Maksim Miheyenko (33 years old, lives between Moscow, Russia and Los Angeles, USA) is the Co-founder and COO of a global art provider and game development company - 5518 Studios. 5518 already works with extremely talented 2D/3D artists from Belarus, Ukraine, Serbia, Vietnam and Canada. Maksim's new area of interest - Eastern Europe game and IT-startups, including growing innovate projects in Serbia.
Maksim is one of the heroes of the award winning new documentary by Yury Dud about Silicon Valley, which was watched by more than 23 million people all over the world. Last year, Maksim enjoyed playing Top Eleven (The soccer manager game developed by Nordeus, a studio headquartered in Belgrade, Serbia).
Miheyenko periodically invests in IT-startups and companies developing games and mental health projects. He is an author of the best-seller Russian book “IT: Millions of Billions. How to start in the gaming industry, working remotely” and mentor in Ulyanovsk Technical State University. The next phase in Maksim's life - disclosure of new gamedev talents from all Eastern Europe, CIS Countries, Poland, and, of course, Serbia.
Why has Maksim become one of the headliners of the Russian gaming industry?
1. You've been into game development since you were a child. How did it all begin? Did you attend some extracurricular classes, read about it, or just started gaming?
It all began in the 5th grade! My life has not been the same since I got my first computer. I still remember my Intel Pentium 133 MMX with a 3Dfx Voodoo graphic card, it was so much fun. My favorite games were Diablo, Starcraft, Duke Nukem 3D, Dark Reign. That's how it started. 17 years later I am still passionate about games, this is my lifestyle. This is my reason to get out of bed every morning!
2. You came up with the concept of a game development company 5518 Studios in just one day, in a café in St. Petersburg. What preceded this? When and how did you decide to enter the big market?
It was a matter of one beautiful day. But first, let me stress that my partner and I have been dreaming of starting our own company since we were kids—it took us over 20 years!
In my opinion, St. Petersburg is one of the most creative places on Earth (along with San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Milan). It is history in the making—when you take a walk in the city center, Russia's historical past is all around you. It boosts your thinking, inspires ideas. When Michael Casalino (my great friend, ex-art director Disney, ex-VP of art, Scopely) and I took a walk around the city 4 years ago, it inspired us to start our own company. We went from the idea to its realization in exactly 30 days.
We realized we were joining synergies of two industry experts, coming from the two sides of the planet: Michael from California and Maksim from Russia. Both of us believe in the gaming industry's growth and by combining our vision, strengths and ideas we could contribute to one of the fastest growing global industries.
3. You got a big contract with Google at once. Why was it 5518 Studios that they decided to pick?
I've been working in the game industry for more than 17 years. I've been friends with our partners from Google for a long time. When we started our studio, they learned about our services and we showed them how eager we were to make our mark. Motivation and enthusiasm can get you far! Always stay hungry—it's a piece of advice that has helped me many times.
4. You are friends with your business partner Michael Casalino. There is a stereotypical notion that you shouldn't do business with your friends and family. How do you separate work from personal matters?
In the US, there's a very clear line between work time and personal time. There, best friends can be very serious when it comes to work and still hang out in the evening! I like the corporate culture of Silicon Valley and California because it has clear boundaries, and that is how it should be, I think. This is why during working hours Michael and I are demanding co-founders, we give each other feedback.. But after work, we are best friends. This is the only way. A strict but justified delineation.
5. In one of your interviews, you talked about what you expected from the new people coming to your team: you are ready to hire some John Doe from the country if he is obsessed with developing games. But speaking of education, graduates of what international universities do you consider to be the most promising in your industry?
We believe in passion and professionalism! These are the two key soft skills that help achieve great results in our industry. The gaming industry is extremely competitive, we are competing with the whole world. That is why it is so important to love your job!
We do not hire people who take games and digital art as routine work, no, you have to be passionate about it! It's your life's work.
Higher education gives you better technical skills but is not decisive when it comes to hiring. We have a lot of secondary school graduates in our team who never went to universities (and they are great at what they do!).
Great example—my expert in brain and energy, Maksim Sprind-Nimand. He is a real professional, his goal is to help people improve their health and boost their energy level. That is what makes him get out of bed every morning. It is not about money.. Money comes second. It is the passion!
6. Name three major interview mistakes that are sure to make you reject a candidate.
That's a good one!
1. Unclear vision as to why they want to work in our studio or in the industry. The main problem with zoomers is that it's hard for them to find long-term interest in what they do.
2. Lack of genuine interest in games, being money-oriented.
3. Lack of stability. Unfortunately, we are not looking for independent genius artists who are not ready for daily result-oriented work!
7. You have an international team: people from America, Russia, Belarus, Israel, Vietnam. Is English the official language? How did you learn English?
Yes, English is our official language specifically American Californian English — it's international.
This is Great! Fantastic! Perfect—we teach our team members to speak our customers' language, always be positive and active.
I learned English by watching TV shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Santa Barbara, X- Files. Iconic series of my childhood! Also while playing Deus Ex, Baldur’s Gate 1/2. They taught me what American culture is. Since then I've practiced a lot...
8. You said you need from 3 to 6 months to make an employee coming from a small town get used to living in the US. This is not even about language. What makes your American co-workers experience culture shock when dealing with "unprepared" compatriots?
The key cultural feature of Russians and Americans is being tactful and respecting boundaries. In the US, especially in California, people respect boundaries, they don't tell you what to do, don't criticize you, always keep and respect distance. Everybody lives the way they want, abiding by the law.
In Russia, especially in small towns, there is a notion that you have to be as "honest" as possible. Usually, it means giving negative feedback, even if no one asked. But things are changing rapidly... Moscow and St. Petersburg are very European in nature. There, you are not afraid to be unique.
I see Russia in 2020s–2030s as a unique country of possibilities with few limitations! Poland (Witcher, Cyberpunk 2077, Dying Light) is an example of how to become a global gaming leader if you have passion.
9. Speaking of national mentality, who is easier to work with for you personally?
Who? Professionals. That's the most important thing! It's not about nationalities. Once, we developed a game together with Nordeus, and we were amazed by the level of quality and communication. Top international level!
You can find good professionals and studios all over the world. We are looking for them. Working with them is always a pleasure and a source of never-ending experience.
Alexander Stepanchikov is a great example in this regard. He is from Moscow and one of the best artists in the world, in my opinion. He built his career from scratch, working his way up from beginner 3D-modeler to the leading artist in 5518 Studios. He's eager to create amazing 3D characters and to outdo himself each and every time!
10. Are you a perfectionist?
Not at all. I have no clear plans or a rigid daily routine. It's more like I am pursuing my goal. Flexibly. Through chaos and new circumstances. The world is always changing. My goal is to make international-level projects, set higher standards for myself, and enjoy the process.
We only live once, and I want to enjoy the process even when I'm 90. Look at Clint Eastwood, making movies at the age of 90 and still truly enjoying it. He's an icon in the industry to me.
11. What do you dislike about your job (apart from going through emails)?
The most difficult thing is to find time to live outside of work. The industry is so dynamic it can devour you. Look at Last of Us 2 and Fortnite teams working overtime. Many of them haven't seen their families for weeks. It's very sad. This is the other side of an extremely dynamic industry. We are yet to find out how to balance life and work in this new digital world.
12. You spend much time with your partner Michael Casalino, his family treats you well. Ever thought of starting your own family?
In 7–10 years I can see myself as a great husband and father, mowing the lawn of my small house. But now my work is my family. This is my life. I am 33, and I feel like this is just the beginning, the youth, the energy.
13. How would you see video games as a parent? Would you restrict your child?
I think you have to make it clear to the parents why games are good for children, why do they choose to play games? Look at the success of Roblox, Minecraft—it is a whole world for children where they can live, communicate, and even do their own projects. It actually helps their creativity. But everything should be in balance. After playing for 2–3 hours on a computer or phone, spend at least 2 hours outside or go swimming. It is good for the brain. The key to achieving success in the gaming industry since childhood is not to spend the whole day in front of the screen. Just the opposite, exercising stimulates thinking. I feel sorry that I didn't realize that until the age of 27. I used to neglect sports for the sake of work, and that's where I was terribly wrong. It's impossible to be productive without exercising. Thats when inspiration hits, in the quieter moments when you're doing something else.
14. From your interviews, we know where to get the best coffee in Moscow. Is it any different from coffee in LA?
Moscow has amazing coffee, delicious food, and diverse architecture (from the building of MSU University to Moscow City skyscrapers). I like to find something unique about each city. Depo Foodmall in Moscow, Blue Bottle and Lemonade in Los Angeles. I haven't been to Belgrade yet, but I can't want to explore Serbia. I am amazed by your culture and projects such as Zero Gravity, Nordeus. I really want to experience it personally!
Cover: shirt and bow tie – Henderson, Tuxedo - Albione
Yellow jumper: jumper and trousers – Henderson, Sneakers - Asos
2D/3D Art by 5518 studios, Inc:
2D: Mark Makovey.
3D Characters: Alexander Stepanchikov.
3D Mammoth: Sergey Tyapkin.
Foto: Alexander Multikov @multikov
Foto assistant: Konstantin Zemskov @ zemskov.ph Style: Katya Troshko @katrintroshko
Style assistant: Katya Verchenko @katrinverch MUA & Hair: Kseniya Mishkina @mishkina_makeup
Producer: Nickolay Gurov @n_gurov
Producer 5518: Elvina Antonova
5518 Studios COO: Maxim Miheyenko @maxim.miheyenko
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