Interview

Remote Working: Amber head Mihai Sfrijan on balancing the positives and negatives of lockdown

Remote Working: Amber head Mihai Sfrijan on balancing the positives and negatives of lockdown

The games industry plays host to a colourful cast of diverse individuals, from artists and coders to narrative designers and studio heads.

The skills to pull off these roles, however, are complex and differing, with each position requiring mastery in its field – especially in these complex times we are all living through at the minute.

To highlight some of the brilliant work that goes on behind the scenes as well as how employees around the world are adapting to the life of remote work, PocketGamer.biz is reaching out to the individuals who make up the games industry in our Jobs in Games: Remote Working series.

This week we spoke with Amber head of studios Mihai Sfrijan.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us about your current role and what it entails?

Mihai Sfrijan: I'm the head of studios at Amber, which means I work alongside all the production teams and especially producers and other team leaders. I'm covering multiple studios in various locations from California to Romania to Mexico for the time being, with teams that work across multiple platforms (mobile, PC, console) on all genres.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the whole explosive growth following the launch of Candy Crush Saga.
Mihai Sfrijan

More specifically, my role is to help teams grow and gel together with the ultimate goal of them delivering the best games possible. I work alongside the leadership of each studio, figuring out how to best support our teams on a daily basis.

How did you first get into games and how did you progress into this role?

I've been playing games since I was a kid. It's why the games industry is filled with the most passionate people working in it. I eventually ended up writing about games and running a pretty big Central/Eastern European games magazine called Level, which helped me to understand the industry and the audience a bit better. It also exposed me to all kinds of games and gamers, and that's something that ended up really helping me in my career.

I made the switch from critiquing games to actually working on them by joining EA Mobile during the J2ME (Java Platform Micro Edition) era and I was part of that industry-wide transition to iOS and smartphones.

After a short stint at Jagex, I met some guys from a small Swedish company called King. At the time, King was relatively new to the industry and quite small, but I was completely blown away by how professional and focused they were.

I ended up opening the company's first mobile-focused studio as well as its first external studio. I was fortunate enough to be part of the whole explosive growth following the launch of Candy Crush Saga.

After a very fruitful and exciting four years at King, I decided to take a risk and opened up my own start-up called Notic. Here we focused on building a platform that mixes quick project delivery with various solutions for better monetisation and retention mechanics.

In the meanwhile, some of my friends from EA started Amber, with the goal of becoming the agency of choice in the games industry, which sounded like a very bold and interesting business approach.

What did you study (if anything) to get your role? What courses would you advise for aspiring professionals in the area?

I actually didn't study anything game related - at least officially. Unofficially, having played so many games and analysing them as part of my games magazine job, that was an experience I could not replicate in an academic setting at the time.

My studies were in Communications and Political Sciences, which I did alongside playing Counter-Strike. But that was then, and nowadays there are courses you can take on pretty much any game-related discipline.

For the producer role specifically, it's difficult to pinpoint one course you should take as this is a role that covers a bit of everything. I would suggest playing anything and everything, keeping your mind open to new genres (no matter the platform or how silly they look) and really working on understanding what makes a great team of people tick. That's probably the hardest one, and the most important skill from my point of view.

Games are made by teams and understanding how to make each member of that team passionate about what they are working on, how to get the best out of everyone, and how to make everyone work together as a tight-knit unit is both incredibly complex and satisfying.

Do you think there are any misconceptions, public or professional, surrounding your area of expertise?

If we're talking about the producer role, this is a leadership position that in order to be effective needs to both lead and support their teams at the same time. We usually call this servant leadership and some people might expect it to be a role of absolute power, which it absolutely isn't.

It's a difficult role because you need to understand the market, genre, audience, tech, vision, game design, art direction, team and its challenges. All of this, alongside being somebody that the team looks at for guidance, direction, and stability, but also not somebody that is too direct and controlling.

What advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

Try being part of the team and taking over some of the ownership and responsibility - no matter what that team of people is working on.
Mihai Sfrijan

Work on your soft skills. Try being part of the team and taking over some of the ownership and responsibility - no matter what that team of people is working on. It doesn't even have to be games or software. Try to learn how to lead and grow teams, while again playing everything that's out there.

How has the shift from office to remote working impacted your role, if at all?

Amber was actually really good at making the switch. We did it before most companies - practically overnight - without a lot of planning, and while this tested our organisation, we went through the change really smoothly. My role is very much focused on talking with people, so that went from mostly face-to-face conversations to exclusively Zoom calls.

This, of course, does make part of my job harder though, as it's always easier to understand somebody while you're in the same room.

What does your typical day look like when working remotely?

My whole week is already planned in advance as I have recurring calls covering most of my working hours. I'm trying to keep a small window for myself during the day, so I can take a lunch break and maybe squeeze in some exercise. Other than that, it's simply jumping from one call to another.

What do you think are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of remote working?

An advantage is that I don't waste any time travelling to and from work. A disadvantage is that I do miss seeing people occasionally. We might need to find a solution to have small team gatherings even if we continue to work from home most of the time.

Is there anything you wish you had known before moving to remote working?

I was a bit wary of how all of this was going to work but it's actually all going pretty well so far. I do need to invest in a wireless headset, though. I keep carrying my laptop with me everywhere.

Do you have any advice for others who are struggling to adjust to remote work?

Keep a tight schedule, take breaks, and it's ok to say no to yet another meeting if you have more important things to do.

After the pandemic ends and if you were given the choice, would you prefer to continue working remotely or go back to working in an office?

I don't think office work will disappear; however, we now have proof that remote working definitely is an option. I think we will end up seeing a combination of these two, with my preference being a schedule that allows me to work from home for the majority but also makes it possible to meet with my colleagues from time to time.


Staff Writer

Matthew Forde is the staff writer for PocketGamer.biz and also a member of the Pocket Gamer Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999 talking about Smash Bros. and everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes.

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