Nordeus CEO Branko Milutinović is every inch an engineer. A tall, solid man, he has a demonstrable knack for understatement and the ability to make a complex task sound remarkably simple, so it's no surprise that he has a ready answer when I ask him what he thinks has been the driving factor behind the rapid growth of the Balkan region, which just over 20 years ago was mired in bitter conflict.
"It's really easy these days to learn how to do cool stuff," Milutinović tells me. "All you need is a computer, right? I believe, and I don't know, maybe some anthropologist has a research paper on it, but I believe that every place on this planet has an equal amount, percentage-wise, of people that are talented for certain things, whether it's engineering or science or art or whatever," he continues. "And what happened is with this knowledge becoming free and available, I think these talents were unlocked, and in this part of the world just like in every other, I believe there is this talent.
"I think it's really changed the world, and in this part of the world, where people speak English, where they've got computers, it's easy. There is enough talent everywhere, and I would say enough passion and drive, that some success stories could be formed. And then what happened is that there were pioneers and the initial success stories, and then these were basically the triggers for others to also think that it's possible. And I think today it feels like there is even more potential, it feels like the future is even more bright.
"It's really easy these days to learn how to do cool stuff. All you need is a computer, right?"
"I think that now, with these success stories, that there are both role models and also sources of knowhow, even funding. I think that there's gonna be a lot of opportunity for new stories to emerge, as well as for the existing ones to grow even further. Our plans, for example, are pretty optimistic for our company, and speaking to other guys I feel that they share the vision of the future. So I think it all kind of clicked. So it's gonna be an interesting years ahead. But we'll see.
"For our story, and it probably replicates pretty well for others, I think the other big change was the open market that the internet brought. So once you didn't have to put your CD on a shelf, I think it was much easier to distribute games, especially today with mobiles. I mean, all you need to do is upload a binary and it's out there, everybody can download it and play it. So I think the market has been democratised.
"Everybody has some opportunity to reach the users, and for us that was really big and important, because honestly, like, ten years ago, there's no way we could have built Nordeus from zero. It was really thanks to Facebook and Apple and Google, basically the platforms that enabled everybody to be a developer and a publisher."
Nordeus is based in Serbia's capital Belgrade, and Milutinović tells me that there's a tremendously healthy sense of community and mutual assistance in the entire region, despite the memories of the Balkan conflict still being fresh in many minds.
"I think actually there is way more desire to do that (co-operate) than in other regions," he tells me. "I think people are really open to trying to collaborate and share and so on. The problem is the lack of ecosystem. So you don't really have an easy way to do that. And then what Reboot is doing is really cool. It's probably the best thing we have to do that. You know, maybe we just need to level up a bit how we meet and share and maybe do things together and so on. But in general, there are no problems, and I haven't really seen any since day one, surprisingly maybe, but yeah, that's it. I think people are really willing to help. I personally would be happy to help anybody in whatever, so it's all cool."
"I think actually there is way more desire to do that (co-operate) than in other regions, I think people are really open to trying to collaborate and share"
Having established its base in Belgrade in 2010 and since growing to offices in Dublin and London, Nordeus has come up against the same talent acquisition problems as any major business. Milutinović is realistic about the scale of the problem, and sees a bigger picture than just finding good staff for Nordeus.
"I don't expect to be super overconfident and happy with how we do everything. But we're improving, and I think that over time, as we grow our network and get more people to join, spread the word, it's gonna be easier to tap into the pool, and we're going to be better at giving the right people the right value proposition to join. So five years from now maybe I think we're gonna be actually really satisfied with how we do recruiting, and even more importantly I think that we're gonna be in a situation where we are really producing a lot of amazing people internally, because I think that that's the winning formula for us long term.
"We've got really good retention, already so basically people do not leave the company, which is very different to the London market or Silicon Valley. We have loyal people that really want to make a difference in Nordeus, and investing in them and making them amazing and happy is probably where we're gonna get the biggest return. So we're really committed to that, and of course, I mean, we want to hire the best people as well, but we want to hire the best people and we want them to mentor and create the next generation of best people.
"I think that's where this region gives a big competitive advantage, because with the right value proposition, you can really get great talent. And then you just make sure they grow. And we've been doing that for five plus years now, and looking at our folks that joined five, four, three, even a year ago, and where they are today, and how great a job they're doing, it's really fulfils me, makes me happy. So I think that's what we want to do eventually. So hire, but also hire internally, give people the opportunity to learn and grow and do things.
"I would be personally disappointed if five, ten years from now there wasn't an ecosystem that really gives you options, where you want to work, what do you want to work on, who do you want to hire, with which experience and expertise, and so on. I think that's completely doable. Even looking at Belgrade today and five years ago, it's a huge difference. We don't really experience engineers leaving the country anymore, software engineers, so I think the vast majority of people stay, including the best ones, which is amazing. So if we manage to replicate that for other disciplines: marketing, design product and so on, it's gonna be pretty cool."
All of this expansion is based on the success of a single game: Top Eleven. It's Nordeus' first, and only release, making the jump from Facebook to mobile with ease and racking up millions of healthily monetising downloads across the world. There have been semi-serious jokes about how long the company could run at its current burn rate if they were to pull the game tomorrow. It's a pretty long time.
"A huge initial success can kind of 'tuck you in' so that you feel that whatever you touch turns gold"
Nonetheless, says Milutinović, that sort of first-time win comes with its own attendant dangers.
"A huge initial success can kind of 'tuck you in' so that you feel that whatever you touch turns gold," he admits. "I mean, we were so lucky. I don't know if that data is available, but Top Eleven is probably one of the most successful first games of any company in the previous ten years, and also thanks to its longevity - which is another super lucky thing - it's got a fair chance to be the first ten-year-old mobile hit. So we were very lucky. We did things well, but we were also very lucky. And, as you mentioned, it gives you fuel but it also gives you challenges. I agree with you and we've had changes in how we look at these things in previous years. I think we're now pretty mature and more aligned with what the realistic outcomes are and what the good scenario is and how we're gonna build from there and so on.
"In my talk at Reboot, I mentioned something like 'we're becoming less incompetent'. I don't think we are incompetent but I don't also think that we are competent to be the best gaming company in the world. You know, we are far from that. So I think we need to really focus and make sure we do not disappoint ourselves. And speaking of that, I would not be disappointed if we have a game that we look at once it's out and say that 'This product makes us proud. It shows that we are capable of building a great game that people enjoy, that offers something different or slightly better than some of the competitors, and for me that would be it. It could be followed by a tremendous financial success or whatever, but it may not be, right? So I think we just need to prove how much we have levelled up in the previous years, and once we prove how much we have levelled up, we should just continue from there and go towards the next game.
"I'm an optimist, so I think that the next product we're gonna release is gonna be a pretty successful one, but even if it's not a Top Eleven success game, if it's less or much less, that does not mean it wouldn't be a success. And that's how we are looking at things. Because all we want to do is level-up and learn, be better, and continue doing what we do until our results match maybe expectations you would have from a really good gaming company. And that's fine. We're lucky that we have Top Eleven so we can think like that. I know that many people are not in that position, and there's a lot of pressure on how they need to perform. Fortunately we don't have that, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't give a shit, because we really care. I mean, we work very hard and we really try to be better."