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How to build a visionary game company and strong culture | Dino Patti

Bynewsmagzines

May 2, 2023
How to build a visionary game company and strong culture | Dino Patti


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Dino Patti has a lot of experience leading game companies. He started at the indie studio Playdead, the maker of the hit indie titles Limbo and Inside. Then he left to start Jumpship, a game studio that made the sci-fi game Somerville. He sold that company last year and focused on his other startup Coherence, which is focused on a cloud-based system for making multiplayer games.

The whole idea behind Coherence, which he started with developer Peter Björklund, is to make it easier to build multiplayer games by offloading the platform work from game developers so they can focus on making a fun game. Coherence implements net code for multiplayer in a more user-friendly and cost-effective way than in the past, he said.

I caught up with Patti at the Reboot Develop Blue conference in Dubrovnik last week. We sat down to talk about his speech on building a visionary game company and strong company culture. A lot of it has to do with marrying the art and business in a game company.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

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Dino Patti is CEO of Coherence.

GamesBeat: What was your talk about?

Dino Patti: I talked about how to create a visionary game company and a strong culture. That’s what I do these days.

GamesBeat: In what capacity? Is this more of a consulting role?

Patti: Before Playdead, I was more technical, doing a bit of game design. Through Playdead I found out that what I do is between design, technology, and business. The last two companies, I’ve really fine-tuned that. A lot of it feeds back into how to drive the company through a vision. Creating a strong vision and getting everyone aligned with that. That’s become the common denominator in everything I do. My talk tried to get people focused on how important a vision is. How to align your vision with people, how to use it in your everyday life.

GamesBeat: Have you found a lot of companies don’t have this?

Patti: They don’t have it, or they don’t stick to it. They see money somewhere and they go for it. The companies I’ve created always had strong visions. The vision has been what defined who was hired, who we partnered with, and in the end what came out of it. It all came directly back to the start with that vision. You filter things out and your product becomes the vision. I find that beautiful.

GamesBeat: Do you see these results in the games themselves?

Patti: Sadly, sometimes the most popular games aren’t the best ones. But the games with strong visions, I can see this in the games I really enjoy. Hideo Kojima, for example, Metal Gear Solid. His games are a bit strange, but there’s a consistent vision about what he wanted to do with these things. I want to play that vision. I want to see where he’s taking it. These games that come with a vision are the most interesting games to me.

I’m less interested in these games where the visions aren’t so strong. Any Ubisoft game, you know what you’re getting. You’re not going to be surprised.

GamesBeat: Does this also have a lot to do with small teams? You’ve been at companies that are more indie.

Patti: My maximum is 30 people, yeah. You lose the vision if it becomes too commercial. Probably at some point, when you get too big, it becomes too commercial. But you can also see a game from a company like Guerrilla. They’re very strong on vision. They do some interesting games. It’s a question of whether you dare to hold your vision over commercial choices.

GamesBeat: Is that a recurring thing that you’ve run into? Creative people and business people clashing?

Patti: I feel like my job is to connect these things. As I said, tech, design, and business. If you only have designers, you end up with a company that can’t get anything out there. If you only have tech people, the design is awkward. It’s not very attractive. There are no emotions. If you don’t have any business people, you end up with a free game. When I can get all these people to talk, when I can get everyone to understand each other, the business can become really beautiful. I look up to these companies that have managed to collect these things together and made them work in unison.

GamesBeat: Is that why gaming is also so hard, though? You have to bring these competing parts together.

Patti: I feel like you need that person who understands it all together. There needs to be a unison of these three things.

Coherence wants to democratize multiplayer game development.
Coherence wants to democratize multiplayer game development.

GamesBeat: Do you have a way of communicating that helps these people get along better? All the different divisions.

Patti: I spend a lot of time talking to everyone in the company. What I do at Coherence is now is that every three months I go up and talk about the vision of the company. I try to get all of these components united around that. I want to get everyone excited about the same thing, the same goal. Everybody knows that they need everybody else to succeed at this. That’s kind of what my talk was about. Use the vision. Talk to everyone in the company about the vision all the time. Be sure you have a vision that’s worth working for. Otherwise, where are you in three or five years? How does that look?

Most people don’t like to be stale. That’s uncomfortable. Everybody wants a rhythm, something that repeats in a way that’s alive. But they don’t want to always be in the same place. They want to move. Having a vision helps people move along a consistent, controlled line toward something they already love and feel is important. If you can make people feel great when you talk about the vision, you can move mountains.

GamesBeat: Have you ever watched the show Mythic Quest on Apple TV? There’s one episode where they profile a game company that starts with a team that has an almost anti-commercial vision. Then they turn out to be enormously successful, and they end up growing into a much larger enterprise. So many things nibble away at the vision that there’s no more art left in the commercialism.

Patti: That sort of thing is close to my heart, because—when we started out with Limbo, it was a massive art budget. I remember I had discussions with Arnt Jensen where I suggested we go to Xbox, and he got mad at me. He said that Xbox is the most commercial platform ever. It needs to be PC. It needs to be really low key on Steam. We had this discussion, and he thought that it would be such a mainstream thing to go to Xbox that it wouldn’t fit with this art project.

A lot of that was me trying to make it commercial, but in the right ways. Not putting commercial things in the game just thinking, “Oh, I think will people will like this.” You want to keep the game pure, but you can make commercial choices about things like platforms. Going to other platforms meant we needed to have things like achievements. Arnt hated achievements. Again, that was removing from the pure vision of the game. We had to find a way to do achievements that was special and fun, a new way of doing that. It was a massive fight.

You can approach the whole game in a way that’s commercial, but you can also take these artists—what I did with Arnt, and what I did with Chris Olsen, you try to protect them from the nasty side of the business, but you still try to steer them in a way where you have something you can sell. In the end you have this nugget of gold. You have a good game, and you try to sell as much of it as possible. You need to sell enough of it to make the next games. Directors usually understand that.

Coherence logo
Coherence logo

GamesBeat: Are there some things you wish developers understood better about the business side?

Patti: It’s hard, because I don’t think there’s a quick fix. I’ve met so many teams. Teams come to me because they need help. Unfortunately I have no time in my life to help people with their own projects right now. But I can see that they all need that person, the person I was for Arnt and Chris. Someone to go in and work with them. I don’t think you can quick-fix something to make it commercially successful. You need to work together to ensure that the whole original vision holds, but you tap in and change some key places slowly to help it sell more. Building a community is an important thing to do these days. Maybe a publisher can help. I don’t know what publisher can do this, though, without taking too much.

GamesBeat: As you’re thinking about the future and what you’d like to see happen, what is that like? What are you looking forward to?

Patti: I just hope that more people can see—I sound really old when I say this. But the whole game industry has kind of been tainted since when I started out. When I started out in 2003, and really got going with Playdead in 2005, it was developers and publishers. Then the whole free-to-play train came in—the whole free-to-play thing, it kind of destroyed the purity of games. People became fascinated by the big money, but the quality of games only lowered. I don’t know. Whenever I see a good game coming out, I hope people can look at it and realize we need more of those. Things like the Souls games. Popular games that try to do something new.

GamesBeat: Would you say you’re like a business guy who has a lot of developer at your core? A lot of empathy for the developer?

Patti: For sure. I still lean much more away from the business side. But I feel like a lot of developers need more focus on the business side. I’m just enough of a businessman to help them. Again, today I have no time. I’m using almost all of my time with Coherence, plus a bit of my time with Jumpship.

GamesBeat: What is the latest coming out of both of those companies?

Patti: At Jumpship–I need to watch out as far as what I’m announcing. When you’ve made one game, obviously you go from there to building a new game. Something is going on there. At Coherence it’s a very exciting time. I think more and more people can see the need for what we’re doing, what the core goal is. I usually try to explain it by saying that for many years, people built their own engines. Unity and Unreal came along and made that non-viable. People are still building their own network stacks, but within five years I don’t think anyone will, because you’ll be able to use something off the shelf.

Coherence is that off-the-shelf option. If you have an idea for the multiplayer space, there’s no need to build your own stack. There’s no need to make that investment. There’s no need to have specialized network engineers. You can take something off the shelf to build your multiplayer game. We also want to give power to small developers, to democratize multiplayer games. Around 15 years ago you had to build your own game engine to make a game. You had to build a team. It was like building your own camera because you wanted to take a picture. Today nobody in their right mind would build a game engine of their own. In three to five years I don’t think anyone will build a network stack either. There will be Coherence, and I think there will be some other companies popping up as well.

Coherence.
Coherence.

GamesBeat: We’re looking at a recession now. Do you have some view of how that’s impacting the smaller companies in indie gaming?

Patti: Access to capital has definitely been limited. We’ll probably see the whole space, the developer space pulling back. I don’t know how gaming at large is now, but people are still playing games. I don’t think the whole space is going to have trouble. But developers are going to have a hard time finding capital for at least the next year. The games they were planning to make might come out a year and a half, two years later. There will be that delay in the cycles.

GamesBeat: It’s hard for me to sometimes to see how healthy things are at the developer level, the publisher level. You can argue that we already have too many games. Is it a good thing or not to have fewer games coming out?

Patti: You’re right. Some games will still get investment, and hopefully it’s the good games that will get investment, but you never know. Some things will be rooted out. Again, though, I hope that the people who have the big visions won’t stop. When we were doing Playdead, we wouldn’t stop for anything. People could feel that we were going to make this no matter what, whether we could pitch it to anyone or not. We were doing it on investor money with Playdead, and they could feel what we were doing. We didn’t even pitch it that many times. They knew we would relentlessly work toward our goal no matter what happened.

People who have those visions—maybe there’s a recession. Maybe they’ll have to put their games on hold and do something in the meantime. But they’ll come back again. Maybe some of the worst games out there will just die a horrible death.

GamesBeat: How many people are there with you at Coherence now?

Patti: We’re 30 people now. We raised a seed of $2.5 million, and then we raised a late seed of $8 million with Griffin Gaming Partners. Jumpship raised 2.5 million pounds with NetEase, but I sold it to Thunderful in November. That’s about 15 or 20 people now. We were pretty happy to make that deal, because Thunderful is an amazing partner.

I’m spending most of my time with Coherence now, and I have been for a while. We added some people to the top management at Jumpship so I could focus on Coherence. At Coherence there’s a huge opportunity. There’s this blue ocean that Unity tapped into. There are developers who couldn’t be developers before because they didn’t have the tools to do it. There’s a huge opportunity.

We’re also launching a client-hosted feature, so you can seamlessly transition from client-hosted to server-hosted. It’s a massive opportunity for smaller indie games. Before, they had to pay a competitor to do these things for them that we can give out for free now. We just want to improve the space. I have an idea that this could really explode. I don’t think there’s any competitor doing the same thing.

GamesBeat: Do you see companies doing something similar?

Patti: It’s closer to Photon and Improbable. But it’s something between that. It’s real time. What you’re talking about are all the database companies, infrastructure and database. We do real time. People can build their games, all the gameplay, with our tech. They might launch it on those services to make leaderboards and things like that. We can also host it, but we don’t really care where it’s hosted.

Coherence is a tool, just like Unity, to make it really easy to make multiplayer games. You build your core game in Unity or Unreal, and you can use Coherence to make it multiplayer. We make it easy to deploy and test, to iterate on your game. We know that’s very important. You can make a multiplayer game in five minutes. Then, when that’s done, you can deploy it through our system or on your own servers. It’s very free. If you want to deploy on our servers we take all the dev ops and so on. You can be a small team, three people, building an MMO, a narrowly scoped MMO. Scaling for more players, going really big, we can do all of that for you. You can use your own favorite tools to make the game.

This doesn’t exist today. [With others] you need to build your infrastructure. You need to build your whole stack. You need to build your server and everything. All of that is what we’re handing to developers. You can’t use Improbable because they’re not in the market anymore. They’re doing their metaverse stuff. Right now we’re the only ones going for replacing the bespoke network engine. If you have a game idea you can just come here and make it.

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