Interview with Torsten Reil, the Co-founder and CEO of NaturalMotion

March 4, 2015 at 10:01 am | Consultist Blog | No comment

 
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© Consultist Limited Interview by Duygu Aladag duygu@consultist.eu

NaturalMotion is the developer of hit mobile games and a groundbreaking animation technology. The Oxford-based company creates ultra-realistic animations in games and movies using a unique software platform based on biologically modelled nervous systems. Their technology has been used in movies such as Troy and The Lord of the Rings, and games like Grand Theft Auto and LucasArt’s Star Wars.

NaturalMotion also creates its own mobile games, including Backbreaker, Clumsy Ninja, and the worldwide hit CSR Racing. In 2014, the company was acquired by Zynga for $527 million.

Behind its outstanding success, NaturalMotion has a unique and inspiring story. We talked with Torsten Reil, the co-founder and the CEO of the company.  Torsten is one of the most influential figures of the UK’s digital industry, and we were lucky enough to be given some valuable insights into his experience of creating a world-class brand.

Torsten.jpgYou have created a global brand based on a unique technology. What does it take to create a leading tech company?

It obviously takes technology and research, but the huge part of it is trying to commercialise the technology. For us, it was finding ways to provide a rapid, easy to use software, based on a reliable technology. The only thing allowed us to do this was hiring a good team that was not only focused on research but turning it into a software that people can use.

What is NaturalMotion’s strategy to sustain innovation? How does innovation fit into your business model?

We have always cared about doing things differently, and trying new things; it is much more interesting and it gives you a competitive advantage over time. If you just try to follow other people, then you are essentially in the red ocean. We always try to be in a blue ocean, and want to keep this as a part of our company culture.

The tricky thing with innovation is not to overdo it. In the past we had games and products where we tried to do everything differently, and it made them really difficult to execute. It is important to find the right balance between innovating and not reinventing everything over and over again.

What have been the greatest challenges through the growth of the company, and how did you manage them?

As the company grows, it requires more management and effort to sustain the culture, especially while there are so many people joining the company. That was the reason for us to introduce the induction meetings with every starter.

Another issue is that it gets harder to know how everybody feels about the company. That’s why every quarter everybody in the company can ask me questions anonymously, and I read and answer them all. This has been very helpful for us, because it allows people to be completely open and we can find out things that we could not otherwise. We try to put these things in place to  keep the direct communication and the startup culture while the company scales.

How would you describe the company culture?

We care about quality a lot. I really care about transparency and honesty, and having no politics in the company: I think it is very important that people are honest to each other and to themselves.

I also value loyalty and perseverance. In the past I have found that if you stick with something even when it is really difficult, and pull it through together with a team, it becomes extremely rewarding.

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CSR Racing had over 100 million downloads and sold two times more cars than the global car manufacturing level annually. Image credentials: NaturalMotion

Did you experience any conflicts with your investors throughout the growth of the company?

At the early stages, we had really good angel investors who have been great mentors and helped us with lots of aspects. At the later stage, we had two world-class VC’s: Balderton Capital and Benchmark Capital. They were both incredible, they were always there to support rather than intervene. All our communication was about how to carry the company forward. It has been one of our greatest achievements to attract such good investors, and we had no conflict with any of them.

Will you become an angel investor?

Currently I am very focused on the company, but I might think about it in the future.

If you become an angel investor, would you solely focus on the gaming industry? What would be your investment criteria?

I think I would be very open minded in terms of the industry. As I certainly know from our history, the team is the most important factor to create a difference. The original business plan is only the first attempt, and is very likely to change over time. What you need is a team who are committed to the end goal, but have the flexibility to change and adopt new strategies as and when they are needed.

How much did you pivot from your original business plan?

Since the launch of the company, we always wanted to have a technology that runs in games. However, we started with movies as the technology was not ready for the games yet. It was not a big pivot but a certain realisation that we need flexibility.

While our tech business still exists and grows, we had our biggest pivot by starting to make our own games. The next pivot was our shift from paid games to free games.  Although these paid games were performing quite well, we felt that free to play would be even more successful, and it turned out to be true. It is a tricky balance between sticking on something, but also being open minded when needed.

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The Clumsy Ninja is a cute hero with super-realistic reactions, and improves his ninja skills through training. Image Credentials: NaturalMotion

You had a $527 million deal with Zynga. What kind of synergies are expected from this partnership?

When we made the deal, we wanted to make sure that both sides will learn from each other. We have been learning a lot from Zynga, and you can see this in the improved chart performances of our games. On the other side, NaturalMotion is good at creating products that really resonate with people, especially on mobile platforms. In the past Zynga was less represented on mobile compared to in Facebook, so this is where we can contribute now.

Do you think that Oxford can become a digital hub, and what are the greatest challenges ahead for this city?

Oxford already has all the components in place: It has a good research base, a lot of talent, and places like SAID Business School to help on the business side. These can already create an ecosystem.

I also think that the tutorial system of Oxford University has a particular importance on the development of the digital economy. During my studies in Oxford, I loved the opportunity of talking to an expert one-to-one, for an hour, and challenging a particular subject. It has been one of the biggest things that changed me while I was studying in Oxford. You see that people take you seriously, and that you can really cut the edges if you focus on something.

Above them all, Oxford needs more entrepreneurs who want to be successful on the worldwide stage, and who are ready to make all necessary sacrifices. Once people make these commitments, everything is possible.

Can you tell about your experience of leaving academia and becoming an entrepreneur?

I was not planning to run the company full time. I was going to finish my PhD and see what happens. Once the company was launched, it quickly became clear that I needed to be there full time. The switch was not that difficult, and I really enjoyed being an entrepreneur. It all depends on whether you have good mentors. As mentioned before, I had really good business angels.

What would you say about the gaming industry trends?

The Mobile gaming market is growing very fast, and the growth seems like to continue. We currently see that the Asian territories are growing even faster than the Western territories.

However, there is reasonably little disruption in the market, that you can see the Top Grossing Charts are much less fluid than they used to be. This is mainly because of positive feedback loops: The more money you make from a game, the more money you can spend on it. Once you have more users, you have better insights to tune your game better, so you can make more money per user. It is a circle that feeding itself.

I do think that there will be disruption in the market, but it probably won’t come from the games that stay exactly the same, or from the games that are already out there.

Another trend is the virtual reality. The technology is still at an early stage but I think it will be very interesting in two or three years time.

About Torsten Reil

Torsten Reil is the co-founder and CEO of NaturalMotion. He found the company while he was a PhD candidate in Complex Systems at Oxford University Zoology department. Torsten has been named amongst MIT’s TR35 top global innovators, Next-Gen’s 25 People in the Games Industry, and Develop magazine’s 25 Game Changers.

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