure title Uncharted, which would go on to win game of the year awards from over 50 industry rankings and spawn one of the most successful series of all time, he gave them a flat no.
What Niel wanted from the beginning was to get higher value work as a full third-party developer. “Assign us the title and genre, and we will come up with the rest,” he said, describing how Anino would position itself.
In this role, Anino could work directly with the publisher and take a title from start to finish, honing their skills in game design in the process. Though no studio in the Philippines was marketing itself as a full third-party developer, Niel believed his Filipino team members were uniquely positioned to succeed, and that they had to, if they were to avoid the fate of Philippine animation, which had died in the purgatory of Dragon Ball-style cartooning as the rest of the world transitioned to 3-D animation.
Unlike gamers in other Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia or Thailand, games didn’t need to be localized for Filipinos to play them.
Niel was counting on this premise also working in reverse: Anino’s developers could pull off Western game concepts as well as any studio in Los Angeles or London. You could even assign his developers a literal western and they would produce their own version of Red Dead Redemption based on John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movies they had seen growing up in Manila.
“I wanted to compete on the creative side, not on production or technical,” Niel said of his new business direction.
After getting in touch with other studios during a roadshow, Niel began to respond to request for proposals. Their portfolio consisted of Anito, along with a handful of minor mobile and Palm Pilot games the company had made during Anito’s final stages.
Some clients knew exactly what they wanted, going as detailed as mechanics, and could point to other games on the market as a reference. Many, however, wanted the developers to come up with their own rendition for the game.
This is where what Niel called creative vision came into play. “This is the game that we want to do,” he said of how he would approach the pitch, many of which were done over Skype late at night or early in the morning, with Niel walking the prospective client through a proposal. “It’s similar to this game, but better.”
The goal was to make the client as excited about your game as possible, and here, screenshots were crucial. Done correctly, they were the mouth-watering hamburger in the fast-food television commercial: You salivated over them.
One of the first outsourcing jobs that Niel landed for Anino was in the category of serious games, which leveraged gaming technology for non-gaming purposes. This non-gaming game enabled marketing professionals to visualize their designs in 3-D. “When I walk through this mall, what is the best placement for my product?” Niel said, invoking the type of questions their non-gaming game helped their non-gaming gamers answer.
One of Anino’s other titles in this category targeted architects. “It’s like Doom,” Niel said. “Only instead of shooting people, you’re admiring buildings.”
Though Anino was located in the Philippines, where wages were a fraction of what they were in other gaming hubs, the selling point was never cost. It was always creative. The fact that Anino could get more bang for your buck—an apt metaphor given that many of the early clients who followed were American—was a bonus. So long as you wowed the client on the creative pitch, the financial proposal was negotiable.
Some people, especially fans of Anito, might slam Anino’s switch to an outsourced business model as a concession of Niel’s original vision of building the first game studio in the Philippines. But he felt otherwise.
To him, games were games, whether the idea came from him or someone else. Even if the game concepts were far removed from Niel’s world, such as the serious games on industrial design and consumer research they soon made, he and his team would inevitably make the titles their own during the creative process.
As such, for games that had an About Us or a Credits screen, Niel asked that everyone from Anino who worked on the title be recognized there, a nod that was not often given in places like Japan.
“By default, contracts don’t have these clauses. That’s something that can be a deal-breaker for me,” he said. “I’m prepared to take it to their CEO, if needed. You must recognize everyone who works on it.”
At the beginning, the ratio of contracts to pitches was one to four. Niel dedicated a team to responding to request for proposals, and they refined their pitching process, filtering ideas through an internal sounding board and adding testimonials from happy clients. They improved their hit rate from one out of three and more closer toward one out of two.
Yet not every project they won made it into the hands of gamers. Niel estimated that a full 20 to 30% of their projects got canceled during the development process. An irony is that the game elements that often won them these contracts also often tend to end them as well.
“Games are creative, so they’re inexact. Sometimes you make clients excited about a pitch with new ideas, but these are the ones that cause problems later on. They sound fun on paper, but when you actually try them out, they don’t work as intended,” Niel said.
If a leader on the client’s side feels that way—be it a producer, the executive producer, the president, or someone on the board—they could pull the plug on the project.
Terminating a single contract early would have a ripple effect across Anino. The projects that remained would be just enough to break even, and the people who were working on the shelved title now fell idle. Niel could not let them go and just contract them again when projects came in like Hollywood did. He needed to keep talent in-house given how rare people with experience in video games were in the Philippines and he wanted to provide them with some measure of stability.
Cash flow for payroll could be augmented by venture capital. While there were a few investors at the time—Niel said he could count them on one hand—those he approached were evidently not interested in a service-oriented business, which could not scale as fast as one built around a product.
Niel’s only recourse was to set out for gaming hubs in other countries, sort of like an OFW in reverse: he would find work abroad, only to bring it home to the Philippines. His yearly tour would eventually consist of three conference stops—one American, one Asian, and one European—in which he shook as many hands and exchanged business cards with as many industry people as he could.
Due to the unpredictability of incoming work, game developers often ended up with overlapping projects, which went against the ideal of focusing on a single title. “It was a nightmare, a tangled mess of outsourcing,” he said of their internal operations, which eventually handled up to projects at once, distributed across 65 full-time employees.
When he could not get enough work in time, he had to let people go. Over the course of Anino’s existence, Niel had to do layoffs three times in order to save the studio from going under. It was cut the hand or lose the arm entirely, and though it pained him, Niel brought the knife down.
Anino goes mobile
In 2005, Niel opened a second studio in Quezon City to diversify into the world of mobile gaming. What attracted Niel to this market was the even playing field. “The budgets of these games were not as high as those in retail, so we could easily compete in this sector,” he said of the expansion.
Though the move saved them production costs, it distanced them away from the consumer. If in the outsourcing model, Anino linked to the consumer via a publisher, in the world of mobile gaming on early feature phones, they had to go through both an aggregator as well as a telecom.
These additional middlemen made monetizing mobile games difficult. “Telcos in the Philippines were giving 30% to aggregators, who were sharing 50% of that to developers,” Niel said, and if that didn’t seem small enough, he pointed out, “Plus, the games were like 30 pesos.”
In other countries, the terms for developers were marginally better. The lion’s share went to the aggregator, who could give more of that to the developer. After striking these seemingly more favorable deals, Niel would find Anino’s games for sale in countries that they had not contracted them to. “How’d it end up there?” he would ask, though he
already knew the answer.
Such was the problem with aggregators—once you handed your game over to them, there was not a digital rights management system in the world that could prevent them from not turning around and selling it elsewhere. The sales report was, then, a work of fiction.
According to Niel, the conflict arose because their goals were not aligned. Aggregators were out to amass as much content as they could, so they had no incentive to take care of the developers. If Anino felt violated, they were not alone.
At the time, with Apple’s App Store still years away, the only way to survive in mobile gaming was to be vertically integrated—to control both the development and distribution of your game, so you could cut out the unscrupulous middlemen.
“We didn’t have that luxury,” Niel said. “We were not that big.” With Anino unable to make a splash in mobile, Niel re-pivoted back to outsourcing, this time leveraging their three mobile Java games to attract larger clients, such as Disney and ESPN, who brought with them larger budgets but also more hoops to jump through than a lion tamer at a circus.
Disney asked Niel to do a walk-through filming of their studio, ala MTV Cribs, to prove that Anino indeed had one, while Electronic Arts requested a complete documentation of all their systems and securities, on top of the already hefty fifty page proposal. And this was all before the studio ever saw a dime.
In 2008, Niel decided to consolidate operations to Makati City and specialize as an outsourcing studio for casual games, which was a category he felt his team could realistically conquer. This category was also gaming at its purest: rather than compete on graphics, which required keeping up with the arms race for the latest tech, studios here lived and died by creativity and creativity alone. What new features could they bring to the table to make a game fun?
“Casual is a word thrown around now. Back then, it was still very
niche,” he said.
Casual games appealed to gamers who were not teenage boys, and their mechanics could be built around everything from time management (think Diner Dash) or pet care (think Neko Atsume).
Anino met initial success—the budget of these outsourced projects were in the range of $200,000. The honeymoon between Anino and casual games did not last, however. On July 10, 2008, Apple launched the App Store. At the start, the larger studios who would outsource to a company like Anino supplied most of the popular casual games on the platform. In time, however, indie studios, such as Imangi Studios, who produced Temple Run, started to churn out more and more hits. Seeing their market share shrink around them, larger studios either killed off their casual games divisions, or began to invest less capital.
Anino felt the impact on its bottom line. From a high of 200,000, the budgets of projects awarded to them declined over the next six years, halving first to around the $100,000 mark, where it hovered for some time. As the ground shifted beneath him, Niel predicted that his sub-sector, outsourcing for casual games, was bound to give out sooner rather than later.
In 2010, Anino began making original titles once again, commit- ting 10 to 20% of the company’s overall manpower to them. Niel acknowledged that even this was behind the times.
“If you want to succeed, you need to make your own properties. We realized that late in the game. We played catch-up because outsourcing was paying the bills. If you have to decide between something that pays you and something that is a gamble, it’s hard,” he said.
Negotiating on the conference floor
Niel was at yet another crossroads, and he did not know which business direction to lead his team in this time. The road down Original Games was littered with the carcases of other Filipino studios that tried to compete with the big boys around the world. The road down Outsourced Games shrunk perilously with each meter, so eventually some of his developers would fall off the side, even as they stayed course.
While mulling over his choices, Niel attended Casual Connect Singapore, where he was presented with the video game equivalent of a hidden path. After making the rounds on the floor, Niel bumped into Thomas Andreasen, the co-founder and CEO of PlayLab, a studio based out of Thailand, who he had met, along with his business partner, Jakob Lykkegaard Pedersen, three years before at another industry event. Back then, the two PlayLab founders were just starting out—their progress since then had been astronomical.
After a string of flops in the casual games space, Thomas shared that their latest, Juice Cubes, had earned 11 million dollars from the soccer moms who couldn’t stop from connecting the titular cubes into neat rows of three or more.
Thomas added that they would use the success of Juice Cubes to bankroll their next ten or so games—which was exactly the kind of runway that Niel had failed to achieve with Anito—and that they were planning to expand operations.
Niel, in turn, put his cards on the table. While Anino was still making healthy profits, the long-term prospects for outsourcing for casual games looked bleak. By then, the budgets had already plummeted to the $10,000 and $20,000 range.
“Are you interested in being acquired?” Thomas had asked at the end of their discussion.
The question caught Niel off guard, but he grasped at once their interest. To make their next ten games, PlayLab needed many, many more developers, and there was a non-negligible opportunity cost in hiring them. If they grew PlayLab themselves over the next one to two years, they would spend much of it recruiting, onboarding, training, and developing the team to be where Anino already was, in a massive diversion from game making into human resources.
“That sounds like an interesting proposal,” Niel said of the potential acquihire.
Niel threw out a number. Thomas threw one right back. They traded a few more figures back and forth. It apparently surprised neither that they were negotiating for the deal right there on the conference floor, amid the sea of chintzy pull-up banners.
While Niel had background in valuation, stemming from the time he tried to raise venture capital for Anino, the price would really be determined by where he felt comfortable letting go of the company.
From this vantage, Niel came from a position of strength. “If you come from a position of wanting to dispose this business, you’re not going to be able to sell it at a good price. We came from a much more favorable position: We’re the biggest local game studio in the Philippines and we’re still making decent profits. We just need to shift business direction,” he said.
Still, perhaps the impromptu negotiating had given some ground away: It implicitly said the deal was a go, pending final agreement on terms.
Niel vowed to give Thomas a more detailed figure by the time he returned to Thailand, based on his calculations. Since Anino was in the service-based industry of outsourcing, he would use the price-to-earnings ratio to come up with a sticker tag.
Back in his hotel room, Niel settled on a number that quantified his options. If Anino moved away from the sub-sector of casual games, they could—assuming all went well—earn that same amount over the next few years, roughly the time Niel took to build the company to where it was then.
Or he could get that cash in a single windfall and guarantee his people, who have stuck with him through so many pivots already, well-paying jobs that they were passionate about for years to come.
Culture was also a consideration. After all, what good was it if Anino employees had jobs, but would suffer through deplorable working conditions? The PlayLab founders assured him on that front, upon agreeing in principle to Niel’s asking price.
“If we acquire you, we’ll also dispose of your computers and buy new ones,” Jakob had said, previewing an upgraded benefits package that would also include Googleplex-like free food and drinks, in addition to the shiny new MacBooks.
As Niel thought Anino’s culture might even improve with PlayLab, he consented to the deal and his would-be acquirer commenced due diligence. First on their plate was investigating Niel’s claim that Anino was the best studio in the Philippines. PlayLab made drop-in visits to the other local studios and then rushed back to Niel, with a wild look in their eyes that said he was indeed correct.
Anino also had the tables turned on them. They were assigned a studio test similar to the ones they gave applicants. “Are you sure the work we assign you is something we can do?” Jakob had asked, before assigning them two game concepts to finish in two days.
As Anino had the capacity to do seven projects at any given time, completing two projects, even against a 48-hour clock, was a breeze. Niel showed the two games to the PlayLab co-founders, who were suitably impressed. Final boss slain, the deal was done.
Part of the deal was that Niel would turn over Anino after a one year transition period, but he ended up liking the newly rechristened Anino PlayLab that he extended his post-acquisition stay to a full two years.
During this time, he served as general manager, running day-to-day operations in human resources, finance, and information technology. The only difference from when Niel owned the company was that the project managers now reported directly to Jakob.
Under Jakob’s leadership, Anino PlayLab shut down the out-sourcing arm of the business to dedicate the staff to its original titles.
Their flagship product was a social casino title that banked on one of the highest growing segments in the app industry. Millions of people wanted to gamble, and so Anino PlayLab’s developers had to keep up on their poker skills.
For someone who had brought Anino from the brink of bankruptcy, the new regime could sometimes be less than exciting. “After you set everything up, it gets boring. ‘Is the light bulb out? Okay, let’s change it,’” Niel said, adding that he began to reduce his days in the office until he left the company completely in July 2016.
Niel now divides his time between a business project currently in stealth mode along with CIIT, a college he founded back in 2008 that seeks to provide the hands-on technology and multimedia arts training that was not available to him as a student, and which he also found lacking in many of the applicants to Anino.
As its chairman of the board, Niel functions as CIIT’s de facto CEO, leading its faculty, staff, students, and now, several batches of alumni, toward institutional and industry success.
“I’m now putting my entrepreneurship first,” he said of the role change.
That Niel only now considers himself a true blue entrepreneur underscores the fact that he was not really one at Anino, at least as it is most commonly understood. Unlike other entrepreneurs, Niel was never out to solve a problem, nor even capitalize upon an opportunity he saw in the market.
He simply wanted to be immersed in games, period. Anino became then the channel that allowed him and many others to do the same. This figure is in the hundreds if you only count the employees who revolved through Anino at one point or another, but it’s well into the thousands, if you also consider the countless designers and developers now employed at other studios, whose founding was undoubtedly influenced by seeing Niel successfully do it first. “This is the true legacy of Anino—their people,” Gwen said.
Most of the top brass of Philippine video gaming—from the owners of the studios to senior and middle management to key developers and designers—directly trace their lineage back to Anino, where they started their career or got their first big break.
To Gabby, this is no coincidence.
“We may forget the games that Anino made over time, but we will never forget the people that we worked with and the skills we learned during our time there,” he said, who is himself also walking proof of this fact: he founded Altitude Games in 2014, the studio behind such hits as Run Run Super V and Anne Galing!
According to Gwen, the games by Anino alumni like Gabby reflect the sensibilities of their former studio. “Most of the games they have created on their own are very rooted in Filipino heritage, culture, and the vision to make the Philippines a hub for game development worldwide,” she said.
Niel, and in extension, Anino, can ultimately be viewed as a case on how creatives and other talents can monetize their passion in a world of go-getting, type A entrepreneurs, a journey which begins with finding what that is in the first place. For Niel, it’s crystal clear, even today.
“I’ve made games for more than 15 years. That’s a whole lot longer than most. So my time is done as a game maker,” Niel said in response as to whether he still tinkered with games in his spare time. The still youthful chairman of the board then added, “Now I’m just a gamer.”
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