With almost 20 years of experience in the games industry, Antti Hattara has a lot to show for. For example his own studio StarBerry Games that has been running successfully since 2017. With us, he talks about what makes StarBerry and Berlin a great place to work, what to look out for when seeking investment, and the difference between running a games studio and an Ironman triathlon.
Why did you found your studio in Berlin?
I moved originally from Helsinki to Berlin in 2011 to work at Wooga as a head of studio. Pretty quickly then I was convinced about the big potential the city has for attracting top talent from all over the world. At the time in 2017 it felt like there were only few gaming startups in Berlin, but a lot of gaming industry professionals with ambition to jump and build something new from ground up. Today at StarBerry we are a team of 21 with 16 different nationalities represented and quite an equal balance with just a bit less than half of the team being women. Key factor was also that I had met my future co-founders during the years at Wooga and for a gaming startup I think it is essential to have that core team together with proven good chemistry and aligned goals.
You self-published your successful game Merge Mayor. What challenges did you face without a publisher?
We are very proud of the fact that we successfully self-published Merge Mayor globally in April 2021. The free-to-play casual games market has gotten very competitive over the last 5 years during which growth has been achieved via performance marketing and data driven analytical approach to development and operations. Both of those are crucial parts of the mobile games business which typically a publisher covers. So the key challenge for self-publishing is to be able to build and operate those capabilities within the studio. Setting all that up takes quite a lot of effort and expertise in areas like: data and analytics stack, contracts with ad networks for user acquisition and ad-monetization, advertisement creatives production, customer support, QA, localisation, platform relations, financial forecasting and accounting and the list goes further. Ultimately also sufficient funds are needed for being able to invest into user acquisition. And that’s only to get started. When things work out and you’ll be able to scale the game, then the workload increases as there are more and more players to serve.
Please tell us more about Merge Mayor. What is different to other F2P live-running games?
Merge Mayor is a casual merge-2 game, where the player takes the role of the town mayor. The core gameplay is managing and merging items on a grid and then by providing items to complete tasks you fix the town area by area and learn a bit of the stories of citizens as well. The merge-2 core gameplay is a fairly new mechanic and it has been gaining popularity among casual players in the last few years.
Our games Idle Coffee Corp and Merge Mayor stand out with a unique 3D art style and lighthearted humour. Both of these aspects are highlighted often in our marketing creatives and seem to attract a bit younger player base to our games (20 - 45 year old players). We’ve been actively developing Merge Mayor after the global launch and the game has evolved a lot since then. One thing to highlight is that already in our soft launch we decided to setup a Discord channel for the game to gather a community of Merge Mayor players. Today it is probably among the largest channels for a casual mobile game on the platform. It has been really great to have that as a communication channel directly with our players and involve the community’s opinions and wishes in our features and roadmap decisions. Just a few weeks ago we shipped a global tournament feature to Merge Mayor. In the tournaments players compete in smaller groups for prizes like exclusive avatar gear. This really activated the Discord community to a whole new level and guided our vision to build more social/community features in the future.
What factors were important to you while building a company that is a great place to work?
My references are based on the very positive personal experiences I had earlier in my career when working at Digital Chocolate in Helsinki and then at Wooga in Berlin. Both of these companies put a lot of thinking into culture, processes and employee experience. The foundation for a great place to work are the people, so it all must start with hiring. We had discussions early on with co-founders on what are the company values at Starberry and how those translate to qualities we look in candidates. At Starberry productive & helpful are the company values and we expect candidates to demonstrate examples of self-driven initiatives, professionalism and passion or curiosity for casual mobile games. As I mentioned earlier, in Berlin we are lucky to have the possibility to hire from a diverse talent pool of games industry professionals.
Next factor to mention would be defining and communicating a clear goal or a vision for the company. This is essential in enabling people to take ownership and figure out independently ways to contribute to help the company achieve those targets.
Building working culture and environment are more controllable factors to impact via daily operations. For example in our case promoting actions and behaviour like transparency, collaboration and ownership are important. I do have to say that also achieving success step by step will play a role in raising spirits and motivation.
How did you manage to secure 5M€ funding?
We founded Starberry (with original name Chatterbox Games) in 2017 and raised the 5M€ Series-A at the end of 2021, so it was quite a ride to get to that point.
For the Series-A pitch we did the required work by refining a polished slide deck, were in talks with multiple VCs and engaged our existing investors to help us. Still mainly I would account most of the credit to the Merge Mayor product KPIs and the post-launch scaling we were able to do with the help of around 2M€ in UA loans. We ended up raising that round from our original backers: Play Ventures, Big Bets, byFounders, Reaktor Ventures and some angel investors participating as well.
What advice would you give a studio that is seeking investment?
2023 is a fairly challenging environment for raising an investment, so it won’t be a walk in the park. My advise would be to have realistic expectation on valuation and have a plan on how to get first indication of traction with KPIs very early. I would also say that discovery is such a key challenge today in mobile f2p that it needs to be thought or addressed in some way. And more of as an encouragement I’d say that there are always and at all times opportunities to find the next great idea for entertaining mobile gamers. In this economic climate it is good to explore all the available options for funding from publishing deals to government grants and to venture capital investment.
How do you refresh a live-running game while staying true to the core game design?
Mobile games today are developed and operated as a service. A player should never run out of things to do or a reason to continue playing the game. Or at least there needs to be a reliable cadence of releases and updates, so the player can expect (soon) more content or new features.
Live operations are the promotions, activities and events which are operated additionally to the main game progression. We draft monthly live operations plans around regular events in the game (e.g. tournaments) and seasonal events (Easter, Halloween, etc.). Those can often provide a nice twist to the core design and keep the experience fresh.
What’s harder: Competing in Ironman or running a games studio?
Running a games studio is definitely harder. It’s a rollercoaster ride into the unknown with big highs and lows along the way. Ironman triathlon is typically a very predictable solo effort which you can be well prepared for and control many things during it (e.g. speed, nutrition).
Note that I’m only talking from the aspect of racing against yourself and surviving it to the finish line, not competing against others or podium positions. byFounders often refer to a nice quote: "you can go fast alone, but together you can go far”.