It is one of the most creative companies representing Slovakia in the world. Specifically, the world of games. When listing the best examples of Slovak technology firms worth of following, you will definitely find them among the first five, in a company of such names as Sygic, Aeromobil or ESET. Together with the CEO and co-founder, Simon Sicko, let’s discover the story of the 190-people gaming studio that brought the Trainstation to the world: Pixel Federation.
You started as an architect. When did you switch from designing houses to designing games?
It was when I realized it’s actually possible to make a living by designing games.
I grew up in a very visual family. Both of my parents were sculptors, one of my brothers as well, the other one a graphic designer. That’s why architecture was such a natural choice for me. Art itself was too little pragmatic for me, and what I liked about the architecture was its complexity. Right after finishing my school, I worked as an architect. I also received several awards, worked in Italy or the Czech Republic with top architects. However, I realized that in one moment it is all just going to consume you, you won’t have any other life, and to be honest, clients can also make it quite difficult.
When I had still been doing architecture and needed some break, I played with flash. The technology impressed me, and I developed several things for VUB Bank or Wustenrot. That’s when I learnt coding in Action Script 1, basic level. Later, I got approached by Slavo Hazucha as he needed some help with an elf architecture in one game he was working on. I wasn’t sure about doing such a work, but, eventually, they picked me and I did plenty of great work there.
When was the moment you started thinking about Pixel?
Slavo’s studio was soon bought by 10tacle. From my point of view, this German studio bought more developer companies than they could handle, and things were not looking good at that time for us. They started with cuts and many of us got fired.
Before 10tacle, I worked as a freelancer responsible for myself only and while working at the studio, I got a bad feeling that I was not able to influence anything there. My first motivation was to create something where we would have our own rules, where we would create new things and have our own responsibility. At that time, we got very encouraged by one of our friends, a consultant from the UK and former Fallout Tactics producer, Mark Teal. His encouragement together with our naivety moved us forward. I think otherwise we wouldn’t have made it.
Still, some of the people got scared, and so in 2007 there were four of us who finally founded Pixel. It wasn’t easy, and I had times when I was just sick of it. It was tough but at the same time we got good feeling that we were working on something on our won, responsible for ourselves and we couldn’t complain to anyone.
What have been the greatest challenges you have faced?
There were several of them. At the beginning, we started with B2B projects even though our main goal was to become an independent game developer. We wanted to earn some money and then go our own way. We even had several interesting clients such as ESET, Czech T-Mobile, Ubisoft or Navtec, to name a few, and we earned good money. And still we weren’t able to come up with enough money to launch B2C projects, to launch our own product.
At that time, one of our clients approached us with an investment proposal: “Guys, you’re extremely skilled, let’s do something about it!” We had no idea how to set up company’s shares, therefore, when we heard his proposal, we thought he wanted too little so we offered him more. Even though we were really unskilled, it all went well for all the concerned parties and the investor is still with us. The relationship is very transparent.
What about the other challenges?
Though there already was the investment, we still worked for others. We were, therefore, focused on two things at the same time and that´s an approach you cannot hold forever. In a certain moment, we had to make the decision and just stop the B2B and cut ourselves from this source of money. Since then, there would be no third party coming to save us, we had to only rely on ourselves.
The third important moment was when we realized we can’t only be a developer but we also need to publish our games. So we became a publisher. It inevitably came with a need to create a marketing strategy, for example, and that’s what we hadn’t thought about beforehand. Luckily, we found our platform. We analyzed the market and Facebook came out as the best option for us.
What have you – as a game designer who started in a small studio turned into a CEO of 180-emplyees company – learnt? What have you realized about yourself?
It´s already 190 of us! I’ve realized I am a naïve person. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If you’re a bit lucky, it can all lead to something so great as Pixel. It was Pixel that actually helped me to know myself better. You always learn about your strengths and weaknesses in critical situations.
I’ve also found out that I am not the most talented person in the universe but I am competitive enough and in critical moments I have an extreme endurance. My added value is that since 2007, I’ve been providing stable performance all the time. It´s not the worst, it´s not the best, but people can rely on me, “This is our Simon and he has no burnout downfalls”.
When I did my SWOT analysis, I found out I should forget about my weaknesses and delegate those to the top team that I can put together. As someone’s already said, A people bring A+ people. I learnt that if I have a chance to hire a skilled person, I should do it immediately and not worry about the person growing later a little too much over my head.
What’s your strategy when you look for skilled people?
One of our strategies is to be visible in the media. Once we agreed that I would be the face of Pixel and spread our success story, so we can become the mentor in our field. We don’t force anything via PR; we only speak openly with the media about our story and their feedback is positive. It’s mainly this visibility that leads the talented people to our doors. They want to work for us.
Recently, we’ve started to work on our company’s culture, which is more important than the product itself because the culture holds the team together. We’ve built our culture on “no bullshit” foundations. Each of our employees can easily check if what we communicate is actually true.
Also, we provide a lot of space to all the employees. If you´re skilled and you pitch an interesting idea, we can give you a team to develop the idea. To be honest, all the four new games we’ve come up with recently came from pitches of our colleagues. Of course, we discuss it together all the time but at the same time we give people a lot of space. And that´s what I think people appreciate the most.
Do you motivate people also by co-ownership or any other type of involvement on your projects?
We did have a few deals like this. One of them wasn’t successful because the project failed. Pixel got its fingers burnt on this one even though both sides did their maximum. I don’t want to talk too deeply about it as it’s still not closed yet but in the future we would like to motivate our people through the stock option, not only on the project level but on the company level.
When you hire new people, what are the qualities and skills you look for?
People are different. I come across a motivated person but with limited experience. Then there is this other group of people who have experience but are not motivated that much. And the last one are the superstars who are motivated and experienced. But there are just a few people like this.
Therefore, I rather hire a motivated person without experience because they gain the experience within one, one and a half year if I give them a right mentor. I don’t want to hire anyone demotivated because such a person is like a worm who can spoil the whole apple. I want to avoid such kind of people as soon as possible even if they are supertalents.
Most of the people from your team are Slovaks, correct?
Yes, most of them are Slovaks. But there are also Americans, Dutchmen, Ukrainian and Hungarians. Currently, we are thinking of opening a new bureau outside Slovakia. We have to do some analysis. I’ve had a few talks with people who had already been in this stage before, and they kind of warned us that opening a new bureau in a different time zone is not a double work but four time that same work. So we are currently finding out how it can all work, because we would like to have experts from abroad and 99% of them won’t come to Bratislava. We are prepared to switch into English, if necessary. Sure it would be a pain with the old projects but it can be a way.
What are your further plans? What are you currently working on?
Last year, we struggled with the seamless version of Trainstation for mobile phones and tablets which development was prolonged over one year. Therefore we weren’t able to finish any project and that made us quite unhappy. This year, however, we’ve been already working on four different projects. Actually, we also delivered Seaport this year so that’s 5 new projects from Pixel.
We are also testing new platforms, benchmarking a lot with Electronic Arts. Not because of their culture or quality of their games but because they are able to use any platform with different genres and types of games. Our games are eligible on browsers, Facebook, mobile phones and tablets. Our next step will be VR and Steam. There are two games on Steam. One is the Morning Man, for which we have already received an award. The second one is Galactic Junk League, where you build your own rockets as in Minecraft but a little prettier. We have big plans with it as we can scale it pretty well.
Switching to new engines is also on the schedule, specifically Unity and Unreal. That’s a huge technology change for us. Currently, the game called CoLab for Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift is in the approval process. They got also a mention in The New York Times.
The last project to be mentioned is Fable Clinic. We wanted to try the Candy Crush genre even though the market is very saturated. But the concept is good. It’s something like the cartoon series called Once upon a time…Life where we educate people about how the immunity system works.
How do you see the future of games? How much will they be influenced by VR/AR?
That´s a good question. Recently, Elon Musk said that the probability that we don’t live in a virtual reality created by some alien civilization is 1:1 000 000 000. Maybe all our life is just a big game:)
I think there will be a time in either close or distant future when the gaming industry will merge with other different industries; people might even be able to generate GDP through games.
The VR will change the perspective of games because they will be able to bring experiences on a real level. I am sure games will be used in education. The question is what will the general AI do with all this.
I’m wondering how do you split your time as the CEO. Can you maybe say how the tasks in your daily schedule look like in percentage?
I think my time is split into three parts. One third I spend with the shareholders like investors and so on. That´s maybe 10% of my time. Then there is the “front-end” where I do some kind of PR and act as Pixel’s mascot. That’s, I suppose, 60% of time. I have to say it is currently going all over my head, it’s just too much. And the rest 30% is back-end, which is approximately one and a half day. I spend one whole day on our board meeting making important decisions. And the half day, I have one to one meetings with the managers. Also, once a month I have meetings with our superstars.
However, if I want to also count my overnight shifts, it would all go in favor of the back-end. I would like to turn the numbers a little bit and spend like 60% on back-end and minimize the shareholder and front-end.
You have a great ability to do things, to approach masses and create your own business. You said that you support internal projects. Have you, as the Pixel, ever thought about any acceleration program?
I have a feeling that gaming industry is really experiencing its boom in Slovakia right now, and we are ready to help or give an advice to anyone. On the other hand, I don’t think we are mature enough to become an accelerator or incubator. That would probably defocus us even though it’s a very good idea in general. Supercell is a good example. They have 180 people and valuation of a few billions. They do things on a small scale but in a perfect quality. Speaking metaphorically, we could split our current activities and become a café lungo, but so far I’d rather remain the ristretto.
You, personally, are also an investor, active in different startups and initiatives. What do you see as the biggest problem with Slovak startups? What do they do right and what do they do wrong?
There are plenty of brilliant ideas; the problem is usually the execution. An idea without execution is worth nothing. You don´t need to focus on unimportant things, you need to find priorities. If I need to generate revenues, I need to focus on that and pivot. People are naturally afraid of changes.
What I miss in Slovak startups is certain flexibility. They are fixed on one idea even if it doesn’t work. But the essential part of being an entrepreneur is generating revenue. The right vision, as I call it, should be to make a “happy profit”. It means that I do what makes sense to me, what I like, and along the way I generate profit. That’s the long term vision. As Pixel, we changed everything and failed all the time in the past but at the same time we knew that at the end of the day we need to find some area where we´d generate profit.
Do you have a general advice for a Slovak who would like to move things forward?
My general advice would be not to think about being a Slovak but rather a citizen of this planet. You need to travel and see many things. And I don’t mean only Silicon Valley. You don’t need to be afraid. From my perspective, we, Slovaks, are as skilled and as dumb as Americans are. Or any other nation. Maybe we’re just a bit shyer.
In Slovakia, the general rule is that people never forgive you two things – success and failure. And this is what needs to be changed. If we wouldn’t have been successful with Pixel, we would have probably just closed it. I don’t think anyone in Slovakia would have given us money anymore. This kind of thinking needs to change not only with investors but also with people. You always learn from your failures and you still have a second or third try. When we first managed to create something meaningful, it was actually on our fifth try. So you just need to look for people and investors who can understand this.
Photos: Simon Sicko & Pixel Federation