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I enjoyed meeting with familiar gaming leaders at Gamescom and Devcom in Germany. One of them was Chris Kassulke, who started the mobile game pubisher HandyGames with his brother Markus and Udo Bausewein in 2000.
Kassulke has always been a fan of trying out new things, from the earliest smartphones in the days before the iPhone to virtual reality. He was an early believer in the Nintendo Switch and free-to-play games.
Some of those things worked out well, and some didn’t. But HandyGames found a way to last for decades and get downloads in the hundreds of millions. So it was interesting to hear Kassulke say that he wasn’t interested in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) after studying it closely.
Kassulke hasn’t seen a good reason for game developers to adopt NFTs, nor does he see how it’s good for consumers. Instead, he is focused on making indie games that deliver good gameplay, like the recently launched Endling: Extinction is forever, which is a moving game about the last of the foxes.
Handy Games has more than 100 people and it’s hiring. It’s now part of Embracer Group, as THQ Nordic acquired Handy Games on 2018.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Did you figure out pretty early on that you’re not an NFT guy?
Chris Kassulke: As I mentioned, it’s really about the value that we don’t see for the consumer. I see it when trying to finance something for the next product, stuff like that. But I’m not sure if a character from Game A, you can move easily to Game B, because then I can’t tell the exact story. It might be interesting for guns or something like that in specific games. Also, when you’re moving it from one platform to the other, it’s already very complex, if it’s in the mobile space, from iOS to Google Play and a Samsung device. That’s quite complex. If you do that from PlayStation to Xbox to Switch and then to PC–or say you’re trying to go from an Epic game to one you’ve downloaded on Steam, that’s another big topic. The problem is real.
If someone can show me one good example where it brings value to the consumer, and not just by telling you can you sell it for more money in the future–that’s just a Ponzi scheme. That’s not what we want to do. We want to develop great games. We want to tell stories with our games. As you can see, Endling tells a long story. Where can I sell an NFT in that? It doesn’t feel good. That’s what I think.
GamesBeat: I talked to other people like Will Wright. He didn’t have a vociferous defense of NFTs, but he did think that because they’re very focused on user-generated content, that’s an area where being able to properly identify who created what and giving them some kind of ownership stake matters.
Kassulke: But if you can copy it again and sell it again? That’s my problem that I have there. Everyone can make whatever nice apes or whatever out there. Where’s the uniqueness?
GamesBeat: They watched how people ripped each other off with The Sims. The Sims content was created over and over again, and then it was also stolen over and over again. They had no solution for that.
Kassulke: I see a lot of problems with the authorities around the world. Indirectly, if I buy something for five dollars or whatever and sell it for $5,000, that’s profit. Whichever government wants to take a lot of that. You have no solution. Perhaps you can have a marketplace or whatever, but good luck with that. You’re a developer. You should take care of that at the end of the day, and I wish you luck. I see no solution there. There are too many challenges. I like challenges. We do a lot of prototyping. We do a lot of new technology. We did the first mobile games out there, the first free-to-play games. But they went in a direction we don’t want to go.
GamesBeat: Has that affected your view of the metaverse as well? Do you feel the same way about that?
Kassulke: I don’t like–everyone is hunting the metaverse, but I doubt there’s one at the moment. Yes, a lot of investments are going to the metaverse. A lot of people are saying, “This is the metaverse.” No. We have games where we say, “This can grow into a metaverse if it has enough users behind it.” But is that where I want to go, like Second Life? I haven’t seen anything like that. When I saw the posts from Mark Zuckerberg, he’s advertising the metaverse now like that? You’re destroying stuff there.
Is there a Minecraft or Roblox or whatever that can evolve into that? Maybe. But will it be something evolving where one company holds it? I doubt that. It’s dangerous. Specific markets around the globe aren’t allowing Facebook or allowing Google. If you want to have a real metaverse you need to be in every country around the world. That’s not what I see at the moment. Those are the challenges we need to overcome with that. Maybe there might be a metaverse, but I don’t like what I see at the moment.
GamesBeat: Back to plain old games, then.
Kassulke: Single-player games. I have no problem with that. We have multiplayer games. That’s not an issue. I think everyone is concentrating on NFTs. I’m quite happy I didn’t invest in NFTs, because I would have less money than if I put it in the stock market, which is also a bit crazy at the moment. Let’s see where it goes. But currently what we see is that the users like the premium model again, even in the mobile game space, thanks to guys like Netflix and some other guys who are doing subscription services again. You had things like Jamster and Jamba here in Germany back in the day, where they had subscription services happening. Now everyone is going back to subscription services, like Amazon Prime. We see Luna coming up there. Everyone is talking about Netflix and their next moves. Let’s see where that goes. But for that, free-to-play games aren’t what they’re looking for. They’re looking for premium games. They want to tell stories. That’s where we come from. We have consumer goods experience with games.
When you play Endling–you can check out a lot of the media that’s out there. You see players crying at the end of the game, and during the game as well. They have the biggest emotions they’ve had in games for a long time. That’s not something a lot of guys can do. It’s something we want to do. Perhaps you can call it an artistic kind of game. But if you have a story behind there, a game that goes beyond the typical shooting–it’s not a huge game. You can finish it in four or five hours. But it touches you. It’s like with certain movies. You think about it. It doesn’t just go out of your head. That’s what we produce.
We can’t do that just with NFTs. NFTs are about business. When I see what happened in the Philippines, people going bankrupt now because they were told they could be rich if they could invest in games–they spent real money to buy their way into a game, because they hoped it could get bigger later on. I’m not sure if we need that. It will hurt the whole game industry. Also, in the discussion about the metaverse–a lot of end consumers are talking about NFTs and blockchain and metaverse all in the same breath, because it’s something they don’t understand, really. We’re talking more about games and what the experiences can be there. We need to come back to trust, to the emotions of games. That’s what we want to do. Not many games are developing single-player games anymore nowadays. I’m not really unhappy there.
Today we released, for example, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? It’s not the biggest IP ever, but again, you’re playing something with your family. You can play up to eight players on one device, because it brings the family together. When do you play a quiz game? It’s not usually online, because it isn’t that much fun. You play it when you’re around the Christmas tree, playing a game together. No matter if it’s on the Switch or on a PC or on a TV. That’s what we want to have. It’s a good feeling, when you play a game like that. I’m not thinking about shit I need to pay for again and again. I don’t need to buy three more creatures to combine and get rich. That’s not what I want. It’s not why I want to make games.
Everyone that joins the games industry, they love games. It’s a passion. I don’t see the passion around NFTs for myself. That’s why we say no. If there’s someone out there who says, “Yeah, I want to go for it,” do it. Get rich. Burn some venture capital. I don’t really care. It’s a different thing. But for me, don’t destroy the games market with something like that. That’s not nice.
GamesBeat: How is the Embracer life going? They have so many studios alongside each other.
Kassulke: Yes, but it’s working. They can produce their games, what they think makes most sense for their studios. I like the freedom we have there. I’m not afraid that someone is also developing a similar game. It’s the same family. If you go through the halls, it’s quite interesting to see everything that now belongs to the Embracer Group, but I’m not afraid of, whatever, Coffee Stain. We can learn from each other. They’re doing stuff differently. I’m not afraid at all.
GamesBeat: Are you guys kind of making games without a need for milestones to prove to the publisher that you’re making progress?
Kassulke: We’re the publisher and developer. We’re working with our developers on milestones of course, because that’s part of that. But I think COVID changed a lot. We see a lot of studios, and not only within Handy Games, that we work with–they got hit heavily. Working from home wasn’t helping. It affected everyone. Everyone thought about how remote work can be integrated in the long run. But we see in the whole games industry that it’s not really helping.
It’s a team effort to develop such a huge game. We’re back from three guys developing a game. It’s about 20 guys, 50 guys, 100 guys and more developing a game. That needs to be a good experience. That’s a huge challenge now, coming back together to produce a game. That’s the next challenge for everyone that’s developing bigger games at the moment. That’s why so many games around the globe are delayed, I think. The quality has to be there, when everything fits together again.
GamesBeat: I talked to one company that was getting funding from Netease. They said they didn’t ask for milestones. They said, “We trust you.”
Kassulke: I’m sorry. I’ve been in the industry for so long. There need to be some kind of milestones. Of course it can be very flexible. Things come up all the time, whether it’s a new Unity version, a new Unreal version, whatever. New platforms might come along. A game should be developed for all the platforms out there, whether it’s PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, Stadia, Luna, even mobile. Even if it’s premium. But that’s what we want to push further, step by step. We showcased Wreckfest now on mobile. We’re showcasing that here at the booth. That’s possible on a mobile device now.
If you want to try out the next things, that’s where you want to have a game. The IP is getting stronger. With every new platform you reach new consumers. Plus, you’re perhaps reaching someone who played on PS4 in the past, and now they want to play on mobile because they’re on the run. They’ve changed their behavior. That’s a big topic. You need to release a game on every single platform out there, no matter if it’s–take Stadia for example. I think that’s the next step. Why not? I like it. I like the pushes we see, whether it’s from Amazon or other colleagues, or even from Samsung, where they’re incorporating with some other partners. Let’s see it.
If you’d told me 20 years ago, when black and white phones were still around–we’d just released our first racing game on black and white devices, with ringtones and stuff like that. It was 64K. Now you have Wreckfest. We’re talking about a six gigabyte game on a mobile device, and it plays smoothly. That’s fantastic. It’s just 20 years. We’re talking about evolution there. If we look at where the devices are going, we can play on our TVs without any consoles. I’d never have thought about that.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have now?
Kassulke: We have more than 100 within Handy Games. We have a studio close to Cologne. They developed Fifth Grader. I’m going there tonight for the release party. We also work with a lot of external developers, no matter if they come from Spain, Denmark, or Sweden. We don’t care. It just has to fit. They also need to like the premium model. If it’s free-to-play, that’s a good thing. Within the Embracer Group we have Easybrain or CrazyLabs. We can always point you in the right direction if you’re a developer.
If you’re an indie game and you want to release it in a box, come to us. That’s a nice story for developers, because releasing something at retail isn’t so common anymore. Now, thanks to another Embracer buyout with the guys from Limited Run, it’s no problem. The core gamers that still want to have a box, I think a lot of guys are still missing out there. If someone wants to buy it online, they can still do it. Offer your game to as many people as possible. If you look at a game like Endling, I think we have 24 different languages supported, something like that. You need to offer what you have to as many people as possible out there.
GamesBeat: What’s the most successful Handy Games release to date?
Kassulke: It really depends. Townsmen is still one of our biggest IPs. I think it’s more than 20 years old now. It’s still a building strategy game like Settlers coming from PC, coming from mobile. Then our latest successes are, for example, things like Endling, like Chicken Police. There’s some quite dark humor there. Maybe a little bit too dark for some Americans. But that’s exactly what consumers want. They want something new. They want to go back and be reminded of the old days where you could still make some jokes.
With Endling, it’s a game–we never saw so many YouTubers and influencers really crying in a game. You get those emotions back. Maybe it was bad timing, because Stray was released on the same day, and Stray sucked up everything. But that’s fine. This game is a long-term seller. It’s doing well. It’s 96 percent on Steam. Same with Chicken Police at 93 percent. I can’t complain. As I mentioned, an indie game is different from a double-A or a triple-A game. It’s always about the long run. I tell our developers that it’s not a sprint. It’s always a marathon. You need to focus on the long run with every single game, and also release on every single platform out there. That’s the key.
I see no issues with that. If I want to make fast money I can rip off someone for NFT money somewhere. Build up any game and put NFTs in it. A year or two ago that was the big topic. Everyone asked when we were doing something with NFTs and blockchain. Not at the moment. Give us that. Maybe we see something that makes sense. We see a lot of developers and their pitches. Nobody really wants to develop that.
GamesBeat: Do you think that’s dying out at the moment?
Kassulke: Some people are using their brains now. Let’s put it that way. They’re thinking about what they can develop. Where’s the profit for the end consumer? It’s not about coloring my gun. That’s been done in Counter-Strike without NFTs. You can buy whatever and sell it. That’s the next step. Show the consumer the value of NFTs. That’s the more realistic way, going step by step. Not just trying to hunt for big money now. If I lose my password everything is gone. I might have invested a lot of money.
I’ve invested a lot of time in games. How many hours do I have in Counter-Strike? Holy shit. I don’t want to tell my wife. But it’s about that. There are lots of games out there where you invest a lot of time and passion, no matter if it’s Counter-Strike, if it’s Call of Duty, if it’s PUBG, whatever. Yes, you invest time. But when you’re investing money–a lot of gamers invested a lot of money in World of Warcraft as well.
GamesBeat: How many hours can you put into something like Wreckfest?
Kassulke: Unlimited. The mobile game is exactly the same version that you can play on the PlayStation. You can tune in everything that you have. You have all the courses in there. The only thing we didn’t implement was from the Kickstarter backers back in the day, the specific cars they promised those people, because we couldn’t control that. But we’re going the premium way again. Consumers can buy the game, very similar to on Switch and stuff like that. You have a premium title available, not a free-to-play game that’s full of advertising. Even in a racing game you could normally expect that.
I’m curious about how that performs versus all the other games out there. Consumers are currently crying a lot about premium. They’re a bit fed up with advertising in games. We’ve seen changes in the advertising space from iOS. Consumers need to understand that if you don’t like advertisements, if you don’t like in-app purchases or microtransactions, then maybe buying a game for a one-time fee is another option. That’s what we’ve been targeting for quite a while. It’s an educational thing. I’m quite happy that THQ Nordic let us do it, because that’s our mission. It’s about coming back to premium games on mobile. It’s quite unique.
GamesBeat: What’s the German industry like right now?
Kassulke: We see a lot of new fundings. The German industry is getting a lot of support now from the German government. We didn’t receive anything for quite a long time. Now we have it. And now we need to prove from the industry side that the money they invested into these companies is being translated into good games, and good games are translating into good sales. That’s the next step.
Again, it’s not a sprint. If the politicians want to see releases within a year, that’s not possible. That’s not how the games industry works. The politicians need to learn from the games industry. That’s why events like this are a good thing. It takes time. We see that even the people in charge of the funding are talking to us as publishers. Development is one topic. Finding the right publisher that can then take a product they cross-financed and distribute the title, that’s the next step.
It’s easy to release a game on Steam, on iOS or Android. Making it a success, or even just getting any profit out of it, it’s not that easy anymore. Ten years ago it would be easier. Nowadays you need to release on every platform. You need to release bigger titles as a boxed product, perhaps. There’s a huge collector market out there that buys every single Switch release. We saw that today. I saw a post where a guy said his 1400th release he collected was Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader. Holy shit! Where do you put 1400 of those boxes? If they’re crying for games, crying out that they want to buy something, why not give it to them?
The German market was not that big in the PC and console business for a time. The Swedish guys were the big guys. There was a lack of publishers. Nowadays there’s no lack of publishers anymore. We need to get bigger developers within Germany – 20 guys, 40 guys. Those are the ones developing the next double-A games, the triple-I games as we call them, the top indie games. You don’t do that with two or four guys anymore. Yes, Coffee Stain did one of those games recently, where they did it with four or five guys, but that’s really rare.
If you’re hunting, as a publisher, for the next indie game, you want to see that it’s a stable team of guys that are already working together, where you can invest money into them and build up something together. You can go to the next step and say, “We need to build up the graphics. We need better UI, better sound.” That’s where we can help as a publisher, because we have everything in-house. QA is missing at a lot of smaller studios. They’re totally living for making the title. Marketing isn’t there. You can’t do that as a small developer. That’s not what you’re an expert in. They’re limited in their resources. That’s why the publisher is there. That’s what they understand. That’s also why the government-funded institutions are educating the developers.
I wouldn’t talk about an “indie apocalypse,” like a lot of guys have talked about in the last few years. But if you have a great game, if you have high ratings, it’s still not an automatic success. You need to put it in front of everyone’s eyes nowadays. The press has changed a lot, too, especially over COVID here in Europe. Who’s printing anything anymore? Streamers showed up, completely new streamers. When I see how many streamers and influencers we talk to nowadays–it’s not a matter of just hitting one guy and it’s a success. Now you need to contact nearly everyone.
You need to plan your release. Releasing a game simultaneously on all platforms, that’s what the first parties want. Otherwise they say, “Well, I don’t want to be the last one to get the release.” That’s a challenge. Financing is a big issue there. When you check out what an opening day costs, for indie developers, that’s impossible. You need muscles. If you don’t have the muscles, you need to have a lot of brains. Otherwise, your game is released, but it’s one out of, whatever, 20 a day?