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Digital ninja

type
Article
author
By Institute of Directors
date
26 Mar 2021
read time
4 min to read
Digital ninja game images

Ninja Kiwi game characters. The company has just been sold to Sweden’s Modern Times Games for a reported $203m.

COVID-19 has put a renewed focus on the strengths of the digital economy, says Chris Harris MInstD.

Lockdowns don’t harm digital businesses as much as other sectors of the economy. Border closures can’t upset digital trade. And digital products don’t carry the climate change complications associated with New Zealand’s main export industries.

“Investing in the digital economy should be part of climate action. It is a pretty small footprint that we have,” Harris says.

“It can add a lot of strength to a country’s economy if a reasonable proportion of it is digital.”

Harris is a co-director of game developers Ninja Kiwi. The Auckland-based company is part of a burgeoning industry that has thrived recently, despite the impact of COVID-19 and multiple lockdowns.

The New Zealand Game Developers Association says the “interactive media” sector earned $323.9m in the year to 1 April 2020 – up $121m from a year earlier.

While Ninja Kiwi had a successful 2020, it is difficult to tell how much of that was due to COVID-19, he says.

“People were at home looking for things to do, so more games were played. I think console developers, in particular, did really well out of it – Playstation, Xbox. Our whole family was playing fourperson in-front-of-the-TV games during lockdown.

“I think on the whole the games industry did well. We had a good year and it could have been terrible if we were in retail, for example. I do feel for those companies that rely on foot traffic to survive.”

Becoming a ninja

Harris never intended to become a video game ninja and describes his path to the job as “varied”.

“I went to university but that wasn’t really my kind of thing. I had made my way through school by having teachers who cracked the whip behind me all the time. So when I got to university and there was nobody doing that, I just sort of drifted.”

He left uni after a year and discovered he preferred working. A position as a teller at ASB bank turned into an eight-year stint. “I really found my feet when I got into banking,” he says. “When I left the bank, I set up my own business in financial planning, which was very challenging.”

“We were keeping a close eye on developments overseas. We realised a lockdown was an inevitability, so we made sure all staff had the gear to work from home.” 

This entrepreneurial spirit came to the fore again in discussions with his brother, Stephen, a newly graduated game developer.

“We got talking one day and decided to start a games business together. It was a good decision.”

Since its founding in 2006, Ninja Kiwi has gone from strength to strength. It now employs 68 people and has offices in New Zealand and Scotland.

The Harris brothers share a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of humour, which makes working together a largely easy experience, he says.

“We have quoted Blackadder to each other probably twice a day for the past 15 years. We get on really well.”

Chris Harris profile

Chris Harris, co-founder Ninja Kiwi

Coping with lockdowns

When New Zealand went into lockdown in March 2020 it was not a surprise to the pair.

“We were keeping a close eye on developments overseas. We realised a lockdown was an inevitability, so we made sure all staff had the gear to work from home.”

Preparedness paid off in enabling a smooth transition but did not insulate Ninja Kiwi from the same stresses and pressures experienced in many other industries.

“One of the biggest issues was ensuring that mental health stayed strong,” Harris says.

“This was particularly important with some of the younger guys who might have been in a flatting situation. They didn’t have a dedicated home office to work from. For one of our guys, his office chair was the foot of his bed because he didn’t have room for an actual chair.”

That experience informed decision making when the Auckland region went into a second lockdown in August. By then, Harris had realised staff needed a “dual-office” arrangement if they were to operate effectively from home.

“We decided it would be the right thing for everyone to have dual offices – a full home office and a full set up at the Ninja Kiwi offices as well. Obviously, there was some cost to setting up a bunch of artists and coders with PCs, screens, drawing tablets and that sort of stuff. But we were very lucky to have very little downtime. We are fortunate to be in this industry and able to be 99% effective, even if we are in lockdown.”

It was a major change of tack for a company that had previously tried to keep staff together as much as possible, he says.

“Our directive had been that everyone works in the office. It is easier to work with an artist if you can direct them, walk past their desk and get the fast iterations of a concept, for example.”

To try and replicate that ease of communication while working remotely, Ninja Kiwi staff operated with online chatrooms open all day so teams could interact in real time. Harris says this was good for some staff, but not ideal for others.

“I guess one of the concerns for some was the sense this is a bit ‘Big Brother’. But for others it felt much better than working in isolation. “Those people who weren’t comfortable with being on video all day were asked to pop into the chat in the morning and say gidday, and say goodbye to everyone in the evening. And, of course, be available for meeting. There will often be times when a person doesn’t need input from their colleagues for several hours, so we tried to be flexible in that regard.”

The IoD connection

Harris joined the IoD in October 2020. It seemed a natural step given the potential for the business to keep growing.

“I wanted to get on the right foot in terms of corporate governance. We are up to nearly 70 staff across two countries. It’s about readying for the next step in the company’s growth.”

Ninja Kiwi has grown organically, he says, and in the past the brothers have not always realised when they needed to take on more help.

“We have always been quite conservative about how we grow our team. We want to make sure everyone who joins has a career and is not just filling a spot until we don’t need them anymore. We tended to not realise we needed to do something until a couple of years after we possibly could have.”

While the brothers do continue to seek robust growth they don’t adhere to the aggressive “grow at all costs” strategies common in the industry. But they are aware the day may come when the company will benefit from additional governance knowledge.

“I think at some point we will benefit from having an independent director.”

Ninja Kiwi at a glance

What?

A mobile and online video game developer based in Auckland

Who?

Founded by brothers Chris and Stephen Harris in 2006

Size?

 38 staff in Auckland, 30 in Dundee, Scotland

Turnover?

NZ$50.2m in the year to March 2020

Biggest game?

Bloons TD 6 has around 600,000 daily active users globally

The article is featured in the Autumn 2021 issue of Boardroom magazine

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