Thomas Leinekugel on using data in production
In the latest installment in our series of blogs giving insight into how we work behind the scenes, we asked our Production Director Thomas Leinekugel to talk through his role and the importance of data in mobile game publishing…
Tell us about your role at Exient
I have two main remits as Exient’s Production Director. The first is managing the entire production cycle across all of our projects – which basically means ensuring that stuff gets done in a sustainable way on time and on budget.
That includes everything required to fulfil the agreed development and publishing roadmaps and involves a lot of resource allocation, which is achieved by liaising closely with my fellow Directors and department heads.
Ultimately, I need to keep the production train moving forward. With 40 people behind it, it’s essential that we can translate the company’s vision and ideas into actual work with boots on the ground. So, communication is key.
On a day-to-day basis, this part of my role is all about sorting and balancing priorities – my direct reports include our Project Managers and Seniors Producers, the QA department and our Data Analysts.
The second responsibility in my position of Production Director is as programme manager on our back-end systems. As part of our transition to a publisher, we recognised early on a need to develop a bespoke platform for collecting and analysing the huge amounts of data generated by our games – and then feeding that back into creative and commercial processes.
Tell us about how Exient is using the platform
In this respect, we’re actually planning for five years from now – we need to think very long term in the mobile games business. A lot of our decisions are data-driven, based on the fact we now have a finger constantly on the pulse of our games, in real time.
Right now, we’re working a lot with Google, using its Google Cloud Platform and Firebase, which enables us to monitor how players are interacting with our games across iOS, Android and the web. This kind of insight is crucial for the F2P (free-to-play) economy and allows us to conduct lots of A/B testing on different game SKUs. The best insights have come from these observations – but ultimately that’s just the inspiration; we still need to execute them creatively.
Quite simply, if you work in games you can’t avoid data anymore. We want to be able to collect and integrate feedback for data as fast as possible. That’s how we learn and get better as a developer and a publisher.
The F2P market specifically is absolutely fascinating and involves a very different way of approaching players. With a traditional AAA console or PC game release, everything happened in a big explosion on ‘day one’ when it comes to sales and marketing. But with F2P on mobile, we operate silent soft launches, which allows us as a developer or publisher to improve the game until we are ready to spend on user acquisition (UA) and scale.
Ensuring ROI on UA requires extremely precise numbers that you need to be able to trust – have a 5-10% error and you’ll have no idea if you’re making money or losing money until it’s too late. That’s ultimately what motivated us to create our own back-end platform as opposed to buying something ‘off the shelf’.
Tell us about your own career path
I started in games 20-something years ago from a technical background. I have a PHD in artificial intelligence and cognitive science and spent a lot of time studying maths before that.
I was initially a programmer for AI in games and created my own studio, Load Inc, spending 10 years as an indie making PC and console games, especially in the early days of Xbox Live Arcade.
After that I went to work for Ubisoft in Singapore, where I had my first contact with F2P games. I joined Exient in 2017, initially as Principal Producer and now as Production Director.
I moved from AAA to mobile, which is not that common, but my overall career path is pretty classic, from Project Manager, to Producer and then Production Director. I do find, however, that my technical background helps me a lot in F2P and publishing.
How has your role changed during the COVID pandemic?
Just before COVID hit we were working on ways to bring the UK and Malta offices closer together as we expanded our publishing operations, essentially so we had one management layer across both countries.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the pandemic simplified everything in that respect. By the time lockdown hit, we had already taken steps to ensure the entire staff could work from home, so we perhaps had a little more time to acclimatise to our own ‘new normal’.
Very soon after that, the issue of geolocation just disappeared. For me as Production Director it all became about having the right people working on the right projects. With everything in the cloud and digital communication to the fore, it makes no difference if someone’s in Malta or the UK – we have programmers and artists in Malta working as if in the same room, even though there’s 2,400km between them.
You know, it’s incredible. We’re extremely privileged to work in video games – the industry has actually grown during the pandemic. And we’re fortunate that we have all the technical ability in games to adjust quickly to remote working. So far, based on our internal research, our staff considers it has gone really well.
And what about company processes and workflows?
We have tried to ensure that everyone proactively communicates what they’re working on to the rest of the company through tools like Slack, because soft communication, like looking at someone’s screen over their shoulder, has disappeared.
We also took steps to centralise all our meetings around a timetable for the entire company – we keep all afternoons free for people to work uninterrupted, in addition to all day every Tuesday.
Of course, outside of the set meeting times, people are completely free to arrange catch-ups with their teams and colleagues. But having set times too gives people a solid framework to work around.
How has the company culture evolved during the pandemic?
Previously, a lot of onboarding for new starters was looking around and learning organically, whereas today it’s about proactive communication. For example, we always invite new starters to meetings even if they’re not directly involved in what’s being discussed, which helps them get a better understanding of the Exient culture and processes of work.
And as managers we also make sure we spend much more time with new starters in the remote environment, especially if they are coming in at junior level – close mentoring and support is extremely important.