Did you know that if he had not gone into game development, Ralf could have been on track to become an astronaut?
As a kid growing up in Germany, Ralf had always been fascinated with flight. His interests included remote-control airplanes, flight simulators, rockets, and “space stuff.” He even went to school for Aerospace Engineering. On track to become a programmer with something to do with aerospace, Ralf explored several career options. But luckily for us, Ralf discovered computer graphics, specifically 3D graphics engines.
With game development and computer programming as two of his passions, Ralf saw a posting for a 3D graphics programmer in the Bay Area. He loved the idea of getting paid for having fun, and so started his career in games. That company was Stormfront Studios (which closed in 2008), and Ralf was there for 12 and a half years until he took the plunge to co-found Vector Unit with Co-founder and Creative Director Matt Small. “We thought if we were ever going to do it, that was the time. Neither of us had kids, we had money saved up, and it seemed like a huge risk but the timing was right.”
When asked what made him stay for so long at Stormfront, Ralf immediately says, “Co-workers, period. I don’t know how they did it, but Stormfront had a knack for hiring really good people. That’s what’s really important for a functional and productive company. You need talented people who can get along.” And it says something for the team that three ex-Stormfront employees are now part of Vector Unit. Today, Ralf is able to combine aspects of his extensive work history into shaping how he wants to co-run the business. Working with a small team allows him the freedom to work with people he likes, do what he wants to do work-wise so it’s never boring, and have more control over his own fate. With so few people, the Vector Unit team benefits from profit-sharing, so everyone can partake in the success of their hard work – something rarely seen at large studios.
While he admits to a certain discomfort at the volatility of the market, being a little at the mercy of app stores, and crossing fingers for getting featured, it’s an experience he wouldn’t trade for anything. “When we talk to partners or publishers, we get to say ‘no’ a lot, because we don’t need anything. We don’t have to chase the next contract from some publisher – and that’s everything. That’s the best.” In a way, that’s how Shine Runner came to be. After finishing Riptide GP, Ralf and Matt had a terrible time pitching games to publishers, because “nothing stuck.” They then decided to make their own game, have fun, and self-publish. Shine Runner turned out to be profitable, and a much better use of their time.
As for advice, Ralf says, “If you’re thinking about doing a start-up, it’s about ten times as hard as you think, but the rewards are ten times what you envision. The potential is there if you make it.”
Ralf Knoesel, Co-Founder and CTO