How do the founders of the two most famous gaming companies in Serbia, Branko Milutinović and Vladimir Mastilović, see the development of the gaming ecosystem in Serbia?
The past year has forced us to slow down and ask ourselves which way is forward and have a retrospective of what we have done so far so that we can adapt and ensure our survival in times of great uncertainty. Conversations with a number of entrepreneurs reminded me of what the startup community was like in the beginning, but also what has been done to date. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Branko Milutinović, the CEO of Nordeus, whom I’ve interviewed several times over the years, and for the first time with Vladimir Mastilović, the CEO of the 3Lateral Company.
When we compare the Serbian gaming industry today and 11 years ago when Nordeus was founded, what is different?
Branko: Eleven years ago, there were a small number of programmers who were passionate about creating games. We all learned and developed on our own, not because we wanted to, but because it was the only option. There was no support for people to create games like there is today. Top Eleven is a game that put Nordeus on the gaming map and helped the company become what it is today, and not only that, it helped the entire community gain more recognition.
We have learned a lot over the years and have changed along with the industry, following trends and new technologies. We never forgot where we started from and how important is the support we now provide to all those who want to succeed in the gaming industry – we share our experience with professional teams and communities in Serbia and support their growth. This is one of the reasons why we founded SGA (the Serbian Gaming Association), which now has more than 80 members and, based on their needs, is working to improve education in Serbia.
Vladimir: The biggest difference for us is that the local ecosystem almost didn’t exist 10 years ago. There were individual companies, although there was little communication as each company was closed off, often not even being aware of other similar companies existing. We tried to develop our own ideas to reach the global market, often neglecting our surroundings. I remember meeting Branko for the first time in Paris in 2011 at the Game Connection Conference and this is not an isolated case – I met many of my friends who live on the other side of the planet rather than closer to home. I’m glad that things have changed and that there is a lot more communication in the local ecosystem. At the same time, educational programmes are much stronger and the impression is that changes are happening much faster.
Nordeus is one of the first gaming companies to become known to the general public and has also become a symbol for the people working in the creative industry. Branko, what is your view of this?
Branko: I hope they first associate Nordeus with a company that has grown a lot in these 10 years, and only then with the success of Top Eleven. We have remained independent and managed to build a global gaming company in Belgrade and bring professionals with many years of experience in the industry to our country. We have created such an environment that working in Nordeus today makes you feel like you are working in any successful global gaming company.
What sets us apart from others is our approach to employees whom we always put first, show empathy and want our employees and their families to feel part of the broader Nordeus family. I hope it will inspire people who are starting companies in Serbia and thinking about becoming part of our gaming industry.
Vladimir, even though 3Lateral has been around for 12 years, it seems like we’ve only heard about you in the last few years. How difficult was it to recruit people then and how much does the community know about you now?
Vladimir: That’s right. We haven’t publicly talked much about what we do. This is largely due to the fact that we always worked on confidential projects that were not launched until years later. So, when the time was right to mention these projects, they were no longer that interesting. At some point we were frustrated with this while at the same time, our internal technology started to improve enough to be offered as a product. At that time, we started cooperating with Epic Games with whom we had been creating pioneering technologies for 3 years before making the decision to join forces into a larger company. By that time, we already knew each other well, there was a great team spirit between us and we were pretty confident that we were united for the same mission.
3Lateral actually started as a small group of friends and our development was organic and relatively slow. It wasn’t until we reached a certain critical mass that we started developing the team faster. I don’t think we could repeat that kind of growth today – we would have to be much faster, but for us, this was a great experience. I believe in development through play and experimentation and slower growth allowed us to do that. Looking back, I’m glad we evolved in that way.
Now that we can offer great working conditions and have our own products (which are not video games, but game development tools), it’s a little easier to hire people, but it’s still a challenge. It takes a lot of love and dedication to do this job and finding people with the same interests is not easy. Great people will always be needed and finding committed workers will always be a challenge. However, we are in no rush to increase the number of employees at this time. We want to build on the experience of the existing team while meeting great individuals who are inspired by what we do and ready to join our mission.
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How much has the company’s development turned around after Epic Games purchased 3Lateral? Vladimir, what did the acquisition mean for you and the team?
Vladimir: I think we built 3Lateral on a good foundation in terms of technology, strategy and culture of our team. However, the overall feeling was that we had the potential to do even more. Our goals have always been very ambitious and at some point, we felt that we should not try to achieve them alone. The development of digital people was a very important mission and a task for a larger team. Epic Games has a wonderful team made of extremely talented and dedicated people, they believe in what we want to do, so it was the perfect opportunity to expand our expertise and accelerate our strategy. I think everyone has benefited from this – both the 3Lateral and Epic Games team – and since we’re geared towards democratizing and enabling others, I would say that the global gaming community has benefitted as well.
We recently unveiled one of our joint cooperation products called MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows you to create digital people in minutes. This set of technologies is designed to empower developers and will be available to everyone, including developers in our local community, which makes me extremely happy. Also, the local community can only benefit from a more stable company with a long-term vision, willing to share the know-how. There are also programmes like Epic MegaGrants and we are here to help local businesses and educational institutions access them.
What is the situation with staffing today? Are they more often educated in academia or working in the industry itself?
Branko: The fact is that some of the best engineers in the world who were educated in Serbia are working here. The most important areas, where our industry needs to develop to be able to make great games in a sustainable way, are game design, product and project management. Collaboration between programmers, designers, product managers, artists, marketers and many other professionals from different fields is something that needs to be more present in our educational system. This kind of multidisciplinary knowledge is what will help every company in Serbia that produces games, and that’s what we want to achieve through the SGA and the Digital Serbia initiative.
Because we operate globally, we are able to hire foreigners who can bring excellent international experience from gaming companies around the world. We employ global industry experts in key positions in areas we can’t hire locally such as art, game design, marketing or people with an exceptional gaming experience that we disproportionately have less of than engineers. That way, they can lead teams and help local talent continue to develop.
There’s a lot of talk about how now is the right time for Serbia to position itself on the global map of the gaming ecosystem. What would the growth of the creative industry mean for our country?
Vladimir: The creative industry has repeatedly proven that world-changing ideas can come from smaller teams, and sometimes even from an individual. The wonderful thing about our industry is that we have easy access to the global market. If we list just a few successful projects and examples, we can come to the conclusion that so-called unicorn companies could increase the GDP of our entire country by 5-10%. This would have huge positive effects on the wider community. However, companies like this do not develop by accident. They usually grow in healthy ecosystems filled with inspired people sharing ideas, with supportive financial frameworks and regulatory backing. I hope we continue to develop our ecosystem in that direction over the next decade.
Branko: The existence of an ecosystem that can be part of the global gaming scene will mean further development for our country, additional financial support and international recognition. Foreign investments have started coming into our industry and the gaming industry continues to grow, as best shown by the latest SGA report, which estimated the value of the domestic gaming ecosystem at between 80 and 120 million euro, with over 100 teams and companies now employing more than 1,500 people. To do this, companies that are just starting out need support. Some of the largest gaming industry capitals in the world did not become what they are today without any help. They’ve received a lot of investment and support from their governments, and that’s something we’re missing, but we hope that will change in the future.
Vladimir, we can’t help but mention your plans for a new technology campus in Novi Sad. What can you tell us about the project at this point?
Vladimir: Our new HQ campus is something we are very excited about because it will provide us with tools to achieve goals that we couldn’t achieve before. I mean this in terms of technical and artistic aspects, but also in terms of interacting and connecting with the community. One of the approaches I like most at Epic Games is the approach where other people’s success is also our success. Therefore, the design of the campus itself will reflect our values and our commitment to collaboration. I hope that we will soon publicly unveil at least part of this design.
2020 has proven to be a challenging year, especially for entrepreneurship. What are your predictions for the creative industry as founders who started their companies in the early years of the previous economic crisis?
Vladimir: 2020 was one of the most difficult years we can remember, but it also created new opportunities. It was actually a challenging year for gaming because people who stayed home were offered peace of mind by connecting with friends through video games. Overall, some of the companies that could help and contribute to the new world have actually grown. Many long-delayed changes happened faster.
I recently listened to a lecture by psychologist and researcher Bertrand Piccard who said that a crisis is an adventure that you refuse to accept. That means bad things will happen, but if we see them as an opportunity to adapt and learn, we will have a completely different experience. So, my message is that we must never lose heart, we must remain playful dreamers and good things will come.
Branko: I always say that I don’t see challenges but opportunities, so this situation is no different. A study shows that it is during the economic crisis that entrepreneurs and startups are more likely to succeed. New opportunities will always appear. When big opportunities are created in the world, they often indicate cracks in the market and a chance to start something new. Take a look at all the businesses that have gone digital in the last year, created new channels and started creating new content. By recognizing the need and then creating a solution, you have a better chance of achieving success no matter what is happening in the world.
However, for this to happen, you must have the desire and will to succeed. Get involved in knowledge-sharing that is increasingly present online, talk to people and look for opportunities. Gaming is one of the industries that have flourished this year. Online entertainment has continued to grow too and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue. If you want to get into the gaming industry or have an idea you want to explore, the Nordeus Hub and our Early Talent Programme are the right places for an opportunity like this. Just get started!
This post is also available in: Italiano