Running a Game Studio

After launching his first indie game solo, Jakub Kasztalski knew that he needed a team to take his studio to the next level. In this episode, Jakub shares tips for hiring the right fit and compiling an effective developer portfolio.




Jakub Kasztalski 0:00
Check - check out the game out. And, you know, tell us if we did a good job.

Lee Ngo 0:03
Very cool. Of course, I have many more questions as to the motivations of inventing a game where you were a cloud that ruins people's days. But I'm not going to ask them because I know you, and I know exactly where this motivation is coming from, so I'll just leave it right there.

Hello, my name is Lee Ngo, and this is Educative Sessions, a podcast with people in the developer world about their coding experiences. This is powered by Educative, which makes it easy for authors to provide interactive and adaptive courses for software developers. Today, my guest is Jakub Kasztalski of Unbound Creations, and today we're going to talk about self-publishing as a small game design studio. So, Jakub, welcome to the show.

Jakub Kasztalski 0:46
Hey, thank you for having me.

Lee Ngo 0:48
It's been so great to finally get you on here. I've had so many things I wanted to talk to you about. I know your story's incredible. So let's start off with your story of being an indie game developer. What first got you down this journey?

Jakub Kasztalski 1:01
Well, first of all, I've always been a nerd. I've always been by my computer and stuff. And I've always enjoyed creating things for games. Even back before I learned how to program, I was playing with, like, different map editors for games. I made, like, a small little pseudo RPG campaign for Starcraft, and Starcraft, in terms of all the scripting tools and stuff like that. So it's always something that I wanted to get into, and eventually, I just found like a little Polish maga -- I'm from Poland, originally. So I found a little Polish magazine, like, hey, how to learn how to code with like a compiler on a CD. And that kind of was my gateway. It was actually Visual Pascal, I think of that, or just Pascal, I forget. At the time, and that was kinda like my gateway. And then, fast forward, two years later, me and my family came to the US. I went to university, and I got my first internship at a gaming company doing programming. That was also great for my experience. A lot of good practices I've learned, I learned from Naked Sky Entertainment. They're not around anymore, unfortunately, but shout out to them. And again, fast forward a bit later, after I finished school, I was living in Los Angeles, I was kind of doing cinematography, I was doing some freelance web development. And I was also working on my first indie game. And the first was called "Postmortem: One Must Die." And after about two years of on-and-off work, I finished it, I published it, and I put it on Steam Greenlight, back when that was a thing, which was a bit more of a harder process to publish, where you basically kind of put your page up and people voted, whether "Yay" or "Nay" should be published on Steam. And after like few months, it got approved. So that was kind of like, "Oh, crap, I'm gonna be selling this game, I need to get like a business license, I need to figure out like all this like accounting stuff." And that's kind of when I officially founded the LLC for my studio Unbound Creations. And that sort of began my journey.

Lee Ngo 3:05
Wow, that's incredible. I had no idea that you had such an eclectic life, that you actually dabbled in a lot of different things that makes a lot of sense , that in the end, the - it all came down to you becoming an entrepreneur of your own, but founded by so much of your own experiences, so that's really cool. But as someone who you know, not only codes and builds and designs things, you also, now have a team with you. And I've wondered what it's like for you, as both someone with technical skills and now managerial experiences, what is that experience like? And what are some of the struggles you have to go with?

Jakub Kasztalski 3:41
That's, first of all I do, I'll admit that I do kind of like it, in the sense that I think a lot of indie developers, they just sort of want to focus on the art, and sit down and creating the game, they don't want to think about, like the business or marketing and stuff. For me, as you noticed, I am definitely bit entrepreneurial. And I kind of like all those things, like I kind of get sick of coding. So it's nice to kind of like jump into the, like, business side of things and feel like I'm in charge of things, I get sick of that. So I jump in maybe into marketing stuff. And it's also like a whole different type of creativity there. So I do kind of like having that mix and match of different possibilities and doing different things. It's one, for me, I feel like it's definitely something that's also necessary. And it's something I've realized back on my one game is that I cannot do art. I'm really bad at it. I can't draw, I can't model. I think I am good at figuring the direction. Like, I've always used the placeholders or the very crude drawings of what I want in the game. And that helps like artists get an idea of like, "Oh, this is the direction that I want it." And if you kind of compare a lot of my early like mock ups or just crude work like programmer art versus the final game, there's definitely a very clear correlation. But, point is, that I definitely realized early on that I'm going to need other people. And, it's always something that I don't see this, you know, taking away from my art, like some I've seen some people struggle if they get out or have to do everything myself, or it's not mine. I've never looked at it this way, since I think it's more of a synergistic effect, where like, I just know, those are like, I know, we're probably gonna get into it later. But like, sharing, like some kind of like tips is like, you know, know your strengths, know your weaknesses. And don't, you know, like, reach out for people who can fill out where you're weak at.

Lee Ngo 5:45
Yeah, yeah. I would like to actually, I want to dig even before we get into that other question is, I want to talk about like that delegation challenge, especially for someone that you know, you know, a little bit of everything. And especially when it comes to either things on a design level, or a technical level, you know, it's very difficult to trust somebody with that. So what goes through your mind when you need to bring in somebody that needs to help you build the technical side of your work? Do you walk it through them? Do you, you know, create a lot of documentation? Or is it sometimes a leap of faith? Well, what is your own process?

Jakub Kasztalski 6:19
So that's something that I'm honestly still a little bit new at. Like I said, I've hired artists. And I've worked with like other companies that I've tried localization and stuff. So I kind of noticed process there. With development, I've only hired an extra developer once. And that's on our latest game "Rain On Your Parade." So that's the person that I'm actually still figuring out, and when I was initially hiring a developer, I basically had to go through the process twice. Because the first person I found was actually not a good fit, even though they kind of seemed okay. And that was also a good reminder, that my process at the time was just bad. And I realized that he was going for the interview questions, I realized that we're not really good at figuring out if the person is the right fit and has the necessary skills. I did end up actually with a person that I was not very happy with - Dane. And that was, I think it makes of both trying like getting a good feel for the person, but also like a leap of faith. And right now, I've actually just finished like interviews again. It's like a year later since I did it for the first time. So I've actually spent a bit of time going back to learning. I don't know if I'm getting off track, but stop me if I am. But like, basically learning how do I interview better for a developer position specifically? So I like Google, like, what kind of design questions - what's the process like, I found at GDC talk from someone or Ubisoft about, like, how to interview for design positions, that was actually pretty great as well. So I kind of went back to the drawing board and kind of come up with new questions. I'm gonna kind of skip over that. Now. Let me know if you want me to --

Lee Ngo 6:30
This is actually very relevant to our community, and very relevant to what we are interested in Educative is, what are the recommendations? Or what are the thoughts processes of interviewing for the right kind of talent? Or, giving people who are interviewing for you, for example, what would you want them to either know, or say, or, you know, have ready? Knowing that, you know, you're someone who's been just like that. But now you're in a different position of being a manager and being a leader. So, I want to segue into that a little bit more, actually, and talk a lot about what are some tokens of wisdom that you'd like to share, either to other employers like yourself, or to people who are interviewing for indie game companies or companies in general.

Jakub Kasztalski 8:49
So first of all, I would say, "Please, please have a good portfolio that shows what you've done, preferably with videos." I've had so many, like, I was basically hiring sort of a Unity generalist, someone who can basically jump in our project, and just create new levels for the game, which involves, you know, both figuring out how to old code base works, but also knowing how Unity works, and also having a little bit of a bit of like, design, like it makes up design and development. And I've seen so many people who would just, part of their portfolio would just link to it to their itch.io page, which has, you know, like pixel art thumbnails for their games, and that's it. So, there's no way for me to know what like what they're actually did without downloading and playing their games and when they get like 100 applications. I'm honestly just don't have the time to play like 500 games from like different people. So those applicants who just straight up had like a couple paragraphs describing what the game is and like a bunch of screenshots or a video preferably of what he worked on, as honestly geeks, you know - like, it just makes my job so much easier and makes me go to look for your, like prioritize your portfolio first. That'd be like the big tip, I would say is approach it from that side. Besides that, it also I think, depends a lot on just the position you're applying for. A year ago, when I was hiring, I was looking more for an entry level person. So even like students, I was open to, you know, and I was understanding, I might need to train someone up a little bit more. This time around, I kind of want to hit the ground running. So I'm looking more for someone who's already has like a, at least one published title, preferably has experienced on working with like a bit bigger team or an existing code base. So that's specifically what I'm going to look for, like, have they like, joined a project halfway through and were they able to figure it out. So it kind of depends on what the what the specific tasks - task is, I think.

Lee Ngo 10:52
Got it. Makes a lot of sense. And I mean, also, is, I really appreciate the note that you made, that, you know, companies evolve, you evolve. So your needs and what you're willing to honestly do for someone that you bring into your company changes as well. And these are a lot of things that people don't keep in mind, right? And I think it's such a challenge for a lot of people, if they apply coldly that, like they're going to be one in hundreds. And you have to do a lot to stand out. I would add, you know, a big part of standing out is actually, if you can, like build a rapport with somebody, right? Like, go go and meet them somehow. And those kinds of memories, at least, we'll prioritize them in the mental cue that people are making. So we've come to the end, if you can believe it, with my questioning that I have for you. And I want to give you an opportunity to talk about your work or whatever kind of cause that you're passionate about, Jakub. The floor is yours.

Jakub Kasztalski 11:47
Maybe just like a shameless plug for a project or -

Lee Ngo 11:49
Exactly that. Yes.

Jakub Kasztalski 11:52
Well, then, I'll mention - yes, that's right - "Rain On Your Parade." It's a game we just released in April 15 on PC, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, it's also on GameCast. And it's a game where you play as a cloud and ruin everybody's day. It's pretty cute. It's chaotic. It's silly, it's full of surprises, and random things, and kind of looking adventure meets action meets puzzle. And that's sort of what I'm describing now are about that's where we hired an extra developer. That's where I've also been, you know, learning a lot, as a manager, how to - how to go for that process better. And, yeah, I would just say like, check, check out the game out. And, you know, tell us if we did a good job.

Lee Ngo 12:38
Very cool. Of course, I have many more questions as to the motivations of inventing a game where you are a cloud that ruins people's days. But I'm not going to ask them because I know you and I know exactly where this motivation is coming from. I'll just leave it right there. But, Jakub, thank you so much for being on our show. And really thank you for sharing your journey and a lot of your wisdom as well. And I want to thank everybody who is watching this on YouTube or checking us out on major podcasting apps as well. Appreciate you for being part of our audience. If you want to learn more about what we do, you can check us out, of course, at educative.io. So, for all of us at Educative, thank you so much, and happy learning.

Jakub Kasztalski 13:15
Thank you. Thank you.

Lee Ngo 13:16
Hope you enjoyed that session. This episode is available on YouTube and also on many podcast platforms. If you'd like to be part of Educative Sessions, the form is open now to apply via the link below. You can also email me at lee@educative.io Lastly, don't forget to like and comment on our content. Be sure to subscribe for us as well. And of course you can learn more about us at educative.io. Happy learning!

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