Interview

Jobs in Games: Rovio's Michail Katkoff shares insights on the role of a product manager

Jobs in Games: Rovio's Michail Katkoff shares insights on the role of a product manager

It takes a great number of individuals working together in various disciplines to make any commercial enterprise function.

The mobile games industry is certainly no exception, offering dynamic and diverse roles to thousands the world over.

As such, PocketGamer.biz has decided to celebrate this with a regular series of interviews where each week we chat to a mobile games industry professional from a different field - be it game design, art, or PR - to learn about how they bagged that job in games.

Obviously every career path is different, but the goal is to give a picture of the sorts of skills, qualifications and ambition one might need to find themselves in such a role - and how we can all learn from it.

This time, the spolight is on Michail Katkoff, product management director at Angry Birds developer Rovio and founder of Deconstructor of Fun.

PocketGamer.biz: How did you first get into product management in games?

Michail Katkoff: As many of you, I’ve always loved games. I was that chubby kid playing video games pretty much all my childhood, but let's not get into that. Despite passion for games I nevertheless ended up in a business school and thought that I will never ever get to make them.

Luckily though, in 2009 FarmVille came along! Suddenly there was a need for business-minded people like myself in the newborn free-to-play games industry.

I love building games and I also love sharing whatever knowledge I have and seeing others succeed. In this role I get to do both.
Michail Katkoff

I seized the opportunity and joined Digital Chocolate’s Helsinki studio as one of the first product managers in the company. Since then I’ve been privileged to follow my dream career in games.

What does your new job with Rovio  as product management director entail?

There are two parts to my role at Rovio. First and foremost I’m working on a game, which is currently in the early stages. The main goal there, as always, is to build an evergreen, hit title.

My second goal is elevating our product management as a whole. In other words, I want to make sure that the games teams receive the product support they need; that we have enough great product managers; and that our product managers have all the tools and know-how to succeed on the job.

Is it something you ever imagined yourself doing?

I’ve had the chance to hire and train product managers before and looking at their impressive career progressions, you can’t fault me of giving them a bad start.

But is this something I imagined ever doing? I have to say yes. I love building games and I also love sharing whatever knowledge I have and seeing others succeed. In this role I get to do both.

Part of your new role at Rovio is to help ‘establish principles for efficient product management across the company’. What would you say these key principles are?

The role of a product manager in free-to-play mobile games varies, sometimes drastically, from one organisation and development phase to another.

Rovio is best known for the smash-hit Angry Birds franchise

Sometimes product managers are expected to be highly analytical business communicators, while at other times product managers are expected to come up with creative solutions and think outside the box.

Product managers rarely directly build or operate the product, instead they enable those around them to do it better. In my opinion there are four principles of product management:

  1. Set targets: prioritipe development so that it maximizes the impact the work done by the team
  2. Find and analyse issues: use data to locate issues and align the team to solve them
  3. Communicate to the stakeholders: product managers connect the team with the outside world
  4. Provide benchmarks: provide the team with accurate deconstructed examples of possible solutions and keep track of competitors

What is the role of a modern product manager in mobile, and what makes a good one?

As I said before, the role of a product manager varies quite significantly based on the development stage of the game and whether the product manager is working with internal or external teams.

But overall, what makes a good product manager is following the key principles and having a strong passion for mobile games.

If there’s only one thing I would like to have known when I first started working in games, it would be the game production process, roles and responsibilities.
Michail Katkoff

As a shameless plug, I’ll go into more details about this exact question in my upcoming GDC talk 'What Successful Product Managers Do Differently in Free-to-Play Games'. If you have a chance, please attend it. I’d love to hear others’ opinions on this topic.

Is there anything about the career/industry you wish you would have known when first joining?

Yes! Not a day goes by when I feel that I don’t know enough. The industry moves at such a high velocity that it’s close to impossible to keep track of where the puck is let alone where the puck is going.

I was lucky to end up at a really great studio from the get-go and was given a lot of room to try, fail and learn.

If there’s only one thing I would like to have known when I first started working in games, it would be the game production process, roles and responsibilities.

In other words, what everyone does, what are the development phases and what are the deliverables for each phase. The studio definitely felt less chaotic once I understood games production.

What other advice would you offer anyone thinking of becoming a product manager?

Seek product management opportunities in games and prepare for interviews by playing and analysing different types of games. Product management related blogs, such as Mobile Free-to-Play, Mobile Dev Memo and Deconstructor of Fun  are also great sources of information.

If you have passion for both games and business, product management is the best career path in my opinion. You get to work with unbelievably creative and highly analytical people.

Most importantly though, you’ll create games that entertain tens of millions of people around the world.

Senior Editor

Craig Chapple is Senior Editor of PocketGamer.biz. He was previously Deputy Editor at Develop and Online Editor at Nintendo of Europe.

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