Upon taking over as CEO of Zordix, Maximum Games founder Christina Seelye became only the second woman to lead a publicly-listed global gaming group. As she approaches her first year in post, she talks to Richie Shoemaker about, not just levelling up Zordix, but helping to advance more women decision-makers throughout the industry and beyond.
By its CEO’s own admission, Zordix is a bit all over the place. She means it literally rather than figuratively, in that it is all over the place: predominantly Sweden, where the company was founded and has long been established as a developer of racing games, but with a growing number of development and publishing outposts in the UK, Hungary, Brazil, France, and an increasing presence in the US, from where Christina Seelye hails and has flown in from.
“I will tell you it’s a challenge right now,” she chuckles. “We have, like, 200 people in pockets of 20. It’s not like we have one headquarters where the vast majority of the people are.” She admits it makes building a singular culture and establishing core behaviours and values difficult, before pointing out that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Quite the opposite: “We have to be sensitive to the fact that we’re super distributed, but because we have different teams with different capabilities all over the world, I do think that gives us a lot of flexibility.”
Speaking at devcom back in August, Seelye was at pains to stress that while Zordix is growing through mergers and acquisitions, its progression is managed tactically rather than overseen strategically. Aside from continuing to develop strong and successful IPs and maintain self sufficiency in both publishing and development, there’s no obvious plan to hit a certain number of studios in X amount of countries. There’s a desire to become better established in Asia, but that’s as close to a strategy as Seelye seems to want to admit to: “M&A would be more of a tactic in order to reach that goal of having a little bit more speed on the street and capabilities in that region.”
MCV/DEVELOP last spoke to Zordix just over a year ago, with founder Matti Larsson (then CEO, now director of innovation and new business), Merge Games MD Luke Keighran and Just For Games CEO Philippe Cohen. Much was talked about in terms of growth and the need to find and build on new IP, but also to find “entrepreneurial kindred spirits” who might help Zordix gain access to new markets, game developers and IP holders, who it “can work in partnership with to do more than simply bring those games to market.” We didn’t know it at the time, but Zordix was days away from acquiring Maximum Games, the founder and CEO of which turned out to offer just the entrepreneurial meeting of minds the Zordix leadership team was hoping to engineer.
Seelye has a kindred spirit of her own, Team17’s Debbie Bestwick. “Both of us have very similar stories,” she says. “We both are entrepreneurs. I tell this to women all the time, that being an entrepreneur allows you a lot of freedom to bypass any kind of political work difficulty in a large organisation. You are bypassing all of that because you’re coming in from the side, and the assumption is that you’re coming with an idea, or you’re coming with a problem that you’ve already solved.” The advantage for the entrepreneur, says Seelye, is that you’re not necessarily seen as a careerist, but as a problem solver.
“When you’re starting your own business, you’re not encumbered by any of that kind of pressure, so I do think that women overall should be going down an entrepreneurial path and that it would be beneficial to get women that have reached a corporate level someplace else, [before they] then come into this industry.”
ACT OF DECISION
Recognising that the games industry isn’t the most welcoming when it comes to professional CEOs coming from outside – whether men or women – Seelye is insistent that there should be a focus within companies on giving women more roles in decision making, especially when it comes to the business and creative side of the industry.
“Women need to be part of the rapid prototyping teams, they need to be part of what’s being created, and deciding what games are getting greenlit and coming to market. I think that that’s a really great way for women to change attitudes and have a say in the content that is coming into the industry. You know, I think it’s really important for me to spend a lot of time with other women and encourage them to keep going within their companies and in their industry. Technology overall doesn’t have a lot of women CEOs either, and although this is a very creative industry that we’re in, it is still a technology industry. You need to be able to code, or need to talk to coders, and there’s not enough women in that broader category.”
Back at the head of Zordix, Seelye is happy to take ownership of the Zordix growth plan. “I think it could very well be personal, to be honest with you,” she says, explaining that any potential acquisition is one she has to feel comfortable with: “Buying a bunch of things, and not knowing how they’re going to work together, or what the ultimate value that is going to be created, feels very risky to me. I really like looking at what we are trying to accomplish and what are our gaps are in trying to get where we want to be. Does it make more sense to acquire something in order to reach that goal, or do we partner with somebody, or do we build it by hiring somebody?”
Asking the fundamental questions and analysing a range of possible outcomes, says Seelye, comes from knowing that M&A is just one of the tools available to grow an organisation rather than the be-all-and-end-all. “It feels scary and risky to me to buy a bunch of disparate things when I don’t have a vision for how they’re going to work together. I’m not saying that it’s wrong – it’s a perfectly viable strategy for somebody who’s saying, ‘Let’s buy everything in this space and see how it shakes out’. Maybe it’s the entrepreneur in me that’s about making sure that we’re making money and that everything is moving in the same direction.”
TO IP OR NOT IP
Back when we last spoke with the Zordix leadership team, three months before Seelye’s appointment as CEO, the aim was to maintain the full-service capability the group had recently built up, but also increase and develop the breadth and depth of IPs needed to sustain the group during a period in which indie publishing has become ultra competitive and from which not every company is believed will survive.
“Right now we’re in a situation where we have a lot of games in the pipeline, we know exactly what we want to build in the future, but we need more actual humans to build those games.” Seelye says that while the group could look to hire 50 people that might work effectively together, finding a studio that already has the skills and capabilities – and crucially the studio management – in place, might be the better option.
“That’s one way to look at it. Another one is, there’s this really interesting IP that already has a community of fans that loves it. And by bringing those guys in, we can reach our goals of becoming a much bigger own-IP and transmedia company. We could do that faster by buying that IP and bringing that community in, and then we could take advantage of all of these other capabilities that the company has.
“So, either one would work. It’s just like, what are we talking about at the time? We’re also of a size as a company right now that doing five acquisitions a year is not within our capability set today. We just don’t have the internal resources to do that. So we have to be very intentional and purposeful about what we are going to add to the mix.”
As well as being a bit all over the place and lacking a centre of gravity geographically, there’s an argument to suggest that structurally, outwardly at least, Zordix is similarly lacking focus. Seelye doesn’t agree that the group has an identity problem, however, but rather the issue might be a matter of projection or messaging. “We are actively looking at how we present ourselves to the world. What message do we want to give the industry? What message we want to give gamers. What message we want to give potential studios that we might acquire of what it means to be part of identity, because I agree with you, right now it’s a little scattered.
But to be fair, Zordix made five acquisitions in two years. It was a lot in a very short amount of time.” Seelye also points out that in the wake of recent acquisitions, one of which was Maximum Games (the company she founded), she has only been in the post since February. “When you look at Maximum Games and Modus, people know who they are and what our publishing capabilities are. We just need to take that same thing and expand that. It’s definitely on my agenda to create that story for the world so that they can see who we are.”
A potential difficulty in getting that message across stems from a seeming desire to not impose a single identity across all the entities within the Zordix group. Part of what makes Zordix distinct is that its studios and publishers have arguably a bigger profile than Zordix itself. Is a new studio to the fold able or expected to retain that same identity, that same profile?
“I would say it depends on the studio, we just recently acquired Mane6, the studio behind Them’s Fightin’ Herds. The name of the studio and the game that they develop is very closely tied, and so for them it makes sense to retain that name, because it was really closely tied to the IP.”
“There are other studios that you could acquire or we have within the group that are a little bit more multifunctional, you know, might have a couple of different pieces of IP within there. In those cases, it might not necessarily make sense to invest because every new brand you have is marketing dollars, you know, you have to pay to position it and create that identity, so you are kind of looking at it on a case by case basis.
“What I will say is that people are very precious about the name that they have created, and we want to be sensitive to that and respect work and the sweat equity they put into that brand, and then figure out a way to present it to the world that’s maybe a little bit more cohesive. But I think there’s a place for people to keep their names and separate identities.”
Does keeping one’s identity as a studio within Zordix also come with a degree of autonomy?
“Yeah, that is how I like to work. I like a lot of freedom. I don’t like rules. That’s probably why I have always been an entrepreneur. But I do think that people do their best work with freedom. Obviously, innovation comes from constraints and there needs to be discipline and things like that in order to get a game out the door. But I do like to create a lot of freedom for people to do their highest and best work and to create something compelling. I think it’s important to give space to that, especially on the creative side.”
“From a studio standpoint, we have to give a lot of creativity around the game that they want to achieve. Obviously, we have to get the game out, we have to make it commercially viable. But really our constraints around that have a lot more to do with game play testing and UX feedback than they do on time.”
As she edges closer to celebrating her first anniversary at the head of Zordix, what challenges and opportunities does Seelye see in the months ahead?
“One thing that’s really exciting about the market in the coming years is just how much people love their video game IP. They really love the characters, they really love not just the experience of playing the game, but they want more ways to interact with their IP. And so I feel like the industry and in particular, what we’re going to do in the industry, is provide gamers with a lot more ways of interacting with our games.”
“Whether that is in merchandise, whether that’s in collector’s editions, whether that’s in a final version of a soundtrack, whether that’s in a YouTube short or an animated series or anything like that, we’re going to be providing a lot more ways for people to interact with video game IP, with interactive and passive entertainment coming together to create a lot more opportunities for video game IPs. We’re going to focus on moving forward and because we have such a strong global infrastructure, it’s not a heavy lift for us to add those kinds of capabilities to the company because we’ve already built that infrastructure. We’re excited about where that’s going in the long run.”