Speaker Q&A: Rovio's Michail Katkoff explains how to be a successful product manager

If you're in the business of free-to-play games, you should know that at GDC 2018, Rovio's Michail Katkoff will be presenting a talk on what it takes to be a successful product manager in that field.

His Business and Marketing talk will dive into the ways that different companies utilize their product managers, calling out the most successful among their ranks and highlighting what other companies should be doing to mimic their success. Here, Katkoff introduces himself to GDC attendees and discusses what they can expect from his upcoming talk.

Don't miss out! The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next March is going to be full of interesting and informative sessions like Katkoff's. For more visit the show’s official website.

Tell us about yourself and what you do in the games industry.

If I have to summarise: I'm a game maker, a product person and a blogger.

In more details, I'm first and foremost responsible for product management at Rovio, where in addition to working directly on a game I'm giving my full effort in elevating our product management as a whole. Outside the work I'm a involved in gaming even further as a founder and an author of Deconstructor of Fun, a blog focusing on the product and design side of free-to-play games. Luckily though, in six years the blog has grown and I've had some amazing product people join me. A couple of them (Anil Das-Gupta and Adam Telfer) are actually speakers at GDC as well.

What inspired you to pursue your career?

As many of you, I’ve always loved games. I was that chubby kid playing video games pretty much all my childhood, but lets 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 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.

Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at GDC.

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

I'll be talking about the key principles of effective product management in free-to-play games and what makes a great product manager. I think the best part of my talk is the fact that most of my examples will come from great product managers I happen to have worked with.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?

On a high level, I believe my challenges are quite the same as any other product person is facing in mobile games. And those are related to the battle of LTV (life-time value) versus CPI (cost per install). As the competition keeps getting harsher on mobile, we have to figure out how to increase the LTV of our players in order to justify for the marketing costs that actually brings us those players. It's a mathematical question but it's also highly creative question as the increase in LTV is driven through strong game balancing and even stronger live operations.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

As a game maker, I'm most rewarded when I see people playing my game in the 'real life'. You know, passing someone on the bus stop and seeing them being fully engaged in your game. Nothing beats that! On the more day-to-day level I'm most rewarded when we solve tough challenges as a team.

Do you have any advice for those aspiring to join your field someday?
I'd encourage those aspiring to become product managers in free-to-play games to first and foremost play free-to-play games and take notes what makes those games financially successful or unsuccessful. In addition to having (preferably) a business background, product managers should understand on a personal level why players choose to spend money in games.

What are some key differences for product managers in charge of free-to-play mobile games as opposed to other genres?

Data. As product managers in free-to-play games we have an immense amount of quantitative and qualitative data in our hands that we analyse and communicate to the team and improve decision making. The goal of development team is to better the game with each update. This would be immensely more difficult if there was no dedicated product manager driving the analysis, hypothesis, prioritisation and testing.

Is the role similar at all to what a producer does?

The short answer is no. Producer is typically in charge of the implementation of the roadmap making sure that the development team is moving smoothly and on time ahead and that no tasks are being forgotten. Product manager on the other hand is responsible for the business side of the game and thus have a strong influence on the prioritisation of the roadmap.

In more simple way of describing, product managers answer to what is being developed and why, while producers answer to when this is done and how.

 

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