“I’ve been playing consoles since I was three — now I create games worth $1 million.” The story of the Head of Innovecs Gaming
Oleksii Isaiev heads the Gaming department at Innovecs, ranked among the best outsourcers in the world. Prior to his joining, the five-member department worked on two projects. Today, it is a full-fledged studio developing games for Supersonic, Jam City, and Zynga. The annual turnover of Innovecs Gaming is $11 million.
The original version was published in the Ukrainian MC.today where Oleksii shared how he built a gaming studio and why there is no feeling of a “ceiling” in the gaming industry. Below is the English version of the article for our readers.
I spent all my money on computers and books about games
I have loved games since childhood. At the age of three, I played consoles, and at the age of four, I got a computer. As a student, I spent all my savings on equipment and books on how games work. I explored each game in detail — what the hooks were and how the developers achieved them.
Upon graduation, I decided to find a job in the gaming industry. At that time, I had no experience: I could only create simple game cards (design game levels in special programs — game editors). I learned this by myself because I wanted something new, specifically, to customize characters or rules.
But I knew the theory of game creation quite well. Maybe that’s why I was hired by a small IT company that created games for slot machines. I worked there for four years as a project manager. During that time, I realized what real game development looks like, how long each stage takes, and why testing matters a lot: players will not waste time on games that don’t work. That’s also where I mastered Agile.
Later on, friends invited me to their EJaw startup to develop mobile games. Just like in any startup, I combined several roles there: product manager, game designer, tester, and customer service manager. That is how I fully studied the whole process of game development, being engaged in almost every stage.
From idea to real game: finding my dream job
One of our games was similar to Empires and Puzzles — a mobile game with battles, puzzles, characters, and magic. The development went great: every morning we started by discussing who completed what level and the ways we could improve our product.
We had many plans, but after talking to publishers, the project had to be put on hold. It took more resources than we could afford to complete. This could affect our outsourcing projects, so we ceased the development. I have come to realize the following: before moving on to compiling metrics, you need to learn to control the scale of development.
Until the age of 30, I managed game development in several studios and the Ukrainian game company, Timecode. Then, I received a call from a childhood friend, a leading game developer at Innovecs. He said that he had recommended me for the position of head of the game department. That’s how I found myself at Innovecs Gaming: the gaming department consisted of five people working with a couple of clients.
We don't have turnover, and the team has grown dozens of times
To put together a great Innovecs Gaming team, I needed to:
- Define the focus. We were good at designing, developing, and creating graphics for games with rules that were clear to a wide audience. I decided not to spread ourselves too thin in other formats.
- Create convenient conditions. I asked my teammates what they lacked for work and how I could help. The sun was in the eyes of one artist, while another one had constant equipment issues. I transferred the first to another office and replaced the hardware for another. Also, each newcomer had a manager for the onboarding period to support and answer questions.
- Abandon project work. We did not hire employees for a specific game, but for a company. Each of them became part of Innovecs, could choose a project to their liking, and not be afraid of losing their jobs after delivering the game.
In two years, we have grown tenfold: now Innovecs Gaming employs about 200 people. Over 60 employees work in teams that create games from scratch: game designers, artists, animators, managers, technical artists, testers, and programmers. Also, there are teams that help client studios finish their products. Today, our department has the lowest turnover in the company and makes only 10%. Such a percentage is lower than the market average.
How I realized it was time for my improvement
One of the biggest issues I faced while growing a team was the delegation of responsibilities. I have always worked in a team, and even when I became the head, I was still involved in all the processes. Apparently, this was an impostor syndrome: I was afraid of missing something crucial.
That is how I became the main threat to the effective work of the entire department. During quarantine, I would join four calls simultaneously. I coordinated the delivery of equipment for employees, talked to the clients, and negotiated the idea of a new game with two other teams. I was advised to hire more managers, but I had no idea how to organize training time, so I did everything myself.
This approach made it very difficult to scale and grow. During the day, one can make only a few calls, write a couple of documents, and help only with urgent questions. But later on, with the support of the Innovecs team, I learned to quickly train other managers and, most importantly, trust them.
20x more projects: Supersonic and Zynga customers
Although Innovecs was well known in the market as a service IT company, it was not easy to attract new customers to the gaming studio. I also assisted in this search: I went to conferences in Europe, met potential customers, then wrote them proposals to LinkedIn.
In communicating with clients, I came up with three basic rules:
- Don’t promise unless you are 100% sure. If you are only semi-confident in the timing, be honest about it: “This will be ready in two months, and then we will draw out a work plan for four more.” The team should not spend nights in the office because of unrealistic promises.
- Do not tell why something will not happen, but how we will achieve the result. At first, when I warned clients about possible risks for the project, I immediately listed all the unusual situations that may occur. But we need to focus on solving problems.
- Speak and write briefly. No one has time to read large blocks of text.
One of our clients from Australia decided to create sports poker. This is an intellectual game, like chess, except cards are used instead of chess pieces. They had to choose between us and another company, so they offered a test task — a game project. Within a month, we presented the finished architecture, technical documents, and a four-month work plan with a budget and team members. We could not calculate the work on the whole project, because the game design of the project was not fully developed. However, we provided a real and clear action plan and overtook competitors.
In three years, we have increased the number of projects by 20 times. Now, the global stars of the gaming industry such as Supersonic, Jam City, and Zynga are among our clients.
Our department has grown into a high-grade gaming studio, greatly influencing the overall success of Innovecs: we have $11 million in annual turnover. We are currently running about 40 projects, some of which exceed $1 million. And our average check is $300,000.
The gaming market is not boring
Everyone has started to play during quarantine: since 2020, the global gaming market has grown by 20% and is now worth almost $180 billion. I think, in the next 5-7 years, growth will double. The gaming market is in dire need of new professionals, not only developers but also managers.
For those who are considering such a career, I recommend the following:
- Decide whether you like to play or create games. To develop a game, it is imperative that you love to play. But you don’t have to be a developer to enjoy games. When you see games being born, some magic will dissipate.
- Play and analyze. Try to understand what you enjoy the most in the game. Probably, in Counter-Strike, shooting is not the only thing you like. Maybe you are happy when you beat someone. Why not add opponents to your game?
- Try things out. Feel free to watch training videos on your chosen game engine. You will be surprised to find out how many new ideas you will have.
- Read a lot. You can start with Jesse Shell’s book, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Second Edition. Or podcasts: for example, Game Maker Toolkit, Game Dev Unchained, Game Dev Breakdown.
- Get a technical education. With a technical degree, it is much easier to start programming or drawing professionally.
The atmosphere at Innovecs helps people to grow. Everyone can be trained and participate in masterclasses and conferences. We enjoyed presentations by Netflix developers, Forrester analysts, and recently held discussions with gaming visionary and former CTO IBM Esports and Video Games, Billy Le Voir-Barry.
There are communities where employees from different departments learn from each other. For example, an artist comes to the developers and says, “I want to program, what should I do?” The teammates will help determine the purpose, select special materials, books, and tasks. If there is a group of ten people with similar requests, the Learning & Development center organizes free training.
The office is arranged so that everyone can reboot and relax. I go to our own gym and get a massage. Everyone can choose a community of interest: for example, investment or running. Recently, a hockey team and a chess club were organized. In total, Innovecs has over a dozen communities.
I have big plans for Innovecs Gaming: I want the studio to at least double and gain a solid position in the Western market. Besides, I want my team to feel comfortable and have exciting projects. This is my top priority.