World-builders: How two guys in Bangkok built a business designing virtual worlds

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World-building is a huge buzzword in entertainment nowadays. From Star Wars to Game of Thrones, fans will devour every itty-bitty piece of info about these imaginary worlds. I’m pretty sure I know more about the economy of Westeros than China by now and the iconic landscape of Tatooine is just as familiar as actual Africa.

Yes, your humble writer is a self-confessed sci-fi nerd.

But there is already a ton of think pieces about why world-building is so fascinating. It lets us analyze our own world, while venturing off into the realm of another, for one. But this isn’t one of those articles.

This is a story about the people who help build these worlds. The illustrators, designers and artists who interpret the words of people like George Lucas and George R.R. Martin in order to bring their worlds to life for all of us to witness.

Two people doing just that happen to be right here in Bangkok, forging the way for Thai designers and illustrators and proving wrong anyone who says that “gaming” is just a hobby.

Skan Srisuwan uses Acer Predator G6 at Singapore Toy, Games & Comic Convention.

Kan Supabanpot and Skan Srisuwan, friends with a shared passion for gaming, founded Studio HIVE in Bangkok in 2010. Together, they grew a 5-person team to over 30 designers, artists and illustrators. Now the company creates artwork for the world’s top video games, collectible toys, books and comics.

Studio HIVE is part of a relatively new industry called “entertainment design”, which is still in its infancy in Thailand. Although everyone and their grandparents have played Pokemon Go and “streamer” (online action play narrator) and “shoutcaster” (e-sports commentator) are valid job titles, not many Thais are behind the scenes, developing the games themselves.

From an early age, Kan and Skan knew their destinies weren’t in front of a screen. They wanted their names in the credits. They want to be the ones building those beautiful, intricate, digital worlds. And that’s exactly what they outlined in a room at Marina Bay Sands one night when they decided to start a company together.

Here’s how it all started.

Kan was visiting Skan in Singapore where he was working as a professional illustrator. Soon enough, they ended up furiously drafting ideas for a new business and, in just a few hours, voila! A new business was born. Everything was set from the people they would need to hire to the retro gaming cabinet that would be a centerpiece in their new office. It’s a SEGA Versus City by the way.

Even though the idea came together lightning fast, it was something they had both been thinking about for years.

“When I was a kid I loved to read anime, play games and build models. So when I was studying I thought, there must be people doing this as a job,” said Skan. As a talented illustrator he would go on to be one of the first Thai commercial artists working overseas.

It was a similar story with Kan. “All of my best childhood memories are connected to games and toys; either getting a cool new toy, watching cartoons or playing a new game with my friends and cousins.” He was the perfect example of an early adopter. “Every gamer remembers their first PlayStation…I got mine on the first day.”

Kan Supabanpot with collectibles at Singapore Toy, Games & Comic Convention.

Kan went on to study Chemical Engineering in order to take over his family’s paint manufacturing business. But every other free moment of his was spent reading video game theory books in the library – Yep, all four of them that existed at the time. Gaming events were just as few and far between, but whenever there was one, that’s where you’d find him.

When Kan first revealed that he didn’t want to work in the family business, his dad was not convinced.

“One day I said ‘Dad, I totally hate this’”, which got the message across…somewhat. Kan’s dad reluctantly told him to open a video game shop,. But Kan knew he didn’t want to sell video games. “I wanted to be involved in it for real. I wanted to be part of making the games themselves.”

After they cemented the plans they made at Marina Bay Sands, Skan and Kan took a trip to Tokyo to attend a gaming event and see what the industry was all about. Much to their surprise, they ended up partying with their gaming idols. The rock stars of the gaming world, all the big-name designers and illustrators, were sitting alongside them. What was once just a dream was actually becoming real.

Soon after that trip, Studio HIVE officially launched with 5 employees crammed in a tiny room under a condo that was meant to be a barbershop – slightly less glamorous than partying in Tokyo. Skan and Kan didn’t want to take out loans and they didn’t have much money, but the passion was there and that was all that mattered.

It paid off. The company grew gradually, and then faster once they got into collectible toys, a business that involves much more capital and resources.

When Studio HIVE started designing toys and collectibles Kan, as the business side of the operation, traveled the country to recruit Thai sculptors and artists. But even with Thailand’s history of beautiful art and sculpture work, finding the production capacity among artists who weren’t familiar with the industry was a big challenge. It seemed Thailand just wasn’t ready for what they wanted to do.

Luckily, another chance meeting led to to further success. The pair met XM Studio through an industry event. The Singaporean design studio had strong connections to manufacturing in China and was eager to partner with Studio HIVE. They got along like old friends, and a new partnership was born.

The first collectible they designed together was Magneto, a design that Skan sketched in a record 30 minutes. When XM launched the toy, the price shot up to USD3,000 (THB105,000) on eBay and it won the Collectible of the Year in 2016. It’s still one of the most sought after collectibles around and since then Studio HIVE has designed and launched over 20 more unique collectibles.

As head designer, Skan understands the unique considerations that go into designing everything from 2D illustrations in comic books to virtual worlds in video games and physical collectible toys. “When I design a collectible I have to think like a customer. Why would someone pay a lot of money for this? What gives it such a high value?”

Skan Srisuwan usees the  Acer Predator G6 to for designing and illustrations.

And why does make someone pay thousands of dollars for a Magneto statue? “It has to be really cool. You have to be able to play with it – move it and change it so it looks new and different. We’re collectors ourselves so we know what to look for.”

Studio HIVE is known for designing complex and dynamic design with changeable parts, a key factor for a discerning collector.

Now, Kan and Skan spend their days working on (and in) those iconic worlds that influenced them growing up. MARVEL, Star Wars and Game of Thrones are just some of their current clients.

They balance their time working in the studio, going to events like Comic-Con in NYC and Singapore (I know, we’re a little jealous too!), and doing everything they can to develop the entertainment design industry in Thailand. That includes teaching classes at Studio HIVE and lecturing at universities. They even helped Thammasart University set up their Innovative Digital Design program and curriculum, covering everything from Animation and Illustration to Gaming Design.

“I never had a role model in the industry to look up to when I was growing up. No one in Thailand was in commercial illustration back then,” said Skan.

Lucky for future generations, that’s not the case anymore. We gotta give it up to these two people that went after their dreams, and made it happen.

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