Stephane D’Astous, General Manager at Novaquark Montréal, speaks with us about digital transformation trends and bridging the gap between technical talent and end users in the gaming industry.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your educational and career journeys. How did you get to where you are today?
Stephane D’Astous: My story starts with my father, a famous Montréal architect. When I was a child, 3D CAD software didn’t exist, so my dad built small-scale replicas of everything he designed. This inspired me to employ my creativity to build something concrete, so I studied industrial design, which taught me a lot about how to navigate and unite the sometimes disparate fields of creative art and technical talent, end user and product manufacturer.
After this, I decided to pursue an MBA, which required a lot of effort and sacrifice: I took night classes for 4 years while working 50 hours a week in the aeronautics industry at CAE and also raising 2 children. Finishing the degree was a defining moment for me, because I felt like I was equipped to be a great manager, and several doors opened for me.
I worked six more years in aeronautics, where I learned a lot about excellent project management and how to serve major clients, before I was offered a job in the video game industry at UbiSoft. I had to decide if I should follow my head or my heart: my head told me that my aeronautics career was safe, stable, and respectable, but I had hit a bit of glass ceiling. The gaming industry, on the other hand, was immature and unknown at the time, but my heart was drawn toward its energy, passion, and creativity, and I felt I had something to contribute to its development. It was a high risk/high reward situation, and I went for it.
The move not only allowed me to do what I love - bridging the gap between technical expertise and artistic creativity - but it also allowed me to produce complex, code-based projects for entertainment purposes rather than practical needs.
AC: What drew you to joining the Novaquark team in particular?
SD: Montréal is full of studios that want to expand to North America, so there were opportunities to join many companies, but I wanted to do something innovative; a middle-of-the road product wasn’t going to attract me. When I met Jean-Christophe Baillie, Novaquark’s Founder and President, I understood that his product was extremely ambitious and maybe even disruptive. His 2016 kickstarter campaign was met with phenomenal support, and he surpassed his objectives. But so far, he was in Paris only. He wanted to utilize Montréal’s talent to transfer the prototype into a product.
Novaquark’s values are very important to me, particularly in terms of what the company brings to Montréal. Here we have almost all types of games, from single-player to multiplayer to VR, but before Novaquark, we didn’t have any MMO (massively multiplayer online) games. Other players in the Montréal industry are creating conventional, well-crafted products, but Novaquark is doing something different and innovative.
AC: What are the unique challenges and opportunities for you in managing Novaquark’s Montréal office? Have you adapted strategy to fit geography?
SD: Before you can add value to something, you have to thoroughly understand the project’s trajectory and where it is in the process. I realized that Novaquark’s product was quite advanced in some areas and behind in others. In business, there are always three important factors: money, time, and quality. For Novaquark, time is the biggest factor, because our product is due to be released this summer. So from the time I joined the team to the time of the product launch, I had only a year and half to recruit a team of specialists and add value.
Paris and Montréal have well-known connections and a shared language, so I assumed cultural values would be relatively well aligned. The French love a good argument; afterward, they go back to work like nothing happened. For us North Americans, there’s more of an understanding that if a senior/lead person decides something, we all get behind it and make it happen.
While some of these cultural differences have been challenging, our Paris and Montréal studios complement each other in that Paris brings specific technical talent and our Montréal team is more sensitive to the look and feel of the game experience. The Paris team is creating a highly-performant back-end, and Montréal is raising the bar on the UX/UI side.
AC: What do you do to stay abreast of innovations in tools and technologies?
SD: I try to preserve my lunch hour for reading articles, consulting TEDx, and taking courses on lynda.com, Khan Academy, and Udemy. I’m not a programmer, but I need to understand coding basics to be effective in my role, and these resources are perfect, bite-sized ways for me to understand potential challenges. I believe you have to guard a regular window during your work hours to self-educate, because after hours, it just doesn’t happen.
In my job, I bridge tech and art, and I think the most important component of doing this well is keeping things simple and focusing on the human element. We need to focus on users and consumers, because we’re making a game for everyone, not just for developers.
I also use a lot of methodologies like Agile because it keeps everyone on the same page, allowing developers and artists to walk through the entire process together and spot departmental discrepancies early and often. Very often, managers operate from a reactive mode and think that one meeting can solve big issues, but actually, you need consistency and recurring meetings to maintain a unified vision.
AC: You have 20 years of experience in multiple sectors of the digital industry. What changes have you seen in the gaming industry and wider entertainment industry in the last five years?
SD: This is a head scratching question and very fun to consider! I’ve seen a huge increase in the ease of product accessibility. Before, you had to be sitting in front of a PC that was connected to services via cables. Now, we have a huge amount of mobile platforms connected to WiFi and to the cloud for superior streaming and accessibility. Everything is dematerialized, and this happened much faster than I anticipated.
This also affects user ownership. We don’t walk into physical stores to buy physical games; in fact, we rarely even buy products to download anymore. Instead of downloading music on iTunes, for example, we rent it on Spotify. Netflix was a very early player here, and almost everyone is moving in this direction. Subscription-based businesses are the new norm.
For the gaming industry in particular, a huge change is that game makers now have to offer a free-to-play aspect. If they don’t, their product might not do as well.
AC: Which trends do you see emerging in the next few years? How will this influence the wider tech marketplace?
SD: AI and deep learning have been big buzzwords in the last few years. There’s massive potential here, but we don’t know yet to what depths this capability will affect us on a daily basis. Montréal is known as an AI hub, but we’re still in an early phase with this technology, and we’re trying to find the right applications for it.
Another big trend is the Internet of Things. Obviously this already exists, but I think there’s a phase two coming that will offer even greater connectivity of common objects.
Quantum computing is another trend. This is beyond my expertise, but it’s certainly going to change the way we try to solve big problems.
There’s also a lot more potential for VR/AR/MR. Everyone was very excited about these fields at first, but they’ve existed for a long time without coming to fruition. Perhaps this is because it’s a flashy, impressive technology that hasn't been mastered for a practical purpose yet.
Finally, digital ethics and privacy are becoming an increasingly important issue. With so many objects connected to each other and to outside data warehouses, information is everywhere and privacy doesn’t exist in the same way it used to.
AC: What has been a highlight/shining moment for you in the last few years? Was there a moment that you knew you were on the right track?
SD: There were three moments for me, two in the multimedia industry and one in the video game industry. When I was hired by Moment Factory, they were known for entertainment events rather than for permanent projects. I was responsible for creating the business unit for permanent projects, and we won an international open bid for a major digital installment at the world-famous Changi Airport in Singapore. Similarly, at Float4, we won several industry prizes for our innovative digital project at the City Walk shopping mall in Dubai.
More recently, Novaquark has also received a lot of recognition. Even though our product hasn’t been released yet, we’ve shown demos to gaming veterans from Google, Epic, and Valve, and they have all confirmed that this product is potentially disruptive. To have this kind of validation even before the product is finished is very encouraging, because it means we’re on the right track.
AC: What was your biggest “Aha!” moment in the last 6 months as it relates to strategy/management?
SD: Some months ago, Novaquark had to make the classic “make or buy” decision for a software tool. The engineering team wanted to build everything internally so that they could control the quality of the code, even though there were proven commercial solutions on the market. After a long debate, I was able to persuade our engineers to buy an existing product. The results were big savings on time and money. Instead of building the product from scratch, we just needed to build a way for it to work with our product. The decision we made seems logical in retrospect because it brought great benefits, but at the time, it was heavily disputed.
AC: Do you have any closing advice for our readers?
SD: Especially for the younger generation, I want to say, “be resilient.” A lot of young managers don’t like to fail; they want to climb the ladder rapidly and without sacrifice. But especially in high risk industries, you can't be perfectly shielded. If you believe in what you do, you need to roll up your sleeves and make a difference. If I hadn’t been resilient, I wouldn’t have achieved so many things in my career that have required great effort.
AC: Thanks for your insights today, Stephane! It’s inspiring to hear about your passion for pursuing the gaming industry when it was immature and to hear about the innovative ideas you’re still pursuing at Novaquark today!
Anna Vander Wall
Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.