DroidGamers has an opportunity every now and then, to learn more about the companies that make the games we enjoy playing. We get the chance to find out about their inner workings, and what drives them to create games. Nekki, the game developer behind Shadow Fight 2 and the immensely popular Vector, has given DroidGamers such an opportunity. This is a two-part interview. In this first interview, we will learn about the origins and inner workings of Nekki. Our second interview will be about the highly anticipated Vector 2, which is in development now, and will be coming to Android/iOS very soon.
Jaymes Carter: What does the name Nekki mean? What is its etymology, and how does it relate to the games you produce, the people you hire and the vision for the company?
Nekki: Nekki is Japanese for “enthusiasm” or “power of passion”. It fits our company quite well. We aim to enthuse our players with our games, and our team members are driven by the passion to create great games. The success of Vector and Shadow Fight 2, act as proof here. In fact, the name for our company came about accidentally. In the early days of Nekki, our CEO and founder, Dmitry Terekhin, was searching for a simple domain name with the .ru ending, but everything had been taken already. He was aiming for something catchy like “Ikki” when a friend of his, who happened to be very interested in Japanese stuff, mentioned “Nekki”. By that time, it was even more fitting though, as everyone was working with no salary, but driven by the enthusiasm, to get the business up and running.
JC: That is intriguing. Especially knowing that your company’s home base is in Moscow, Russia. Can you tell me a little bit more about Nekki’s founder, Mr. Terekhin that you just mentioned?
Nekki: In 2002 the CEO and founder of Nekki, Dmitry Terekhin, volunteered to save a browser-based football manager. By that time, the original creator of the game, could not continue its operation. He was looking for someone in whose hands he could place it. As a player of this football manager game, who was also interested in programming and website creation, Mr. Terekhin jumped at the opportunity. Under his guidance, the aforementioned browser game “Golden Boot,” rapidly became the most famous game of its genre, and also the first Nekki game.
From there on, Mr. Terekhin assembled a group of like-minded people with whom he dived into the games industry. The more compact version of the story sees Nekki moving from browser games, to social games, and then to mobile games and beyond. But within the timespan from 2002 until now, the company also had to deal with hardships, as not every strategic move yielded success. These events lead to major learning, which has now been ingrained in Nekki’s DNA. One of these is about adapting to changes in the market as rapid as possible.
JC: One of your more popular games, Shadow Fight 2, was first available on Facebook. Is that correct? Why did you choose to make a game for Facebook? It would appear that the audience for Facebook, and the audience for mobile games is quite different. Is that true? If so, how does Nekki go about testing the market for their games?
Nekki: The predecessor to Shadow Fight 2, which was released on mobile devices in Autumn 2013, and has attracted more than 65,000,000 players to date, was Shadow Fight on Facebook. The history of these games – Shadow Fight and Shadow Fight 2, illustrates perfectly how Nekki matured in its business operations. Nekki recognized the shift from browser games to social network games only with belatedness. Beyond that, a part of the team was not willing to adapt to the demands of this new platform. This lead to projects that did not meet players expectations. But after a hard transition period between 2008 and 2010, Nekki finally achieved success in 2011, with Shadow Fight on Facebook. Also, by that time, the company was eyeing upcoming marketing developments more closely and prepared to jump into the mobile games arena early on. Vector and Shadow Fight 2 hit the market at the right time and offered quality-experiences, which resonated with players across the globe.
We do not think that playing on Facebook and on mobile excludes one another. They are rather, different steps towards platform convergence. As the “smartphone-storm” has left no one untouched. We just aim to entertain our audience on the devices they have “at hand” (literally). And, although we run tests in key markets and with core audiences, we rely on another belief that has formed over time at Nekki: Developing original and artistic content, backed by an enthusiastic team, is the best formula for success. In essence, fun is free of platform-specialties.
JC: Free to Play games have not necessarily been popular with the hardcore gaming audience. I have seen what I call “Free to Play” done right, and other examples, where it is really about leveling up or progressing in a game through paying real money. How does Nekki balance that? For example, Shadow Fight 2 is a game that I have enjoyed playing. It is free-to-play, but it doesn’t feel like it is structured in a way where you are forced to pay, to proceed. The game is definitely on the upper tier of difficulty, when it comes to games in the fighting genre. It can be frustrating at times, but I have learned, the game challenges you to learn more about the strategy involved in winning matches, as opposed to just mashing buttons. So it really is the opposite with this game if you give it time. If you try hard enough and develop your skills, you can progress. It just may take a little bit longer than you expect. How do you balance good game play for the gamer, and still make money at the same time?
Nekki: Thank you. In fact our game mechanics tie in with what we stated to the previous question. Being gamers at heart ourselves, we stay to true to what we would like to play ourselves. So naturally, we do not overdo monetization schemes, but focus on playability and uniqueness instead. On the other hand, we have to earn money to maintain and grow our business. We will continue to walk that fine line between in-game transactions, adverts and self-prepared-progression by the player. Just wait for our forthcoming games, and you will see more about how we continue to develop this strategy.
JC: How many people are employed at Nekki? On your website you have a video depicting the working atmosphere. Is the atmosphere as laid back as the video shows, or are there long arduous hours of work, but play comes in spurts?
Nekki: We are about 100 full time employees. To enable a laid back atmosphere, we support our staff with straightforward structures, management tools for agile development and regular soccer matches organized by Nekkis CEO. At times, the deadlines are tight and crunches happen. That is the time that free pizza shows up! We are happy to have a devoted team. Everyone is always looking forward to a new game release, and the moment they see people play and react to their game on a train or bus.
JC: As an employer, how would describe the model employee? If you are hoping to work for a game company like Nekki, where would you start?
Nekki: Compared to other markets, there are not so many strong game companies in Russia. Thus, there is not a big reservoir of people that are adept already in game development. So, Nekki actively teaches its new colleagues the tricks of the trade, and internships play a major role. The fact that probably half of our staff consists of former interns is quite telling here. The best way to knock on our door, is with a (homegrown) game project, and good dose of enthusiasm for games in general.
Our founder and CEO Dmitry Terekhin recently summarized the skills and characteristics, he finds necessary to shape within someone who wants to make a dent in game development. You can find his thoughts here: Siliconrus (Russian only – but autotranslation gives a rough scope)
JC: What is the average age of your employees?
Nekki: The average age across the company is 28.
JC: Is there another game company that you would say is similar to Nekki in their approach? What makes Nekki unique?
Nekki: The confusing answer to this question might be many, and none. Everybody who takes part in the games industry – from the indie to the mega-company – tries to be successful. But the routes taken are different. You have to find your ecological niche in defining “your” platform, audience and product. Nekki is unique in the way, that we specified the right platform (mobile first) for the time given together with the right model (F2P) and the right tools (Cascadeur). Enthusiasm and experience play a great part here. Please note that our rights could be wrongs for another player, though. In the end, it all boils down to delivering an original product, that becomes a great fit with the audience. Think “Shadow Fight 2”.
JC: The statement that follows your company name is: “We create/inspire emotions.” How do you go about doing that?
Nekki: Have you ever gasped, laughed or cried while playing a game? Or, did you even smash your gamepad? Nekki is aiming to generate these strong emotions in the real world with its games, though we do not aim for people to break their devices of course. There is no blueprint for achieving this. But staying away from copycat-methods, inventing innovative art-styles and focusing on gripping game play, are part of it for sure.
JC: The animation in your games and the artwork is striking. The animation in particular blows my mind! How do you make the animations seem so realistic? Shadow Fight 2 animations look amazing to say the least, and the parkour animations in Vector, are the best that I have seen in that genre.
Nekki: The animations in Shadow Fight 2 and Vector are built with our own proprietary “Cascadeur” animation engine. Our in-house R&D is still refining and re-writing it for the new architecture we will utilize in Vector 2 and Shadow Fight 3. Shadow Fight 3? Yep! It is currently under development. And, it will have a gigantic CG intro-movie, which will show graphically, what Cascadeur is capable of. With this animation engine, it is possible to produce high-quality animations, which just could not be realized by mo-capping actors.
JC: Hearing that Shadow Fight 3 is already in development is pretty exciting! I guess I need to hurry and finish Shadow Fight 2. Since we are talking about development, can you tell me about the process for creating games like Shadow Fight 2 or Vector? Can you walk me through the game development process/cycle for one or the other? The reason I ask, is because few people know how challenging it is to actually make a game of high quality, like Vector. It is not just art pulls of a great game, though that certainly helps. It is programming and a myriad of other things that must take place, before we boot it up on our multiple devices.
Nekki: The process of developing a game like Vector is structured into several stages, which are shown in the adjunct diagram. We are just pointing out the very big chunks here and leave out all the additional steps which follow the initial launch (like updating content, porting to other platforms, maintaining the F2P economy etc – which is part of “Operations” then). Apart from agile development, which gives you a certain freedom of iteration, while still enabling you to finish the product, the decisive factor lies in the enthusiasm of your team. Because within the development process, you make tens of thousands of small decisions. If these everyday, micro-decisions are made with soul, you are actually breathing life into your game.
JC: How many games do you work on at one time?
Nekki: With the current setup we are able to work on two to three major projects at the same time. Let’s not forget that we are still maintaining our Facebook library (Gladiators, 11×11, Shadow Fight, Vector) as well as delivering updates for Shadow Fight 2. With the latter, players are still waiting to challenge the final boss – Titan. And we have a lot more features coming up for it.
Apart from new projects and updates we also expand into new markets (e.g. SF2-Kakao-launch in South Korea) and onto new platforms (SF2 is greenlit on Steam).
JC: What is one question that you wish game journalists would ask, instead of when is the game coming out?
Nekki: From our experience, it´s more the players, than the journalists, which are on the “When will it be released” path. Maybe it would be why Nekki has chosen to enter the indie-publishing arena. We did this a few months ago. We have two games coming out soon. “Beat Da Beat” from 2Players, is a Dubstep-Shmup which will be released within weeks (iOS, Android, WinPhone, PC).
More information about Beat the Beat can be found here: http://beat-the-beat.com/ The game was recently awarded for Excellence in Game Design at DevGAMM 2015. We will also have “12 is better than 6” http://12-is-better-than-6.ru/en.php from Ink Stains Games later this year. You can think of it as a “Hotline Sierra Madre”. We will launch this top-down shooter for mobiles and Mac later this year.
So here´s the question then: Why did Nekki choose to publish indie titles? The reason is that our company still feels indie at heart. And we recognize that there are indie-developers which go for ambitious art-styles, and are business-minded at the same time. They are just like us. Another way of looking at it is that Nekki is looking for the next generation of enthusiasts. Especially since we can share our own experience with them. If you are a game developer and are interested in talking with Nekki, you can email them at [email protected] If you want more information on the indie developer program with Nekki, you can find out about it with this link: Nekki.com
JC: What is Nekki’s position on developing games for Android versus iOS? Are they viewed the same? If not, why?
Nekki: With Vector and Shadow Fight 2 we are serving far more than 100,000,000 mobile players. There is no room for discussion between iOS and Android. They are both justified by existence. From a global perspective, there are territories where it is mandatory to have iOS and there are other areas (like Android TV) which are pioneered by the green robot. What is crucial though from a publisher-developer-perspective, is being equipped with a cross-platform-solution.
JC: Is there a game among your game designers or artists that is exalted above others? If so, why?
Nekki: All our staff is very heavy into gaming. Right now Mortal Kombat X and The Witcher 3 are most popular amongst the games played so far, for the recent favorites from “the outside”. Regarding internal production, there is no “secret No. 1”. Of course we aim to match the enthusiasm of the developers, with the projects they are working on. Apart from that, we spread builds of our next games across the whole company. That way, we ensure to gather the best possible feedback from all perspectives.
JC: Xbox One or PS4, or something else… Steam machines?
Nekki: We recently disclosed that Shadow Fight 2 is headed to Xbox. And, we are greenlit on Steam for this title as well. Multiplayer-mode and controller-support is highly desired by our fans (and our internal staff as well). So we are moving things into this direction as well. In general, Nekki keeps a close eye on trends in the console/micro-console arena.
JC: What are your thoughts on the future of VR gaming?
Nekki: With HoloLens joining the mix, there are truly exciting developments in the VR department. The main question is: Can you already build a business case here? As Nekki is focused on the mass consumer market, we currently take a “wait and see” approach.
JC: Do you think game journalism is important and why?
Nekki: Yes we do. We embrace game journalism not only because it helps to spread the word about our games and activities, but also because it supplies us with vital feedback on products under development. We value the opinion of game critics and user-comments alike, as they enable us to push our games to even more enjoyable levels. Although we cannot consider every comment at once, we keep everything on file, and check on how we can implement sought-after-features, e.g. with updates.
JC: Where does Nekki want to be five years from now?
Nekki: We are aiming to become the best Russian gaming company, and we are on our way already. It’s difficult though to put this into business terms, especially for such a timeframe. Our key assumptions are that F2P is here to stay, and that the dramatic performance increase on mobile devices, everyone witnessed over the past years, will continue. Performance-wise they could even outpace consoles five years from now. In the end, to meet our ambition, we rely on a saying attributed to Socrates “You cannot live a better life than spending it in an effort to become perfect.”
JC: What one thing can you tease us with that no one else knows about Vector 2? An image or sketch unseen by any other media sources, that will set up our next interview?
Nekki: We got you covered on this one. Fresh from the dev lab this Vector 2 screen (which we have not shown anywhere else) is right in the middle between sketch and image. In fact, it shows gameplay action in front of a non-confirmed background scenario. Start dreaming and stay tuned.
JC: We want to thank Florian Birch of Nekki, for taking the time to answer our questions. Also, the Vector 2 game development team for helping us better understand their process for developing games. we now have a better understanding of the incredible amount of work, that goes into developing games. One thing is clear, it takes hard work.
If you are interested in game development, it looks like we have another source for you. Nekki is interested in finding out about you and your game. If you think you have what it takes, try the links listed in the article above. With games like Shadow Fight 2 and Vector, we know that Nekki has the ability to reach large groups of gamers with their games.
If you are a fan of Vector like I am, we will have more news for you soon. The second part of our interview is all about Vector 2. The game is set to arrive for Android/iOS really soon. Part 2 of our interview with Nekki will be: Vector 2 – Redux. Be on the lookout for it in the upcoming weeks!
Here is a quick video showcasing a day at Nekki for you to enjoy.