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STUDIO REPORT: “We don’t want to have a One-Night-Stand”

making games - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 8/2020 vom 03.06.2020

Happy Anniversary! German developer and publisher HandyGames exists now for 20 years. We talk to the founders, CEOs and brothers Markus and Christopher Kassulke.

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In 2015 HandyGames won three important awards at the DEP – „Best Studio“, „Best Mobile Game“ and „Best Social Engagement“.

HandyGames is one of the most traditional game developers in Germany. And one of the most successful: HandyGames has published more than 200 games to date, which together have resulted in hundreds of millions of downloads.

Founded 2000 by the brothers Markus and Christopher Kassulke and their business partner Udo Bausewein in ...

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... north Bavarian university city of Würzburg, HandyGames was specialized in the early years -the company name suggests it -in games for mobile phones. In 2003 HandyGames had a big hit with the strategy game Townsmen. The series continues to thrill game fans worldwide to this day. Since 2018 HandyGames is part of the THQ Nordic and Embracer Group family and operates as an international publisher for mid-sized projects and developers for a worldwide audience.

HandyGames always strive for gameplay innovation. The company received the German Developer Award as “Best German Game Studio” in 2015, produced and published award-winning games of virtually every video gaming genre imaginable for a diverse range of audiences and gameplay styles. One example is “Townsmen VR” which was awarded with the German Games Award 2018 in the category “Best Game Design”. Now located in Giebelstadt, a tiny town close to Würzburg, HandyGames is a proud part of the German and European gaming scene.

How HandyGames started 20 years ago, how the two brothers get along with each other in everyday life, how it went with the takeover by THQ Nordic, which decisions they regret afterwards and much more we discuss in an interview with Markus and Christopher Kassulke. Further articles in our cover story light up the path from pitching to publishing and Townsmen VR -an exciting project that takes the long-standing flagship of HandyGames into virtual reality.

Making Games: Tell us how it all started 20 years ago with HandyGames?
Markus Kassulke: Our history in the games industry begins a little before HandyGames. Christopher and I worked as freelancers developing cheat software and add-ons for games like Sim City or Age of Empires. At some point, we wanted to make our own games. We didn’t have a lot of money, so the mobile phone was a good platform. On Christophers old Nokia, which is still in the showcase here, you could only play Snake, and we thought we could do better. We had a buddy in Romania who wrote us an emulator and some minigame demos. We presented it to Siemens in Munich, and a few days later we got the confirmation. So we had to start the company because Siemens didn’t want to sign a contract with just a few freelancers for software that would be used on millions of mobile phones. We brought Udo Bausewein into the company so that we had someone with a business background -who looked a bit more serious than the two of us with long hair.

At that time, it was tough to find programmers, so we looked for people at the University of Würzburg who were interested in programming games on beer benches and old chairs in a noisy office above the Norma supermarket. Startup at its best. Christoper Kassulke: Unfortunately without venture capital, because back then there were no venture capitalists who believed in games. Especially when the dotcom bubble burst.

With Townsmen VR the team enters new markets with a well known spin-off of its build-up strategy brand.

Markus: When we moved into our office in Giebelstadt in 2004, we already had 20-25 people. Then came the mobile internet, the first Ericssons with colour display and the Nokia 7650. The time came when our business partners were no longer mobile phone manufacturers, but the network operators who built portals for mobile games.
Christopher: We have always been globally positioned, and in some cases have worked with up to 250 network operators worldwide. Today, with the App Store and the Google Play Store being the only ones left, you can’t even imagine that.

You must have done many things right in the last 20 years, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be here today. But are there any decisions you regret today?
Markus: Not having bought Apple shares (laughs).
Christopher: Apple is the right keyword, because we were one of the few developers who didn’t jump on the Apple bandwagon immediately. We were used to working with T-Mobile, Vodafone and Co. and then a young wild man named Steve Jobs comes and says, I don’t give a shit about the network providers, I’m turning everything upside down. A lot of people laughed at that time, including the CEO of Nokia. In the end, we supported iOS too late, but you learn from it. Since then, we have always been very open to new platforms and technologies. What we also regret today is having relied on a single partner for too long. When Siemens was sold to BenQ and shortly afterwards closed its mobile department, this was, of course, a problem for us, since at that time about 60 percent of the workforce was working on games for Siemens devices.
Markus: You are always smarter afterwards. Who would have thought at that time that Nokia, with a market share of 64%, would disappear from the market a few years later because they started building smartphones much too late? I like the way you see supposed mistakes in the US. When you’ve failed your third company, you are still the hero when you try it for the fourth time. And here in Germany, it’s like “Oh God, he already went bankrupt with his company once.”

A milestone in mobile gaming history: the Xperia Play from Sony Ericsson.

An idol and a close friend – “Lord British” Richard Garriott and Lars Janssen during their studio visit in 2018.

Would you invest money into these guys?

“When you have been working together for 20 years and watch the children grow up, you approach things differently than a CEO of a stock company. You think in the long term.”

Over the years, you may come to a point where you ask yourself whether you want to do business as usual or change, take the next step. Have you ever had such situations?
Christopher: Such situations were and are permanent. I can’t remember a single time we said let’s just keep going.
Markus: The mobile market was and is simply too fast-moving for that. First, there were the embedded games on mobile phones, then came the download games via network operators, then the smartphones. Then people suddenly didn’t want to spend money on games anymore, so you had to be prepared for in-app purchases, which has since changed again. We had to constantly consider whether the current orientation was still up to date. The biggest step, of course, was to sell HandyGames to THQ Nordic in 2018.
Christopher: We always wanted to publish, not only for smartphones but also for PC and console. We could have afforded to make 3 or 4 games at the same time, but not nearly as many as we now have in our portfolio. For that, you need a completely different backing than what we were used to. You need access to the capital market. That is limited for a German publisher. That’s why we decided to sell HandyGames.
Markus: A major decision was to leave the mobile sector long before the takeover. At that time, the Ouya console was announced, which in retrospect was a huge flop. But when we saw the mobile games on the big TV for the first time, we thought “Gee, that doesn’t look too bad”. And if that looks good, why should HandyGames doesn’t make games for the big consoles?

You mentioned the takeover by THQ Nordic and the Embracer Group. How did they convince you?
Markus: In the past 20 years, we had countless discussions with companies who wanted to buy us. But we were the stubborn Franconians and thought about it: What will they do with us?
Christopher: Is that an added value for us, also for our colleagues? When you have been working together for such a long time and watch the children grow up, you approach things differently than a CEO of a stock company. You think in the long term.
Markus: We were simply looking for a partner who fits in with us, and we don’t regret taking this step. The Embracer Group is worth 3 billion euros, the number 2 in the European market. We are now over 60 people and are financing even more people in external studios worldwide. That’s not a bad figure for a German publisher, and we feel a responsibility to the people.
Christopher: Finally, we want to celebrate a few more anniversaries.

Where do you see HandyGames in 5 to 10 years?
Markus: Difficult question. What I can say: HandyGames will be bigger, have more projects. But we want to grow organically. We have no growth plan. We want to continue to be a courageous publisher, but there will be no kamikaze actions from us.

Having fun even with lawyers like Kai Bodensiek during the shooting of „Talk in der Alm“.

A nice place to work: the famous „Alm“.

How difficult is it to lure employees to Giebelstadt, in the Franconian province?
Christopher: It is not very difficult. Of course, we can’t compete with a Berlin scene here, but we are a suburb of Würzburg, and the city offers everything you need. At the end of the day, you have to feel comfortable, and we want to achieve that by creating a familiar atmosphere.
Markus: We have no problems finding people, quite the opposite. We are very picky, the benchmark is high. Our team is getting better and better, and I’m not only talking about skills, but also human qualities. The team spirit, motivating each other, is essential to us. It’s certainly not easy to get someone from Berlin or Hamburg to the Franconian province. But for someone from France or Spain, Würzburg is perfect for studying, by far not as expensive as Munich. And we are a very cosmopolitan, international company.

Brothers do not always get along. How harmonious is your cooperation?
Christopher: We have a rule: We can argue -and sometimes the doors can fly -as long as the door opens the next day again and we are all about the good cause. It is helpful that our tasks are clearly separated: Markus takes care of production and publishing, I take care of sales and marketing.
Markus: It’s certainly not always easy, but we always come back on a common path. After all, we have responsibility for the team, their families and also for the developers we work with.

Let’s talk about publishing. Which criteria are decisive for you to sign a title?
Markus: I don’t know how many platformers I’ve looked at lately, but there were many. There are some things that have no USP at all. Of course, a game needs that certain something. But also the whole package has to fit. It’s important that the team stands behind their vision and that they don’t want to sell us the slimmed-down version of their idea in the hope to increase the chances to get the money. We want to see the big picture -and then it is up to us to decide whether we want to spend the money for it. The composition of the team is also important. Since we are developers ourselves and know all the platforms, we have a good sense of whether the team may have overestimated the human resources for the port, has too few programmers, etc. You should approach pitching with the necessary seriousness and also keep an eye on the economic aspect.

A long way from mobile to PC and consoles – the Townsmen series.

Show responsibility! Donating PCs to local schools.

Thinking beyond the first game, imagine the second and third game -and be prepared for the dry period in between. Many studios have their difficulties with that -not only in Germany. We also prefer when the developers themselves do the porting, so that they can build up the know-how. Of course, the human factor is very important. You have to be a good match.
Christopher: We don’t want to have a onenight-stand. We want to have long-term, sustainable relationships. You don’t build a publisher-developer relationship overnight. And just like in a love relationship, the strength of it is particularly evident in phases when things are not going so well.

If you look at your lineup, it seems very un-German, very international, which surprises us.
Markus: That’s a big compliment for us because that’s exactly our goal. We see our competition, not in Germany but worldwide. And I think, with the lineup we can take on the international competition. We have projects in Mexico City, Hungary, Sweden, Belarus, Spain -many international influences. I look forward to seeing how it works.

The competition with other publishers to discover the potential hits of tomorrow is tough, isn’t it?
Markus: Yes, for sure. But you have to see it in a sportive way. I have already lost developers which had a contract ready to sign; other publishers experienced the same for sure. It’s important that when teams decide to be our partner, they believe, think, feel and live that way.
Christopher: But it’s not uncommon to experience friendly competition when a publisher calls you and says “Here’s an interesting game that I can’t sign right now, wouldn’t that be something for you? On the other hand, we are also happy when a title that doesn’t fit into our portfolio finds another publisher. The developers also talk to each other, and our current partners are the best publicity for us.

Many events are cancelled because of Corona. What has changed the most for you?
Markus: That I now have to do all the events online (laughs). So much has not changed at all. We meet developers, do pitchings, it goes on as usual.
Christopher: Although the effect of having a beer together in the evening should not be underestimated (laughs). The small talk between the door and the hinge or the typical chance conversations during the smoking break at a conference is something that I miss. Chicken Police, for example, we tracked down on Reboot. Or that you stroll over gamescom and wonder why there are 20 people standing at the small booth in front of it. That’s how we became aware of Spitlings. To see how end customers react to something would be important.

Women in Games – we support the „Girl’s Day“ initiative from the beginning.

King Christopher on his Throne of Games.

Enjoying the masses at gamescom 2019 with our international developers on the Indie Arena Booth.

“There is no excuse anymore why you can’t develop games in Germany that are internationally succesful.”

What changed for you internally when you changed from developer to publisher? Was there a culture clash? That some people say “Things used to be better.”
Markus: That went pretty smooth. We had already prepared the employees half a year before the takeover. Of course, we had to adapt the organisation, i.e. producer, QA, marketing, to the new circumstances and enlarge it. Especially in these areas, we are looking for experienced people from the industry, but also for newcomers.
Christopher: I think it is helpful for every company after a few years to bring people into the company who have a different point of view, who bring in experience and know-how from other companies. What I also like is that someone can now also get a taste of publishing if they want to, in order to develop themselves further. Especially in our QA we have many examples.

In conclusion: What do you want to give the studios out there, who are perhaps just starting out, to take along?
Markus: I would like the games funding to contribute to the fact that we in Germany are approaching more ambitious products and fewer clones. With 200,000 Euros I can already move a lot as a small team, impress the big publishers with a cool demo. We have to become even more courageous in Germany. For me, there is no excuse anymore why you can’t develop games in Germany that are internationally successful. For AAA titles this may be true, but in the indie sector, as far as the general conditions are concerned, there are no more excuses why the next Dead Cells or Hollow Knight or Inside should not come from Germany.
Christopher: The situation for developers has never been so rosy. When we started, there was no funding, also no banks that gave loans with almost no interest. These are brillant conditions. Ok, if necessary, you have to move from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to Bavaria to get the local funding. But there is also federal funding, even EU funding. And there are as many publishers as never before. Even the big publishers sign indie games. Especially in the range of 500,000 to one million Euros there is a huge choice. Twenty years ago, games were hated by politicians. Now politics like us, we are in the mainstream press with Through the Darkest of Times. From young to old everyone feels like a gamer. Grab it, people!

Thanks a lot for the interesting interview and all the best for the next 20 years!

We love sports! From sponsorship to kick some ***** on the football field…

Co-Founder & CEO

With over 25 years experience in the gaming industry, Markus Kassulke is responsible for managing HandyGames as a whole. He oversees all internal projects as well as Publishing team and is responsible to form the DNA of the unique games portfolio. As a member of the HR team, he is always looking for new team-players to join the family.

Co-Founder & CEO

Christopher is responsible for the international Business Development and Sales of HandyGames. As the face of HandyGames Christopher regularly speaks at developer conferences and events around the globe.

Triple I Games “Made in Germany”

In November 2019 HandyGames announced that it intends to invest “a high single-digit million amount” in German indie titles over the next three years. HandyGames is thus supporting the foundation of new start-ups or securing jobs at existing studios. “The prerequisites for the cooperation are a strong team and a breathtaking product, which will be able to captivate gamers around the globe in addition to our publishing team,” says Markus Kassulke, CEO of HandyGames. “We are well aware that the development of the next big indie hit can have production costs of more than a million. Hence the clear signal: HandyGames is prepared to bear the own contribution required by the funding”. A gripping story and atmosphere, innovative gameplay and a unique graphic style can be keys to success. HandyGames already supports the highly motivated German teams of Paintbucket Games (Berlin), Honig Studios (Berlin) and Massive Miniteam (Cologne) in the development of their current titles. Through the Darkest of Times, El Hijo -A Wild West Tale and Spitlings will convince gamers worldwide in 2020 that games “Made in Germany” can cause a stir on the international market.