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The Working Culture and Hiring Practices at ROCKFISH Games

ROCKFISH Games CEO Michael Schade has told us about the company's working organization and hiring approaches, discussed the role of independence in the studio's culture, and talked about the peculiarities of Hamburg's game development market.

Introduction

Hi! I’m Michael Schade, CEO and Co-Founder at ROCKFISH Games. We’re a small studio with around twenty team members based here in Hamburg and another dozen artists, designers, and marketing professionals scattered around the world. We’re best known for making fast-paced space action games for PC and consoles, including the recently released critically-successful Everspace 2.

Getting into the gaming industry was a roundabout journey for me. I studied machine engineering at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg in the early nineties. This is where I met Christian Lohr, who became my best friend and long-term business partner. We were among the first to use CAD on ridiculously expensive Silicon Graphics computers to render simple 3D images in real time, something that used to take an entire weekend for just one frame on my Amiga 500. A few years later, you could do pretty much the same as pre-rendered animation on 486 intel PCs using a render farm. We were blown away, dropped out of uni, and started our first studio specializing in architectural visualization because there was a demand for such services. We became one of the leading CGI studios in Germany, and in the early 2000s, we were using Virtools, a French game engine that featured something like blueprints in today’s Unreal Engine already, to do architectural visualization in real time.

Ironically, only a few commercial games were made with Virtools, but Dassault Systems, the mother company with a background in aerospace engineering, pivoted into the field we were coming from, while we entered the gaming scene through making brand games for Renault and BMW Mini. The latter was the world’s second 3D J2ME game for mobile phones (Ridge Racer from Namco was the first), pre-loaded on Sony Ericsson mobile phones. 

Although this game looked like a simple isometric, PS1-style racing title, I immediately saw a similar pattern and predicted a coming revolution in 3D mobile gaming. So, we dropped offering architectural visualization services and started a new studio specializing in bringing console gaming experiences to mobile phones – a move kickstarted by a significant deal from Sony Ericsson to develop five compelling 3D mobile game demos to be pre-loaded on their phones. We made two racing games, a flight combat game, a first-person shooter, and a football penalty shoot-out game all within 12 months – it was crazy!

However, this was just the beginning! To support more mobile phone models, which was vital to get your games listed on mobile operator stores worldwide, we created our own game engine using the more common JSR-184 3D API as well as the Mascot Capsule 3D that gave Sony Ericsson a competitive advantage over Nokia & Co. I spare the technical details, but we were one of just a handful of studios fully optimizing for both standards, which gave us a significant technical competitive advantage. In 2008, our previous studio was not only the one with the world’s best mobile game, Rally Master Pro (9.43), but also with the highest average rating of 9.16 for our portfolio. Here’s the kicker: nobody in our team had any prior experience in making video games, and most of the core team members from there are still with us here today.

The Organization at ROCKFISH Games

Unlike most other small-to-mid-sized game studios, my business partner and I are not game designers, artists, or programmers. Rather, we run the studio together as a tight managing team, with Christian focusing on finance and operations while I’m responsible for sales and marketing. We give our team certain cornerstones within which they can create our games the way they prefer, meaning our team owns the vision of the titles we’re making.

Our producers and project managers then build timelines based on our release goals and team feedback with a lot of freedom, yet at the same time, responsibility for each team member. Therefore, each of the teams, from game design, narrative, art, programming, UI/UX to sound, have quite a bit of visibility as to what’s being worked on. We keep communications open on Slack and Confluence so that changes in plans are clear to all and everyone is in the loop on important decisions.

As we grow, members of the team are starting to specialize more, but many people at ROCKFISH wear multiple hats, some of which are cross discipline. Programming, Design, and our Art and Narrative teams all work very closely together on our projects alongside our Community team. Our Marketing team tends to work further afield as they set up promotions and opportunities months in advance, but always circles back to check in with the development team to ensure their communications are as accurate as possible.

Many of the ROCKFISH Games team worked together at a prior studio working on a decade of award-winning 3D mobile games with an in-house engine, so moving to Unreal Engine was a calculated choice. EVERSPACE was our debut title on PC and console at our new studio, so there were a ton of new things for us to learn. Not only learning the ropes in Unreal Engine, but also all the hurdles of development for those new platforms. What really called us to the engine was the team’s excitement about the flexibility of Unreal and that using it would allow us to push technical limits on much more powerful hardware.

Hamburg's Game Development Market

Game development is a growing industry in Germany and Hamburg in particular! There are a diverse range of studios and publishers in our city creating titles for PC, Console, and mobile platforms – including ourselves, our former studio Fishlabs, InnoGames, Daedalic, Goodgame, Gamigo, but also established indies like THREAKS (Beat Buddy) or newcomers like Osmotic (Orwell series). Then, we also have subsidiaries of Capcom, Square Enix, and Warner Bros. Entertainment as well as game service providers like toneworx (voice recording) or Periscope (localisation) and many other game-related companies, large and small, call Hamburg home.

In particular, it’s been great to see support for small studios here. Hamburg was the first German state to introduce prototype funding for young teams – a process I’ve been a part of as a challenging, but fair, judge—to help new studios reach the next level.

Furthermore, Google, Facebook, Valve, Razer, and Roccat have their German or even main European offices here. Last but not least, Germany’s biggest entertainment channel on Twitch, Rocketbeans TV, is just around the corner of our office, so we had the pleasure of being invited to their shows several times.

The Role of Independence in the Company's Culture

Independence means many things for our team. ROCKFISH Games is 100% owned by myself and my co-founder, Christian Lohr, so we have no shareholders demanding products be released on a timeframe simply to meet financial goals rather than focusing on making a quality game. This means we can be more flexible than some other studios – namely if what we’re working on does not meet our quality standards, delaying a game or update release or holding off to add a feature the team is particularly passionate about can be done without having to negotiate with a partner.

Independence means we don’t chase trends. The team here excels at making fast-paced spaceship combat games and it makes sense, for now, to keep making titles that our community expects of us. We may pull elements from other genres into our games. Everspace 2 incorporates many RPG leveling and crafting aspects, for example, but by focusing on what we’re good at, we can continue creating games we love.

Independence also means we have to be mindful of what we’re doing, partnerships we’re creating, and the marketing we’re investing in. We don’t have the safety net of being under the umbrella of an owner group or publisher, so our successes and any failures are our own.

Hiring New Specialists

With remote work more of a possibility now than ever, there is no shortage of talented people around the globe. Team fit is everything – we want to have people at ROCKFISH who are enthusiastic about what we’re making, can communicate their ideas and opinions well with others without naysaying others, and generally bring a positive attitude to the team. We’d rather have someone who’s great at what they do and fits well with the team than a “rockstar” who we have to work around rather than with.

Soft skills are underappreciated in the gaming and technology industries. There are many applicable skills, but at a high-level being able to write well, communicate with others, document their work, share ideas in a constructive way, and proactively think about how their work affects the team are all things we look for in a potential hire.

Creating a Welcoming Atmosphere

Although our core team is based here in Hamburg, we switched to being a very remote-forward studio during covid. Even now, most team members choose to work from home over the studio. As part of this switch, we’ve had to build new internal communication strategies that encourage team members to work cross department and these learnings apply to onboarding new team members.

New ROCKFISH members are paired with leads and people within their team as they’re onboarded. Every month, we have a team BBQ where Hamburg residents come together to chat about what they’ve been working on and enjoy time as a team. Remote members frequently set up calls to stay informed, share what they’re working on, and socialize. At least once a year, we make sure to fly in all our colleagues who live abroad and spend some time together with the entire team.

We encourage cross team communication, especially in our Slack channels, not only to keep people informed but also to ensure we all know each other. As a team of 25-ish, we’re currently hiring so that number keeps changing. We should all feel comfortable being able to open a conversation with anyone else at the studio. 

Avoiding Burnout

The best way to manage burnout is to prevent it by addressing the issues that cause the problem ahead of time. Crunch culture is prevalent through the gaming industry and it is something we strive to not let take root in our studio.

As much as we try to avoid them, tight deadlines do happen due to plan changes, people getting sick, and other factors. Depending on the level of stress a deadline is causing, we may choose to delay features, as projects built under burnout conditions often do not turn out well. If necessary, we usually find ways to literally buy the team more time to deliver on their vision. When a deadline cannot be shifted, we’re also willing to cut features and add them later to the game or even cut those entirely.

Thoughts on Freedom and Education

Within the studio, we try to give team members a lot of flexibility to do their job as efficiently as possible and listen when new processes are suggested. While it is always a balancing act, and we can’t take every idea and changing existing processes or adopting new tools with significant cost, our team is really good in making clever decisions and acting responsibly with the time and financial resources at our disposal, which even more important when you don’t have a financial safety net from a big investor or publisher.

The leadership team gives the greater ROCKFISH team input into our strategic decisions, especially any involving timelines. As CEO, I want to know if a deadline is worth setting as a goal and what potential features the team might be able to add if they have more time. Likewise, I work to communicate why we might want to have particular dates for launches, so the team has a good idea of why they might be working towards a set deadline.

When push comes to shove, the team understands that I have to make the final decision because, at the end of the day, I carry full responsibility for everything we do.

We encourage our team to be excited about what they do and part of that is opening doors for growth. When opportunities to learn come up, such as a conference, seminar, or project experimenting with a new tool, we try to find ways to make these things happen. Similarly, if someone in the studio has an interest in developing a new skill set, we attempt to find projects that fit to give them the opportunity to grow. 

Advice for Beginners

An up-to-date portfolio showing relevant work is the first thing we’ll look at. We see many applicants from all over the globe sending in applications even when we don’t have postings open and it’s all too easy to set aside someone who has a great resume if we don’t immediately see how their work will mesh with the project. Artists who have a large and varied portfolio may want to call out particular pieces they feel might be relevant. Of course, having great passion for cutting-edge sci-fi art is a must for us, but we appreciate top-notch modern warfare, hard-surface work, moody environments, and excellent character art of any kind, too.

When it comes to the interview stage, we always love hearing about process and inspirations—come prepared to speak to both of those things. Questions about what we’re working on are great too! We like talking about how we work and the games we’ve made! Last but not least, we need to make sure that we share the same passion for making the next killer space combat/exploration game together as a super strong team always punching way over our weight.

Michael Schade, CEO and Co-Founder at ROCKFISH Games

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    Hello. I wonder soft skills in company and welcoming atmosphere are connected with default rejection letter. Having spent half a year  creating a cool spaceship just to receive "Thank you again for considering us.." second time in a row (standard letter, I mean) and so on is a bit disappointing. And then this article about "we are so great place to work" company.

    0

    Anonymous user

    ·11 months ago·

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