Interview – Csaba Berenyi, MD

by | Jul 29, 2020 | Business, Interesting

I talk a lot with Csaba and we discuss many aspects of the business, however, some of those questions below never came up during our conversations. I have been meaning to ask these for a while and since I have the answers I decided to write them down as if it was an interview. It might give you the idea of what we do and what we aim for.

Let’s start with the most obvious one: why “Sponge Hammer”?

It means Software Development.

When I was made redundant from FreeStyle Games, I’ve decided to set up a company. I have a tool-programming background and I wanted to create a business that provides software development services along those lines. I was trying to come up with a name and started playing with “Software tools” in my mind…the first tool that comes to anybody’s mind is the hammer. With that out of the way I started finding something for SOFTware… soft stuck in my mind but soft hammer didn’t make sense, I tried squidgily… that didn’t work either and then “sponge” was born. Sponge Hammer sounded cool so the company name was born. And it means Software Development.

Sponge Hammer is four years old now. What were your thoughts four years ago?

I can tell you that four years ago, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted the trouble of running a business. The whole thing started as a one-man operation but early on I realised I needed a team. A team can achieve much more than an individual. I like to work with people, and I like to see them getting more skilled and experienced. I’ve spent 21 years in the industry and I’ve seen good and bad examples of how companies are treating their teams and employees. I knew I wanted to make a difference to people working with me and provide an environment where they can thrive.

Part of the Sponge Hammer Team
Part of the Sponge Hammer Team

How did you experience of the past four years?

The first two years were about surviving and I wasn’t well-prepared. I was just a programmer who tried to run a company. I didn’t know anything about it. Fortunately, I found many types of support, like the Coventry Chamber of Commerce, Warwick District Council and the Creative Scale-Up Programme. All these helped me a lot to learn how to think as a company director. We are more structured now, and we are planning the business ahead.

Did you achieve what you’ve wanted?

I am so proud that we got this far. It was a huge team effort and everyone contributed so much to it. In the last four years, we made various game prototypes, worked on mobile and AAA console and PC projects. Our clients are happy with us, we are growing and we’ve managed to maintain the good atmosphere within the company. The SH teams are very talented, they help each other and we treat each other with respect and appreciate each others’ talents. Of course, there’s a healthy amount of banter and fun as well. We have full transparency within the company, every individual knows all the achievements and challenges we face. We tend to have honest discussion about difficult situations. These are all contributing towards the good team spirit, good communication and performance.

Where do you see Sponge Hammer in 5 years time?

Interesting question as we are talking about more companies, not only Sponge Hammer Limited. In five years, I see that we will have an independently working game studio with successful games released.

We also keep our work-for-hire software development operation which is unique in its way, because we really care about the work we do and we work hard to keep our partners happy. We aren’t just signing the contract and deliver the cheapest option and forget about it. As I’ve seen in the last four years, our clients came back to us because of the quality and the good customer service we’ve provided.

In the medium term, we’ll build more teams and some will be working outside of video games. Backend development and interactive media are two great areas we’ll be contributing to.

One of the key aspects of the SH team is the acute awareness of the challenge Climate Change means. We are actively looking for projects where a team like ours can contribute to and by extension save the planet.

The other thing I am trying to do is mentoring young people to help them get into the game industry. We’ve already started this, but my 5 years plan is to make a not-for-profit organisation which will aim to provide the opportunity for people who are from backgrounds that make it challenging for them to see games or programming as a career. I am coming from a working-class family from a mining town. I had so much luck finding people who helped me in my career, but others not that lucky. I’ll have a lot more on that int he coming years.

What do you most like or hate as a managing director?

Admin. I hate to do admin stuff just like everyone else. I believe the universe conspired against company directors when it popped the admin tasks into existence.

Csaba Berenyi Zoom meeting in front of the Parliament - Hungary
Having the morning meeting in front of the Parliament – Hungary

The best part is to see the teams growing and achieving so much. Being proud of them gives back so much and always reminding me why this is worth it.

Do you miss programming?

Sometimes I still write code.

Well, the answer is yes and no. Programming was always a hobby for me, but when it became work, it changed slightly for me. As a managing director, programming became a hobby again; however, I have no time for that, most of the time.

I fulfil my craving for creativity in other ways such as cooking, baking and getting involved in work areas that normally I’d be staying away from.

What is the biggest challenge for you when it comes to people management?

I have a lot of experience running teams. Thus the company has processes established that work for our remote operation. This results in the team requiring little to no hands-on daily management. There’s a lot of trust going around. We are very much process-driven, we have all the requirements and because of the remote work, we are flexible. I built everything from to beginning this way as I wanted the guys to work on their own with little management required. It does working nicely.

Arguments can present an interesting challenge. We do argue, just like anyone else but we do discuss and learn from each situation.

Another area could be under-preparedness. For example, when starting the company I had to learn to speak accountant, understand legal obligations and change my programmer mindset to a product/ longer-term strategy one. There is always a failure in the mix but I pick myself up, learn from it and work on not making the same mistake again.

Can you switch off as a managing director? Can you disconnect from the business to recharge your batteries?

I can’t. This is 24/7.

Running the contracting operation is pretty straightforward, yet it has its own challenges. Alongside that, we have two in-house games in early concept and prototype stage which takes up a large part of my processing ability. The creative side of this keeps my brain busy even if I don’t actively focus on those.

What works sometimes is cooking, exercising, travelling (not these days), reading and playing video games. When I do those, I try to focus on them and push work aside completely.

Csaba has cooked swirls
Csaba is enthusiastic about cooking & baking

What was your favourite game?

It is always changing. When I was young, my favourite game was Tutti Frutti on Commodore 16. Later it was Turrican on the C64. I cannot say I have an all-time favourite as many people get nostalgic about retro games, but I’m not. My taste changed a lot over the years, and I don’t have the patience for those old titles. There are some games I’m happy to spend time with from the last decade, such as Skyrim or Fallout 3 / New Vegas. What I can’t stand is the pixel art games on HD screens. There’s something wrong about pixels on those. Saying that I’d happily play the same game on a CRT.

I prefer to play games because of their stories. Sometimes I do play a game multiple times, as the sheer size of the game means I have missed storylines or the game was simply great and want to experience the story again (Witcher 3 I am looking at you).

This is the reason why I want to make narrative-driven games with Sponge Hammer Games.

Why stories?

Stories are the most important things in our lives. We learn everything through stories. Parents tell stories to their kids to make them understand the world. These stories become part of our personality, and they have extremely strong transformative power.

That is why I would like to make story-driven games. You live the story inside, and you translate it the best way for yourself, and you will become more. It’s not about killing others or winning over others, it’s about how a story becoming part of your personality.

Csaba Berenyi MD (on the left)

What do you think about Climate Change?

My personal view is that we may have already missed the opportunity to reverse or stop it. We caused this and we need to live the consequences. I could easily panic about it. We share a lot of information within the company, and that made everyone more aware, more conscious about the situation. COVID-19 showed us that we could live without so many unnecessary products, but we do it for the experience sometimes.

Because of this my vision of the future is bleak but I am working on to grow the company and try to do our part in mitigating the effects.

I would love to know that my child and grandchildren will have a life worth living.

I believe that exciting times are ahead, especially to see Sponge Hammer growing much more prominent and developing as a game studio and service company as Csaba’s plans.

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