A Sproing in the Step

The Austrian developer's CEO Harald Riegler talks business development, motivation of staff and censorship in Germany

Sproing is an independent developer in Austria that's known best for its work-for-hire capabilities, most recently having contributed significantly to the Koch Media title Cursed Mountain.

Here, the company's CEO Harald Riegler explains how the business has been built over the past nine years, how it's kept a stable employee base, and why he's uncomfortable with censorship in Germany.

Q: Sproing is a well-known company in Austria, but for anybody that's not heard of it, give us a brief run-down.

Harald Riegler: Well, we're a console game developer, that's what we're really focused on. We've shipped a lot of games over the years, and become one of the best work-for-hire developers in Central Europe over the last couple of years.

I think what really differentiates us from other companies is that we have a really strong focus on our process stuff, so reliability and shipping quality games on time is something we've focused on.

Because of the surroundings where we come from, we started out working with a lot of smaller publishers, and we've been described as a company that always has a constant amount of staff on the payroll - and the way that we manage that is that we have multiple projects, and we shift people between teams.

That's worked really well for us because the Central European development scene is pretty volatile, publishers come and go, and we've survived with constant growth and profitability over nine years now.

Q: Have you been doing work-for-hire for nine years?

Harald Riegler: Most of the time - we have some original IP as well, but the core focus of the company is clearly work-for-hire. But we've come to a level with some of our clients where they'll send us a quarter of a page saying what they want, we spec it out and then we develop the whole thing.

So it's actually become pretty rewarding, where you get more freedom, more trust.

Q: We've covered outsourcing and co-production companies in the past couple of years, and my impression is that the sector's changed a fair bit in that time. It's almost rare to find a game wholly created within a single studio now - how have you seen things change?

Harald Riegler: Well, when we first started we didn't really outsource anything, but over the years I've found that it helps enormously to properly manage your partners and your outsourcing. I think it's about the management of the processes, it's about choosing the partners that you really want to work with, and not go for the cheapest thing that blows up in your face.

Q: That seems to be a crucial lesson learned - that cheapest isn't necessarily best...

Harald Riegler: No, not at all - and that's a key point. It's not about saving man-months, it's about using man-months in the best possible way to get your game finished. We ship three to four titles per year, and we do that with 50 people on staff. We couldn't do that if we weren't properly managing our outsourcing.

Also, it's been extremely valuable to work as part of the production of Cursed Mountain where we are part of the outsourcing - you're on the receiving end and you suddenly see what piece works, what piece doesn't work, and you can then adapt that process to something that does work. That's just a great experience.

If you look at what happened to Grin, that's a great example of how careful you need to be when you scale. Also, it's a motivational factor - we have almost zero fluctuation in the team, because everybody can rely on the fact that we only grow in a way that's sustainable, and we don't inflate our team for a production, or for a project, but we outsource things... and if it's just too much, we say no and don't do it.

What that does is gives you an incredible amount of dedication to the company - an incredible amount of know-how increase that you don't lose. People are faithful to the company, they know that if they work in a games company that's been stable for nine years, that's really something that they value. You get great results from that.

Q: It's a classic lesson in business - if your staff is happy, you get better results. Reputation must be important for you when it comes to talking to publishers - how did you go about building that up? Is it taking baby steps, and then over-delivering?

Harald Riegler: That's exactly the thing, about baby steps and over-delivering. That's exactly what we did - we started a company... I had worked in the games industry before, as a freelance programmer, on a pretty big PlayStation game, and when we started our own studio we took a step back and did very small casual games, because we were just four people.

So we did those, shipped them and they were all great. In the beginning people thought of us as a casual games studio and we got all kinds of fun from that... but most of the people that were laughing at that time aren't around now.

We just did it piece by piece - we started with smaller projects, then we did a bigger game, which was the one time we probably scaled a little bit too big, and learned that lesson really quickly. And then we just deliver - and if you do that again and again and again...

It's maybe a little bit hard to communicate that what you're doing today is different to what you did four years ago, because you've obviously evolved, but that has worked well for us and built the reputation.

Q: If you're an employee of a big studio, you're generally known for a certain product. If you're at Infinity Ward right now, you're known as a Call of Duty guy... is that a difficult thing for you when you're looking to hire?

Harald Riegler: It's a little bit more difficult for us to hire at times, because people ask what our incredible project is. I think Cursed Mountain will help there, but it's a little bit more difficult to explain. And it's also a different kind of job, because in these big studios what you do is one type of game the whole time, and after a certain amount of time, you're thinking: "Again?"

In our studio it's different, because this year we're doing a Winter Sports compilation for Activision, we just shipped Cursed Mountain - a survival horror game - we're doing an adventure-type game that I can't really say much about, and there's some stuff we haven't yet started which is totally different again.

It's harder to explain both to applicants and publishers what you're core experience is, but our core is that we've invested an incredible amount of resources into our process technology and we've got incredible technology to build games really fast - so that gives us a flexibility that many others just don't have.

That goes down to motivation theory here, but if you actually have a certain amount of change and new challenges in your job, it increases motivation and is more fun to work on different projects. If you have a good team that does the research properly you can get great results. Cursed Mountain is our first survival horror game and the first rating was 8.2 out of 10. Our first tactics game was Console Game of the Year 2008... and we do a children's riding game, and the forums are full of praise.

Q: I guess that variety shows a certain talent for being adaptable, moving genres from children's games to survival horror...

Harald Riegler: And as stupid as it sounds, the same technology drives both games, so it's versatile technology. There is a limit to it, of course - you can't do everything, that doesn't make sense.

But the people that work for us are flexible, they're very skilled, they know what they're getting into. When you're in a smaller team and you have less people doing the same kind of product as you have in other teams, then the personal impact you as a team member have on the final result is higher, and that again gives you higher motivation. Which is very rewarding.

Then I guess we're smart about managing that process... we took nine years to build 50 people - other people do that in one or two years.

Q: How expensive is Vienna as a city to house a development studio?

Harald Riegler: It's reasonable within Europe. On a global scale it's lower than on the UK - I do find that we end up being more cost-effective than the US studios. So it's not low cost - certainly not - but it's not really extremely expensive either.

Q: If you have a stable employee base is there a temptation to improve the bottom line - if cost is going up slightly, how do you manage that and make sure that the company profits are also rising? Can you put prices up over time?

Harald Riegler: In any kind of environment where you have inflationary price increase over time that's the natural way of things. Of course, what we try to do is improve our quality and output that we generate per hour of development, and in terms of the products we deliver.

If the quality is there, it's also okay to ask a higher price for that and ask for a better margin. As a business we're trying to develop better quality and then people will be willing to pay a higher price.

Q: And Sproing is a privately-owned company?

Harald Riegler: It's completely privately-owned.

Q: Does that make it easier to push a long term vision, without the pressures of investors or market conditions?

Harald Riegler: Yes, it's something that we're very happy about. We can make strategic decisions that will pay off in two years even if they lower our bottom this year, and that's something we've done frequently - we've invested into things we feel are important, and then two or three years later we reap the benefits.

Q: What's the Austrian market like?

Harald Riegler: In terms of the consumer market in and of itself, it's not really relevant, but it's economically part of the entire German distribution structure - it's the same outlets as in Germany. There are very few publishers that have their own distribution - most of it just serviced from Germany.

I think part of what makes Austrian developers successful over time is that there is no domestic market, there are no domestic publishers with the exception of Koch Media... although they're based in Germany.

It forces you to be export-orientated from day one, and to most people if I already have to go abroad it doesn't matter - if I go to Germany or the UK. So most Austrian developers - there aren't so many - but they've been very successful.

Q: Crytek co-founder Cevat Yerli has been pretty vocal about his concerns regarding the political attitude to adult-oriented games in Germany - from the violence standpoint - what are your thoughts on that? Does it make things more difficult, or does it not really affect you?

Harald Riegler: It doesn't affect us at all, because the Austrian laws are completely different to Germany. I have an opinion on it, which is that I think violent games are fun, and I like to play them, but there are certain types of games and a level of violence where I wonder if the industry really needs it. My personal opinion on that is that it doesn't.

Q: One of the problems is that it's so subjective, though.

Harald Riegler: It is subjective, and also very cultural, because what is acceptable to you and me might not be acceptable to our parents, or whoever. And what is acceptable to the general American public isn't acceptable to the German general public.

I think it makes sense that we're having the controversy about it, I think it makes sense that we discuss things, and I think it's great that console manufacturers react to that and put age management systems in their consoles. I think that's the way to go.

Do I think that the German government is pushing things too far when being so forthright in complaining about this? I fully agree. Do I like Saw? No. But would I want to live in a place where it's forbidden to make it? I'm not sure.

Q: One of the things you mention there is key, and that's age management, because there is a generational divide with respect to taking age ratings seriously - getting that message across can be really hard.

Harald Riegler: I think of course there is a responsibility at retail, and I think retailers could be doing more about that - but then on the other hand we're also facing more digital distribution, so the retailers that actually could do a lot of this job won't be able to do so much of that in the future.

Q: Does it have to come down to parental education?

Harald Riegler: I think, or I hope - let's put it that way - that in ten or twenty years this is going to be less of an issue, because we all grew up with it and we know how to deal with it. My kid will certainly play responsibly because I know what he can play, and what he can't play.

Harold Riegler is CEO of Sproing. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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