Earlier this year, Dunedin-based gaming company RocketWerkz made global headlines announcing their expansion, with potential employees offered unlimited paid holidays, profit shares and the ability to choose their own hours. People experiencing personal problems such as the break-up of a relationship or death of a pet are encouraged to take time away, there are group exercise sessions for the staff and CEO Dean Hall even caps his own salary.
“The approach of such things as unlimited leave is something that has been done in the US, though not coupled with the minimum amount of annual leave which we have here by law,” says the 35-year-old boss over the phone as he also asks me to excuse the meowing — it’s ‘kitten day’ in the office. “Much of it is just common sense which is why so many people are interested. Our business runs on creativity, not productivity.”
I ask Dean if he believes it’s an approach that could work outside creative industries and he cites his military service as a major influence on how business is done. “The idea is that the people who are in your unit must be looked after,” he says. “People have problems and you need to arrange things to help them solve those problems. It’s a little bit of Kiwi culture too — we treat people as people. It’s not rocket science.”
It was Dean’s time in the military that also inspired his work on DayZ, the video game that made his name. He must, I ask, feel a strong sense of gratitude to the forces. He doesn’t hesitate: “It was very formative. There is a lot of problem solving needed, and, as I was an officer, they encouraged a certain amount of creative thinking — which I may have taken a little too far sometimes! But there is definitely room for that, especially in the New Zealand military.”
Why did you sign up in the first place?
“Watching Top Gun! How does anyone really know what they want to do when they are 16? I could have done a lot worse. I would never have gone to university otherwise. I think around a third of my senior high school applied for the armed forces. I’m certainly glad I did it, but the path has ultimately been quite different since then.”
Dean tells me he suffered from “middle child syndrome”, always an adventurous soul, he learnt to ride a motorbike and even fly a plane before he learnt to drive a car. His military training also stood him in good stead for challenge of a different kind in 2013: climbing Mount Everest (he still keeps in excellent shape with daily 9am visits to the gym, “no matter what”, and encourages his staff do likewise, “while it’s quiet”). “I don’t know why everyone is so obsessed with buying houses — I still don’t own one — I want experiences.” Next on the list is a skydive from the edge of space. I ask him how scaling the world’s highest peak compares with setting up a multi-million-dollar firm.
“It required a lot less paperwork! Everest was certainly harder than I imagined, but in many, respects physical challenges are generally easier as you don’t have the responsibilities of others if something goes wrong. In business, you must not only learn from your mistakes, but not be scared to make them.”
Having flirted with the idea of setting up RocketWerkz in London, Los Angeles and even Auckland, Dean finally settled on Dunedin. “I lived in Auckland for a number of years when I was in the military and absolutely loved it,” says the gaming chief. “But when I ran the numbers, I actually found it would be cheaper — and easier — to set up in Los Angeles. But Dunedin is an easy city to live in, plus I went to university here and have family here. It takes me four minutes to drive to work, and if it takes eight, then I’m livid! There was maybe also a little bit of ego in starting up in Dunedin also — if you’re going to build something, then why not build it where there is nothing? Because then you can say it wasn’t there before I came along.”
While the likes of Sir Peter Jackson and Lorde have done wonders to promote Kiwi entertainment talent, Dean says most New Zealanders have no idea just how profitable gaming can be. In February, Labour leader Andrew little announced their plan, should they get into power, is to invest $10 million into the sector — specifically Dunedin — propelling the nation’s gaming industry from a $90 million-a-year industry to a $1 billion one within a decade. “Gaming is bigger than film, television and music combined,” says Dean. “People get excited about a blockbuster movie that does 10 or 20 million dollars in its first weekend, but something like Grand Theft Auto does billions.”
“Gaming is bigger than film, television and music combined.”
– Dean Hall –
We need to, he adds “dial it up another notch” and invest more in the young, creative talent coming through: “I think New Zealand is uniquely positioned to be a leader in industries like gaming because we are so small and agile, and a very attractive destination. Now we have fantastic infrastructure and a history of making great creative products. There is a lot of cool stuff going on.”
Auckland’s Grinding Gear Games, Dean continues, are a silent success company doing “wonderful things”, as are the “fantastic guys” at Sidhe in Wellington where he “worked in a previous life”.
As for RocketWerkz, the plan is to have 150 on the payroll by the end of the year. There are four exciting projects in the pipeline “including a multiplayer shooter that has huge scope” all PC- and console-focussed, and this month Dean is flying to London for EGX Rezzed to unveil their latest release. “It’s a great gaming expo, and the place I first announced the standalone version of DayZ,” says the boss, “so it will be cool to return there.”
Jamie Christian Desplaces