Mick Hocking, VP of Game Development, shares his experiences in heading Wildlife’s game studio and bringing a positive impact on our business practices.
A most unexpected curveball happened in my career after hearing a simple question: “We have an opportunity for you. Would you be willing to relocate to Brazil?”
After a brief contact made by a headhunter in service for Wildlife Studios, my life took this unforeseen turn. In any other context, I would’ve politely declined and never hear from them again. Still, in 2019 I found myself in a place where, after 27 years working in the video games industry as a console developer and executive, I was contemplating retirement. I had seen (and done) a lot in my time in the games industry , and had I spent most of 2019 traveling the world, climbing mountains and having adventures to look for some new inspiration. I had had a lot of offers from European games companies, but those were mainly a “been there, done that” kind of thing.
The idea of taking a huge leap and working for this company in Brazil was unlikely at first, but actually took hold of me after I spoke to Mike (Mac-Vicar, Wildlife’s CTO) and one of their investors. I have worked with many great game developers and Technical experts, but I was seriously impressed after speaking to Mike. “Mick,” he said, “why don’t you fly out here and spend some time with the team, see how they work, and then tell me what you think?”.
He was right, what did I have to lose? If I did like it, it would be something new for me, and a real adventure. It’s hard to find someone who comes from the home console market, and develops AAA, and switches to the mobile gaming industry. I knew this would make it a great new challenge for me. If I didn’t like it, well, I would only need to board the next flight back to England and be done with this.
When I finally got here and met the team, I really liked it. Loved it, in fact.
My history here at Wildlife is a short one so far, especially if you compare it to other people with six, seven, nine years of work here. But in only nine months, I’ve managed to do so much that it does feel like I’ve been here for ages. You see, Wildlife was in a bit of a mixed spot when I joined: for one, it had so much data. on its hands, that it introduced an entirely new way of developing games to me. On the other hand, it lacked some key aspects that I felt were necessary to streamline the way that games were being made (more on that below).
But the good thing about Wildlife I learned from the very beginning is: this is a place full of hardworking and talented people, who are also humble, fun to be around and eager to learn. So I thought, “these guys will be fun to work with.” For me this is the most important thing, to have a great team to work with.
They were also somewhat of “a rough diamond,” if you will, because whilst they had great commitment and talent they also lacked a lot of experience as they had very few people who had actually worked in the games industry before joining Wildlife. So I decided this could be an interesting journey, and, having a shared passion with them for making great games, I decided to join in.
I was initially employed as head of Engineering. That made sense, mainly because I took the job under the impression that I would be working for Mike. But soon after joining, I noticed that, while they did have areas like Art and Engineering, they weren’t integrated in the way that they should be, they didn’t really have a gaming studio.
So I took this idea of unifying the game development, bringing in proper processes, structures, and methods. I discussed my thoughts with the executive team and in only my third week, Victor (Lazarte, our CEO) promoted me to head of the Game Studio. He agreed with me that we should build a new organizational structure, and construct a world class game development studio with a new development process for our games. No pressure, right?
CREATING GREAT GAMES: SAME GOAL, DIFFERENT PROCESS
There are a few key differences when developing a AAA game for a home console and a Free-to-Play game for a mobile device. When I was working as Vice President for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, our goal was not just to create the best games, but also to make the Playstation platform look great. With AAA, you’re typically designing and developing games across a two or three-year time span. You don’t use a lot of data during the design and development stages; there’s a lot of experience and design intuition involved, and you inevitably have to make a lot of big bets. The budgets and the timescales can be a lot bigger than mobile. That is changing as the mobile industry grows up, but on the whole AAA games is a hit driven business. Big risks, big rewards.
At Codemasters, although I made a few mobile games, I was also mostly making AAA console and PC games, except that this business was very focussed on just making racing games, as this was very much their specialty back then, and indeed still is. Developing games at Codemasters was a very specialised operation, completely focussed on the racing genre. We often worked to very tight timescales and with zero buffer. If we needed to launch a game in one year, then we could never afford to be late. The teams there work really hard to make great racing games and hit the launch dates. They are some of the best racing game teams in the world.
When I got to Wildlife, they told me that prototypes were usually built in only four weeks! Within eight weeks, it would be up in an app store, gathering data and feedback! This was amazing.
We use these early metrics to build a better design for a game, and — if I may ring our own bells here — it’s such a great way to create a new game. You have very rapid feedback and use data for improvement in a much better way than with console-based games. However, this process does lack some of the holistic design view of a AAA home console product. This is one of the things I’m trying to bring to Wildlife through my experience. I want to carefully integrate some of these AAA methodologies into our evolving game development process.
Before joining Wildlife I had made a number of mobile games, either companion apps for console games, or mobile racing games. It was never clear to me what it was that made the difference between these games, which were never hugely successful, and the top grossing games. After I came to Wildlife, it all started to fall into place, I realized that there is a huge difference in the approach of how to make the mobile games, and also how the games are marketed and distributed. Indeed there is a huge difference between making an average mobile game and a top grossing game as Wildlife has done so many times.
The business models between these two worlds are also very different, success for a console game might come when you make over a million sales, the best racing game we made sold over 4 million and was a big success for us. But on mobile it’s a different world, our game Sniper 3D now has over 400 million downloads! Of course the revenue models are quite different but the potential of mobile games is huge and the market is growing much more rapidly than the console of PC. Wildlife is now approaching 1 billion downloads on our games – this is just an incredible figure.
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT DATA AND GAME DEVELOPMENT
As you can see, I had many good reasons to join Wildlife but, in the end, the main one was the people. I found a combination of having a team that was intelligent, committed, passionate about making great games, and I thought, would be a great pleasure to work with. After nine months, I’ve found this to be true. I love my role at Wildlife, leading the Game Studio and taking the business forwards.
I’m already making quite a few big changes to improve how we make games, and the guys are passionate and great to work with. Our culture is ambitious and we’ve got plans to be one of the top three games studios in the world. This is obviously an ambitious goal, but I think we have all of the raw elements we need to get there and, if we work hard and in a smart way, I am confident that we will succeed.
Being completely honest with you: if you asked me a year ago if I saw myself working in a mobile gaming company or with mobile gaming at all, I would definitely answer “Of course not”. But I firmly believe that, in life, you have to be continually learning. So taking the leap into Wildlife gave me the best of both worlds: I can learn alot here about how to create top grossing mobile games, and also help to improve how we make games here using my experience of AAA games and also managing large successful game studios.
Wildlife has always had an incredible level of success. In nine years, Victor and Arthur took the business from the two of them coding in their mum’s house, with only $100 to a company of more than 600 people, worth over a billion dollars! They have made some of the most successful games on mobile. So one of my key aims was, at first, was to fully understand what the company was really good at, what was it that had brought them this level of success, once I understood this I could then identify where they could improve and bring systems to fix the things that were not working so well. I made sure that at every step of the way I included my teams in these discussions, being inclusive is critically important when making changes. Teams need to feel ownership of the changes in order to have buy-in, without that any changes are likely to fail in the long run.
Whenever you come into a business and try to make changes, it’s very natural for people to be afraid of change. Especially in a business that has been so successful in its relatively short history. Over the years, I learned that it’s really important to spend time listening to the teams, and learning what the business already does well, so you can preserve the things that have made the business successful while also identifying the areas in which you can drive meaningful changes.
REVIEWING OUR VALUES
One of the first things we discussed when I joined Wildlife were the company values. It was only my first week at the company, but I thought we could improve them.
So one day, when the management team were all together for an offsite in the Galapagos, I said to Victor: “we should redo our values”. Victor said “Let’s do it!”, and the next thing you know, we embarked on this great creative process.
I was very careful to be inclusive and bring all of the management teams opinions into the values, plus we brought over 120 people together across several different working groups to help us refine and create these new values. Because the staff were heavily involved in this, they felt ownership of it. It was theirs as much as it was ours. When we announced the new values to the company, I got a staff member to announce and explain each one. To show everyone that these were our values, we all believed in them and we all own them. That’s the secret to building a great company culture.
One of the things we are now working on is to improve our global brand. Before joining Wildlife, I had heard nothing about them, mainly because they had not been interested in promoting the company for many years. I can understand this, as they were very successful without any need to promote their brand. But to take the company to the next level, we want to bring in world class talent from all over the world and so having a recognisable brand is now important for us.
We want to create a loyal and happy player base of billions of players around the world. So last year, we rebranded the company and became Wildlife as you see it today. We’re now actively promoting the company to put us on the world stage.
We’ve already taken on some amazing talent from some of the most successful games studios in the world and this is only the beginning. We’re also going to increase the branding around our games so when people play one of our great games like Zooba or Tennis Clash, they will know Wildlife is behind it. This is important to build a loyal fan base over time, players that will be excited to hear about our new games.
We have also built an excellent Player Support and community management team in Dublin, who are greatly improving how we look after our fans. We even have VIP programs now to look after our most valued players, and this is proving so popular we are expanding this service to all of our main games. We’re much more active when we connect to our audiences nowadays.
The aim, obviously, is to create and gather fans that will get excited about our games. To make sure our players are happy and are being well looked after. We have influencers and gatherings that help us to get more organic downloads for our products and this connection is very important. We’re getting to know our players and what they want, fostering a Wildlife community – and this is all essential to accomplish our mission, to make games that will be played and remembered by generations.
SPEAKING OF FUTURE
Looking after our culture is one of the most important things about my job. How I manage my team, how I run, and promote the studio, it’s all being done with our company values in mind. They come across in everything we do. I live by these values, and my management teams work like that as well.
I think we’ve done a great job in bringing these values to our current Game Studio in São Paulo, and we’ll soon be starting our second major studio, growing a new team and starting with these values from the outset. By having a clear set of values and development process and rituals we can integrate new teams into the company effectively.
We’re also increasing our diversity and inclusion efforts. This will make us culturally richer and will help us to understand new audiences and make better design choices with our new games.
Looking ahead we have lots of things planned: we are busy creating a world-class dev studio in São Paulo. We’ll scale up the current operation so we can make more new games faster than we did before. We’re hard at work, bringing in new talented people with industry experience to accelerate the journey and help us not only to grow, but to grow smartly. These new experienced people will help us to develop our internal staff, accelerating their progress and helping us to scale the business in the best way. We’ll also be expanding globally, building and acquiring new studios across the world.
For sure, we have a real challenge to achieve our goals. But this is what makes it exciting and I believe we can do this. The thing that makes Wildlife amazing is: we have been hugely successful so far without the benefit of great processes and experience, so think about how much we can do now that we’re adding these great things to everything we’ve learned so far. There’s a huge potential for the future if we do this right – and we will do it together, and have fun and be committed at every step. We’re ready to nail it.