We had the pleasure of interviewing Michail Katkoff, CEO of Savage Games Studios and Founder of Deconstructor of Fun. Savage Games is a studio focused on becoming the premiere developer for mobile-based shooters, while Deconstructor of Fun is a blog, podcast, and advisory company that specializes in breaking down free-to-play games and what makes them successful. In this conversation, we discuss his lessons from working at companies like Supercell and Zynga, how Deconstructor of Fun and writing has opened new doors in his career, his work balancing building a studio with running DoF and much more. This is an edited and abbreviated transcript. Enjoy!

Source: SmugMug

Intro and Career

In today’s episode I have the pleasure of speaking with Michail (Miska) Katkoff. If you’re an avid listener of the podcasts about the gaming industry, you should probably know Miska, because he’s the founder of Deconstructor of Fun, and he blesses us weekly with a podcast about gaming news called This Week in Games, and he’s also the cofounder and CEO of Savage Game Studios where he’s currently in the process of building a mobile shooter. Miska, welcome to the Metacast. Most important question: what game are you currently playing?

Our own game, of course. I play it every week, because we have weekly play tests. Also, all kinds of shooters. Call of Duty Mobile is the game we're currently playing. I'm playing a little bit of Mech Arena as well. If you ever listen to Deconstructor of Fun podcast, you know that I play Teamfight Tactics. 

Could you give us a short summary of the positions that you’ve held in the game industry prior to Savage?

I started as an associate product manager back in the days when mobile games wasn't a thing, starting in Helsinki at a company called Digital Chocolate. We were making Facebook games. From PM to senior PM, I learned how to: learn on the job, hire new people, make a game, ship and operate the game, train a PM to take over my position to start a new game. That was an amazing learning experience. I only later realized that a lot of people don't have the whole lifecycle experience from coming up with an idea, selling it to the management, getting greenlit, going through all the stages of production, putting it live after a soft launch, scaling it, and then training another person to take over.

After the second game, it was clear in 2012 that the whole Facebook gaming era was about to be over. The KPIs were totally different on our second game. The second game tanked, and I began looking into mobile and joined Rovio. A lot of people were going there and I was hired as a monetization manager, before I became the executive producer. I wanted to show monetization, so I asked them to give me the worst game in their portfolio, which was Angry Birds Rio. We were the first team to add boosters into a mobile game. We added daily bonuses, notifications, and some monetization mechanics. Eventually we took it away, making it fully free. As a result, this game became the best performing game.

I was then put on another game called Croods. It was the first fully free-to-play game at Rovio. The management thought that it was a game that was almost done, but it wasn’t even close. It was a typical death march — crunched to launch something that doesn’t work, just to see it sink, but hit the deadline. Very unfortunate experience. At the same time, Supercell had pivoted from web browser games to mobile. I ended up joining Supercell as a product manager doing growth for Clash of Clans. After Supercell I joined Zynga as an EP, working on a big mobile game in a big corporation. It was changing everything -- new people, new style of making games, because in Finland everybody makes the games in a certain way, it's a very mobile culture. Adapting to that and taking ownership of the game in a company that wasn’t doing well at the time. 

We finally got the game to soft launch through a death march, and I was like, "I want to focus on building teams." I felt really passionate about starting all over from scratch. FunlPlus gave me the opportunity. I was able to build a studio, hire a lot of people who I worked with at Zynga. That was a fantastic experience. It taught me a lot about building studios. I built it with the people I knew. Then we decided to move back to Finland. I joined Rovio. First, as head of product, then head of studio, and then I decided I want to do something from the ground up, because changing existing games is very difficult. 

What It Means to Be a PM in Games

With your experience as PM, do you think the PM is the best role to start a career in the gaming space?

Not everyone can be a PM, just like not everyone can be an artist or a programmer. It's one way to start your career if you have a business background. If you have a business background, product marketing and user acquisition are the best ways for you to get into games. To grow into an executive position, this is the best track. 

You said that PM isn't for everyone. What does it take to become successful at being a PM?

First, longevity of the career is dependent on how much you like games. There's a lot of tourists in this industry. On the PM side, you can come in from a consulting or banking background, and get into product management. To have longevity, you have to be in love with games and the industry.

Secondly, you have to deconstruct games, break them down. Think about a game you're playing, and think about how it could earn 2x revenues. The thing what a product manager does is to break big goals into a lot of smaller goals. For example, to double the revenue: Can I increase the daily active players? Can I increase the retention by increasing the daily returning users? Can I increase the number of new players? Now let's talk about our user acquisition strategy. That could be retention. Then you start looking at the numbers of your game. Through that, you're able to put in a lot of small attainable goals for the team to go after. What the product managers do is they focus the work on meaningful elements.

Thirdly, a product manager must understand the marketing. Any PM who has worked on a live game understands how important it is to be in control of the players that are coming to your game. You've got to have an understanding of the audience and marketing, how they work, how to leverage it, how to work in collaboration with your marketing team. Those are super important. Without these component, you'll be optimizing for an audience that will tank your game.

Here are some things that you shouldn't do as a PM — don't try to code. You don’t win any points by opening up your Unity and showing your Unreal engine. It doesn't matter how much time you invest. You'll still be the worst programmer in the whole building. Don't be a designer. There are designers for this. If you try to be a designer, you're not as good. You should be setting goals, not designing the goals. Don't be a producer. For that, you need a person, a producer, to focus on it. Don't be a UX designer. This is what PMs also often do. Finally, this is a big misconception — you're not a data scientist. Yes, you have to be good with math and you have to understand different tools. There are data scientists that you can hire who solely do that work. What you should be doing is goal setting, understanding the landscape, and breaking down goals.

You have to understand all of these elements of what the team does and how games are made. The most important thing is to keep asking questions, form relationships with everyone, because you're building a network and you're trying to be a leader. The goal is showing what's the next hill that the team has to take in order to move forward.

What are 2-3 lessons you took away from some of your experiences that you described before?

Back then, the games were going up like rocket ships. You didn’t need to do anything, everything worked. There were some mistakes done in the games that only later on could be understood, like multiple builders in Clash of Clans. Everybody was copying Supercell, but that was bad, because the timers went up significantly. You have these one or two week long tiers, and they cost a lot to skip, so that killed the conversion. It's a bad idea. The hero characters were a bad idea. All these things were bad as standalone ideas, but when you put them in the game, they were fantastic.

At Zynga, they would talk about dogs that they sold in Farmville 2, and how many millions it made when they introduced pets into that game. The game was the thing. People loved the game. When you put the pets into that game, that was amazing, but the pets themselves don't make that game. There were so many people who couldn't extract the fact that they were successful because the platform was successful.

Either you win or you learn.

Whatever you did, it's always good.

Exactly. That's how you have to approach it. The people who have the failures, they can tell you how they felt and that they will never do that again. That's a learning. But when you talk to a person who has been working on a smash hit, it's a human approach where you only correlate, "I did this and it worked." Hence, what I did was good. That's logical. My first game was successful. I did the same thing for the second game, and it failed. That was my learning experience. Every game is different.

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The Impact of Deconstructor of Fun

Early in your career you started Deconstructor of Fun and blogging about games. What's the story behind that?

I was always taking notes about different games. I would break down the economy and share my knowledge to people. People seemed to really appreciate it. As with anything, if you're successful in one thing, then you continue doing it. At Rovio, every week I was invited to the meetings with the CEO and CFO. We were going through the portfolio. They wanted my analysis on stuff. There were two things in how I started blogging. It was a way to do better notes. I started putting them out on a blog and making them public. Through that, the notes were becoming better and better. Then it blew up. 

Ten years in, we’re still doing it. 

Did it influence your career in other ways?

Yes, it influenced it significantly. There's both good and bad. I've gotten tremendous amount of opportunities through it. There were moments in my life when I wasn’t blogging anymore. I just wanted to concentrate on building games. At some point, these things just bottle up. I noticed that I wasn’t learning if I wasn’t writing. If I write about it, think about it for many days and really concentrate, then I can analyze, put it out, and come up with a thesis. That thesis stays with me forever. If some of the posts have been read a million times, I don't care about it. I care about learning and I still only care about learning.

I saw your free to play mobile games industry predictions for 2021. What trends are you seeing in this space? I'm interested in one that you think that most people underestimate.

I can predict which companies are going to get sold and which subgenres are going to get filled up, and where the CPI is. Across platforms, it's huge, especially with strategy and RPG. Crypto is becoming bigger and bigger. We're just now understanding the use cases of it, like the fact that you can make an item an NFT: That item can be sold multiple times inside the game from one player to another. With every transaction inside your game, the company that made the item, a limited set of items, is earning money. In the future, more and more companies will be started with that perspective in mind, rather than adapting it on the go. 

You said that you saw an opening for games that offer an opportunity to play with others and have rewarding sessions without the high pressure of player versus player environment. Could you elaborate?

This is for our own game. It's basic product placement. It's not only understanding the market, but it's also understanding the player base. When we were looking at the shooter genre, we looked at the existing shooter outside mobile. One thing that came clearly through the research was that a lot of the people who are playing current shooters aren’t in it for the player versus player. In fact, they don't like it. They like playing with others, but not against others, which is crazy.

There were other very interesting facts that came out through the audience research. Honing in on your players, being player-first, whatever values other companies have. It's testing the concepts, understanding the audience, understanding what they're doing right now, where there could be an opening. 

On Being a CEO of a New Company

You saw that opening and from there you decided to start building a game that fits in that space. How did your experience begin? We talked a lot about being a PM. How does that translate into your current role as a CEO?

Nobody starts their career as a CEO. Where most of the CEOs make a mistake, including myself, is that we dial back to what we know. Maybe I can do better decks than most of your average CEOs. Or maybe I can talk numbers better than any average CEO, but I don't want to be a product designer of this game. The team does it. I need to give people the space to do their own thing. I can only ensure that they have the tools, and challenge them with questions.

When can we expect to be able to play something?

We're making this type of a game by making a shooter game. It's a lot of work. We're approaching it from a perspective of building our shooter engine first, so it's on top of the Unreal. Building a shooter engine that feels and plays well is crucial. Even if the first game fails, which they often do, you can still build around a strong engine. We've been focusing on that core. We've been running our tests. What I love about our production process is there has been only one Friday where we didn't have a build to play as a team. The next step is to improve it with external players, so we're doing our play test, cloud tests, and after that we're entering the core loop tests, a retention test, and then monetization.

How do you manage to juggle your responsibilities? CEO is one of the most time-demanding jobs there are. You're still doing work for the DOF as well. How do you manage to do that?

The DOF isn't that much work. We do a couple of podcasts a week.  As a CEO, I would assume you have to read a little bit of news. Invest an hour or two to that. The other ones are just talking to people in the industry. I get to choose who's coming on the podcast, and we get to talk about the topic of my choosing, whether it's cross promotion, creative optimization, or building one of the top shooter games.

Apart from that, I do the predictions. Even with the advisory clients, we get to choose who we work with. If there's a very interesting company that does shooters, why not talk shop about making shooters for somebody who makes great shooters? There isn’t much happening outside of content creation.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received on building a game studio? 

I've had so many discussions with so many amazing people who have built their studios and their companies. I've gotten the advice that "You should be laser-focused, " "You should have outside activities as well." This came from two people who were both very successful in what they did, and both had contradicting advices. The best advice that I could give you is just be open, do what you feel is right, listen to everybody, take everybody's feedback, then make your own decision and stay with it. This is my advice that I'm trying to give myself, is stay the course.

 Could you give us a bold prediction about something in the games industry?

I think we're at the height of heights. There's going to be some hard years ahead, because it's overheated.

All of it. The economy is overheated and that's why the money keeps pouring into more riskier investments like games. The valuations are absurd with everything. Now things are booming. It's the rowdy 20s. What happens when the music stops?

The bold prediction is the companies that haven't been able to validate their businesses, whether they're the NFTs or the metaverses or even some game companies that aren't profitable, they're going to tank. There's a rebirth happening once in a while. I'm constantly waiting for when we're going to take that leap from one platform to another, for something else to emerge and something to die. VR was very small. Everybody was expecting it to happen, and it didn't. So I'm waiting when the next rebirth cycle.

Thank you, Miska.