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Scott Willoughby, COO at Brainium – Interview Series

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Scott Willoughby is the Chief Operating Officer at Brainium Studios, he has 15 years of experience in mobile and digital product management, marketing, and brand development in consumer technology, entertainment, and gaming industries. Brainium brings classic games to life and improves on them, this includes popular games such games as Mahjong, Solitaire, Sudoku, Blackjack, Freecell, and Spider Solitaire.

What initially attracted you to the world of gaming? 

I’ve been playing video games my whole life. The first game I remember falling in love with was Pitfall on the Atari 2600.  I’d never really imagined a career in video games, but the first time I played Plants vs. Zombies in 2009, and saw the PopCap Games bumper, I thought to myself, “whoever made this game would be fun to work with.” In mid-2010, I was contacted by a recruiter about a new role at PopCap managing the growth of their new push into social and live service gaming. I jumped at the opportunity, and I’ve been working in video games ever since.

Brainium Games specializes in digitizing classic games such as Mahjong, Sudoku, Blackjack, and FreeCell and porting them over to the world of mobile. In your opinion what differentiates a successful crossover of a classic game versus a boring copycat?

In a word: craft. We’re a design company at heart. We love and appreciate beautiful things and satisfying technology interactions. We have an uncompromising design-development philosophy that prioritizes elegance without embellishment and creating games that people want to play, over and over again. Creating long-term relationships with players, and quality products we can be proud of is our driving force, not maximizing profit.

Every detail of Brainium’s games are intentional — we strive to have a quality look and feel from the way the screen moves, to what sounds and colors are used. These games are often seen as “commodity games” by many developers, but not us. We see them as opportunities to evolve immensely popular games with a level of design and attention that considers their history, the needs of modern audiences, and even contemplates where they will go in the future; something we call four-dimensional design.

Do you have a personal favorite from the games that are offered?

I love our most recent game, Mahjong.  I’d never been a mahjong solitaire player before working on Brainium’s Mahjong, but the design is stunning. It’s a beautiful world to spend time in, and it just feels good to interact with. It also introduces progress mechanics and an earnable content model, which are great to see in a Brainium game.

Brianium recently teamed up with Tesla to integrate their Solitaire game into the latest software iteration of the car. What type of feedback have you received from this innovative concept?

We’re incredibly proud of our partnership with Tesla, the team there has been great to work with. The feedback for our Solitaire game in Tesla Arcade has been fantastic. Since the release last year, we’ve been told it’s become one of the most popular games in Tesla Arcade. We’ve also seen the game featured in marketing materials for the new Model S and Model X. Not only do we admire Tesla as an innovative company, we believe that in-car gaming is the next-step for games. Soon there will be fleets of rideshare cars or self-driving cars with passengers playing games as they go to their destination.

Brainium’s team has doubled over the past year, what do you attribute this success to?

We’ve been extremely fortunate that our industry and our business were able to thrive even during the pandemic. This provided us with an amazing opportunity to hire some incredible talent at a time when there wasn’t much hiring going on, but that’s not what actually fueled our growth over the last year.

Brainium has a unique culture, one that prizes curiosity, initiative, and ownership among our team. We don’t put people in rigid boxes and we don’t micromanage. We’ve seen remarkable things from our team in terms of people naturally stepping in to help onboard and mentor new employees, as well as new folks proactively identifying areas of opportunity to add value. This culture and ethos among our people has allowed us to bring in lots of new folks without having to add a ton of management infrastructure.

We pay an immense amount of attention to culture fit and alignment in our hiring process. The way our team has effectively integrated so many new members even during a tumultuous time is testament to the value of that approach.

You were initially VP of Operations and you are now the Chief Executive Officer at Brainium Studios. What in your opinion makes Brainium such a wonderful place?

Brainium was founded with a focus on a beautiful and uncompromising design-development philosophy. As we’ve grown, we’ve created a culture that has enabled us to scale our business and expand our product offerings without sacrificing the qualities that made Brainium so successful from the start.

That relentless focus on quality pervades every aspect of the company: from the actual game designs, to the way we code, to the design of our office, to the chairs we choose, and the way we treat our people. We’re a product company that happens to make profits, not the other way around. At this point our most important product is Brainium itself. Rather than just seeing ourselves as a game studio, our product vision for the business is to be a great place for talented people to come do the best work of their lives.

Could you discuss the decision-making sequence behind what game the Brainium team will work on next?

 It really is a collaborative exercise in finding what excites us. We don’t identify “good business opportunities” and work backward to products. Rather, we’ll sit around and throw out ideas and discuss genres, and think about whether or not there’s something unique or interesting we could add.  When we get to something we all start riffing on or getting animated about, we’ll pull on that thread and make plans to investigate more deeply. Sometimes that’s a quick and dirty prototype, sometimes it’s a design document, sometimes it’s a narrative construct. The approach varies, but it’s always about finding something that resonates and gets us all excited to see what we can do with it. As we grow, we’re working on ways to keep ideas coming from all corners of the company.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about Brainium Games?

As mentioned above, our driving vision for the business is to be a great place for talented people to come do the best work of their lives. We absolutely can’t succeed at that without the talented people that make up our team, or the amazing work they do.  We’re immensely proud of our people and we’re honored to be named as one of Oregon’s 100 Best Places to Work. While we’ve had great growth in the last year, we’re still growing. I’d encourage engineers, designers, artists, and others looking to build something special as the next step in their career to check us out. Our hiring philosophy focuses on potential more than pedigree or past opportunities. We don’t have educational requirements, and we have people from all different backgrounds who’ve found a place to succeed with Brainium.

Thank you for the great interview, readers who wish to learn more should visit Brainium Studios.

Antoine Tardif is the CEO of Gaming.net, and has always had a love affair for games, and has a special fondness for anything Nintendo related.