Kevin sat down with our community members in the Work With Indies Discord in late 2021 to talk about their approach to publishing, working at Serenity Forge, what they look for in their candidates, and their then open roles. The below is a recap of that conversation.
Hi everyone! My name is Kevin and I'm a co-founder and CBO/Business Director at Serenity Forge, a game development and publishing studio that creates meaningful, impactful games. We develop, publish (both digital and physical!), do merch for games, and have been steadily growing a lot during the past 1.5 years.
🤔 Can you start by telling us a little about yourself? Who you are, what you had been doing previously, and the origins of Serenity Forge as a company? - Nate
⚙️ Kevin: One of the first times I ever realized that video games were made by actual human beings was when I saw the behind-the-scenes footage of God of War (PS2) on a second bonus disk. And then the next revelation I had, which was that games can actually deeply impact someone's life, was when I first played Journey on PS3, which took me out of a depressive period of my life and made me have almost a semi-religious experience. So those two major experiences with games are what really set me on my journey!
I've been lucky enough where Serenity Forge has always just been my "real" job ever since I graduated college! I started it along with our CEO Zhenghua Yang (Z) and a few other friends, and we've just been growing, learning, failing, and succeeding for many years since 2014.
🤔 Between your work of managing, designing levels, and writing, I can see you've taken a lot of different roles in the development process. What has been your favorite role? - John
⚙️ Kevin: If I were to be 100% selfish in my answer here, I'd definitely say the level design and writing roles, because they're just so creatively fulfilling!
But [.c-highlight]it's important for me and everyone I work with to be very self-aware, and part of that self-awareness for myself involves knowing that there are better-level designers and better writers than myself.[.c-highlight] And I've always been super passionate about the video game industry and the business side of things and will continue to be till the end of time, so I'm currently very happy focusing on the business aspects as well!
It's important for me and everyone I work with to be very self-aware, and part of that self-awareness for myself involves knowing that there are better-level designers and better writers than myself. – Kevin Zhang
[.c-insight]💡 Editor's Note: This is really important, particularly for those of us with many interests and consider ourselves or wish to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even if we can do multiple things, we're unlikely to be exceptional at all of them.
Understanding our strengths (or superpowers) and then creating space for others to deliver better work than we can is a key skill for leadership, people management, and effective collaboration among team members.
Further, even when you might be exceptional at multiple things, you're unlikely to be able to do them all at the same time. Better then to focus your efforts where you are likely to make the biggest impact and create opportunities for others to do the same. - Nate[.c-insight]
🤔 Did you start your gaming career with these multiple skills and interests or did you add on over time? Do you have any lessons learned to pass on regarding specialization versus the pursuit of being a jack-of-all-trades? - Nate
⚙️ Kevin: As with a lot of people interested in games, I was just interested in everything, from design, story, art, etc. The only aspect I knew I wouldn't do too well in is programming. It certainly wasn't for a lack of trying, as I took some introductory programming-oriented classes in school (still thinking about that B- I got in that intro SQL class, which would have been a C+ were it not for my group final carrying me...)
As far specialization vs jack-of-all-trades, I think one thing is to really focus on the team size you're working with. Sometimes you don't have as much of a say in terms of how general or specialized you'd prefer to be once you join a team of a certain size, but what you DO have a choice in is to choose whether you want to join that team to begin with.
[.c-insight]💡 Editor's Note: To Kevin's point, smaller indie teams often have less people to do all the things. As a result, those fewer team members may take on additional responsibilities outside of the normal scope of their defined roles.
That's one of the reasons that we at Work With Indies go to great lengths to make working with us as quick and easy as possible. Because it is often the CEO who may also be the Lead Programmer who is posting roles and making hiring decisions. And, they already have whole teams to lead and games to make.
Larger studios may offer opportunities to take on additional responsibilities in other ways, but may be more inclined to initially hire a people who are really great at the specific jobs they are being asked to do.
Of course, these are generalizations and there will be many exceptions to the rule. - Nate[.c-insight]
🤔 With such a wide range of genres and target audiences, what factors go into your decisions to work as a publisher with specific titles and teams? - Kawa
⚙️ Kevin: Trust is a major factor, we need to know that we're working with a team that wants to be a true partner. In terms of the types of projects, we focus on impactful, narratively driven games; aside from that, the specific genre doesn't matter as much. In general, we tend to look for games to publish that are also on the smaller scope.
🤔 Piggybacking on Kawa's question: On your website, you say that you're "Passionate about games that have meaningful values and novel goals." What does that mean to you? What are some of the common themes that are used as decision-making criteria in your green-light and selection meetings? - Nate
⚙️ Kevin: Some common themes include games with stories that really teach you something valuable and meaningful about life, in a way that makes you remember the time you spent playing that game long after you put the controller down. That's why we love to focus on games that have the biggest impact, not necessarily games that have the longest playtime.
This makes it so it's a much more interestingly subjecting selection process, which obviously has its good and bad parts! But we have lots of internal group discussions and poke at each other's perspectives to make sure that we cover all grounds when thinking about the games we evaluate.
🤔 Are there any plans for more 2D-based games in the studio’s future, like with Doki Doki Literature Club? - Maeve
⚙️ Kevin: We absolutely adore 2D games! Honestly, we don't have an extremely concrete plan to share right now, except that we are constantly evaluating new and interesting looking 2D games 😛
🤔 What was the most challenging part of Arcadian Atlases Design? The Class system or the Tactics-based combat? - Bdubz
⚙️ Kevin: There's a lot, as with any game, and I can't claim that I know every little challenge since I'm not personally involved in the development of that game, but one really interesting challenge recently was implementing mouse controls! It was highly demanded by a lot of people both externally and internally, so we definitely took it seriously.
🤔 Seeing as you are a Narrative focused Publisher, how much of a Pitch Deck would you want to be focused on the story? Seeing as most folks say stay away from lore and story dumping in a Pitch? - Bdubz
⚙️ Kevin: This is a really great question. Yes, we do focus on narrative, but as you pointed out, no one really wants to read lore and story dumping, even for us. It really still comes down to being able to grab our attention in the fastest way possible... so if you have say, a single slide that REALLY grabs our attention with the narrative premise and summary, you can always include the additional store and lore dump in some optional slides or docs that are labeled as such.
[.c-insight]🗣 You can learn more about what Serenity Forge offers as a publisher on their website.[.c-insight]
🤔 I’ve done a little bit of professional game testing for Monochrome RPG. Are there any specific qualifications you’re looking for in your QA Tester? - Maeve
⚙️ Kevin: Aside from the Qualifications we listed in the official job posting, not really! Of course the more you qualify for the Bonus Skills & Experience section, the better. 😄
🤔 I plan on applying to the QA tester role after the live chat today- I was wondering if you had a specific level of experience for this role in mind, and if so, what are good selling points for prospective applicants? - John
⚙️ Kevin: The only hard line we draw in terms of experience is that we'd like to see you have at least 1 year of professional QA experience!
🤔 I was wondering, what is the general workflow for builds? Ex. is there a set day y'all get builds in by, what's your agile flow like, etc. - Marlowe
⚙️ Kevin: Depends project-by-project! For example, in one of our current internally developed games, we have automatic daily builds set up for internal QA purposes. Fun fact, it's automatically done by our only Mac mini in the office. 😛
🤔 I've previously heard that compensation has been an issue at Serenity Forge. Would you guys ever consider posting salary ranges on your job postings? - Harrison
⚙️ Kevin: Yup, we're in the process of working on it! I'm happy to say that compensation has actually increased quite a lot over the past 1.5 years due to being able to obtain some additional funding. For full transparency, it's still definitely not AAA studio level, but in general competitive with other indie studios.
🤔 What would a Unity Programmer at Serenity Forge typically do on day-to-day basis, since the company is a publisher and developer? Do they typically work to support the development of the games being published, or games being developed in house? Thanks! - Jaden
⚙️ Kevin: It really depends on whether you're working more on an internal development project or a publishing project! As a publisher with a core dev foundation, we also like to offer development assistance on the games we publish (totally up to the external dev on whether they want our help or not, of course). So if you're working on a game we're publishing, often it's going to be coding alongside external dev teams, whereas if you're working on a Serenity Forge internal game, it'll be with a lot of our internal employees.
🤔 I'm interested in the Unity Developer position, but not living in the United States and being a junior makes me raise some questions, do you prefer more senior roles to be fully remote? (I would prefer being in-office too since I would learn quicker etc.) - Luca
⚙️ Kevin: The opposite, actually. We strongly prefer more senior roles to be in-office, but of course, as with any studio that's learned interesting lessons during the pandemic, we're constantly evaluating the pros and cons of our remote vs in-office hiring criteria!
🤔 Does Serenity Forge allow for career advancements, or do employees tend to stay in their dedicated role long-term? What would typical progression look like for an entry to the mid-tier level employee? - Wookieslayer
⚙️ Kevin: Yeah, we definitely have career advancement opportunities, and this is one aspect of our studio that I'm really happy to see! I can't really speak to a "typical progression" system, as we are still in the middle of growing from a very small studio to a still-relatively-small-but-a-lot-more-structured studio, and so every role, function, and division growth is relatively bespoke.
One way we make sure we communicate regularly with our employees about prospective growth opportunities is to offer scheduled employee reviews, but we also have a culture where we always encourage anyone to schedule a meeting with their manager/supervisor whenever they want to ask about their position, growth opportunities, etc.
🤔 Would you be willing to share a specific example of someone that started in a junior/mid-level role and has advanced into larger roles within the company? And specifically, what it was about them and their performance that made them successful and created an opportunity for this progression? - Nate
⚙️ Kevin: We have one guy, Samuel, who basically asked us if we had any internships. We were like, "No", and he was like, "Well I want to do it anyway". We saw his portfolio (he was mainly an artist back then) and were like "...ok, yeah sure."
Fast forward like, 4 years, and he's now had multiple lead roles in games, sometimes in more directorial roles, sometimes in much more specialized roles. What's made him great is that he just seems to be great at so many things, and is always willing to try new things and work in a way that's very productive. So we've just been carving more and more spaces for him.
There are a few other roles that are similar, but in general, it's definitely the people who are capable and willing to go beyond what they were initially hired for who get the most opportunities! Don't mistake this for me saying "always venture outside your lane" though; if you want to become the best damn texture artist in the world, you focus on that, and that will still create amazing opportunities because... well, you're the best damn texture artist in the world!
🤔 What is Serenity Forge’s work/life balance like, especially during the pandemic? And is there a history of required overtime or crunch? - Anonymous
⚙️ Kevin: One unfortunate aspect of working during the pandemic is that it's harder to check up on everyone's emotional and mental well-being virtually or in a more casual conversation, which is why now that things are looking a lot better relatively speaking, we're still maintaining and encouraging certain in-office elements whenever appropriate.
There's no required overtime and crunch as a studio, but of course sometimes when milestones need to be met, people are willing to put in the extra time if needed, knowing that we have a very generous PTO policy, as well as a general culture of expectation that what matters the most is the results of your work, not how many hours you're willing to work for.
[.c-highlight]You can be someone who works an average of 30 hrs and gets better results than someone who mindlessly works 60 hours with nothing to show for it[.c-highlight], and the person who works those 30 hours would be praised more because they're able to do more with less.
You can be someone who works an average of 30 hrs and gets better results than someone who mindlessly works 60 hours with nothing to show for it. – Kevin Zhang
🤔 One of your current job listings is Social Media and Community Specialist, what does the team structure look like for this? As a specialist does that mean it’s essentially a one-person team expected to handle everything related to social media and community marketing or is there support for that role? - Anonymous
⚙️ Kevin: There's support for the role from our marketing manager, graphic designers, and producers, but it's definitely going to be a small and nimble team. And of course, as the social and community rep for our publishing label, you'll also be communicating with our 3rd party dev partners to really understand their game's communities and brand as well!
🤔 Do you have any final advice or words of encouragement for our community members that may be interested in applying for your open QA, Social & Community, and Programmer roles? - Nate
⚙️ Kevin: If you're passionate about impactful narrative-driven games, you're gonna fit right in at Serenity Forge. We're growing steadily in many directions, so you'll be joining us at a very exciting time of both growth and stabilization!
And lastly, though our in-office/remote policies vary by job, this would be a great opportunity for you to find an excuse to move to Colorado if you've always enjoyed nature and mountains, but still want to maintain close proximity to a decently sized city (Denver)!
🤔 Where can we find you, follow you, read more about and support you and your studio online? - Nate
⚙️ Kevin: You can follow me and Serenity Forge at any of these links!
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This was great, thank you all so much for the wonderful questions!