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South Australian Emerging Talent Spotlight: Leo Cheung

14 February 2024
Leo Cheung, photo by Glam Adelaide.

Leo Cheung is a dentist-turned-video game developer and founder of emerging South Australian studio Paper Cactus Games.

Three years ago, Leo Cheung left his job as a dentist to pursue his passion for games, establishing Paper Cactus Games and commencing work on his first video game, Fox and Shadow.

Since then, Fox and Shadow has received funding from Screen Australia, and with support from the SAFC and the Department of Trade and Investment, Leo and the team at Paper Cactus Games have travelled interstate and overseas to showcase their visually striking game to peers, publishers, and the public.

In just a few days, South Australian video game developers, fans, players and enthusiasts – and everyone in between – will be able to experience Fox and Shadow for themselves at the second annual SAGE: SA Game Exhibition, hosted by the SAFC at Adelaide Studios on Friday and Saturday 16-17 February. Free tickets are available now via the Adelaide Fringe!

We caught up with Leo to ask about how he got into game development, working on Fox and Shadow, and what he’s looking forward to about exhibiting at SAGE for the second time.

Did you always want to be a game developer?

Video games and art have always been a big part of my life, but my first career was as a dentist. So it’s been quite a big career change. There’s always a part of me that wants to tell a story and create an experience that leaves an impression on people. I want my concepts to live rent free in people’s heads, and then I’ll be happy.

Growing up, I always found it difficult to explain my thoughts and ideas in a single sentence. Concepts always came out jumbled when I tried to explain things without any visual help. I picked up art and started making game systems to help me with my endeavours. It was originally a hobby that I was dissuaded from, but the ideas never stopped coming. 

How did you get started in game development?

Outside of studying and then working in dentistry, I spent almost every minute of my free time engaging in my creative passions. Becoming better at art and designing games was an act of self-care. 

When I first became a dentist, I worked in clinics across rural Australia. Without the online communities and friends found through my hobbies, it would have been very isolating. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was diagnosed with and treated for cataracts. The challenges to my personal health and the landscape of healthcare made me decide that life was too short to not follow my passions.

Inspired by World of Darkness, a modern fantasy Tabletop Role-Player Game (TTRPG), that I’d been playing for several years, I created my own TTPRG called Parselings. Finishing and releasing that project helped me improve my art skills, as well as broaden how I thought and approached game design. It sparked a fire in me that still rages on today.

Then, I had an exciting and serendipitous conversation with a friend Jackson Michael – now lead programmer of Paper Cactus Games. At a mutual friend’s wedding afterparty, we started talking about game design and a wild idea I’d had to create a dual deck building roguelike. That idea became our game Fox and Shadow, which is now approaching completion. 

“Discovering the video game scene in Adelaide was like coming home for the first time in years while holding a new toy at Christmas!”

What has it been like to establish your own game studio and grow your team? 

It’s been a wild and amazing experience starting Paper Cactus Games. Discovering the video game scene in Adelaide was like coming home for the first time in years while holding a new toy at Christmas. There was a sense of belonging and camaraderie that blossomed so quickly. 

Our company started up in 2021, shortly after Jackson and I started talking more seriously about making a game together. We spent our first few months upskilling and researching the industry to prepare ourselves for the production of our first game. We recruited Sapphire Van Veen, our third member and my childhood friend, as an additional programmer. We tested out several concepts, landing on a framework for Fox and Shadow. Since then, we’ve surrounded ourselves with like minded individuals, including a composer, 3D environment artist and writer, to bring all of our dreams to life. 

In recent years, we’ve accomplished many things during the development stage. We’ve received funding from Screen Australia via the Games Expansion Grant. Our team has been supported by the SAFC and InvestSA in our ventures to gain publisher support, and we’ve shown our prototype at games expos including SAGE 2023 (Adelaide), Pax AUS (Melbourne) and Gamescom (Germany)

Can you tell us a bit about Fox and Shadow and what inspired you to create it?

Fox and Shadow is a deck building game with roguelike elements. Woven into this is a very emotional and introspective overarching narrative. Mechanically, you’re using two separate decks of cards to fight battles and make your way through a broken city with a tiny little drone.

We’re aiming to create voyages that feel hazy and dream-like, and for the player to question the perspective of their chosen character. With each play-through, players will be able to uncover more about their characters and the world they live in. 

Fox and Shadow

What skills have you learned through creating Fox and Shadow

Through designing Fox and Shadow I’ve picked up skills in 2D animation, UI design and using Unity. Most of my previous works have been visually static in nature – like illustrations and comics. While a lot of details from these mediums cross over, there’s plenty of new concepts that had to be learnt. 

Much of it was learnt through need-based exploration learning, while other pieces were through talking about observations made by my team and connecting with colleagues who had experience in the field. 

What do you like most about working in the game development sector?

I enjoy that everything we do creating the game and thinking about the game is done with intention. I can see it in my own work, and I can see it in the work of other teams. Video games are an experience painstakingly crafted by individuals who have a vision to share. Making and selling a video game is a crazy blend of so many different disciplines and skill sets. You will be constantly challenged and encouraged to be better by your team and your peers. 

Seeing other people’s creations drives you towards your own personal end goal. Every video game is a conversation between its developers and its audience. I think personally that this space is where I thrive. 

What do you think are the benefits of making games in South Australia?

In general South Australia is a fantastic place to live, from the well-planned streets, to the easy access, to all the necessities to enjoy life. Why games in particular? In the city centre, the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) and CDW Studios are two educational institutions dedicated to nurturing new talent in the entertainment industries. Many young students take their first steps into the world of video games here, priming new talent and studios to emerge.

In SA circles everyone is only one or two degrees of separation apart. It means that nearly all the studios are connected in some way, which means there’s a lot of support present between the different video game studios in SA. It’s a lovely community.

Our state government is very supportive of this growing industry, with agencies like SAFC, InvestSA and Adelaide Economic Development Agency (AEDA) offering support to help our local teams gain a stable footing to launch their careers.

Additionally, thanks to events like Unwind SA and the SAFC’s SAGE, and other spaces like co-working space Games Plus and the Adelaide Game Developers Discord, there are many places for like minded creatives to co-mingle and share ideas.

“If you look around at SAGE 2024, you’ll see some really cool games are being made in our state.”

What do you think is in store for game development in South Australia?

I’ve seen the South Australian game development sector growing over the years. We are well supported by our peers and we are receiving growing support from government agencies like the SAFC, AEDA, Invest SA and Screen Australia. With the establishment of the SAFC’s SA Video Game Development (VGD) rebate in 2020, we’ve seen a large growth in video game businesses over the years.   

Outside of indie studios, there’s also institutions like CDW Studios and AIE that are training some of the next generation of game creatives. This creates an environment where budding studios like ours can really stretch our wings and rise to our full potential. If you look around at SAGE 2024, you’ll see some really cool games are being made in our state.

This is your second time exhibiting at SAGE. What was your experience like at SAGE 2023, and what are you most looking forward to at SAGE 2024?

The turn out at SAGE 2023 was nothing short of mind-blowing! For an event in its first year, the turnout was crazy. It felt like our own version of Pax AUS brought home to Adelaide. Paper Cactus Games demoed our prototype game for the first time ever, and got a lot of good feedback from the visitors to the event.   

Now you’re telling me that SAGE 2024 has been extended to run over two days? I can’t wait to show off our project to Adelaide and check out the work done by our peers. Our team is always buzzing before an event; it really gets us motivated to make the best game possible. 

The Paper Cactus Games team at SAGE 2023. Photo by Naomi Jellicoe

What advice would you give to budding developers wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Spend your time gathering all sorts of life experience. As someone who entered the industry to follow their passion, I believe that video games are a dialogue between you and your audience. It’s about sharing pieces of yourself and being able to let others engage and identify with your experiences. The more you understand about the world and yourself, the better you can engage others in your dreams. 

What’s next for Paper Cactus Games?

The next step is to bring a publisher on board to support us in the release of Fox and Shadow. And after that? Our team has a long list of compelling ideas for new games that we’d like to make, eventually. We’re constantly being inspired by new thoughts while working on our game, and hope to use them in future work. In all likelihood, we will continue to make strategy games, building on the foundation of what we’re doing with Fox and Shadow.

Paper Cactus Games will be exhibiting Fox and Shadow at SAGE: SA Game Exhibition on February 16-17 2024. Learn more about SAGE and book your free tickets here.

Story by Alex Knopoff

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