INTERVIEW: STANISLAV STANKOVIĆ - Lead Game Designer at EA

June 8, 2019
INTERVIEW: STANISLAV STANKOVIĆ - Lead Game Designer at EA
Stanislav Stanković - Lead Game Designer at EA

GameBuz had an amazing opportunity to do an interview with the lead game designer who worked on one of the best city-building simulation mobile games out there. If you haven’t guessed yet, the game is called SimCity BuildIt (you should try it now if you haven’t already), and his name is Stanislav Stanković.

GameBuz - First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself so our readers can get familiar with your work?

Stanislav Stanković - I work for EA, more precisely for Tracktwenty, EA’s studio in Helsinki which is now part of Maxis.

A game that I worked on that might be the most familiar to your readers is probably SimCity BuildIt. It’s currently the only incarnation of venerable old SimCIty franchise out there. It’s a free-to-play mobile game, running on Android and iOS. It’s been live since December of 2014, so for a little bit under five year.

I have been with the project for about four and a half years. I joined the team right after the global launch, so I haven't been there for the initial development, but I have been here ever since. I think update 1.1 was the first one with my name in the credits and we are now at update twenty-something. We keep a steady update schedule.

Best way to describe BuildIt is that it’s a mobile game inspired by original SimCity. However, over the years, it has found its own unique audience and evolved in its own direction.

I joined first as a game designer, and later on, my role gradually grew, first to a senior designer and now as a lead. My specialty is what we call metagame and systems design, so I had a good fortune to really leave my mark on SimCity BuildIt. Some of the bigger gameplay loops that got added after the global launch are my work.

GameBuz - What got you interested in gaming? What was the first video game you remember playing as a kid?

Stanislav Stanković - The first time I remember, ever playing a video game was when I was about five or six years old. It was in the early eighties,... yeah I am that old. My uncle borrowed some kind of a console from a friend. I didn’t know the model back then. Much later, I googled it. I think it probably was Mattel Intellivision. My mind was instantly blown. Up until then, I was used to watching cartoons on TV, and lo and behold this was kind of like a cartoon that I could control all by myself. It was interactive and it was the best thing ever to the five-year-old me.

A bit later, my other uncle brought us a ZX Spectrum. That was fun. An instant hit with all my friends. I remember a bunch of us kids in our living room, one guy playing and the rest of us jumping up and down cheering his every move and waiting for our turn. That was also the first time I remember really wanting to make my own games. My mom tried to teach me Basic, and I remember we managed to get a couple of sprites moving across the screen. Yes, my mom taught me to code, she was a professor of Computer Science for years.

However, I think I truly become a gamer in the 16-bit era when I got my first PC. I played a lot of games back then: original SimCity and SimCity 2000 but also Civilization, a bunch of platformers like Commander Keen and Prince of Persia and even the original Doom X-com; lots of point and click adventures. I’m a lifelong Monkey Island fan.

Many kids get fascinated by video games in the early age, but not all of them strive for a career in the Gaming Industry, so I was interested how did Stanislav get involved with it and what was the first project that brought him recognition in the Industry.

Stanislav Stanković - I got my first job in the Gaming Industry by a mix of luck and audacity. At that time I was living in Tampere, Finland. Rovio was in big expansion at that time and they were just opening a new studio in town. I was at a bit of a turning point in my career and was thinking about what I wanted to do next with my life. Up until then, I was making games as a hobby. So I decided to give it a shot and sent in my CV and link to some games I had made that I had online. To my amazement, I got invited to a job interview. I was very lucky that the guys recognized that I have some potential as a game designer and gave me a chance. Even now I can’t believe how fortunate I was.

Working for Rovio was a great experience, a great learning opportunity. However, I think my best work so far is the stuff that we had done with SimCity BuildIt. Again, I think I was very lucky to always be surrounded by a great bunch of people I could learn from, both at Rovio and EA.

tracktwenty
Image source: Tracktwenty - Official EA Site

GameBuz - You started working for Electronic Arts in 2015 and joined the team that was working on SimCity BuildIt. What was your experience working on it? Do you enjoy playing SimCity BuildIt as much as you did making it?

Stanislav Stanković - SimCity BuildIt is a great game, if I may say so. We have been very happy with what we managed to accomplish over these years. I think that players also realize this. We have a solid audience of very loyal players. Some of them have been with us since the launch, which was almost five years ago.

SimCity BuildIt is such a great game because it was made by an awesome team. Every bit that we did was a result of teamwork. I am really proud to be a part of such a team. I enjoyed every day of the making of SimCity BuildIt, and I enjoy probably as much playing it. I think we all do. We have this philosophy of trying to see the game through the eyes of the player. We try to formulate the specs for each feature with a sentence starting with “As a player, I want to ...” In my view, this is extremely important. You need to have fun with the game you are making. If you are not having fun, it probably means no one else will either. Most of us around the studio play our game daily. Not only as part of the work process, but we also have it running on our own phones, the live production build, we play it as regular players. One of the features in SimCity BuildIt is Mayors Clubs. It’s our version of guilds. For a while, I had been a part of a Mayors Club that was full of people from my hometown and neighboring towns. I was there, incognito. I never told them who I was. I was just there having fun and watching them have fun.

His work was predominantly focused on mobile gaming, more specifically on SimCity BuildIt, and I was curious if that was his favorite platform to develop games for, or if he is interested in maybe expanding his work to another gaming platform.

Stanislav Stanković - Yes, indeed, up until now my work was focused on mobile platforms. This is what I love doing and it’s also something that Finland is known for. This is such a great environment to learn the craft of mobile game design. There is so much accumulated knowledge in the community Helsinki and Finland in general. At least when it comes to the western world, this is the place to be when it comes to mobile gaming.

However, I always joke that one day I want to make indie platformers. Actually, when I think about it, what I would really love to do is explore video games more as an art medium. Not only in terms of visual aesthetics. I think that there is so much unexplored potential in interactivity that is at the core of video games. I truly admire games such as Papers Please. The way it manages to draw the player in, into the mindset of another individual in a specific role. There is a moment in that game when you realize that you had started to blur your own ethical boundaries. I find this to be tremendously powerful. Only a piece of interactive software can actually make you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Many games do this. Mostly we do it for fun, but it can be such a powerful learning tool as well.

simcity_buildit
Image source: SimCity BuildIt - EA Official Site

GameBuz - Did you work on any other EA’s projects besides SimCity BuildIt? If not, would you like to work on something else, change things up a little bit?

Stanislav Stanković - There is still so much I would like to do with SimCity BuildIt. We have such grandiose plans for next year. I am really anxious to see how will they turn out. Then again, there are always ten thousand things going on at EA, even at our own studio. There are some very neat prototypes being developed at the moment. Let’s see how things will develop in the future.

At this point in the interview, when we have talked about great experiences of working in Gaming Industry, I like to take a sudden turn and ask about the challenges, because, let’s face it, everyone has gone through a hard time at some point.

Stanislav Stanković - A colleague of mine always says, making games is hard, making good games is even harder. There are many challenges. As a designer, you can very quickly dream up all sorts of visions for games and game features. Getting them implemented, getting them down to every little detail, making it all fit together and making it make sense to other people, making it feel fun with just the right amount of challenge not to be frustrating and not to be boring, that’s the hard part. This is probably the greatest challenge. Especially in the case of a sprawling, complex game such as SimCity BuildIt, that has been live for almost half a decade.

By now, our game is so vast that it offers opportunities for a lot of play styles. There are many ways you can play SimCity BuildIt. You can focus on efficiency and try to min-max your city, optimize your street layout and service placement, etc. You can go for aesthetics and self-expression by making a beautiful city with a unique look and feel. Some of our players really made some stunning cities. You can also go and compete against other players in our weekly events. There is a lot you can do. Also, I said that some of our players have been with us since the launch, but we also have new people constantly coming to our game. This means that cities our players have will range from a couple of houses arranged around one road to sprawling metropolises of millions of virtual citizens. Designing new features and content that caters for this diversity is the biggest challenge that we face every day.

gaming_industry
Image source: Tracktwenty - Official EA Site

GameBuz - What is the most rewarding part of working in the Gaming Industry?

Stanislav Stanković - Of course, the most rewarding part is seeing that people are having fun playing your game. Seeing them react to what you made. Even when they get frustrated and are vocal about it, you can tell when they are actually having fun by rising to a challenge. I follow daily what our players are talking about our game, on our FB page, on our official forum on Reddit, etc. Our audience is pretty diverse. We got people from all over the world, pretty balanced gender split, and people of various ages from kids to senior citizens. One thing that they all have in common is the love for our game. Some of them have been playing this game for multiple years. This loyalty amazes me. What is also amazing is when you encounter people that know more about your game than yourself.

SimCity BuildIt is complex enough to permit a lot of emergent gameplay. We have fans that have come up with ways of playing this game that we couldn’t imagine. There are also people so dedicated to this game that they have amassed a sizable library of tutorials and various instructions on how to best play this game, from city layouts to strategy guides and excel calculators for crunching numbers to play more efficiently.

Another gratifying aspect of this job is being a part of a really outstanding team. Great professionals and great individuals. Brilliant people. People that are just fun to be around.

advice

Now, what comes next is a bit of advice, and it’s for all of you guys that are interested in building a career in the Gaming Industry. Listen closely, or in this case read, but don’t get too close to the screen, it’s bad for your eyes...

Stanislav Stanković - Well, this is a tough one. I mean anything I can say needs to come with a huge survivorship bias warning. Also, I can’t speak for programmers or artists, or any other discipline, but maybe I can say something that makes sense for game designers. If you want to be a game designer it probably means that you want to have your ideas translated into actual games, but as with any creative discipline a good idea is maybe ten percent, execution is remaining ninety. The trick is to get into a position where you can get to see your ideas implemented.

If you have a chance to join an established team, a big studio, jump on it. Jump on it even if you don’t especially like the project or the company. You will get to learn a lot. You will get to learn from people with more experience. You’ll find out what the process is, the way of working, and the way of thinking. You will also get to meet a lot of people from a lot of disciplines and areas of responsibility, so you’ll have a chance to see first hand how they see the game. Mentoring is very important. I learned pretty much everything I know from my colleagues.

If you want to go indie, that is also ok. That is also a learning path, of a different sort, but a valuable one nonetheless. In this case, you will need to learn how to pick your fights, how to pace yourself, and how not to bite more than you can chew. In your first project, first few projects, you will most likely underestimate the time and resources that you’ll need and overestimate your abilities. In a way, this is natural, probably even necessary. If it were the other way around, we would all just be lying around in despair and no one would dare to attempt anything. You need to have talent, but you also need to have the tenacity to push through something until the end. Learn to scope things down into chunks that you can finish before they finish you. Everyone can start things, but very few can bring them to completion. It is better to have a small but complete game than a brilliant but overly ambitious scheme that got abandoned three quarters into the project.

In any case, be ready to kill your darlings, as the old saying goes. Be ready to iterate. Good game design doesn’t happen instantly. It is a process of constant improvement. Try something, get it in a presentable form and bounce that idea off other people. Collect their feedback and tweak your design.

GameBuz - Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

Stanislav Stanković - I guess, this is my queue for a bit of shameless self-promotion. If you didn’t try SimCity BuildIt yet, give it a spin. We are both on iOS and Android. If you are already playing it, stay tuned, there is some really amazing stuff coming up soon. Also, keep an eye on other EA games.

Well, this was a long one, so I’m not gonna keep you here any further. I hope that this interview got you inspired in starting your own career, perhaps as a game designer. Feel free to tell us what you think on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or join our community on Reddit.