Frontiers beckon the bravest as fortune favors the bold. One of the seismic cultural shifts of the last decade has been the rise of the gaming and esports industry. It has outgrown its escapist reputation to become a nearly $160 billion global market. What used to be the stereotypical domain of teenagers, now vies for mainstream influence with traditional media and institutions of power. Take fashion headlines, for example. British powerhouse Burberry showed its latest collection on Twitch, a messenger platform exclusive to the gaming community. Louis Vuitton unlocked a collaboration with League of Legends while Marc Jacobs checked-in at Animal Crossing as did Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. In 1964, American psychiatrist Eric Berne published a provocative bestseller Games People Play claiming that “pastimes and games are substitutes for the real living of real intimacy.” Fast forward half a century and our understanding and experience of individual relationships and community dynamics have been enhanced by the complexity of digital interactions and shared virtual spaces.
To better understand the profound appeal and impact of “games” I turned to someone whose passion as a player powered his knowhow as a developer and an investor. Maxim Miheyenko is the co-founder and COO of 5518 Studios, which ranks among the hottest art providers in the game industry, also Maxim is investor and business angel in the game industry. He was one of the success stories in a recent Russian Silicon Valley documentary (with 24 million views and counting) by Yuri Dud – Russia’s most popular independent journalist. Miheyenko was born in Ulyanovsk, a historic engineering hub in the Volga heartland. The city is famous as the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin and his signature philosophy: communism. For better or worse, it had disrupted all global systems. Technological evolution could be another potential conceptual gamechanger for the world. I wondered what it takes to run a team of digital comrades from across Eastern Europe (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and Serbia) while managing world’s biggest clients out of an office in California. We connected on Zoom across several time zones as Maxim divides his time between Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. 2020 meets globalization. Game on!
How has gaming disrupted the global infotainment ecosystem?
No other industry is so driven by the desire to impress its customers. It is the main goal to make everyone go wow every time. Great games just keep getting better and more accessible. As I see it, 5G and cloud streaming directly on mobile phones is changing everything. People love the free-to-play format and they want to start playing right away. There will be no need to buy consoles, potentially. At the same time, there is a lot of investment pouring in so gaming business is not about making immediate money now. It is about creating relationships, building communities based on shared philosophy, about loyalty instead of chasing a final dollar from the customer. Now is only the foundation. The great history of the gaming industry is just beginning. Really.
What makes a good game?
From the product point of view, you need a generous budget for developers and marketing, a high-end design team and then, magic… [Laughs] From the player point of view, it must have a good reason to come back. It is about motivation and connection. People are no longer interested in high-realistic art and explosions. Photorealism is a bit boring already. Most games now use unique stylizations to create their universes: Roblox, Subnautica, Fortnite, Apex Legends. The focus also shifts to storytelling. My great friend, co-founder and our CEO, Michael Casalino was an art-director of Disney Mobile and VP of art at Scopely. He always tells us that all the little details, each stone, barrel, cloud should have a story! What I love about The Last of US or Ghost of Tsushima is their grand narrative: trying to find community, trying to find love, trying to fix the world, big existential questions. You can see this change in Hollywood too. Compare the action heroes from the Schwarzenegger and Van Damme era to the action heroes today like new Batman or Joker. There is more character, more sensitivity. People no longer want to see power used without responsibility.
How difficult is to keep up with the changing consumer expectations?
On one hand, this is a stable business with pillars like Call of Duty, FIFA or NBA. They are reliable and relatable. On the other hand, it is very risky business. You can also put a lot of effort into something for nothing. There are too many promising startups you never hear about in a year or two. Publishers cannot predict success before release. For example, Fall Guys came out of the blue like “hidden dagger” and became one of the biggest gaming stories in 2020. Personally, I also want to acknowledge fresh stars like Promethean AI, Loona.app, and Mortal Shell.
Is such fierce competition beneficial or does it compromise the product?
For the gaming industry, competition is everything! People try to reinvent the ways we play. You cannot have monopolization in creativity and distribution. There are giants like Sony, Microsoft, Amazon. You have newer forces getting into it like Epic Games. They have high goals and I love it. There are more niche segments waiting for quality offers. For example, games in education is one of the hottest trends today, because timely content is king for kids and parents who must figure out home school options during lockdown periods. I am following a new generation of ideas like the EduDo app which combines user-generated short videos with interactive teaching and game elements. Gaming companies themselves make big headlines, too. Roblox is coming to IPO soon with expected valuation of over $4 billion! That is very exciting news for the industry.
Where does your work fit into this dynamic industry moment?
As an external art provider, our team is not some “outsourced talent.” We are strategic partners. We work with AAA-level blockbuster games and indie studios. Our job is to curate workflow for the right teams. Our small size and international positioning allow us to be proactive and very responsive. There is only one secret sauce to real quality in this industry. Communication. We encourage our artists to find the balance between functional works and masterpieces. For example, when we get a new client, we played all the games from that universe first. It is very important! We look at their souvenirs and hang out at fan forums. Then we talk with them about what they don’t like. We want to make a process and a result better. Our art is always at the service of these stories and we recruit the best people in the industry.
How do you put together a successful design team?
When we look for artists, we review anonymous portfolios. No name, nationality, gender, other identification. We only care about their vision, their passion, and skills. If we like it, we hire them. Then we find out who this person is and where they are from. It is impossible to be a single-country business in global creative industries today. For example, one of our lead 3D artists, Alexander Stepanchikov, fell in love with games as a boy in a village in Kazakhstan. He has been making amazing art for games for almost 20 years, and we hope he will continue to wow us for 20 more. It is a way of life for him. We also bring people from cinema, theater, fashion, sports on board to brainstorm new, unique and innovative ideas. Gaming will be the fastest growing intercultural platform in the next years. We have to welcome all perspectives to offer something unique.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the gaming industry? Aside from more people having time to play games at home…
Well, I think the bigger story is that many people are re-discovering the love of games and their new, amazing capabilities. They go, “Oh it’s not killing zombies and sudoku anymore” [Laughs] There is less and less focus on the spectacle of violence and more attention to skillshare, co-working and living together. Microsoft Flight Simulator is not a game, per se. It’s a real training program and maybe even a meditation masterpiece. Personally, I love Subnautica, World of Tanks, Transport Fever, and Age of Empires. Why? Because these are games for my brain. I love that I must establish communication with others, to think about future and how my actions impact that, to strategize my missions accordingly. Then I use these game skills in my work every day!
How do you respond to critics that emphasize addictiveness of gaming?
I liked how the Netflix docudrama Social Dilemma talked about it. The same principle is true for any mass industry: fast fashion, fast food, social media, gaming. The goal is to find human balance in the world of devices, in a world of huge amount of content. Look, I am a Gamer. I collect all consoles and games and play them every day. I also understand it is a part of my life. That is why I play only one hour daily. I do this out of respect for the rest of my life which includes my girlfriend, family, friends, wellness, the joy of swimming, the fun of going out. As I see it, gaming can be another tool to practice mindfulness… With so many specialists coming into the gaming industry from different spheres of life and business, we will soon see absolutely new projects that will change our lives and the world-at-large. The Game is never over!