Sweet for London - Inside King's UK studio

Sweet for London - Inside King's UK studio
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

September 17th 2013 at 10:00AM

Catharina Lavers Mallet on what the city means to the Candy Crush dev

[This feature was published in the September 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

As King opened its London games studio last year, the outfit behind the mighty Candy Crush Saga returned to the city where it was formed as Midasplayer.com.

For years the company had not made games in the UK capital, but after over year in the city, King is increasing its productivity at an astounding rate. Develop caught up with London studio head Catharina Lavers Mallet to find out what kind of games studio she runs, how it fits into the King family, and how it plans to grow.

What inspired King to open its new studio in London – and why is the city important to the company?
King has had a London presence since the company’s founding in 2003. London was a natural choice for a King studio – there is a great ecosystem of top game development talent with freemium and mobile experience, and the international nature of the city means that a game can draw on many different perspectives and experiences to create a truly global game. Of course, being able to rely on the existing infrastructure of the London office has also been extremely helpful for us.

And what role does the London studio serve in terms of its place in the wider company and its interests?
The London studio is set up for cross-platform games development. We recently released Farm Heroes Saga, which is performing extremely well on the Facebook charts, and have a number of other cross-platform games in development.

How do you see the London studio evolving? And what are its ambitions?
We are a key contributor to the overall King strategy of being the world leader in casual cross-platform games. We work closely with the other studios around Europe to share knowledge, tech, and experiences, but are very autonomous in the day-to-day.

We currently have about 50 people in the studio, including game developers, designers, artists, QA and product people. I expect we will grow to be about 70 people and then we’ll pause there and evaluate if we want to grow further. It is really important that we maintain the small-studio feel that we have.

What kind of creative and company culture exists at King’s London studio?
I spend a lot of time obsessing over our culture, and making sure that we are really celebrating and reinforcing the kind of environment that we want to have. I strongly believe that a large part of the reason we have been able to be so successful is because of our culture.

We move extremely quickly to adapt to the needs of our players and to respond to what they like and don’t like. This means we need to stay nimble, which relies on building strong, small teams with a lot of ownership and autonomy. If teams have to wait around for approval to implement their ideas, they will likely miss the opportunity, so we hire smart people and let them get on with it.

We have an extremely flat management structure, and although we have designers, everyone in the team is expected to come up with ideas for features or ways that we can optimise the game. If something isn’t going well, or could be better, I expect team members to flag it or fix it – we are building this studio together.

Although we as a rule do not crunch, we spend a lot of time together so it’s important that people get along. King is probably the friendliest place I’ve ever worked, and we try hard to maintain an environment that is casual yet professional. I like it when people are a little bit weird and don’t take themselves too seriously – after all, we are making fun for a living.

We have a lot of social and team events, both formal and informal. At least a couple of times as week people will head down to the pub after work, and we schedule regular team, studio, and office events a few times a quarter. Past events have included go-karting, an ice sculpture carving class, an arcade trip, and renting out a cinema.

We look for humble, talented people who are passionate about joining King, who we feel we can learn something from (even if it’s not strictly related to the job – one of our developers is teaching sword fighting), who are a strong cultural fit and of course have the strong skills we need.

King is famously productive, releasing games at a famously fast rate. How do you keep the quality high whilst creating games so frequently?
I think it goes back to my earlier point about ownership. Teams take a huge amount of pride in their work, as they know that hopefully millions of players will be seeing what they produced. We are very clear with our expectations – quality and fun are always the most important criteria for launching a game. It’s important to set and meet timelines because there are business needs and dependencies, but quality is always number one.

What else makes King’s London outfit distinct as a studio?
I think the international nature of the team is really special. I’ve lost track of how many countries we represent, but there are quite a few people in the team who have moved to London in order to join King. As a result, people socialise together a lot.

Moving on to what you’ve learned at King, what makes a studio successful and long lasting today?
It’s important to know where you are trying to get to, what you are trying to accomplish, and who you want to be. Have a clear cultural identity, but be adaptive enough to respond quickly to the market. Set the right direction, and hire the best talent help you get there.
King London is recruiting, and you’ve already had a presence at job fairs, such as Silicon Milkroundabout.

What kind of roles are you looking to fill?
We are hiring across the board – art, dev, and product. We are looking for C++, Java, and Flash developers as well as generalist artists with experience in 2D, 3D, animation, and UI.

We also need product managers (producer-types with live game experience), business managers (analytical strategy-types with operational experience), and data scientists (hardcore stats quants to help us maximise the player experience). We are also hiring in marketing, legal, finance, and pretty much every other team.

What makes King London’s games rewarding to work on?
I’d say it’s a combination of the people you work with and the impact you make.

Even with King’s might, you must face challenges as a studio. Which are the most pressing, and how do you address them?
Players are really loving our games and so we are growing quickly as a company in order to keep pace. Maintaining the studio and company culture as we grow is at the top of my priority list.

www.king.com