The head of Alawar tells about good sides of living in Siberia 10/3/2011, 06:13
«Аlawar» Company occupies several floors in the bleak building of Novosibirsk Engineering Institute and one of the first places in the world in terms of sales of casual games— short computer games for office monkeys. Very soon a battalion of the programmers, artists and producers, working for “Alawar” will move to almost finished industrial park, the Techno Park, in Akademgorodok, where new forces will enslave the planet with the game "Farm Frenzy" and alike. And now the director of "Alawar", Mr. Alexander Lyskovsky, is very proud that his company was one of the architects of that seemed infinite construction of the Techno Park. A Correspondent of Sib.fm discusses with Mr. Lyskovsky, why bloggers are of no use; why there is sometimes some use in computer games and Novosibirsk Governor, and why you shouldn’t leave Russia, though there are few people who believe in it..
Let's start with an unexpected call. What did the director of "Alawar" think, when he found out that the Prime Minister of Russia, would again be its president?
I guess it was an obvious thing. Though there was a small feeling that we had been cheated. But from the other side, I don’t remember any threats to “Alawar” Company during last ten years, and my children go to school here, in this country. Our country is fine in general... But there was a feeling after election that we had been cheated. When Mr. Prokhorov was in politics, there was at least someone to vote for.
What do IT-specialists (programmers) need from the Government these days?
We really need the higher education to be established and fixed, so that it would provide people with actual knowledge and skills, and not just a certificate. We need infrastructure. We need business centers and we need the roads to be repaired. We don’t need help. We can earn money by ourselves.
According to the "Alawar" estimations, the value of the company grew in 4.5 times from 2007 to 2010
But you are moving to the industrial site, the Techno Park, in Agademgorodok – so you got some infrastructure, didn’t you?
Yes, we did. Our Government made it. That’s why I do not attend meetings. The industrial site has been finally built and benefits on the unified social tax for the export IT-companies have also been approved.
And what is wrong with education?
Novosibirsk IT-Industry requires 3000-4000 specialists per year. And there are only 600 graduates and you need to teach them after the University, because they know only theory. And not all of them come to the market: girls get married and others just leave. No one welcomes us at the universities: we have our staffing goals and they have – theirs.
And what is happening with the quality of programmers?
First of all, programmers have stopped leaving Novosibirsk. It happened only 3-4 years ago. Before that, all talents used to go abroad or to Moscow. And at some point, prices on apartments in Moscow were as high as wages in Moscow.
And now only those go to Moscow, who believes that Novosibirsk is not suitable for their business. Just regular programmers don’t go to Moscow any more.
Why don’t regular programmers go to Moscow?
Frankly speaking, I'm not the biggest expert on the internal world of programmers - in our company they are one-third of the staff. I can only say that now it is much easier to find a talented person, because they consider their future life here and they do not try to move just for moving. I’ve noticed, that those, who wants to create games are very similar to those, who wants to create business. In both cases, you have the resources, people, energy, some objects that interact with each other.
2000 US Dollars per month are an average salary of the qualified programmer in Novosibirsk
We now stand, as usual, on the verge of crisis. Do crises influence the same way on those who create the game, and those who create businesses?
Crises usually help us a lot. I can admit it together with 2GIS. In 1998 we created big and long games – our own version of Civilization and War Craft – and we believed that we were very big game-developers. It all went down in flames, when due to the growth of CD’s cost price, produced on the western equipment and therefore priced in dollars, our margin decreased in six times. It was a moment when a Russian market of the computer games died.
We started to look for a new niche. And we found it. We created games in Russia and sold it to Americans for 20$ per a game through our web-site. Students, teenagers and single programmers abroad did casual games in the evenings and in their spare time form work in the Microsoft those days. But “Alawar” has joint a team of professionals together and we made qualitative games and sold them at the same price with Americans. That’s how we started to earn serious money.
The world's first casual game is PacMan, written in 1980
During the second crisis we ceased to focus on Russia. A strong retail segment remained there up to that moment. We started to grow in Europe, Latin America and so on. It turned out that people do not save on cheap entertainment. They stop buying expensive cars, stop travelling and eating at the restaurants. But they don’t save money one entertainments that cost 200 Rub. (5 Ero). However, the demand for automated accounting and stuff fell sharply. As a result, staffing market has added people, although there was a huge deficit before.
You wanted to call your games “alawariki”, didn’t you?
Our first customers in Russia eight years ago had to go to the bank, to fill in the blank manually, to queue with pensioners, and then to wait for a week when we get their money and send them activating code from the game. Some of them made photos of the blank and send it to us in order to fasten the process. Then Yandex-money and sms-sales appeared. Our sales started to grow and we came to the decision that we had to call our games somehow. They were called shareware games on the West, but it didn’t sound good in Russian. Then they started to call these games “casual games” on the West, but in Russian this word is associated with the word “goat”, and nobody likes it. But then the whole industry started to use this word and the book “Casual” by Oksana Robski was published. We even thought to make a promotion together with her, but couldn’t negotiate the price. It was too expensive for us. And then we thought that we should have called them “alawariki” and not to be shy. They could have become new Pampers or Xerox.
And how have you answered for yourself the question of why I want to develop games that help people to kill time - instead of, for example, Chinese language courses or playing the clarinet or just doing something useful?
Let’s make it clear: games are for gamers. Like some the World of War craft, difficult shooting games and etc. We make games for different people. For people, who just have some electronic device and a little time to play. Saying, to get distracted during their lunch time or in a transport, on the way home, or just at the evening. We do not believe that a little distraction can be called “steeling time from yourself”. And we do not, in any way, harming playing the clarinet. This feature - the game for a mass audience - imposes a number of restrictions.
Game should be simple, story - short and the player should always be praise : oh, look at you! You are doing great! Here are your stars, balls and thousands of points. There should be the constant encouragement.
Do you use a scientific approach when you create games? Neurophysiology reward center in the brain, dopamine and this staff?
The game FarmVille (analogue of "Farm Frenzy" from the American company Zynga) became the most popular multiplayer online game in the world in 2009
We have a producer with a Ph.D. on addictions. He is a real psychologist, who specialized in the process of getting used to something. I don’t know whether he uses his skills at work or not. Yes, some games are addictive, but this is nothing similar to drug addiction, I must say. You just get a clear goal: to shoot the bird, build a farm.
By the way, who has actually made up this Farm game?
When we have a museum, we will organize a special hall, devoted to FarmVille. We’ve got pictures and documents, proving that guys from “Melesta” in Minsk (a division of “Alawar”) made up everything. But other companies, developing this Farm have the same documents. It's been a craze: once there were few games with alike game world. So I cannot say that we have copied it from someone, or that someone has copied it from us.
So office monkeys (office staff) wanted to get back to the nature and grow something?
Yes! They wanted to do understandable and creative things even in the virtual world, so we created a simple game.
What usually office monkeys do? They ride the bites up and down and they don’t see any results of their work. And a completely different thing is a farm – you can see what you planted, and what has grown.
So now the real mass hobby is farming and construction games.
The question came from Twitter, why do you continue to put protection on the game, if there is a key on the Internet after a week?
There are people who will hack the game anyway. But their percent in Russia is falling, and it has fallen to the minimum long ago in the West. Pirates will find a way to steal, but most do not do it - not only out of respect for authors. It is a certain level of care, if you like.
Since when have Russians lost interest in stealing?
The generation that was on the Internet in 90s, continues to steal. But the new generation, that is the largest mass audience, already does not do that. The first are more visible because they are longer in the web, they have blogs - they are opinion makers. But the ordinary mass user does not do it- especially since he was bullied by viruses and other things.
1.99 is a price of “FrenzyFarm 3” for iPad
Why haven’t Russian programmers, who developed the games, fallen under the pressure of the Indian and Chinese programmers?
A computer game is a result of writers, artists, and programmers work. And all of these people must be at the same mentality and cultural environment just like a buyer of the game. Chinese epic does not fit in here. Here we need people who travel a lot, watch foreign movies and have an open mind. There are a lot of people like that in Russia. You can put 50 departments with 20 programmers in each in China or in India. I saw it. And it looks like a field with slaves, who write an application code. But there is no space for creativity.
What is a turnover among your creative people?
Why would you leave the place where you feel good? We care about our people and allow them to grow and develop. There are just no reasons to leave except for the cases when you want to start your own business. There are companies around “Alawar” which are run by ex-employees. And it’s good. Few days ago there was a contest of startups on Interra (“Interra” - International Youth Innovation Forum. events for discussing and understanding concepts and practical application of innovative development in economy and social sphere on the territory of Russia) and we sponsored trips for two teams to go to the national start-up forum.
By the way, everybody now argues about Interra. What is this Forum "Interra"? Is it just a siphon of money or a cultural phenomenon with a long-playing innovative future?
I don’t know. But “Interra” has many good seeds. On the other hand, there was a lot of advertising which cost a lot of money. What was it for?
A lot of different people came here and they had good speeches and made good deals. I think that something should work. And I haven’t seen somebody stealing a single ruble.
In fact we have a very sane governor. Let the bloggers, who write about the siphon of money, come to him and ask to show financial reports. May be there are no corrupt dealings after all.
But the question is, are those bloggers ready to get up from the computer and to go and to check financial reports?
What is going to happen to your company?
We really like to be here and do not intend to move anywhere. We will work in the techno Park in Akademgorodok.. We grow really fast and, despite the attempts to restrain our growth, we employed 40 extra people in 2011. We are looking forward to employ 50 people more soon.
It’s really interesting: “attempts to restrain our growth “. What does it mean?
When the team is constantly growing, we have to continually rebuild the management structure. The doubling of the people - is a huge stress for the entire management team. New people, you do not even recognize in the office, write you letters, and you do not know what they do. Chaotic expansion pursued many successful companies, and it's always bad.
The cost of developing one casual game is about 50 000 - 100 000$
Why has nobody attempted to buy your successful company?
We have thousands of proposals from all possible IT-companies and game developers around the globe. But our growing rate is higher than the growth rate of companies, such as Electronic Arts, so what's the point to change "Alawar" stocks to their stocks? Such purchases are necessary, if they are good for business, or if the current shareholders plan to get out of it and live in a house in Spain.
So, you don’t want a house in Spain, do you?
No, I don’t. I’m fine to be here in Novosibirsk.
And you have no worries about what might happen to the country?
At this point, perhaps, I need to show some active citizen position, don’t I? I create a lot of working places. I have a really good company with completely legal and official account system. We are among ten largest taxpayers in Akademgorodok. We create good products. It was my dream and the dream of my colleagues: to make company, that will play on international level. And no one has got in our way yet. No one tried to take the company from me, like, for example they tried to take “Ukos”, so I don’t see a reason to get out of here. It’s a good country and my home is here. My friends live here and my children go to school here.
I speak Russian and I don’t want to speak another language living in another country. So if something gets in the way we’d better to change something here.
There is a feeling, that something is wrong in our country, but it doesn’t really bother our business. And we try to help Akademgorodok, to business startups on industrial site in Techno Park.
Why do you bother to help startups? If a startup is good it will survive anyway…
It will not survive without communication. It knows nothing about business or market, or how to negotiate with big companies
So what, you have a feeling that these Russian startups can become another notorious Silicon Taiga?
Yes, I have. And it is already happening. I see the startups that are properly formed, have found the right experts and received the first investment. Silicon Taiga already exists. But again here and there we need governmental support. We need a proper judicial system. Because now if you want to cheat on investor you just do it. And he cannot help himself. We need proper political and economical condition, because otherwise no foreign investor will come here. I remember the times when a term “Khodorkovsky disсount” was widely used in west and Russian companies were estimated much lower due to the risks. Now this factor is weak, in addition, it does not affect a technology business, but the atmosphere is still a little bit nervous. There are no Western investors here.
If Khodorkovsky factor is weakening, why there are no investors? That is wrong again?
This factor is not below zero level. In addition, Moscow is an expensive city and it’s not profitable to create there technology business. As for other cities, poor roads condition and lack of hotels prevent Western investors to come there. I am constantly confronted with the fact that a lot of companies want to cooperate with us, but the city of Novosibirsk causes fear.
Well, we have built Double Tree by Hilton and repaired the road to Akademgorodok, haven’t we?
You and me, we know that it has been repaired. Also, let’s say there is a delegation comes to us from South Africa. They are settled in the hotel "Golden Valley", and no one speaks English there. And it is - the onliest hotel in Akademgorodok. One of the objectives of Techno Park, by the way, was originally to improve the image of Novosibirsk, so that western people would see we have a lot of IT –companies, that work on international level and that we have promising technologies here.
Techno Park in Akademgorodok is been built during 6 years
What else would you like to share, what we haven’t asked?
I’d like to say that you can create international quality and innovative business in Novosibirsk. And you do not need to steal, do not need to take money from the gangsters and you do not even need to have an initial capital. I know a lot of examples, when a company appeared just simply on the initiative of a particular people. I just want to keep on reminding: we did it, just like other Novosibirsk companies.
Therefore, using Sib.fm, as a platform, I’d like to say: guys do something! No need to complain that we have a small city with no investment and with a lot of corruption. You can do everything. You can create without oil, gas, or illegal deals with state property. You just need to start doing something.