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On Game Development with Salvatore Calì from Rise of Cultures (InnoGames)by@slogging
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On Game Development with Salvatore Calì from Rise of Cultures (InnoGames)

by Slogging (Slack Blogging)February 24th, 2022
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Salvatore Calì is the Product Head for the Rise of Cultures at InnoGames, a new city-building game for iOS and Android where players establish an empire and build various cities with the most famous cultures of humankind. In this slogging AMA, we chat about the Rise of Cultures, Innogames, game development, the metaverse, and leadership in gaming.

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Salvatore Calì is the Product Head for the Rise of Cultures at InnoGames, a new city-building game for iOS and Android where players establish an empire and build various cities with the most famous cultures of humankind. In this slogging AMA, we chat about Rise of Cultures, Innogames, game development, the metaverse, and leadership in gaming.

This Slogging thread by Mónica Freitas, Salvatore Calì, Sara Pinto, Abeer and Jack Boreham occurred in slogging's official #amas channel, and has been edited for readability.

Mónica FreitasFeb 17, 2022, 8:30 AM

Hey @channel, please join me in welcoming our next AMA guest, Salvatore Calì. Salva is the Product Head for the Rise of Cultures at InnoGames, a new city-building game for iOS and Android where players establish an empire and build various cities with the most famous cultures of humankind.

Please feel free to ask Salva anything about:

  • Rise of Cultures - the concept, gameplay, his role in the development process
  • His background in the gaming industry
  • InnoGames
  • Mobile games and game development
  • Leadership 
  • The future of gaming and video games in general


Mónica FreitasFeb 17, 2022, 8:31 AM

Hi Salvatore Calì! It's great to have you here! Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself, your role in Innogames, and your background?

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:32 AM

Hi everyone,

thank you for having me here 😊

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:36 AM

I'd start with my background maybe.
I was studying bioinformatics when there was some sort of poker boom around 2005. I realized that poker is a strategy game and not just a game of luck, and since I enjoy strategy games in general it became quickly something I spent a lot of time into. With the effect that my studies suffered but that part wasn't important anymore, I realized. So I played it for a couple of years, for a living. Was also a poker coach. Until 2010 when I had the realization that poker is probably not the thing I'm going to do in the next 20 years.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:38 AM

I was thinking "What do I really want to do?" and I concluded that it's making games. So I applied for a Game Design internship at the company Gameforge (famous for OGame and other browser games back then). And it was great! It was a perfect fit somehow. After half a year I was a junior and this is where it all started.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:39 AM

After 3.5 years at Gameforge, I switched to Goodgame Studios in Hamburg. There I changed career after half a year and joined product management. So since ~9 years or so I'm in that profession.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:44 AM

In 2016/2017 there were some layoffs and I took the chance to leave the company with a friend who also worked there to found our own company. We called it Playfiber. We gave ourselves 1 year of time (and our own money) to create a mobile game and make a living out of it...which we didn't achieve. So we searched for a job and that's where I joined InnoGames, in December 2017.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:46 AM

I was hired to start a new project, which then became Rise of Cultures! I'm the product owner and was the first team member so to say. 😬 I was quickly joined by the first game designer and together we created pitches and concepts for the game for ~3 months.

Hmm, maybe I should write a bit more here?
I'm 40 years old, living in Hamburg, originally from Karlsruhe (in the southwest of Germany) and as you maybe can tell from my name, I have Italian roots. 😁

😂 1
Mónica FreitasFeb 17, 2022, 9:55 AM

Salvatore Calì from bioinformatics to game development seems like a big leap. What made you fall in love with the gaming industry and, especially, game development?

Sara PintoFeb 17, 2022, 10:10 AM

Hi Salvatore Calì, glad to have you here with us! About that project you started, Rise of Cultures, what's the concept behind it?

Sara PintoFeb 17, 2022, 10:11 AM

Also, you had quite a change in your path. What were the biggest challenges you've faced when entering the gaming world? Salvatore Calì

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 11:23 AM

I think the answers for "what made me fall in love with game development" and "what were the challenges" have a lot in common.

I was certainly lucky to join the industry during a time when it was still relatively easy for "lateral entrants". Today I believe it's harder since it's so highly professionalized. But nevertheless, it was a challenge. I had a pretty wrong picture of what a game designer really does. E.g. I thought I would write more code, which would have been more comfortable for me since I had a computer science background from my study. The reality was that I didn't have that much of a clue. 😬 But I was allowed to learn, that's what an internship is for anyway, so that worked out well. And what actually helped was having studied at the university, no matter what subject. Because I believe there I learned to learn. 😉

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Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 11:23 AM

Another challenge back then was that there wasn't really that much knowledge spread across the internet, I believe. At least that's what I felt back then. If you want to get information about very specific topics like e.g. how to structure your in-game shop pricing, today you'll find a bunch of results. But 10-15 years ago that knowledge was not that public. So I pestered my fellow game designers at Gameforge a lot and I remember that my first GDC was extremely insightful (both because of the presentations but also because of the different talks I had with various persons).

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Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 12:18 PM

This, I think brings me to what made me fall in love with game development and the industry 😊
I believe the part which excites me the most is that game development is so eclectic, so versatile. No matter on which level.

On a higher level e.g. it could be that your current project is to work on a match-3 game, while the next one might be a strategy game or a shooter. Not talking about the different settings, themes and target audiences. 😬

On a lower level, sort of the day-to-day business, nearly every day is different. As the project evolves over time you're dealing with very different topics. While it was more about finding the right ideas and concepts in the beginning, in a more mature state of a project, when lots of the fundamental question marks are resolved, you're thinking more about how to scale your team and the product.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 12:51 PM

About that project you started, Rise of Cultures, what's the concept behind it?

The original reason for building Rise of Cultures is ultimately related to Forge of Empires, the biggest game we have at InnoGames.
FoE is a very strong product which grew over the last 10 years. But it was also born as a browser game. And you can still feel it here and there. Although there's of course also a mobile version available.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 12:51 PM

The more mobile became important in the industry (and therefore also for InnoGames) the more we thought we need a mobile-first title. With having such a strong knowledge of the city building sub-genre from FoE (and Elvenar, another city builder we have in our portfolio) we aimed for creating a new mobile-first city builder. We were confident to be able to translate all our knowledge and experience we have on design (but also on marketing) to a successful new product.

💚 1
Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 12:51 PM

The vision behind RoC is to build multiple cities, discover new civilizations that form your global empire, and lead them through the ages of mankind by trading, war and diplomacy. It's a progression-driven game in a historic setting.

AbeerFeb 17, 2022, 12:29 PM

Hey Salvatore Calì. Great to have you here. What’s your view on the popularity of game engines like Unity and Unreal? Was Rise of Cultures built using a public game engine?

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 12:59 PM

What’s your view on the popularity of game engines like Unity and Unreal? Was Rise of Cultures built using a public game engine?

RoC was built with Unity.
I think by now Unity and Unreal are well-established in the industry. I rarely see projects being built with other engines or even custom in-house solutions. And I think it's no surprise. It makes the game developers' lives simply way easier. Faster solutions, easier collaboration, communities with lots of knowledge around the engines. Way too many benefits to not use them. 😉

💚 1
Mónica FreitasFeb 17, 2022, 3:07 PM

Salvatore Calì so the constant change and movement in the gaming industry are what captivated you. I can understand that appeal!
Now that you have a ton of experience in the area, how do think you can use that to help new talents? How does leadership plays a role in your life?

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:16 PM

Leadership plays a big role, in my professional life at least. I've been doing it for a couple of years already.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:16 PM

When I was still inexperienced I was cocky. 😬 Sometimes I thought I know it best and I was annoyed that I needed to deal with the ignorance and sensitivities of others. That's what I felt at that time. That was blatantly stupid of course. :man-facepalming: But I had no mentor, so it took me some time until I realized that I'm doing it wrong. Now that I think about it I realize how nasty that situation actually was. 😰 When you really believe you're doing it right, paired with poor self-reflection, then this will very likely lead to bad results and simply annoy and frustrate those around you. And there's no easy way out of this vicious circle because you believe you're doing it right and you have that poor self-reflection, right? 😬 🔄

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:17 PM

I don't remember that there was that one moment when I understood it better. I think it was a gradual process of improving my leadership style.
What I believe to know today is that you rarely know it best. There's usually someone smarter than you in the room.
So I try to get these smart people being heard. "Empowering" is probably the buzzword that fits best here. (Although I must admit that I'm pretty annoyed by all these leadership buzzwords.)

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:17 PM

I'm now leading a bunch of people. Different disciplines and different seniorities. Of course, I can't teach these highly specialized people new tricks in their disciplines. But I still believe I can help them grow. Because in the end, it's always about people, social interaction. What I think leaders often miss is that this whole people thing is not a one-way street. It's always going in both directions.
You give feedback but you should also get feedback. That's the only way you really can get better, at least in an efficient way. Because every other way of improvement would be undirected and rather random.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 8:17 PM

Another pleasant side-effect is that at the same time you make your employees feel better because they get heard and have influence. 💡

Jack BorehamFeb 17, 2022, 2:06 PM

Salvatore Calì. Great to have you here! What do you think the future of gaming is? Is it the metaverse?

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:24 PM

Thank you, Jack! 😊
Puh, your question is really difficult. 😬
It can be answered in so many ways as well, I think.
What platforms will we use?
What business models will be established?
Will there be big differences comparing the future years 2025 and 2030?

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:24 PM

I think someone smart said that when you want to talk about the future you need to understand history. So I think we need to look at what happened in the past. But I'm rambling now. 😬

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:24 PM

To be honest I don't think that we will see that much of a change in the fundamentals of games. I would put my bet on future devices instead.
Let me try to explain.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:24 PM

Take the pandemic e.g.
I had a regular get-together. We went to a restaurant every week and ate and drank there, the usual stuff.
Suddenly we were forced to move the whole thing online somehow.
And that was the time when all the games like skribbl grew big.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:25 PM

VR is also one of those things.
At first, it was all too technically complex for me.
Then there was the Oculus Quest and I thought that was the solution.
When I tried the Quest, it was the first time in years that I had experienced a wow-effect in the gaming context. Because of the device. Not necessarily because of the games.
Because most of the games weren't really innovative. You play a character, have a weapon, shoot zombies, solve quests, get rewards, etc.
But the device is different than anything you've played before and the games that still follow the old design patterns but have translated that well into this new technical environment are really good and a lot of fun!

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:25 PM

My point is:
I don't think we will see super innovative games. Most of the time it's about further developing existing ideas and I think that's a very logical and natural process.
But I believe that the usual games (and their further developments) will be played on new devices that will be innovative.
I think VR is still not suitable for the masses even without all the tech effort.
I used to play Super Nintendo for hours as a teenager with my best friend. All through the night.
I wouldn't be able to do that with VR glasses. It's just too tiring.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:25 PM

But if that were possible with normal glasses (think of AR), then that would be a major milestone.
Because just like I played with my buddy on the SNES and with my regular get-together online, this need will still be there after the pandemic: to play together.
And it doesn't matter if it's the most innovative mind-blowing game or just chess.
The only difference will be that it will be much easier and more immersive.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:25 PM

Imagine:
I sit down at my empty living room table and put on normal glasses that can do AR.
Tracking works cleanly, audio is also no problem (at first simply with headphones, later perhaps simply audio sources that are in the room, the same for the microphone).
I now see my buddies sitting at this table as holograms. On the table is a projected board game. We play it and talk as if they were actually at my house, at this table with this game.

This is how I imagine the future.

Salvatore CalìFeb 17, 2022, 9:26 PM

I have honestly no clue about the metaverse. 😬

Mónica FreitasFeb 18, 2022, 11:06 AM

Salvatore Calì, I'm glad that you've mentioned the 2-way street because some companies don't really seem to be open to feedback from their employees which can make the whole company's environment tense. Good leaders can make a difference in this department.

Mónica FreitasFeb 18, 2022, 11:09 AM

Salvatore Calì nowadays, more and more, we can see the difference between companies that innovate and change to accommodate different ways of working and others that still use the old way: remote work vs office job or mixed methods, flexible hours or strict hours, etc. How do you feel about the current office culture?

Salvatore CalìFeb 18, 2022, 9:39 PM

By the way, talking about feedback: it's actually one of InnoGames' core values.

Salvatore CalìFeb 18, 2022, 9:40 PM

Regarding office culture and way of working, I would say it's pretty complex.
Especially in bigger companies and teams.

Salvatore CalìFeb 18, 2022, 9:40 PM

As far as I know, we don't have strict working hours. But I believe it's beneficial to establish some sort of core working hours in your team. It helps in creating some reliable time overlaps and makes it easier to collaborate. E.g. in my team, when we all moved into home office ~2 years ago, we agreed that we should be available from 10:30 to 15:30. But in the end, it's not super strict. I believe in common sense in that case and each team should decide for themselves how they want to do it.

Salvatore CalìFeb 18, 2022, 9:40 PM

We at InnoGames are planning to establish a hybrid working model, a mix of home office and company office.
The current plan is to have a quarterly get-together where the whole company comes to the office for a week. In these weeks we would focus on teambuilding, workshops, company parties, these things which benefit from being physically there, together.

Salvatore CalìFeb 18, 2022, 9:43 PM

We're also planning to set up the office in a way that you could work on flexible or permanent working desks. But that's still in progress and until now there wasn't really the chance to work in the office anyway because of Covid and the safety restrictions.

Salvatore CalìFeb 18, 2022, 9:44 PM

But where the day-to-day work takes place is up to the teams. And I believe we won't see a big comeback of employees going to the office. People are enjoying that they can skip the commute, that they can be more flexible with their time etc. I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, like videocall fatigue, no clear cut between work and leisure time, not enough physical activity. I think the future will focus on minimizing the disadvantages but staying in the new normal instead of going back to the old normal. When you think about it, it's actually unbelievable that people have put up with the commute for years. I think most of my team members needed to travel 1-2 hours per day in total to get to work and back home. :exploding_head:

Mónica FreitasFeb 21, 2022, 10:14 AM

Salvatore Calì, thank you for your insightful answers! It's been so great to have you on, but unfortunately, we will have to wrap up this AMA. Do you have any final thoughts for our readers or something you'd like to promote?

Mónica FreitasFeb 21, 2022, 10:16 AM

I love to hear that Innogames is so open to alternative work environments. We need more companies like that.

Salvatore CalìFeb 21, 2022, 10:45 AM

Thank you for having given me the opportunity to share my thoughts here! 😊 Was also an interesting format.

💛 1
Salvatore CalìFeb 21, 2022, 10:45 AM

I don't have any additional thoughts but I'd like to promote that we're hiring! 😊

🔥 1
Salvatore CalìFeb 21, 2022, 10:46 AM

We're looking for talent and offer opportunities across various departments and career levels. Open positions can be found here: https://www.innogames.com/career/#c926