A respect for its creative staff has seen Germany’s mobile games studio Wooga thrive.
The world of mobile games development may be incredibly competitive, yet Wooga has quietly established itself as a major success story since being founded in 2009 in Berlin, where it’s still based. Rather than spending millions on lavish television advertising campaigns featuring unrealistic CG, the company prefers to concentrate on making the best games it can. And nurturing the creative talent within its 250-plus staff spread over 40 countries.
Wooga’s titles include the likes of Jelly Splash, Pearl’s Peril, Diamond Dash and most recent success Agent Alice, across a variety of platforms including iOS, Android and Facebook. “Our business is centred around being able to sustainably produce hit games,” explains Jens Begemann, CEO and co-founder. “In the past five years we’ve had five hit games and our development approach is designed to foster the development of more.” Indeed, the studio employs what it calls a ‘ hit filter’, starting with many different prototypes and gradually whittling them down so that only the best ideas remain on the table.
Obviously the art department makes up a major proportion of its staff, with around 60 artists currently on board. Nick Martinelli, head of art, reveals that, “There are a large amount of projects being worked on at any one
There are a large amount of projects being worked on at any one time
time, so those people can switch between studio or project on a semi-regular basis depending on what’s needed.” Although most of the artists are full time, there are a sprinkling of regular freelancers who help out with specialist tasks when needed.
“Artists here have a lot of freedom,” says Nick. “They’re able and expected to give a lot of creative input into the projects they work on, but with that also comes a certain level of responsibility that I think is a good challenge.
“With that in mind, we’re very fussy with the artists we hire! We look for people who can bring a lot of energy and talent to the table, and we’d rather hire a very talented junior artist than someone who perhaps has more experience but isn’t as talented.”
Lead artist Nikita Fedorenko relishes this freedom when it comes to creating concepts for new projects. “Depending on the timeline of the project, and which phase it is in, it’s possible to bring some of those ideas to life and include them in the project,” he says. “The ones we don’t use are archived to use in the next project or at a later stage of production.”
player feedback counts
He adds that fan feedback is a vital part of development, with many players being particularly passionate about what they do and don’t like. “For instance, we had a protagonist drawn up and finished in a previous game, but users really didn’t warm to her,” he says. “We tried redesigning her whole outfit, every detail you could imagine, but it just didn’t work. In the end we switched her with the sidekick – and found our leading lady.”
Creating games that need to run on a huge amount of different devices, all with different capabilities, is a design challenge. “Other than the hardware itself, a limitation for the art part of the game is screen size," says Nikita. “It’s important to not only make a game look good, but be clearly readable on as many devices as possible. So we’re doing a lot of work and testing in this direction.”
We look for people who can bring a lot of energy and talent to the table
Although specific art teams are assigned to each project, there’s plenty of scope for other artists to get involved with their own ideas, says Jack Gilson, lead artist. “Live games are constantly updated with new features and art, so your input could always help a new game as it continues to flourish.
“There are also expert panels that all add their input to a game during its development process. So if you’re part of a different team there’s no reason why you can’t talk to the project leader or the lead artist during a show and tell session, or over an office beer in the evening.”
The studio also allocates a set training budget to every team member, who is then free to spend it however they like to improve their skills. “Wooga is constantly organising in-house workshops, expert lecturers and ‘ brown bag’ sessions where employees can share their learning with each other,” Jack says. “There’s a big focus on sharing here and you can learn a lot by just showing up.”
It’s this sort of friendly collaboration which has clearly contributed to Wooga’s ongoing success – and with the company constantly looking to bring in new creative talent among younger artists, that looks set to continue for a long time to come.
The musical viking and the colourful archer are two prototype designs for a game that may – or may not – be developed.
Some of the many Woogans doing their thing at the main Berlin office, watched on by game characters. Wooga artist Steffi Schütze pictured working on a character from Agent Alice. A background scene from Pearl’s Peril, which is filled with hidden objects to find. Designs for Pocket Village, Wooga’s early Facebook game that’s just coming to an end.
Agent Alice is another game of the type that has become so popular on mobile: hidden-object finding. More concept art for a possible forthcoming game, currently at the development stage.