Driven by a desire to create games that come alive and resonate with players, Vladimir Funtikov co-founded Tallinn-based Creative Mobile, and after only four years, it became one of the largest mobile gaming companies in Northern Europe. His passion for games began with his first PC, and almost immediately, he started creating games, beginning with basic Warcraft and SimCity scenarios, then moving to single-player levels for Duke Nukem 3D, and eventually making multi-player maps for Counter-Strike.
“As an indie, I am a big believer that you are much better spending your limited funds in your testing phase while you are in soft launch as opposed to post global launch. The amount of money you’re going to be able to muster to spend on user acquisition post launch is not going to have a meaningful impact on your game’s performance, you’re much better getting everything tuned just right before you launch.”
Keith Katz is the co-founder and business chief at Execution Labs, a company that exists to help game developers become entrepreneurs and realize creative independence. He oversees all aspects of business for Execution Labs and their game teams. He also has plenty of input into the games, something he finds great fun. He works to make sure all teams that go through the Execution Labs program are equipped to handle all the business functions of a small game studio. All the different experiences he has had during his career, including user acquisition, PR, business development, monetization, understanding player behavior, and running a startup, feed into the work he is doing today.
Leaving The Nest
Katz announces, with great pride, “Our first two spin-off studios are leaving the nest after releasing amazing games, raising follow-on funding, and beginning work on their next titles. It is incredibly gratifying to know I had a hand in enabling these new independent game studios.”
The greatest enjoyment Katz finds in the games industry comes from the people. Most of the people involved are very creative and passionate, which is not something he has found in other fields.
The Distribution Challenge
A major challenge today, according to Katz, is distribution, as the industry shifts to digital delivery of games. On the app stores, he sees truly innovative games that could move the industry forward, but they are being suffocated by large publishers who can afford to spend money to stay in the top charts. He insists, “That’s not good for consumers or for the vast majority of game developers. I’m worried that Steam and other online PC platforms will fall into this pattern as well if we’re not careful.”
Give Your Teams a Chance
Execution Labs approaches the distribution problem from two related angles. First, they ensure their teams create innovative games that platform holders recognize as worth showcasing. Secondly, they maintain good relationships with their platform holders so their teams can get in front of them and have a chance to be featured. But Katz emphasizes, this is not a silver bullet, it just gives their teams a fighting chance. In his opinion, most indies don’t even have that.
Katz believes the next few years in the games industry will see more and more core gaming on tablets. He also thinks linking small devices to larger screens to get a console-like experience is coming soon. He says, “Often, our teams want to optimize for their tablet SKU, and we’re fine with this because we think core gamers will adopt this platform in greater and greater numbers over the coming months and years.” And he expects that there will be more premium titles on tablets as game developers realize free-to-play is not a fit for everyone and core gamers are willing to spend money for premium games on their tablets.
For the first time, Katz is now playing more on tablet than on console or PC. He finds it so easy to pick up and play, and the games are getting better and better. For example, Hearthstone is so good, he can’t stop playing it, claiming it is fantastic and perfect on an iPad. And Civ is coming soon! But he doesn’t really see a need for a gaming-only box any longer, although he has owned consoles since his first Atari 2600. He hasn’t upgraded to the next gen systems yet; he is busy playing on his tablet and PC.
Katz never has enough time for all his hobbies, but he keeps collecting more. He loves to barbeque on his smoker and this year, he has been curing and smoking his own bacon. He also likes to brew beer. But he offsets these foodie hobbies with active ones: running, scuba diving, camping, hiking, and fishing. He describes himself as someone who is interested in a lot of things, and who could never be bored.
David Ng, CEO of gumi Asia, stresses, “Do what you love and love what you do!” His love is games, creating IP and content, and bringing it to the world. And his fulfillment comes from seeing others appreciate the content.
He learned very early in life that it is essential to know what your goals are. Then, in order to succeed, you must be able to work backwards and be very detailed and clear about what you will do.
Reason For Entrepreneurship
Ng has a background as an entrepreneur, but he emphasizes that most people do not become entrepreneurs simply because that is their specific goal. Instead, they start companies out of opportunity or passion. Or they begin out of frustration that others were not making something or providing a service that they would like, so they decided to do it themselves. He says, “In my case, my chief driver and motivation was money. I had to be a provider from a young age. The fastest way I knew how to do that was to build a business and make money as fast as I could.”
“To succeed as an entrepreneur,” he insists, “you must understand the who, where, what, when, why, and how of building a successful business: people, product, place, process, capital and domain knowledge.” He also advises, “Building a good team of a few good men/women is so important, and doing that little extra work to cross that fine line between good and great makes a world of difference in the product or service we are selling.”
Satisfaction and World Domination
The most satisfying aspect of Ng’s career is seeing former staff members climb the ladder to become captains of industry and hearing them acknowledge him as their mentor. He feels so proud of them and of having made an impact on their lives and careers. And the icing on the cake? Being the ‘cool Dad’ to his sons when they come home saying, “Hey Daddy, my friends love your company’s games.”
Ng began as CEO of gumi Asia after a search firm approached him to meet with Hironao Kunimitsu, founder of gumi Inc. When they met, he says, “We decided to conquer the world together!” To this position, he brought many years’ experience in the gaming industry as well as leadership positions in large MNCs in the field. He found that his people skills were especially significant in aiding gumi in regionalization and growth.
A View of the SEA Market
Over the last two years, Ng has seen the Southeast Asia games industry and market experience hyper-growth. Focus is shifting from the major markets of Japan, USA, China, Europe, and Korea as companies realize this is one of the fastest growing and untapped markets in the world. However, SEA is a fragmented market in terms of varied languages, borders, regulations, credit card penetration, telecommunications infrastructure, and device penetration. So there are challenges not found in more mature markets. But, he insists, “The ability to remove those pain points provides a unique opportunity for the better prepared.”
Companies entering the SEA market from other markets often make several mistakes. These include: lack of localization and culturalization of game content, lack of optimization of games to suit local telecommunications infrastructure, lack of geo-specific domain knowledge, and an inability to activate local marketing channels. Ng claims, “Most larger game companies just appoint regional marketing and user acquisition partners to fulfill their needs. This is a case of thinking global, but acting local.” He advises new entrants into the market, “Talk to gumi.”
For the next few years in the SEA industry, Ng expects to see rapid adoption of smartphones and exponential growth in the mobile gaming market. He suggests developers respond by shifting away from web-based to more native content. As for the future of gumi Asia, expect to see exciting new content and publishing channels. They intend to be the bridge between East and West.
While participating in a panel discussion at Casual Connect Kyiv 2013, David An says, “We are seeing casual games being mingled with hardcore elements, so there seems to be no limit to the genre of games which can go free-to-play.”
David An describes himself as Kimchi-eating. For those of us unfamiliar with this delicacy, Kimchi is fermented cabbage with garlic and hot pepper, and is a daily part of every Korean’s diet. He is also involved with Kendo in his free time and enjoys classical jazz music, as well as the music of Mozart and Bach’s partitas and sonatas.
An is Director of Mobile Games at ProSiebenSat1. His responsibility is to build their mobile games publishing business. He has always been entrepreneurial, either with his own startups or as an entrepreneur, and sees this as the leadership profile that is needed today, incorporating execution-incorporation, low fear of failure and seeking for pragmatic and quick solutions.
At Casual Connect Kyiv, An announced the release of Heroes War, a mobile action RPG developed by Com2Us, one of the top Korean game developers. ProSiebenSat1 will be publishing it in all the major European territories.
The Project of His Life
An’s career goal is to steadily improve and become a better entrepreneur and leader each day. The most challenging time of his career occurred when his first startup failed. The business received huge national PR, but never monetized. He learned a great deal from the experience including the importance of business-model thinking as well as attempting to see products in a holistic fashion. He also emphasizes, “There should not be, and never is, ‘The Project of My Life.’ In the end, it’s just a company.”
Open Ecosystems Rule
He has noticed several directions in the games industry that he believes will continue through the next few years. From the time he saw the first Android prototype, he expected it to take over because of the openness of its ecosystem, creating massive network effects. He also expects Google’s domination of all aspects of digital business to occupy all our minds for years to come. On the dark side, he notes that as more transactions are entrusted to mobile devices, users will become subject to more and more cyber attacks.
Jeffrey Paine, founding partner of Golden Gate Ventures, an early stage technology incubator based in Singapore, tells us that the more they travel in a region, the more they understand why entrepreneurs do what they do. There are plenty of local problems to solve, and often a start-up company doesn’t want to solve huge global problems, but rather their smaller local problems that their communities are passionate about.
Jeffrey works to help with these local issues with certain network practices that Singapore and Silicon Valley bring that can help start-ups get to market faster and become more efficient. Then it’s about putting that network together.
Challenges in Entrepreneurship
In the past three years, Jeffrey has trained approximately thirty entrepreneurs each year. Watching these companies grow, mature and raise money gives him great satisfaction. Working with someone who has an idea and wants to build a company, and then seeing it succeed is what he enjoys most. Of course, entrepreneurs have their own set of challenges. “They have to be good at everything, but that is impossible,” Jeffrey says. “No one can be good at everything, especially when you don’t have money or the people you need.” Jeffrey can show them what other companies are doing and introduce them to the networks in their own country. This is more likely to be of use than advice from a foreigner.
The most important advice Jeffrey has for an entrepreneur starting out is, “Know what you are good at. Analyze your strengths. As a start-up, you are at a disadvantage. In a competitive space there will be people who are better or faster or work harder than you. You need every advantage you can get to excel and stand out. The only way to do that is to really understand what you are good at, and not many people know what they are good or not good at.
Once you understand that, you can then determine what kind of company you want, what products you should build, which customers you should sell to, what industry you are passionate about, and what problems you must solve.” A lot of entrepreneurs start a company, finding it easy and cheap to start. But Jeffrey insists they should slow down and understand themselves first.
His second advice is to work hard on your idea initially. “Jumping into the start-up and doing customer development is a waste of time if your idea is not good in the first place. So you should spend more time on idea generation and improving ideas before you do anything else.”
Choosing Good People
For Jeffrey, the greatest challenge was learning to read people, which is essential to choosing a good person to hire, partner with, or co-found a company with. “You can do some things by yourself, but not everything by yourself,” he says. If you choose the wrong partner, there are going to be lots of problems.”
With time, he has become more sensitive to recognizing whether a person will be the right fit. He goes 80 percent on gut feeling and 20 percent on reference checks. And he points out, “There are so many people in the world; why entertain, even for a moment, someone who just doesn’t fit? I’d rather do it on my own than with someone who is only 80 percent right.”
He believes the ecosystem has helped him in his career as well. He meets with a lot of people, making a large network with a lot of data collection. As a result, he has a sort of pattern recognition and can easily understand what will or will not work. This is a great help in selecting founders, teams and products.
Jeffrey enjoys the work he does at Golden Gate Ventures, which invests in early stage start-up companies in Southeast Asia. They focus on consumer internet mobile games infrastructure, such as payments and service for small to medium companies. As well as providing capital, they bring in other investors. With their strong ties to Silicon Valley, they can also help with launch in the US, and can facilitate discussions with the big internet companies in the Bay Area. Another important characteristic of Golden Gate is that they help as a firm, so they will all help a company, rather than assigning it to one partner. Generally, they help with product, user experience and marketing. They can also assist with foreign financing, exits and facilitating a sale if these are needed. Recruiting has also become a major component of what they do, as well as introductions to partners, customers and advisors to help you get to market faster.