If Willy Wonka had a factory for making mobile games, it would be something like the Wooga offices in Berlin. Cardboard cutouts of giant game characters stand next to engineers and designers in coloured Wooga T-shirts, busy working on the next hit game for Android and iOS. There’s not a colour you can imagine that you won’t find in this spacious gaming factory.
Based in the Backfabrik, a former baking factory on the border of Berlin Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, Wooga is Germany’s biggest mobile games designer. Famous for games like Diamond Dash and Jelly Splash, its most popular apps have more than two million active daily users.
Making and playing games for a living
Like most other startups in Berlin’s tech scene, Wooga has the usual team-building exercises, caffeinated drinks and free German lessons. But Wooga does it differently. German lessons are yoga classes at the same time. Employees regularly meet for company pub quizzes and „mystery dinner“ events. And Wooga staff can choose from not one but two types of mate drinks. And if that hasn’t already blown your mind, then imagine playing video games as part of your job.
Wooga’s kitchen has more cereals than the average Berlin supermarket and even its own arcade machine. © Software & Support Media
Education is also a big topic at Wooga, where employees are given €1500 each year to spend however they want on improving their skill set. The office is also home to the biggest auditorium WebMagazin has seen in any Berlin startup. The space is used for external lectures and company meetings, like the brown bag lunches where employees can talk and learn about how other parts of the company work.
A different kind of tech startup
“Wooga’s a very trusting company,” says PR manager Greg Latham. “Everyone has access to how much revenue we make a day, how much profit we made last year, how much marketing money we’ve spent, how much we got back.” Employees don’t need to clock into work in the morning or hand in work reports to their supervisor.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was spotted leaving the offices of Oculus, a Reddit rumour soon spread that Facebook was buying up Oculus. To keep employees in the loop, CEO Jens Begemann shares his agenda for meetings with Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple and Facebook.
Unlike most other successful companies in Berlin’s tech scene, Wooga doesn’t have secondary offices in San Francisco and London. With both feet firmly planted in Berlin, Begemann deliberately decided against the complications of different time zones and international offices.
The campus-like work atmosphere and non-hierarchical, decentralised structures at Wooga give it the feel of a new tech company à la Silicon Valley. But with over 250 employees and 2 km2 of office space, it’s hard to think of Wooga as a typical startup, especially when it comes to working hours. The late nights and crunch time familiar to startup employees doesn’t apply to Wooga, says Greg:
“Other companies have a culture of crunch time where you’re working on a product that you have to ship by a certain date. And if you don’t work hard enough and finish the product then the whole plan is broken. But we don’t work to those deadlines. If the team decides it needs more time to deliver the best game possible, they have that time.”
The secret to mobile success: A “hit filter”
As a major player in Berlin’s tech scene, Wooga has also drawn significant interest from both the media and political sphere. Last year, Chancellor Merkel and Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit both payed separate visits to Wooga’s Berlin office.
“Our main message to Merkel was about the „Welcome Culture“ (Willkommenskultur) in Berlin. We wanted to communicate the importance of making it easier to attract talent from abroad, for example having more people speaking English in places like the Bürgeramt,” says Greg, who confesses he met the chancellor with untidy shoes.
As part of their tours of startup offices in Berlin, the politicians wanted to both celebrate and understand Berlin’s startup scene. After all, there is something special about the Wooga success story.
With the “hit filter” approach to product design, CEO Jens Begemann has pioneered a way to focus only on the games that will become a hit. According to Wooga, „The problem in the mobile games industry at the moment is that there’s a lot of games launched every week. And only a few get to the top of the App Store and make money.“
That’s why Wooga always works on a lot of concepts and prototypes, of which only a fraction go into production and even fewer go into a “soft launch” of the game in just one country. The company then analyses the retention numbers (how long users continue playing the game) and then decide whether or not to launch internationally with a big marketing push.
Wooga’s balconies on the fifth floor towards look out towards the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz. © Software & Support Media
Having started out as a Facebook games developer, Wooga expanded into the mobile arena and now focuses on apps for iOS and Android. With hit after hit app and no need to worry about piracy, Wooga is ranked among the 50 top grossing app developers for iTunes.
As to what kind of projects Wooga is working on at the moment, Greg’s lips are sealed. We’ll just have to wait and see what hit game Berlin’s game factory comes up with next.
Wooga at a glance
Location: The ‘Backfabrik’ (baking factory) in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg
Business: Mobile games
Perks: Company-sponsored education, regular team events and two types of mate drinks
Perfect for: Gamers