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How Ukraine’s Pingle Studio is moving up the food chain in games | Kirk Scott interview

Bynewsmagzines

Jun 15, 2023
How Ukraine's Pingle Studio is moving up the food chain in games | Kirk Scott interview

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Kirk Scott spent six years at Nintendo of America helping to get indie games on the Nintendo Switch. Now he has joined Ukraine’s Pingle Studio as it levels up as a provider of game services.

Scott is the new vice president of publisher and developer relations at Dnipro, Ukraine-based Pingle Studio. Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, Pingle and other game studios there are busy churning out the world’s video games.

Scott has 20 years of business development experience and he has had several leadership roles in video game development, publishing, and partnership spaces. His new role at the company will involve providing consulting services to assist Pingle Studio’s clients in achieving strategic business goals.

Scott has an extensive global network of gaming industry relationships with developers, investors, publishers, innovators, thought leaders, and business partners and has been a key contributor to over 45 shipped game titles in his career.

Pingle Studio

Dmytro Kovtun, CEO at Pingle Studios said in a statement, “We are thrilled to have Kirk joining the team
here at Pingle Studio. We look forward to working closely with him in order to support our partners even further and are excited to continue our journey of expanding Pingle Studio’s offering with new relationships in the industry. Kostyantyn Shepilov, Co-CEO added, “We are on a strong pathway to become the number one company in porting, codevelopment, full cycle development, and our newest hires reinforce our highest qualities and values in the field.”

Pingle Studio began as a few friends in Dnipro, Ukraine, helping local developers complete their video games before the studio’s official founding in 2007 and has now grown to a company of more than 400 employees and three offices in three countries. It has contributed to more than 80 games. Pingle’s clients include EA, Disney, Epic Games, Square Enix and many more. I spoke with Scott about his new job and his perspective on decades of gaming.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Kirk Scott is a new vice president at Pingle Game Studio.

Kirk Scott: I was at Nintendo six years, and 27 years in the industry altogether. I’m very old. I don’t have any grays, though. I just joined Pingle as VP of developer relations.

GamesBeat: What’s your role like, and what attracted you to it? How long have you been there now?

Scott: I’ve been here for five days. It’s been great. I’m getting to know the people at the company, which is fantastic. It’s a very passionate group. Very excited for the future. My role as the VP of developer and publisher relations – I don’t know which one goes first – it’s a big role in the way that companies work, because you’re representing your company to publishers and developers. That’s what appealed to me, because I’ve done both. It was perfect, because this company is poised for great success. I knew I could come in and represent them in a way that would be meaningful and fun for everyone. I could propel us to the next level.

GamesBeat: In terms of history, Pingle has been around for about 15 years. Was it always doing work for hire? Is a transition happening now?

Scott: It’s a traditional Ukrainian outsourcing studio of about 400 employees. One of the reasons why I started talking to them, and the reason why I’m there, is because they wanted to do more co-development and primary development. You have God of War, and you have someone who needs to handle the online portion of God of War. We’ll step in and do that for you.

GamesBeat: Is that more like co-development, then?

Scott: That’s co-development. And then primary, a publisher, an indie or another double-A publisher, they come in and say, “We need to port this game to Switch. We need to port this game to Xbox.” That’s what we do. Or a publisher will come to us and say, “We have a great idea. We have it funded. We want you to make it.” That’s the dream scenario for us, where we’re making a game in that capacity and we have the staff to do it. We have 400 employees. We’re proficient in Unreal Engine 5. That’s what drew me to the opportunity.

GamesBeat: How far along were they before they brought you on board? Have they gone very far down this road already?

Scott: Actually, our biz dev staff is very well entrenched in Europe. We needed to get our talents more in North America and Latin America. I’m pretty proficient in those areas. It’s this growth thing. It’s leveling up, growing the North America and Latin America operation, and getting more visibility for Pingle there.

GamesBeat: If there’s something like a food chain, where are you moving up to?

Scott: We want to be able to be in a position where we’re turning down co-development and primary development opportunities. Where we’re talking to our staff and saying, “Do you want to make a shooter? Yes or no? We have great proficiency there. Or do you want to make an action-RPG? Let’s look for that.” We can have 30 or 40 people on one of those games and have a good runway of two to three years of projects, where we’re comfortable and we can start turning things down in terms of opportunities for the company.

GamesBeat: What about original games? Or games based on familiar franchises? Being the main studio making those. Is that a step that’s further away, or does it feel pretty close?

Scott: If you ask me, it feels pretty close. The studio is ready for it. Being on a franchise is awesome. That’s the dream scenario for any kind of “outsourcing” company that wants to make their bones in a certain area. I’d love to be the studio in charge of a franchise for Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft. That’s the dream scenario.

GamesBeat: The notion of doing original work, is that also within reach? Is that a different priority, or is that within striking distance?

Scott: That’s a tough one, because I’ve only been there for five days. I need to embed myself in the studio to understand what the principles and the needs on each of the teams are in order to understand that. It might be a studio that’s totally into match-three games without even knowing it. I’ve talked to a few people and so far that’s not the case. But it might be action-RPGs like Diablo.

That’s obviously a great position to be in, to have your own IP and incubate that on the back end while you work on all this other stuff. But in the short term the focus is more toward making Pingle a place where everyone knows that we’re capable, everyone knows we’re reliable, and we’re ready to go.

GamesBeat: What was your path of entry into the industry at first?

Scott: It started a long time ago. It started at Electronic Arts in QA. It was an amazing time in the industry, where you could choose your own path after QA. If you did well enough in QA you could go to marketing or production. I went into marketing. I was the product manager on NBA Live for a number of years. I was very fortunate to do that. I played college basketball, so they used my expertise in Canada to kind of bridge the gap. It all started with my love for video games. Video games changed my GPA. It went down, but in a good way. It’s why I’m here.

Beyond a Steel Sky is headed to the consoles and PC.
Beyond a Steel Sky is headed to the consoles and PC.

GamesBeat: And you have 45 games shipped?

Scott: At least. That’s because I lost count after 45, basically. That’s a lot, right? But also it’s just the love of video games. You stop counting. You just keep working.

GamesBeat: At Nintendo, what was your main job there?

Scott: Nintendo was interesting. I went there to be the “indie” guy. And then all of a sudden this top secret thing started being talked about in the hallways. It was the Switch. I had to onboard the indie devs onto Nintendo Switch. No one was into it, because Nintendo was not very friendly to indie developers. The Wii U was not a huge success. Everyone was very skeptical. It was very difficult, at the beginning, to attract indie developers to Nintendo Switch, especially because they didn’t yet have hardware in their hands to see what the device was. But once we launched, the rest is history, right? It’s been amazing.

GamesBeat: What were some of the games you helped get into the Switch?

Scott: Every indie game that was made in the first three years of the existence of the console. I actually had to–it’s not an open ecosystem, right? I had to evaluate every game that went on the platform in the first three years.

GamesBeat: Was that you, or a whole group of people?

Scott: It was me to start, for a year and a half, two years. Then I raised my hand and I said that I needed help. A couple of other people were hired and we basically curated the entire thing. It was a blast. It was good fun.

GamesBeat: I remember the Bethesda folks talking about what a novel thing it was to take DOOM to the Switch.

Scott: Yeah, I worked on all indie stuff. That was more partner publisher relations. That was the other side, which I worked very closely with as well. Their jobs were very hard, because they had to attract those games. They had to talk EA into bringing FIFA to the platform. It was hard. I feel sorry for them.

Rocket Arena.
Rocket Arena.

GamesBeat: They never expected that to happen. It was totally different for everyone.

Scott: That’s right. In terms of the strategy around that platform, it was more like, let’s bring in the legacy stuff. My strategy for indie games was to go to Steam–I was a huge proponent and fan of Steam. I was gaming there every day. So what were my favorite games on Steam? Stardew Valley. All the big hits on Steam, I was making calls, cold calling these developers and saying, “Come over to Switch. There’s a great opportunity here.”

GamesBeat: Was there a reason you’d gravitated toward indie games?

Scott: Just the developers. It’s a developer thing. I’ve always been pretty closely tied and understanding of the way that developers work. If Vincent gave my $10 million, I’d start my own developer. But Vincent doesn’t have any money, so that’s fine.

GamesBeat: It’s been a very tough time at studios in Ukraine because of the war. Has everyone been safe? What’s happened to the company as far as trying to survive while the war’s going on?

Scott: The most impressive thing about Ukrainian culture is that they are the toughest, most resilient people I’ve ever met in my life. I didn’t know that until after the war started. I’ve worked with Ukrainian companies over the last five or six years. They just say, “We’re going to keep working. If the power goes out while we’re on the phone, we’ll get back to you.” The resilience and the dedication to doing the work is amazing. It’s insane. I can’t say enough about the Ukrainian people. There’s just no words for their ability to continue to work through it.

GamesBeat: I would guess that they must be heavy users of Starlink.

Scott: Right. Starlink is a big thing there. What’s funny is, in all my video calls with Ukrainian companies, outside of Pingle, I’ve never lost connection once. It’s bizarre. It’s just like they’re sitting right next to me.

GamesBeat: Is it Dnipro where they are? Have you been there yet?

Scott: Yes, that’s the main studio. I haven’t been there yet. It’s only been five days. West of that are the other two studios. I had a trip there canceled in the past, and I regret that, because I really wanted to go to Kyiv, go to the conference there. But I remember I just couldn’t go for some reason.

GamesBeat: When the war broke out I wrote about all the studios that were there, and I was surprised at how many there were, how many game developers. Some of the VCs said they were in contact with as many as 5,000 different game developers, game studios in eastern Europe.

Scott: It’s shocking. Not only that, I tell my friends that I’m working for a Ukrainian company, and they say, “What? Ukrainians don’t make video games.” I’m like, “They make all the games!” They’re very entrenched in video game culture. I think it would be really helpful for people in the United States to know that, especially gamers, because Ukraine is such a big part of putting games on screens.

Donut
Donut County.

GamesBeat: I do wonder what kind of period of transition we’re in, in terms of–some things have been canceled. There’s a slowdown in the economy, in tech. It’s unclear what the impact is on gaming. I don’t know what your impression is. What do you think is the state of getting this kind of work?

Scott: I had a conversation with a friend of mine today who runs a small outsourcing company, a very successful team. I wanted to check and see how business was, how everything was going. And he flat told me, “Outsourcing will never go away. Co-dev will never go away. It’s thriving. It’s a great business to be in. Things fall down on primary development and they need help. So outsourcing is a great place to be now, especially with all the uncertainty in the economy.” That was useful information. From a business standpoint, I think we’re in a good position.

GamesBeat: Every now and then I hear stories that tell me there’s a sort of hidden game development industry. On Cuphead they said that in the last three to six months or so, Microsoft realized they needed help getting done. They either doubled or tripled the size of the team using developers for hire, people who were available.

Scott: It’s so funny you mention the Cuphead team, because I worked very closely with them at Nintendo to get that on the platform. That was one of my proudest moments in my career, working them and talking with them over there. Marija Moldenhauer is just an amazing human being. I was so impressed by how they do their work. They take their time and they do it right.

GamesBeat: That almost seemed like an emergency type of thing. Does that happen a lot? Or is it more that someone comes to you planning to work for two or three years or more?

Scott: The emergency basis does happen. People come to us and say, “Oh God, we need help. These guys didn’t get it done. It’s terrible. We need it done by this date.” If we’re doing our jobs and we have our eye on the ball, we can get that done. And they’ll say, “We want to work with you again.” We prefer for that not to happen, but that happens. That’s one of our tentpoles right there.

GamesBeat: Do you know whether Pingle is in a state of hiring, or staying where they are? Does your arrival mean there’s an expansion happening?

Scott: In my conversations with the founders, before and after hiring, yeah, they want to be on the map with this. We want to make sure that we have a North American and Latin American presence. That means hiring the right people. Making sure that not only in Europe–we’re bolstered pretty well there, but we also want to have a presence in North America and Latin America.

Lost Ember.
Lost Ember.

GamesBeat: And that starts with you?

Scott: You sound like my mom. But no. It started 15 years ago. I’m just a piece, a cog in this whole thing. Hopefully it works out. I’m fired up, and I think everyone else is pretty excited.

GamesBeat: Are there other kinds of hires you see ahead of you in the same vein?

Scott: We’re scouting. We’re talking to people. We want to make sure that every hire is smart, and every hire makes sense for the business going forward. That’s very important, especially as it relates to North America. We want to do the right things. At the studios in Ukraine they’re recruiting as well. They have about 20 vacancies. The team has been working on building an advisor network and staffing up in various regions. That’s a big expansion. Pingle, over three years, in the rankings of the top 25 game developers in Ukraine, went from 25 to seven, where they are right now, and they keep growing.

The advisors are fantastic, and they really help us move to positions where we want to be. However, turning those advisors into full-time staff is the key. Advisors are great, but we need to make sure we get people on staff and make commitments to the people who are involved in the roles that we want.

GamesBeat: What kind of games has Pingle worked on that are coming soon? What’s the most recently published big game that Pingle has contributed to?

Scott: The most impressive game in the portfolio at this time is Insurgency: Sandstorm, from Focus Home Interactive. Of course there are games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and so on. Unfortunately, the biggest games, we can’t talk about for about two years after they’ve been published. That’s the nature of outsourcing. You have to stay quiet according to the contract for two years after the release of a game. It’s a weird thing.

Iron Galaxy Studios made Rumbleverse.
Iron Galaxy Studios made Rumbleverse.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else you wanted to make sure you mentioned today?

Scott: I can’t stress enough about the expertise that I’ve discovered, technology-wise, with Unreal Engine 5 and Unity. We have a very undervalued VR QA thing happening. VR QA is really going to explode coming up, if it hasn’t already. The VR QA resource is fantastic. Obviously we do art and everything else, but with 400 employees, we can be very nimble with our projects. That’s one of the things that’s really cool to me.

GamesBeat: There’s a big new publisher in VR out there now.

Scott: That’s right. I can’t wait. I totally want one, but I can’t afford one. I can’t justify that.

GamesBeat: Everyone was saying on Monday that it’s a developer headset. It’s priced like a developer headset. But even developers are saying, “I can’t afford this.”

Scott: Absolutely. It’s a rich person’s headset, and it’s for people who have a good amount of disposable income. Good for them. Apple’s always done this. This is Apple.

GamesBeat: I remember when they were launching the Xbox. They were saying, “Take these dev kits! Please! We have a bunch of them for you. We’ll give you every kit you want.” As opposed to, “Hey, get in line and buy this.”

Scott: I remember the 360 dev kits. It made me change jobs, because the early software there was all the Popcap stuff. Bejeweled and Zuma and so on. I said, “I want to work for these guys!” So I went and got a job at Popcap. It was awesome.

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