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Rovio Toronto preparing to take flight

Julie Beaugrand on starting a new studio for the Angry Birds maker amid a pandemic and a shifting mobile industry

When Julie Beaugrand first talked with Rovio, she wasn't expecting the conversation to end with her being named VP and head of studio for the Angry Birds maker's brand-new Toronto development office.

"I was originally applying for another position, so this wasn't in the original plan," Beaugrand tells GamesIndustry.biz. "But what happened when I was talking to a number of their people -- including people on the board -- was that we really found we were kindred spirits. What really attracted me to Rovio were the values and the way they go about things; their strategy with their people really resonated with me."

As for which values those were, she points first to team empowerment.

"I like the idea that 'leaders eat last,' and that we're really here to foster and provide an amazing environment for people to thrive," Beaugrand says. "I think people need to be responsible for what they do, and for that to happen they need to be empowered. And the flipside of that is that it comes with responsibility, as Spider-Man would say. And we have to be true to that so it's not just big words but actually empowering people and holding them accountable and responsible for that."

"I think people need to be responsible for what they do, and for that to happen they need to be empowered"

Beyond that, Beaugrand says she was also on the same page with her new employer when it came to work-life balance, "People genuinely feeling and seeing that they are cared for."

"That's something that's not that common throughout the games industry, I think, and that's pretty special," she says. "I think that really does foster creativity and makes for great teams and great games."

As they talked more, it became clear that Beaugrand heading up a Toronto outpost for the company made sense. As Gameloft's VP for North American Studios and the studio head of Gameloft Toronto specifically, she had her own local network to bring to bear in building the new studio, and her work in the casual mobile sector spoke to what Rovio wanted out of its new location.

"At this point, Rovio's expanding their presence and production capabilities," Beaugrand says. "It's a strategic move for us to expand into a new [genre] for the company. Really what we're going to be focusing on here is the free-to-play space as well as the casual space. That's really where I come from. I've been in the industry for 11 years, since the dawn of free-to-play. I've worked on a lot of IP games, a lot of casual games, tycoon games, card games, and I think there are lots of opportunities in that space here in the city."

At the time of our conversation, it's Beaugrand's second day on the job and the entirety of Rovio Toronto consists of two people. That will obviously grow, but only to a point.

"Right now we're focused on working on one project, and there's a focus on staying small and nimble but we'll hire who we need to hire, probably reaching a total of 30 or 40 people around the next two years," she says.

As for the team's first project, all Beaugrand would say is it's a brand new free-to-play project built from the ground up. It's not even certain yet if it will be set in the Angry Birds franchise.

"There's pretty much no one left right now who can launch a game without successfully doing [paid] user acquisition"

"That's absolutely something we're looking at," she says. "We're really operating in a space where getting people's eyeballs and attention is becoming tougher and tougher. Brands are still a way to do that, although even that has had less of an impact over the past couple of years. But that's certainly a way to do it, and there's a lot of potential with the Angry Birds brand and it's something we're looking at right now."

Beaugrand stresses the need for Rovio Toronto to be flexible in a mobile industry that is constantly shifting, even if you wouldn't always know it from looking at the sometimes-stagnant top-grossing charts.

"Only four years ago you would get a tremendous amount of organics," Beaugrand says. "It would be much easier to get more and sustained daily active users and also not have recourse to [paid] user acquisition. And today that virtually does not exist. There's pretty much no one left right now who can launch a game without successfully doing user acquisition.

"It's a very different space. A lot of the top-grossing games -- but not all of them -- have been there for years and years and years. It's tougher to make it up there and there's also a real chance to keep players for years to come. That's one of the big successes of Rovio's Angry Birds 2. That launched in 2015 and is still hugely successful today.

"It's definitely a tough space out there so we're really going to be thinking strategically about what's going to help make a difference when we actually are able to release a game. A lot of that has to do with the strategic choices we make at the beginning, too: whether or not to go for a brand... how far to push innovation and really push something that has a good value proposition for players and is really fun? The other part of the puzzle is just making a game that we're seriously passionate about."

"[Remote working] does have an impact, and we're seeing it with the increased attrition across the industry, even in existing companies"

Of course, the pandemic has also changed the process of making games. And while there have been a fair number of new studios started in the past year and a half, Rovio Toronto will be one of the few to navigate that challenge with the help of informed advice. Rovio set up its first Montreal studio shortly after the pandemic began, and Beaugrand should be able to make use of the ensuing insights and best practices.

Beaugrand says remote working has impacted the way a lot of developers think about the job, particularly when it comes to team-building.

"That does have an impact, and we're seeing it with the increased attrition across the industry, even in existing companies," Beaugrand says. "That impacts engagement, it impacts your creative juices when you're trying to come up with new things, and just regular human bonding that is so important when you're building up a team. Those are things I'm super mindful of, and typically it would push me to think that I'd like to get an office sooner rather than later."

Rovio Toronto doesn't actually have a physical office yet, but even when it does, Beaugrand expects it will use a hybrid model, less a place that people go to work every day and more a place where they meet every so often to collaborate with each other. She's also expecting to have some staff working entirely remote, but is clearly keen on the connections people make in face-to-face settings.

"One of the big challenges for me is going to be about fostering the sense of belonging, engagement and purpose that is really important, and I'm going to try to do that as best I can by also meeting up whenever possible, if possible," she says.

That said, Beaugrand also sees the pandemic upheaval to the office status quo as an opportunity.

"The morals of the workspace right now has changed completely because of the pandemic, because of remote work that has changed everything," she says. "It's also an opportunity for us because we can create something new. We don't have to deal with the legacy; we can create something new and that includes rethinking what an office actually looks like and what purpose it serves."

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