Building Greatness From A Distance

A Discussion with CEO Thiago de Freitas of Kokku

Interview for CGMagazine by Brendan Frye. Read the original article here:

As the expectations for games grow, so does then scope and teams needed to bring the vision to reality. It used to be a small group could build games that would be beloved by millions. While this is true for some games, many need teams of hundreds to realize their vision — and even then it may not be enough, depending on the scope and scale of the project. This is where studios like Kokku come into the picture, to lend a hand and give the talent and resources needed to bring an epic project to completion.

Kokku is the largest Brazilian external development studio that specializes in CoDev, FullDev and 3D Art Production for Console, PC and mobile games. Having worked on some important titles including Activision on Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Guerrilla Games for Horizon Zero Dawn, and CI Games for the Sniper Ghost Warrior franchise they know the AAA game space and know how to utilize talent for external projects. With the next generation of consoles upon us and games looking bigger and more exciting than ever, CGMagazine wanted to take some time to reach out to the studio CEO Thiago de Freitas to discuss development, working with publishers, and what he believes the new generation of consoles will bring to development.

CGM: Could you tell us about the journey that has led to your current workload and notoriety?

Thiago de Freitas: It’s a tale of making mistakes and learning from them. Essentially, our company was born with this idea of adapting quickly and not taking any harsh feedback too personally. I mean, it’s difficult to not feel bad by reading and listening to big professionals saying you’re not good enough or not even good for something, but if you want to succeed you need to understand there are maybe a lot of good lessons in each word they say.

We started as a company that wanted to create social games for Facebook. We even developed our own engine but, when we were only a few months away from its release date, the publisher’s president passed away. All new projects got cancelled and we were stuck to a contract that wouldn’t let us even publish our game on our own. With a huge debt, we had to start looking for outsourcing jobs so we could pay some of it off. To be honest, our first idea was to pay as much debt as we could and simply shut our doors for good. But, after some time learning from a lot of international industry veterans, we finally had some understanding on how to fit into this industry.

So, we moved from a Facebook social gaming company to become a reliable AAA Art Outsourcing studio. Of course, coming from a country that the whole world has a lot of interest in (the “Brazil brand” — this kind of soft power, helps a lot) and located in a much more comfortable time-zone helped us a lot. That’s when our company crossed paths with Guerrilla Games and the celebrated game Horizon Zero Dawn.

That was the opportunity we were looking for during our whole life. Not all companies would be capable of working in such a title. And NO ONE on earth was expecting to see a Brazilian company among the list of vendors that helped Guerrilla to deliver. We got the attention from the world. And we understood we had to be even more professional than we were. That was when Alberto Lopes and I decided to take another huge step to become one of the most reliable companies out there.

We hired one of the Senior Producers at Coalition Studios (Microsoft),Canada-based Dilber Mann, as our Studio Director. From that day on, we didn’t stop investing in our people, infrastructure, security, equipment, facilities, processes, and much more. We also invested in building a strong engineering team and we moved on from being an Art Outsourcing Studio to a Co-Development company. By the way… Kokku is made of people and they’re, for sure, the top developers in South America and some of the best around the globe.

Nowadays, our company is located in an 800sq meter (2625sq feet) 4-story building, and we’re opening new  offices in Europe and Brazil — but we’re not going to stop there. We’re also always with our eyes open to acquire or invest in talented companies that want to join ours and be part of this goal of being recognized as one of the top five co-development companies on earth.

CGM: What are some challenges and advantages the Brazillian development scene brings to the world of games?

TdF: I can say that for the first time in our history, we have a lot more advantages than challenges in Brazil. I can say some of the challenges are access to trained people, but this is a problem everywhere you go, right? That’s why our company is known for our trainee program focused on developing new talents. But besides the still rare investment from private investors and lack of governmental support for gaming companies to rise and shine, only access to development kits from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are the remaining challenges we have.

As for advantages? We have creativity running through our veins and a passion towards gaming. We’re almost a continent in size so diversity is something that is part of our soul. If you take a look at our Kokku’ers, you won’t be able to say where they come from.

CGM: As someone who has seen both struggle and success, what is some advice you would give to studios and people looking to get into gaming and development?

TdF: If you think “not giving up” is the only key for success, you’re totally wrong. Please, do not think you already know all the answers because you don’t even know all the questions. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes — but learn from them. There’s a thin line that separates success and failure. And this line is a simple question: Are you open to learn from criticism/mistakes, quickly adapt and move on? Do not ever stop learning.

CGM: With more game studios needing to draw on external talent to build complex game worlds, do you see this as a good or bad thing for the Brazilian game scene?

TdF: It’s extremely good for Brazil! When Kokku started working on AAA titles we could say our country didn’t have all the tools to develop complex game worlds. Five years later the current situation is the opposite. Many other major publishers started working with other Brazilian companies and they’re, at least, training new talent that will bring even more expertise to this industry. Not only on AAA but mobile as well. Technology, art, design, VFX, cinematics… the whole game has improved in Brazil and we’re growing at a strong pace to become one of the top developer countries. We have the people. We have the passion. And now we have the experience and the tools!

CGM:  With the PS5 and Xbox Series X now here, how do you see the increase in fidelity and demand for visuals changing the world of development?

TdF: The gap between games and movies are closing with every console generation and so the demand for a more expanded skillset with synergies between film and games is something we are starting to keep an eye out for in our creative talent. As an outsourcing company, our mindset has shifted from offering compartmentalized services to offering holistic experiences in how we approach any work with our clientele.

CGM: With the next-gen, what are the features you are most excited to see as tools to draw on for game development?

TdF: Maybe this is a question for our CTO, Manoel Balbino, who is the personification of a genius, but personally, I’m excited to see the massive performance improvements related to load times. The idea of seamless open world environments and streaming level content during fast traversal or even the ability to add layers of more visual and audio effects than we could previously bring us that much closer to a true immersive experience.