Inside the gaming mind of Bijay Gurung: From Angry Birds to global success

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Founded in 2020, Riyadh-headquartered Sandsoft Games is a gaming company focused on publishing, developing, and investing in high-quality international gaming experiences and studios. Sandsoft delivers in engaging and entertaining experiences to players in the MENA region, with global support from an experienced team with a proven track record. The seasoned team is composed of passionate game creators who collate a deep-rooted knowledge of the video games market, having worked on some of the most successful game franchises ever, including FIFA, Candy Crush, Need for Speed, Angry Birds and World of Tanks.

In this exclusive interview with Adgully, Bijay Gurung, Senior Director, Business Development, EMEA, dwells at length on the delicate balance between creativity and commerce in game development, the challenges and strategies of catering to the MENA region, the importance of cross-cultural collaboration, and so on. Join us on this journey through the gaming ecosystem, where continents, cultures, and people are brought closer together through the power of gaming. Excerpts:

Your journey in the gaming industry has been quite remarkable, with experiences at companies like Rovio, Huawei, and Real Networks. How have these diverse roles shaped your perspective on business development in the gaming sector?

Since starting my career in the days before the App Store and Google Play even existed, it’s been an incredible journey to see the growth and evolution of mobile games. The industry has grown from games being little snackable bits of content that are just 100 kilobytes in size, to being known as household brands. I spent a decade working on the Angry Birds franchise and continue to see its influence across the globe, with a movie, sports sponsorships and toys all spinning out of the IP.

Could you share some insights from your time at Rovio, especially regarding your contributions to launching numerous games and leading major marketing programmes with tech giants like Apple, Google, Samsung, Facebook, and Amazon?

I joined Rovio when Angry Birds was first gaining popularity and success. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to launch multiple games in close collaboration with the platforms. Particular highlights include launching Angry Birds Space from the international space station, a surprise appearance in CES for a special version of the game for Samsung Smart TVs, and being part of Apple’s key initiatives like ‘Games for RED’ and ‘Apps for Earth’.

The mobile gaming industry is known for its rapid changes. How do you approach identifying and capitalizing on new opportunities and synergies across different platforms and geographical regions at Sandsoft Games?

At Sandsoft, we are lucky to have amassed huge industry talents from across the globe. This allows us to identify key partners and partnerships from a range of company sizes and regions, all the way from publishing powerhouse Jam City to small indie developers. By working with international teams, we are able to provide the best experience for gamers wherever they play from.

Sandsoft Games focuses on delivering gaming experiences in the MENA region. Could you elaborate on the challenges and strategies you employ to ensure that these experiences resonate with the local audience while maintaining global appeal?

The challenge is that no two gamers are alike; but there are ways to provide experiences that have broad appeal. Our aim is to provide the ultimate gaming experience by incorporating local content, events, and cultural relevance. However, we also know that players are interested in experiencing content from beyond their own region. That's why we're focusing on games that have a global appeal while still being relevant to the MENA region. One such game that we think fits the bill is Fantasy Pick, a Fantasy Football game.

Your background includes an MBA from the Kelley School of Business. How has this formal education complemented your practical experiences, particularly in the gaming industry?

Formal education taught me a variety of lessons; not only in educational content, but also when it comes to working with others. My educational background has taught me how to approach challenging situations with clarity and boldness. Indeed, I've been taught the importance of analytical thinking from an early stage which I apply to my role on a daily basis. The multicultural environment at Kelley has equipped me with an understanding of diverse cultures and approaches; very relevant to my role at Sandsoft!

Sandsoft Games has offices in various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Spain, Finland, and China. How do you manage cross-cultural collaboration and communication within your team, and what role do you believe this diversity plays in enriching the gaming ecosystem?

Although technical solutions such as Slack and Teams are incredibly helpful in day-to-day communication, we also have quarterly face-to-face catch-ups that help foster effective collaboration and understanding. Most importantly, as our organisation grows, our People and Culture team is doing a phenomenal job of bringing everyone together, from new joiners to those that have been with us from the start. Given that our games are designed for a global market, diversity is key to making our games relevant to our players; particularly when it comes to understanding the market with localized marketing.

As a Senior Director of Business Development, you've likely been involved in establishing and maintaining partnerships. Could you share a particularly challenging or rewarding partnership experience from your career, and the key lessons you've learned from it?

One challenge I face is managing expectations. In my experience, building trust and a long-lasting partnership that goes beyond a single project has been most successful. Not all games or marketing partnerships will succeed, but viewing them as a part of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship can help cement a lasting partnership. The philosophy behind games as a service follows a similar approach, as our goal is to entertain our players for many years to come. Whilst one partnership may not turn out exactly as planned, it's a long-term vision of success that we strive for.

Gaming is increasingly seen as a medium for storytelling and artistic expression. How does Sandsoft Games balance the creative aspects of game development with the business side, and how do you ensure that the teams you work with maintain their artistic integrity while meeting commercial goals?

Game making is very much a mix of art and science. Both go hand in hand. From inception we have the mindset of testing in the market what we are building. We have key milestones in different phases of the development process. Ultimately, a game must deliver an enjoyable experience to the players, and when they are truly engaged, commercial success naturally follows.

With your extensive network in the gaming industry, what advice would you give to aspiring game developers and business development professionals who aim to make a mark in this ever-evolving sector?

Have fun! The advice sounds simple but to truly thrive in the industry, it helps to have a passion for it. Play games, understand the latest releases, and keep up with the latest developments. When you're truly immersed in your work, the best results arise. Also, don't feel that you need to be an expert in everything. Not all of us are great game makers, but perhaps you have great marketing skills. By working closely with industry friends and colleagues, a well-rounded team can make sure all skills are met and the best results are achieved.

Lastly, Sandsoft Games' mission revolves around bringing continents, cultures, and people closer together through gaming. Can you share a vision you have for the future of the gaming ecosystem in the MENA region and beyond?

We’re deeply committed to delivering the best content to players, wherever they are in the world. To achieve this, we're building up an industry-leading team across the globe, with 20 nationalities represented among our 50-strong team. In August, Ahmed Sharif from META joined Sandsoft as CTO, and Pasqual Batalla became our COO after leaving SocialPoint. As a Saudi Arabia-headquartered company, we’re also committed to nurturing local talent; and our Press Start Internship Program equips local residents with the skills needed to thrive in the industry. With our talented team in place, we are excited to develop more high-quality gaming experiences for international players.