Pavel from Inlingo: Let’s start with the kind of questions Freud would ask. When did you first get interested in games? Was it as a teenager or were you already an adult?
Alexey Trushkov: I’ve been playing a long time, ever since I can remember. It wasn’t always on the computer or anything digital. I always played lots of games as a kid. I really loved using my imagination. But the first “digital” game I played was in 1989. My dad went on a business trip to Africa and brought home our first color TV, Japanese-made.
Sharp. He also got an Enduro game console with 96 games and a joystick. It was probably at that moment I realized these simple 8-bit games were up my street. I loved them. I became a fan. However, when everyone started getting the Dendy, my parents said, “We already have a console. Why do we need another?”. I was jealous of everyone and tried to convince my parents for a long time, like all kids. My dad is really detail-oriented, and he passed that quality on to me. It might even be called perfectionism. Anyway, I did my research and concluded the best console wasn’t Dendy or Sega, but SNES.
Why was that?
Because it was the coolest. In a way. It was supposedly 32-bit, and it seemed cooler. It ended up being more expensive, but for good grades in school, I got a Super Nintendo for my birthday. But there was something I didn’t count on. The same thing happens in business sometimes. I ended up buying it, but… A, the cartridges were more expensive, and B, no one had the SNES, so I couldn’t swap games with anyone, and I very rarely bought them. Kids with SEGA had a ton of cartridges, but I only had two.
On the other hand, the games I did have I played over and over and loved. Then one day I took a shine to computers. A friend of mine got a computer, and we played for days on end. I spent a long time choosing a computer to buy. I remember I copied down a list of the best computers from the newspaper called “Extreme.” We bought a nice computer, and I broke it within a week. I had murdered Windows. We took it halfway across Moscow to a service center that repaired it and gave it back to us. I broke it again that same evening. My father said, “If you break it again, you take it back for repairs yourself.” So I learned how to fix computers, reinstall Windows, and so on.
So, you had all the knowledge you needed at your fingertips?
Right, I taught myself at night so no one else would know. Around the same time, my parents sent me to a 3D modeling class.
How old were you?
I was probably around 15.
Had you already started to realize by then that you wanted to be involved with games?
No, not yet. I was just interested in computers. I liked everything that had to do with computers. So 3D modeling seemed cool. It was no coincidence I won a 3D modeling contest for schoolchildren in Moscow. I modeled a glass with a drink, straw, and a slice of lemon.
And your parents put limits on your gaming so you wouldn’t play too much?
Yes, they were very strict about it. When I had a console, I could only use it on weekends. Because of school, because I had to spend time outside. It was easier with the computer. I played at night. And it somehow happened that I got a decent handle on computers, so I began moonlighting as a computer repairman. I fixed a girl’s computer, then another one, earned a little extra cash, and so on. I started to get the hang of hardware too.
Then the era of computer clubs began. As the internet became more widespread, my friends and I recycled paper for cash so we could spend it on a computer club at night. A bit later, I got a job as a system administrator in a computer club. There was a really snazzy one at a “Children’s World” store. It was called Net Land. I worked at night and gamed during the day. I was almost never at home. I started selling ice cream at Children’s World. It was a pretty sweet gig: I sold ice cream during the day and worked as a sysadmin at night.
Basically, games were a part of your lifestyle.
Plus, I knew how to model, and in my last year of high school, schools started offering classes on programming in VBA. It was easy for everyone, but a group of us who had early exposure to computers and knew a bit about them came together and decided to make our own game. I was a 3D modeler, narrative designer, and game designer. It was an adventure game. A pre-rendered labyrinth. All you did was press a button. The picture would change, you’d be given a puzzle, and you had to enter the right answer. It fit on three floppy disks.
“I’ve made my first and second game before I finished high school.”
So you made your first game before you finished high school?
Right, and my second one too.
How long before the second one was released?
Two months after the first one. We did it pretty quickly.
Now you’re the director of the FunPlus Russia studio. How did you get there? The topic of social mobility is the main order of business for me. At my company, I strive to show people the path to a successful future. Along the lines of “do steps 1, 2, and 3, and you’ll get what you want.”
It was around 15 years ago. I think you could call the time around then the starting countdown to my career in the game industry.
How old were you?
I was 21.
So, about four years later.
Well, those were my first steps, as a fan. There was no such thing as the game industry back then.
How did you end up there?
I ended up somewhere not too far from the game industry. I worked for the tech magazine T3, “Tomorrow’s Technology Today.” I sold ads there. It was a typical sales job. I made calls. This was after Muz-TV [Russian MTV] and working as an insurance salesman, where I learned how to do sales. I sold ads to magazines and gamed in my free time.
But what did I play? Browser games. The first one, which I wasted a year of my life on, was this game Travian. I reached first place on the server and realized I had to stop with the hard games. They totally consume your life.
So, I started playing hardcore match-3 games and the first browser PvP. It had only just come out. It was a miracle I saw its banner. It was not optimized at all. It required a ton of bandwidth.
The IT department said, “You and that guy over there are eating up too much bandwidth. You’re playing games.”
I realized I had a like-minded friend on the team, and we started playing this game together. Two weeks later, we were banned from the forum for too much activity. I became the first one to put money into the game. Back then, it was only a little bit, a couple of bucks. The game was made in Russia, and the developers ended up meeting with us and chatting. It was really cool.
And then, at one of the conferences—I think it was IgroMir—I met the director of the company CyberCrew, a subsidiary of GDTeam. The game was called Technomagic, and the director was Roman Povolotski. I was at the conference to sell magazine ads. I needed clients. I asked everyone, one after another, “Hey, want to buy an ad?” I’m exaggerating, of course, but that was the gist of it.
I asked him what he was doing there. He said he was bored, so I asked him, “Want me to set up an interview for you?”
He said, “Can you?” I told him I knew everyone there. And in five minutes, I set up two interviews for him. He looked at me and said, “Listen, come be my PR director.”
So, your career jumped from a guy handing out flyers to a PR director.
No, there were no flyers. I was a key account manager. That’s what it said on my business card. It was ad sales. That’s why when someone suggests that I buy traffic, I always think, “Go ahead, just try to sell it to me…”
I spent the night reading about what PR was. I even stopped by the bookstore, bought a skinny little booklet on it, and dozed off on the metro during the second chapter. I went the next day and talked to him. Later I read my notes. I said a bunch of nonsense. I was so embarrassed… That’s how I started working for a game company for real money. Before that, I wrote website copy for in-game currency. But that doesn’t count.
Where did you get the skill to set up interviews?
It was during those 4 years. At the time, I worked for the Muz-TV channel. I went there with an idea for a show about games.
How old were you then? 18, 19?
Yeah, a little younger even.
So, you went there with an idea you had for a show about games?
Right. I got the idea back when I was in school. There wasn’t anything like that then. There was a TV show hosted by gamers with the handles “Bonus” and “Gameover.” I wanted to do something cool. Then, in my first year of college, my friend and I wrote down the concept and presented the idea.
The producer said it was garbage. He tossed it in the trash and said he’d take one of us on as an assistant with a small salary. In the end, I didn’t even end up on a show about games. I worked on the talent show “Star Factory.” I learned how to talk to celebrities and stopped being camera-shy. I was able to come out and say something.
Do you remember any good stories? Assuming they’re not under NDA.
There was no NDA. It was a lot of fun when I was asked to interview people who had come for auditions.
How did you learn how to be a good interviewer? Case by case?
You know how it goes. I got thrown into the deep end and learned to swim. Everyone else had charisma. You just look at them and realize: this is it. It’s not like you’re trying to imitate them, but you unwittingly copy some stuff. You see how people interact. I guess I learned a lot by interacting with all sorts of people.
The most important barrier I’ve overcome came after Muz-TV, when I got a job selling life insurance. Calling strangers, talking about their financial security, understanding who you’re calling. That was definitely a learning experience. Now I can sell whatever to whoever. And after that, the ball really got rolling.
“It turned out Playrix offered unlimited potential for growth, had a completely different frame of reference, included self-responsibility as a part of its culture.”
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.
Business development has been all the buzz for a while. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. For me, someone’s aptitude for bizdev corresponds to their entrepreneurial skills. There are risks, but they’re similar at their core.
Is this something innate that then becomes actualized in practice? Or is it like a muscle you can make stronger? Can we talk about this more in depth? Tell me about your bizdev experience. Is it innate, acquired,
or built up?
Alexey Trushkov: Let’s borrow the analogy from video games of creating a character, building their skills, and so on. When a character has certain skills and reaches a certain set of circumstances, there’s a chance they will develop a skill further based on experience, the skill of a good, successful bizdev. Dark bizdev, light bizdev: that doesn’t matter. It depends on how
the character is developed. Accordingly, the skills, the selection available, and the conditions depend on life and the individual.
I mean, I “bizdeved” and started my first business. And I think business development includes both starting and developing a business. I went to summer camp as a kid. It was somewhere on the sea. 30 days without my parents. I was 12. My younger peers there ran around the camp collecting large quantities of chewing gum. I melted it on an aluminum spoon over a fire, poured it into a mold, painted it with gouache, added sugar and sold it as new. That’s what a dark bizdev does.
What did I learn from that? Product quality is very important. It all ended when the camp director’s son chipped a tooth on a rock that was in the gum I gave him. That’s when I realized how important product quality is. I also had a realization about refunds, that you can sell something more than once.
I’ve had lots of things like that in my life, lots of cases like that. And I don’t mean chewing gum. I just mean both “dark” and “light.” That’s what shapes you. It’s the same rush I mentioned earlier, the rush you feel when you overcome a challenge. Bizdev isn’t always easy. Not easy at all. If you can say, “I’m a bizdev, and it’s easy,” then you’re doing something wrong. It doesn’t necessarily have to be very difficult, but it should be a challenge.
“If you can say, “I’m a bizdev, and it’s easy,” then you’re doing something wrong.”
Why don’t we try highlighting some of the qualities of bizdevs and describing them with stories, like in free association? I can tell you have lots of stories.
In my opinion, you must be creative to be a bizdev. Because the market is competitive, and everyone wants to develop their business. It rarely happens that someone says, “No, I’m good where I am.” If everyone follows the same beaten path, they’ll all start to push and shove. Competition is sometimes a good thing. Competition forces you to think outside the box and be creative.
In other words, where does creativity come from? From restrictions. When resources and budgets are restricted, when there are commercial and governmental restrictions, bizdevs can find interesting solutions that impact a business and how it develops.
I have lots of examples, but they’re small-scale. Creativity is what aids development. Say you have an app. It’s pretty popular, but, for whatever reason, you don’t have room in the budget for marketing. Maybe a bizdev can help. For instance, one day we thought, what if we turned the app’s icon upside down? It was the app for the social network Odnoklassniki.
We flipped it, and our downloads increased by 30%. We flipped it on all the social networks, and it worked well everywhere except Amazon. We wondered why. And this is the difference between a direct approach and a creative approach. Then we get an email from Amazon. “Hey guys, you made a mistake. Your icon was upside-down, so we turned it back around for you.” They “corrected” it by turning it back around. We had growth everywhere else, but not there.
There are lots of moments like that. In the early days of the VK social games, when we were launching one of the first games, we bought a game and swapped it with a different one. We had an audience, but it wasn’t the target audience at all. I mean, there were some interesting decisions, as sometimes happens.
In my opinion, for a bizdev, going to a conference or writing an email to Apple to request that they feature your product are routine tasks that can be done by…
A low-level bizdev, shall we say.
That’s all clear, but sometimes a task doesn’t have a clear solution. In my company there are sometimes things that make us say, “We need to pull off a miracle.” When we have a good understanding of the toolkit that can achieve what we want, but don’t know which tool in particular will work, I get messages that say things like “Lyolik, make a miracle happen,” with what needs to be done in parentheses. Maybe it’s finding a super rare specialist or extending deadlines. Basically, all sorts of tasks that don’t have an easy or obvious solution.
People at Playrix used to nudge me toward this kind of problem-solving and say, “I think you might be able to come up with a more optimal solution.” So you start to think, ask for advice, get others involved. To me, that’s one component of business development.
Again, bizdevs vary and different companies need their business developed in different ways. A good bizdev at one company might not produce any results at another. I still don’t believe in standardizing bizdevs. But I think there are some qualities a bizdev can’t do without.
A bizdev must be a good speaker who can talk without effort or error. Of course, there are bizdevs who only communicate via email, but there are times when you have to talk. So, a bizdev must know how to speak properly and effortlessly. They must be intelligent. This is a difficult criterion. There’s no clear way to measure it. IQ doesn’t work. But a bizdev must be smart.
You mean knowledgeable in terms of their worldview, or being well-read?
More like their worldview. Not just to keep up a conversation on any topic. You need a broad perspective, an open mind. You have to know how to think big. It’s hard to say what you need besides communication skills. A bizdev should clearly understand the company’s goals and agenda. They should be a vehicle for the company’s strategy, because they too are a development tool. If a bizdev doesn’t understand where the company’s headed, or if they are working as part of a project, it is unlikely anything will come of it. They might run around doing something, but they won’t produce any results.
Let me narrow our topic a bit. One of my future roles is developing an outsourcing company. Have you encountered any mistakes that bizdevs of outsourcing companies make? If you can think of anything, I’d be interested to hear it.
I’m not exactly ready to name any specific companies. I’d say the first mistake is wanting to do everything by the book. Coming in, presenting, selling, doing this and that, and that’s it. Everyone writes about this notorious individualized approach, but no one truly pays attention to it or knows what it is. A bizdev should have a sense of the product, like salespeople do.
The bizdev sells the product, no matter who that may be, although it’s not the end user. I think it’s hard to picture an outsourcer doing this without being immersed in it, but anything is possible. It all depends on the business.
If it’s one person saying they’re going to accomplish it all right away, that probably won’t work. But if it’s sold as a service, where people with skills in different fields help you develop your business, then yes, I believe in bizdev as a service. If it’s a dedicated outsourcer, probably not.
Have there been any cases when an outsourcer, for example, came to you with art?
Yes, if we’re talking about outsourcing in general, not just bizdev.
Right, in the context of outsourcing.
There are outsourcers who I am crazy about and those who I have a crazy amount of respect for. I don’t work with any of them. And that’s because I’m not the one who makes the decisions about working with any particular outsourcer. I group outsourcers into two types: companies that offer outsourcing services and individuals who can be outsourcers. Working with specific individuals has worked out much easier for me.
You mean freelancers?
Right. Even if they’re a freelancer, I can easily integrate them into our work. And some creative deliberations can’t happen without them. They will be involved in the process. We don’t have a system where you assign a task, the outsourcer works on it, and your team steps out to smoke and thinks up a different feature. Then the outsourcer delivers on the task, but you tell them the concept has changed. In that case, the outsourcer’s motivation changes, and your team has a weird relationship with them. All you need to do is integrate them into the process.
Do you have any stories about mistakes? I did have this one case. A Chinese company made a request for art. I posted on Facebook saying there’s a Chinese company with such-and-such a budget. I won’t mention all the details, but I ended up as something like
an intermediary and client. Basically, I couldn’t get a single regular brief from almost any company on the market. Only one company more or less pulled it off. I asked them to just send me a list of questions, because I can’t ask general questions. They had already made the request, so we just needed to do some structured negotiations! The other companies were asking things like, “What kind of project is it? Please tell us what you’d like and how.”
Perhaps, as a bizdev, I failed that Chinese company. But at least for me, I came to the conclusion that my business needs bizdevs. Later I posted about that too. Bizdevs are the main drivers of development. I agree with you that they should transmit the company’s mission and values.
There are certain basic, standardized, even formulaic things. I mean, besides creativity, you need to work with a client’s requirements and worldview, at a minimum. But I still think it’s 70% basics you can’t do without, and 30% creativity. That’s my take. The key to growth at my company lies in the fact that there used to be almost no bizdevs in the localization market. And I got here hungry, after gaining experience at the electronics company Eldorado, which we have in common.
Yes, we share an alma mater. And that gave us a boost. Did you have a similar experience or is it hard to remember now?
From my standpoint, I can mention how companies that provide outsourcing services come to be. As a rule, they have an art director, an artist. They’re great at drawing, they can attract other artists, and they can even sell the art they’ve created. They can give feedback and overlay things. They can do it all. But it’s rare that they’re also a businessperson. It’s very hard to understand how to sell services properly. Generally, people can do either one or the other. The opposite also happens a lot. A person is full of energy, knows everything about business, and can negotiate, but here’s what can happen. We had this incident… I won’t name the company. We provided a brief saying we needed this and that for a test assignment. The person responded and said they’ll get it done right away. Then they started looking for someone to do the task and presented our team with our very own employees’ resumes.
Five stars, that’s high-level stuff.
Now, I trust my employees. They said they had no idea. They probably posted their CVs somewhere at some point. So, we decided to take a look. We saw how the person solicited one of our employees and offered them an art assignment to make some money. Oftentimes, if an artist, a creative person, tries to become part businessperson, it ruins everything. The test assignment was done well, because it was entrusted to a top specialist. After that, the person started to optimize their business by looking for cheaper workers in an attempt to turn a profit. If someone wants to use an assembly line to give you a product that you’re producing differently, then your goals don’t match. No matter how reputable that person was, they didn’t get anywhere. There are lots of cases like that. When the test assignment is good, and everything after it is bad. You think: is this really the same people?
Not producing on an assembly line, focusing on a personal approach, and getting deeply involved in the process. I will keep those insights in mind for my own work.
For me, outsourcing is scaling, but not by using an assembly line. It’s making a unique product. For example, is it better to outsource a character or items? All other things being equal, I’d sooner outsource an item. Because a character is more important and takes priority. A character and their appearance play a more significant role in the game.
I suppose this is a different subject entirely, but anyway. You’re currently working with a group of companies from Asia. Are there any special considerations you have to keep in mind?
My question would be: is there any realm that doesn’t have its own special considerations? No. Everything has them.
I’ll rephrase the question. What are the special considerations?
There are special considerations all over, but the most important one is the crossroads between cultures. The difference in culture and how people perceive the world around them. There’s a language barrier.
Chinese and English?
Right. I’ll put it this way: you and I are having a discussion in Russian. It’s always easier in our native language. If we switched to English, that would probably be fine, but there would be something off. When two parties who aren’t native English speakers are talking, some little issues arise. But we can put that aside. It’s a practical question. The difference in approaches and cultures, however, is something else. I’ve gotten very lucky because the other party has a good understanding of these considerations.
In other words, they also understand that there are special considerations.
Andy, our CEO, understands that. That was one of the main reasons why he was interested in us, a team from Russia, without workers from other places. They had experience hiring international teams from all around the world. The language barrier was a big problem for them. Relocating there is also very tough. I mean, the number of candidates you have dwindles down to nothing. Andy had the idea of us working globally, not for an Asian market. He said if we make a good game, they’ll definitely be able to promote it in the Asian market as well. And we aren’t the first example. Two of the King’s Group’s most popular games, Guns of Glory and King of Avalon, are made by a studio in San Francisco.
Once again, this involves understanding the mentality of a potential user, the player, as well as the opportunity of working with professionals in a particular field. We also added the ability to work remotely, which freed us up to work in one language. It’s also funny: when I talk to another party in another country, whether it’s about business or not, I’m able to find the answer to a question that tormented me at Playrix.
Playrix says it doesn’t hire foreigners because the language barrier prevents them from integrating into the company culture, which is a very important thing. Now I realize we too have our own company culture. The Chinese office has its culture, and these cultures almost never intersect. The only common thread is me. I’m the bridge that connects this big corporation with its culture to our little studio with our culture, and brings the needs and wants of these two sides together. A great product should emerge from this crossroads, and it’s already coming to fruition. I truly believe in this success story. There are difficulties, of course, but they are being overcome.
Are there any examples you can give?
For instance, we have taxes, like the tax on compulsory health insurance. When I was expanding my employees’ benefits, I went to my Chinese colleagues and said, look, these companies offer health insurance. It’s a good thing for employees. And they said, “There’s a health tax you’ll have to pay.” I said that’s for the mandatory health insurance, but the paid healthcare is good here. They suggested I don’t pay the tax then. I said you can’t do that. They told me, “Then let’s put that tax toward the good paid healthcare.” You can’t do that either! So, everything exists at that crossroads between us… Here’s another example that illustrates how Asian companies work, how they relate to instructions, wishes, and directives.
This is the most important part of the interview.
To directives from management. The CEO gives me a tour of the office, and I’m wearing a Playrix t-shirt. It’s got a picture of Austin dressed in the hazmat suit from Breaking Bad. It’s a reference to the TV show. We’re walking around leisurely and bump into a producer, a young Chinese lady. We’re talking in English and the conversation turns to my shirt. I say it’s from a famous TV show and ask if she’s seen it. I say you have to watch it to understand American culture. And she presses her hands together, lowers her head, and switches to Chinese. The CEO asks her to switch back to English. She says sorry, she hasn’t seen it. That’s where the conversation stops. These things happen. The next day, we went on a trip to the Great Wall of China with her. She could ask me questions and learn about me. I look at her, and she’s half asleep. She clearly didn’t get much rest. I ask her why she’s so tired. What’s the matter? She says she finished watching the third season of Breaking Bad. Yesterday he asked her why she hadn’t seen it, and by morning she had already watched it.
And you didn’t have any contact with her after that?
Nope, nothing. There are also certain parts of running a business that we long ago acknowledged to be faulty and unconstructive, so we delegate them. But at some Asian companies I’ve worked with and interacted with, that’s not the case. For example, the CEO approves each company employee in writing. He gives the OK for every candidate. It’s a formality, but it’s there.
I still do that too. I haven’t delegated it yet. But my company’s not that big. Or are there already a thousand employees, and he’s still doing it?
He’s still doing it. I CC him on every hire, and not once has he not approved someone. Of course, we also choose suitable candidates. There are also certain internal rules that Asian companies work by. I’ve noticed that the higher up someone is in the company hierarchy, the more they can afford to deviate from a rule. The lower they are, the more directly and clearly they operate. I also have an example of this, which we’ll call “Tower of Babel syndrome.”
I’ll make that the title of our interview.
I don’t know, it’s actually a negative thing. Say someone’s outsourcing the Tower of Babylon. If they were to hire contractors from one organization instead of several different ones and integrated them into their company, they might build something, but I doubt it.
In that case, you have too many people with experience that is too dissimilar. It’s not just the language barrier. Different experience means a different approach. Playrix has one approach, King has another, and the guys from ZeptoLab are have something else entirely. If you don’t line them up around a pillar and tell them this is how things are supposed to be, they’ll end up tripping all over each other. It’s more than just the Tower of Babylon. The Tower of Babylon is more about language, but I’m talking about different experiences and the absence of someone to unite people. Someone who has a strategy. There are lots of examples in the industry. When this one person is changed, the project comes to nothing.
Here’s another interesting case regarding the rules. Take the position of office manager as an example. It makes sense. If you have an office, there should be someone to manage it. It’s great when they take care of other important duties as well, like personnel records. I found just such a sorceress. She’s my right-hand woman. She needed to be approved by China. It’s a formality. I sent the email and got back my first and, to this day, only refusal. No. I start to “bizdev” a solution. I try to make sense of it, identify their needs, present the product, look for solutions. The classic stuff. It turns out there’s a rule that allows me to have programmers, artists, animators, etc. But “office manager” isn’t on that list because the company’s past experience presumes their office managers are located in the main office and belong to a separate department. And administrative workers can’t work anywhere but the head office. So, this broke the pattern, and it’s pretty difficult to get it across.
So how did you end up hiring her? As a programmer?
No. The solution was the most obvious one, a quick fix. I actually tried to explain the office manager’s duties. I tried to say it doesn’t matter what an employee is called, and that I have my own internal processes that they have no influence over. I said their refusal would influence my processes, and that… doesn’t quite breach our agreement, but it’s not right. I managed to persuade them. That, of course, took more than one conference call. But I got my rush by overcoming the obstacle. I did it. And if you think about it, that’s nothing. I hired an office manager. Not a tough task. What’s there to be proud of? But the patterns that this task put in place can help me resolve bigger challenges, even budgeting issues.
Some big challenges can be resolved according to this pattern. When you show that this is the right way, that it’s a characteristic of our processes, you’re sending a signal. These are processes I use when working with my partners and my parent company.
Great interview. Thank you.