Handy Games CEO Chris Kassulke on crunch, VR, and mobile gaming

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Germany’s Handy Games isn’t really well known on the global gaming stage. But it has been around for 16 years, and surviving that long in the ultra-competitive game industry is a big achievement.

Chris Kassulke, the chief executive of Handy Games in Würzburg, Germany, told GamesBeat his company doesn’t compete head-on with mobile game giants Supercell, MZ (formerly Machine Zone), and King. Rather, his 65-person company creates niche mobile games for alternative markets. And while his bigger teams work on original mobile games such as Clouds and Sheep, he designates experimental teams to focus on new frontiers such as virtual reality games, smartwatch titles, and corporate gamification.

Focusing on innovation and moving fast into new platforms is what keeps the work exciting, fresh, and ahead of the crowd, Kassulke said. He has no regrets, for instance, about making games for the failed Ouya micro console since that taught his team how to make smart TV games.

And Kassulke said you can do all of this without “unpaid crunch time,” a topic that came out this week about forcing game developers to work long hours as they finish games.

We talked with Kassulke at the Quo Vadis game development conference in Berlin this week. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Disclosure: The organizers of Quo Vadis paid my way to Berlin. Our coverage remains objective.

GamesBeat: Is there a frontier for mobile games, or has the industry matured?

Chris Kassulke: For us, yes, the market is very mature. On Android and iOS there aren’t many spaces left where we would say we can innovate in that market. A lot of business models have been tried. We see free, paid, free-to-play, subscription.

Within Handy Games we have six different branches we’re financing, but only internally. We need knowledge from the game sector about new platforms and business models. We want to transfer that back to other markets, like fitness products for wearables. The technology we use is what we built almost a year ago. Nothing’s really changed. It works perfectly. We’ve had a lot of discussions with insurance companies and others. They can’t believe how easy it is.

We think differently as game developers. We can bring a lot to the old industry, the old market. We’ve been innovating for decades already.

GamesBeat: When did Handy Games get started?

Kassulke: We started in 2000, April 20. We started with black and white games. We were 100 percent mobile from the beginning. Now we have more small units at Handy Games checking out new markets. We always want to be a spearhead for the industry. We try out new technologies, new business models. Not everything we do will be successful, like the Ouya. But we knew that was the beginning for smart TV. What we learned there we brought to other platforms, like Apple TV and Android TV.

It’s important as a game developer to check out new trends and make your own experience. On the hardcore VR products, I doubt it’ll be mass market. Not everyone is going to buy a high-end PC, VR device, and controller before paying a high price for games. But it may be a mass market for industry stuff. If you go to a car dealer, you could see a car without it being there. Ikea did something similar with their kitchens. It’s very easy.

We see Gear VR coming out on the more mass market side, or Cardboard, where you can reach a huge audience. That’s perfect for gaming.

GamesBeat: You don’t mind investing in games and markets where you’re simply learning something.

Kassulke: You need to. It’s important. It’s the same as with venture capital. We’re running six different teams in different directions. I’m sure two or three won’t survive in two years. We’ll close those units and build something new. Every 180 days since we got started we’ve seen a complete disruption, whether it’s a new platform, a new device manufacturer, a new business model coming or an old one going.

That keeps you smart. If you stand still—we learned some lessons early that maybe others in the mobile game space didn’t. I already saw where licensing and brands went to. I saw that on PC. We know what THQ did in the past. We saw that in the old market where we sold to operators. It’s the same as what we see now on the app stores. Everyone’s hunting for whatever brand they can get, just to get some visibility. The portals are using the cross-marketing capabilities.

We see that it’s very important to have your own IP. If I license a brand and bring it to mobile, that’s only one possible partner. We need an IP that we can bring from mobile to PC to console to VR to wherever. We’re concentrating on producing our own IP because of what we learned in the past. Without getting that experience and knowledge—it gets boring. That experience keeps you fit. That’s why we’re still around. 16 years is like forever in this business. When we switched on the light, nobody in Germany had done any games on mobile before.

GamesBeat: And it’s 16 years without crunch.

Kassulke: We had crunch in the beginning. But we left console and PC gaming because that was the other option. We didn’t want to do that. In the beginning it’s quite normal to have that, but you need to move away from it very fast. We’re one of the only companies that has absolutely no crunch at all.

For us it’s very important, because people are your most important resource in development. If you lose your colleagues to divorce and stress and personal problems, it doesn’t make any sense. If you’re working eight hours a day, focused on the product, that’s plannable.

Crunch time, I think, mostly comes from not saying no. When we’re working with Apple or Google or whoever, we tell them if we’re able to hold a deadline or not. If not, we say no. It doesn’t make sense otherwise. If you burn your employees they’re out of your company and out of our industry. It costs more time and effort to recruit new guys and teach them the knowledge your old people already had. Investing in your colleagues is way more important.

We give 30 days of vacation. We close over Christmas. We’re a family business. We’re not a typical startup. We’re a privately held company, self-financed. The shareholders are still in the company, in management. We take care about that.

GamesBeat: Does this come out of a German tradition? It sounds like Germany has generally better working conditions than a lot of other places.

Kassulke: Kind of? It’s illegal in Germany to work a shift longer than 10 hours. If you work on Saturday and Sunday, you have to go to a specific government department and they have to agree. Perhaps some people are willing to sacrifice for a product or a deadline, but what do we learn from that? If you work for a publisher who gives you a hard deadline and you’ll do something like that to meet it, next time they’ll give you an even harder deadline or a lower budget.

We have production in-house and no external guide saying, “You need to be ready here.” We’re free and we can be innovative. We can do something creative. You can’t be creative if you’re working 16 hours a day. That’s impossible. You’re busy thinking about how you can get your kids to school, how you can squeeze in a dentist’s appointment.

It’s important to have guys who work eight hours in my office and then go on to have a normal life. It’s a cultural thing. We’re in a good position to be able to say no to our partners. If you’re a young team and that’s what you think you have to get the deal, that’s dangerous. You’re not ever going to get off the hamster wheel. You’ll just need to do more and more crunch until that becomes normal.

I get really mad about that. It’s not normal to crunch. This is art, but at the end of the day the team makes the game. If I’m a CEO and I see that a game needs more resources or more time, I give it more time or more resources. That’s a management decision you need to make. If they need one more artist, I get them one more artist.

That’s why we have so many production teams at Handy Games. If a team needs to hold a deadline and they need one or two more artists, one or two more programmers, we can do that. But without agreement from the team, we’re not setting any deadlines that we can’t hold to.

GamesBeat: How many people do you have now?

GamesBeat: If you have a lot of experimental games like we’ve talked about, what pays the bills? What hits have you had that enable you to get all those people working?

Kassulke: Our standard teams are about seven guys working over one or two years on traditional games. Then we have what we call the internal venture capital teams, which are only two or three guys. They sprint for several weeks, try out a lot of things. There are lots of failures and lessons we learn, but we don’t do that over one or two years. We see how a prototype works and we can go to an insurance company, for example, and show them the kind of fitness stuff we can do. Then, if they want more, we can find a business model where we all make money.

GamesBeat: What would you say is your most successful game to date?

Kassulke: We still have Townsmen, a hardcore strategy title. We have Clouds and Sheep. We have World War II strategy titles like Frozen Front and Burning Bridges. We’ll be coming out with a new one soon, set in the desert. Consumers are crying out for new content. We did the eastern front, the western front, the Pacific, and now North Africa. It’s good for us. Consumers tell us clearly that they want more and we can produce what they want. It’s the same with Clouds and Sheep. We’re bringing that title to consoles and PC now.

A lot of effort went into different kinds of projects in the past. We had more game releases each year. Nowadays we have fewer releases, but extremely cross-platform. Those need different kinds of business models. A game has to be different according to the platform. One has a game controller. Apple TV has the remote control. On PC you have a mouse and keyboard. On mobile you have a touch screen. You also have to ask how you can monetize in the long run.

GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite engine, some technology that makes it easy to work across platforms?

Kassulke: Unity is a good option for smaller to mid-size titles. At the moment you can go cross-platform very smoothly and very fast. If something new comes up, Unity will probably support it soon. Unity is on the priority list for all the big guys – Apple, Google – because they know how many developers use it. If you support Unity with your new platform, you’ll automatically have a lot of developers who can bring games to your platform.

GamesBeat: I’m sure you heard Don Daglow’s talk — where the game veteran talked about the meaningless terms “casual, core, and mid-core.” Do you have any trouble identifying an audience and what it wants?

Kassulke: Don had it right, I think, when he said that casual versus core is bullshit. I don’t like it as well. For my wife, casual means one thing and for me it means another. It’s hard to predict everything up front. That’s why people are doing so many local launches and test launches in specific markets. It’s a way to learn more. But at the end of the day it’s a game. A lot of games just don’t have a soul anymore. Business guys are taking over game production.

GamesBeat: In mobile in particular?

Kassulke: It’s really crazy in mobile. When I play Clash Royale I get stuck around 1,000 points. Without investment it’s really harder to go up. Is it good for the game? It’s good for making money. That’s nice. But —

GamesBeat: It’s hard to call that a paywall exactly.

GamesBeat: You’re always losing to someone else, and you don’t really know why. But it’s probably because they spent money and you didn’t.

Kassulke: It’s frustrating. That’s not what we want to develop. I have the deepest respect there, but that’s not a game that everyone will remember as a good experience. I was so often frustrated there. I play it with my kids and it’s okay, but they’re not going up over 1,000. I might, but only if I spend money.

GamesBeat: What is it like to run a mobile game company in a time that’s dominated by Supercell, Machine Zone, and King?

Kassulke: It’s funny, because you can’t compete with them in their market. You can’t compete on CPI. You can’t compete in the hardcore mobile sector where they live. But you can compete with single-player games. You can compete with third-party portals because they can’t go there. They’re too big already. Yes, they’re still small teams, but they’ll always concentrate where the big money is.

For smaller to mid-size developers, we can go into markets like Brazil, Iran, or China much more easily. They’re not our competitors normally, because you need to set up servers and local billing. You need to localize a game into whatever language. We can do that. We can go into all the small blue oceans. If I’m one of the big guys there, I make enough money to feed what I have and venture into new areas. The really big guys can have the Pacific.

We’re not such a money-driven company. We want to be a sustainable business. We want to be here in 10 years. There will always be a need for some guys who are a spearhead for the industry, for new technology. How we monetize—that’s something where we always find our place. We can go to industry. We can go to health care companies. These companies need data and expertise from us because they aren’t experts in our field.

GamesBeat: Gamification and the like?

Kassulke: It’s not only gamification. It’s also technology in general. They don’t have our technology. If you talk to them about VR, they know about it, but they don’t know how to develop something on that platform, how to get it on Oculus or Gear VR. That’s a huge chance not only for us, but for a lot of developers around the globe who understand you can’t compete against the superpowers. You need to know, as a small developer, what battles you can win. I can win a lot of small battles in markets that are too small for the big guys to take an interest. If I have a market share of 30, 40, 50 percent in those markets, I’ll make plenty of money.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like there’s art in mobile games? Don Daglow gave this lecture about emotional storytelling, but he couldn’t name examples of that working well in mobile or VR yet.

Kassulke: It depends on your definition of art. It’s like when you look at certain paintings and say, “My kid could do that.” For me a great photograph is art. A painter might say it’s not. I totally believe that Clouds and Sheep is art. It’s a different kind of game. It has no ending. It’s pure art. Our players love it. They build their own worlds. It makes me proud, listening to the user feedback. They send us their stories.

When you understand who’s playing your games and how they’re feeling—it’s why we left PC and console. Yeah, you had however many million pixels more, but who sees that anymore? Nowadays, in mobile games—if you look at the games Don showed in his talk, no one from the old industry would have invested in Clash of Clans or Candy Crush or any of the big sellers of the moment. Is that art? I think so. Candy Crush, in some ways, is nothing new, but they put some kind of art in there. Everyone wants to play it now. They weren’t all playing Bejeweled Blitz before.

Most of the games we see today were here already. But a small feature in a mobile game or VR game gives us totally new possibilities, or even new genres. That’s what we found out when we were trying to figure out how to navigate with a touch screen. It’s how adventure games developed into hidden object games. Now you can do something like that without touching anything at all. We’ll see a lot of new companies and new genres coming out with cool games, just like we’ve seen over the last 16 years in the mobile space.

It’s not who has the most money. Vivendi came into the game industry with plenty of money and then they left. Now they’re coming back again. You never thought about GameLoft falling a few years ago, but now they’re struggling. If you stand still, if you’re not innovating, someone else will and they’ll overtake you.

It can be a very cruel market, and that’s why we have these internal venture teams. We don’t know where the market will go, what will be the next thing. We think about what might be the next thing and we put that into six different projects. Even if only two pay off, I can at least get experience out of the other four that I can use later on with other projects.

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