How did you end up at FunPlus Russia? What was your turning point?
You picked up a key skill: knowing how to sell, how to talk to all sorts of people, how to make cold calls. You added that to your bank of skills for succeeding in the game industry.
I should highlight some important milestones. Where there's PR, there's marketing, so after doing PR for CyberCrew, I seamlessly transitioned into the position of marketing director there. Promoting a hardcore match-3 browser game in Russia is obviously no easy task, especially with a limited budget. But I think it worked out. After that, I got the idea to make my own game with a colleague. It took us a while to find an investor. I had nothing to eat, and things didn't work out very well with my previous job.
Back then, social-network games hadn't even come out yet. The first games had only just started coming out on [Russian social network] VK.
What year was that?
I don't know off the top of my head, but it was around the time of Happy Farmer and Farmville. My idea was a game for social media. We were looking for an investor. And at that time we had two finalists. The first were guys who ran a television business, and the second was the company Mail.ru Group. We set up meetings with both of them. At Mail.ru, the whole story with Muz-TV repeated itself. Because Lesha Sadonov, who was in charge of mini-games at Mail.ru back then, looked at the project and said, "We're not going to invest in the project or hire a team, but I'll take one of you on to work for me."
My colleague and I played rock paper scissors and decided that I should build contacts and see what Mail.ru was like, so I took the job as game designer and PM for mini-games. My colleague went to the second investor, who had a smaller budget, and I kept out of it. He gradually developed that first social-network game. A year later, I joined him. That's how the company Game Garden came to be. We had successful social media projects. "Magic Farm," for example, topped the charts for VK and Odnoklassniki in its time. That's where I got the most experience, because I went from marketing director to COO to CEO. Then back to marketing, bizdev, and so on. I spent six years there. After that, I decided to go back to corporations and jumped into working for Playrix. It was there I realized the experience I had gained up until then wasn't real experience...
As soon as I realized I didn't know how to advance and I didn't know what I didn't know, it dawned on me that my career growth had come to a halt.
But you now know that you don't know something?
Back then I didn't know. It was only when I got to Playrix that I realized that. At that time, I had already figured out the three important things that you can really get a rush from.
First, when you overcome some kind of challenge. When something is hard, but you accomplish it, that's awesome. Second, when you learn something and realize you now know how to do something new. And third, when you do something that feels good in its own right. When you lay back and sip a beer, you feel good. It's something you love doing. If you manage to combine all three of these things, then it both helps you grow and gives you pleasure.
At some point I realized I had overcome too much without discovering anything new. But Playrix gave me all three things at once.
It turned out Playrix offered unlimited potential for growth, had a completely different frame of reference, and included self-responsibility as a part of its culture. In other words, things that I really didn't know. It was very challenging. It lit a fire under me... No, that's not quite right. "It gave me a kick in the butt" sounds too negative. Let's say it gave me a boost. Naturally,
I also met a bunch of new people and learned some new skills. I left game production because I had wanted to be creative and make games my whole life. My whole life, I thought that was working out for me. In some places, everything told me, "Yes, it's working out."
It was very tough to realize making games wasn't really working out for me. But it turned out I really like being around people who produce games. And assisting with the process. Not organizing it, but participating in the process and taking care of my own area of responsibility. But without trying to say it's my game. No, this is my team's game. It turned out being a team leader was more interesting and impactful and offered a chance for growth. And Playrix gave me a whole lot. It helped me realize this. It was there where I tried my hand as a PM for the big Homescapes project before it was released. But I realized I wasn't cutting it. Of course, now it seems like I could do it, but back then I couldn't do it at the speed that was expected from me.
It was a failure, but it had its plusses. FunPlusses.
At Playrix, the entire culture and all its processes are constructed so that if you fail at something, they'll let you know. They'll work with you. And you'll figure out if it's for you or not. And it seemed that public speaking was for me. It gave me drive. A unique position then popped up on the market. I figured out that there were three brand evangelists at that time. I was the Playrix brand evangelist. Roma Goroshkin was Unreal's evangelist, and King, the maker of Candy Crush, had an evangelist too. I thought they were regular guys. Then I met others, including an evangelist for Amazon, and it turned out there were quite a few of us.
I brought the culture of Playrix to the masses. You could say that's part of
a bizdev's job. Among other things, I was an HR and recruiting weapon. A special spearhead, heavy artillery. When I was launched into a region, job applicants and potential partners came to my talks and lectures. That's when I realized I had gotten too far from game development. I was up to speed on it, I could answer any question about it, but I was too far away. And the further I got away from development, the further I got away from my marketing and PR roots.
Nothing happens by chance. I was invited to meet with some guys from China who had come to Moscow. It wasn't clear what they wanted. But I had some free time, so I agreed. We met, got to know each other, and set the wheels in motion. Just a week later, I was flying to China to meet Andy, CEO of FunPlus and King's Group. He and I spent four hours sitting in a conference room, even though he's a very busy man. He rearranged his schedule, and we found some common topics of conversation. I realized that I was very interested in what he had and really wanted it. I knew it would be difficult. Even doing work in English was a new experience. Well, I went down that rabbit hole. October 1 marked the one-year anniversary of registering the company. It's been a pretty good year. A lot has happened during it, but that sounds negative. We've achieved a lot: let's put it that way.
What are you up to now? What does your workday look like?
It's rare that any one workday resembles another. I don't have a routine of just going back and forth between home and work. At the same time, we don't have any nuclear explosions at work that need to be put out But there is never a dull moment. Playrix taught me to delegate and trust the people you delegate to. And, of course, to work with professionals. There are no novices working anywhere in my company. It's not that I don't like newbies.
You mean you take on pros who are already prepared?
It's just that the business model I chose involves working only with professionals who have not just experience, but relevant experience.
What kind of HR strategy are you using now? Have you felt the effects of the market's current labor shortage? If so, how are you trying to handle it?
Would you say there's a difference between a labor shortage and a skill shortage?
Yes, I'm experiencing something similar right now with bizdevs. I'm somewhere between the two right now, but it's probably closer to a skill shortage.
For me, a skill shortage is when the kind of specialist you need isn't on the market. They're not looking for work or aren't responding. They might be out there somewhere, but you can't reach them. While a labor shortage is when
I need more and more employees. So, I don't have a labor shortage. But I still need employees. I have vacancies and they're being closed. But maybe
a little more slowly than I'd like. But it takes time to figure out if a potential employee will be comfortable working here and whether the team will be comfortable working with them.
Would you like to list your company's strengths in this interview to help you attract professionals?
You know, there is a section in job ads where every company writes all the standard stuff, and no one reads it. So, there's no need to repeat it here. There is no single person who wears a crown and dictates how the game will look. Decision-making is a team effort. But not with everything. We don't argue about whether we should order green tea or black tea.
Only the important questions?
Right, we decide key issues as a team. There are a few people who are qualified enough to make a decision on a particular task or feature. They're professionals, experts, and upper management. An expert opinion is one of the factors that guides us when we make a decision. The ability to work remotely. Or in the office, or a mix of both.
Perhaps you can mention the vacancies you have that people can apply for?
No one is going to say they have a bad team or something negative. Everyone says their team is good. And it's great to believe you have the best team. But not to blindly believe it. It's good to be aware of your shortcomings. I can say without exaggeration that my art team is awesome. Out of my 25-person team, 10 of them work on art. That's precisely what helps us create a competitive product on a highly competitive market. A lot of people who start making match-3 products think it's easy. It's not easy at all. That's why the art team always needs a lot of different skilled artists. We have a very interesting pipeline.Currently we are in need of an art manager.
An art director?
No, our team includes both an art director and an art manager. Imagine that a great artist sends us some deliverables and we have to decide whether
to accept them according to our pipeline. To say "OK" or "Not OK." If the art director has to get involved in every little task like this, they're not always going to make the right decision. The art director should accept them based on whether they correspond to the game's visual style.
Technically, there should be another dedicated person who takes on some
of the managerial duties and lets the art director focus on the art style. On the thing that all art directors love. Even give them the opportunity to draw. We're looking for an experienced art manager. This usually means PMs who are interested in the art side of things. This person isn't necessarily an artist, although an artist would find it interesting. Because, for example, they'd be working with a strong team, including outsourcers. Telling the outsourcer how we do things internally and conveying our needs to them, managing them. I can see how an art manager differs from an art director. Now I get it. That, by the way, is very insightful.
And there are other positions too: art lead, art director, art manager, head of art. You could go on and on. They all have their nuances.
A strong team always needs strong artists. 3D, 2D, casual games. Disney style fits the bill too.
I also have a very strong team of programmers, which is why I don't have any vacancies for them. Currently, and for the foreseeable future (six months), everything is good there.
In six months, programmers can try sending you an application. Take note.
Technical game designers. They are half programmers and half designers. They put together locations manually. Since the visual part, the art, is strong, it has to be brought to life. Disney style on static drawings isn't Disney style. Everything needs to be brought to life. FX artists and animators are practically always in demand. If I don't need any myself, I always know someone who does.
Would you say it's worth it for professionals who want to improve themselves to write to you, because you could either take them on yourself or, as an experienced bizdev, find a place for top talents?
Yes, of course. But we have gotten off the very interesting topic of my daily routine. I haven't said anything about it at all. What Lyolik does at work isn't clear. Among other things, HR and recruiting issues are under my purview, as is bizdev.
We'll talk about bizdev separately. We have another location for that.
With a leather sofa? A casting couch interview?
So, about your goals for the next year. We got an idea of what will happen to programmers in six months. Can you spell out what goals you've set for yourself in 2020?
For the company, everything's clear. We're in the production stage right now. It's about to get to a very interesting part. We're starting to see the fruits of our labor. Especially since our game has been in production for seven months already.
Is that a lot?
Some games get worked on for seven years and don't come out. Top casual match-3 games with a meta layer can take four years to make.
For example, we spent three years making one and then decided to redo it the right way and changed everything in a year. Some do it in two years. My Chinese colleagues can make a finished game in six months, but it's not at the level we aimed for in terms of both content and, most importantly, quality.
Basically, we have different pipelines. Some people hone their chops and want to get it done fast, while others take a long time and know for sure they'll end up at the top of the charts.
Our next stage is getting ready for the secret launch. The game will be white-labeled and released to the actual target audience. We'll take some basic metrics, perform some retention tests, examine levels, and draw up heat maps. We'll also conduct surveys and on-site testing. That is when we might make some changes in the development of the game. If our expert opinion was a bit at odds with reality, we admit that. We clearly spell out what these tests need to check. The soft launch is tentatively scheduled for spring or mid-spring. After that, we'll see. We're not far from a global release.
That's just for one project you're working on?
Yes, just one project! We had the opportunity to line up our processes since we have the resources.
By "line up," you mean start another project?
Yes, exactly. As CEO of the company, I arranged the process of engagement with our foreign parent company. All our processes are running smoothly. This is where I could scale our internal forces, since my workload and responsibilities aren't going to increase. Money, salaries, and the other bookkeeping stuff are all in place. It all works, and works well. I could scale up, but I still prefer to concentrate and not lose focus. Maybe if this ends up being a total success story, then I'll do some scaling. In that case, our next growth spurt would be in terms of people. Again, our team is new, although we worked together in other companies before this. This is our first project in a new company. Our culture is still being established. We are working well together right now and taking a big risk. I've seen 5–6 projects being developed at once. We'll have all hands on deck. We'll get it all done. It's doable. It works out for some people, like those who make hyper-casual games.
My experience at Playrix showed me that I have to bet on quality in every area. Personnel, decision-making, the product, promotion: that's what makes it possible to fight for a piece of the market.
Thank you. Our next segment will be devoted to business development. Let's go look for that leather sofa.