Q&A with Nicolas Payette, CEO and Founder of North Sky Games
Developers of Skillz-Powered Games, Including Rummy Solitaire & Gin Solitaire
We recently spoke with Nicolas Payette, CEO and founder of North Sky Games, about getting his production studio off the ground and partnering with Skillz to launch competitive mobile esports. He shares his tips for game makers looking to transform their studio into a sustainable, full-time income stream.
Payette grew up in Montreal and earned a B.S. in computer science from Canada’s Université de Sherbrooke. He started his career as a software engineer at Microsoft and Amazon in Washington state before striking out on his own to become his own boss and pursue his dream job of making games. Read the full Q&A below to learn more about one of the 20,000 Skillz game makers.
Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself?
A: I started my career working as a software engineer at Microsoft and Amazon. I’m a lifelong gamer and have always dreamed of making mobile games. As a kid, I used to make labyrinth games in Basic before deciding to pursue a career in computer science. When the App Store launched in 2008, I knew it was time to pursue my passion. I first started making mobile games at a company called Trivial Technology, where I spent eight years honing this craft. In 2016, I founded North Sky Games – a self-funded, three-person studio.
Q: When was your studio founded?
A: After six years of making great games with Trivial Technology, I was ready to strike out on my own and become my own boss. We founded North Sky Games in 2016 and have seen tremendous success in the past several years. We now have 12 live games, with another two games in development.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this game? Why did you pick solitaire?
A: Rummy 500 is one of the first mobile games we developed. It was a big success, and we worked to piggyback off that momentum by designing and developing a version called Rummy Solitaire specifically for the Skillz platform.
Q: What was your first interaction with Skillz? How did you hear about the company?
A: Skillz was courting us for a while, and when we finally took a look at their product, we recognized the promising capabilities of the platform. We set a meeting with the Skillz team at the 2018 Game Developers Conference (GDC) and immediately realized it would be a strong partnership for collaboration. Skillz handles so much of the heavy lifting around maintaining and building a competitive game framework, which allows us to focus on crafting the most compelling games possible. By freeing up time for us to dedicate undivided attention to our game, we’ve successfully created a clean, polished user experience, and strong gameplay loop to teach players about the game and keep them engaged.
Q: What has been your experience getting your game production studio off the ground?
A: Don McDermott and I worked together at my previous business, Trivial Technology, where he was the first employee. We later started North Sky Games together and hired our artist/game design expert, Mya. We’re now in the process of hiring our fourth employee, a data analyst, to support scaling as we continue to grow the business. We use both our internal knowledge and Skillz metrics to make data-driven decisions, and are excited to welcome our first dedicated data expert to continue optimizing the player experience for our users.
Q: What advice do you have for people who have a side hustle that they are looking to bridge into a sustainable, full-time income stream?
A: Find your passion, get creative and explore ways to turn it into a compelling business opportunity, and then focus on bringing that to life. Once you find product-market fit for something you love to do or make, you’ll feel how personally rewarding it is to start running with it. The best advice I can give to those looking to make that bridge is to keep practicing and perfecting your passion, and then find the right moment to bring it to the market. It personally took me years of long hours turning my side hustle into a business, but the perseverance was definitely worth the outcome.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: I really enjoy the creative aspect of developing games. I think of games as a form of art, and I love being able to share my creations with the world. I also enjoy the freedom of setting my own hours, schedule and workload. I get to choose when to start and stop working, deciding for myself what sort of features I want to see added to our games. Turning my side hustle into a sustainable business has empowered me with unrestricted flexibility to achieve work-life balance. As a result, I get to enjoy what really matters most to me, like spending quality time with my eight-year-old daughter and taking family vacations without worrying about being out of the office. Being an entrepreneurial creator enables to maintain a healthier lifestyle and sustain stronger relationships with my family and friends.
Q: What do family members or friends say when you tell them what you do?
A: When I worked at Microsoft, it was hard to explain to family and friends what I did because my work was on the backend. Now — by developing mobile games that are accessible to anyone, anywhere — it’s easy to simply pull out my phone and show them my work. My parents have always been very supportive and proud of me, so it’s no surprise that they actually play some of our games. My dad plays our dominoes game practically every day, and my mom doesn’t play as often, but we’re about to release a Sudoku game that may interest her more. My uncle also enjoys playing Rummy 500, so it’s truly something that everyone in my family can enjoy.
Q: Do you play mobile games? If so, which ones?
A: I really enjoy our Sudoku game right now, because it enables me to compete in a relaxed environment, while honing my problem-solving skills. However, as the developer of the game, it’s not always the best way to unwind, because I’m wired to evaluate ways to incorporate new features or improve the game. My daughter has also become interested in Pokémon, so we’ve been playing Pokémon GO together. It’s been a great bonding experience for us!
Q: Where did you go to college/university?
A: I grew up in Montreal and earned a B.S. in computer science from Canada’s Université de Sherbrooke.
Q: What do you hope players will feel or take away from playing your game?
A: My main goal is to create games for players to relax, unwind and have a good time. I love hearing stories from players about how our games remind them of the times when they used to play Solitaire with their parents or their grandparents growing up. In many ways, the most rewarding part of developing mobile games is to bring those good memories back for so many of our players. I hope my games continue bringing them positive experiences as they pursue competition with others.
Q: Can you tell me about your professional background?
A: I started my career as a software engineer at Microsoft from 2001-2007, in a post-millennium era featuring milestones including the launch of the original Xbox. Next, I moved into a software engineer role at Amazon, where I worked from 2008-2010 on the merchant services side of the business. The acquisitions of Audible and Zappos were two marquee moments from this period in Amazon history. Working on meaningful technological challenges at two of the biggest tech companies of the modern era, especially so early on in my career, helped lay the foundation for the businessman I am today. I learned how to approach and solve problems and gained firsthand knowledge about the entire process of building software – from the early idea to getting the product into a customer’s hands. One of the most crucial takeaways that I apply in my business today is to use the customer’s needs as the decision driver. Having a rewarding career is not just about solving interesting problems, but solving the compelling problems that matter to customers.
Q: How do you spend your free time? What do you do to relax?
A: Living in Washington state, we’re close to so many beautiful, outdoor spaces. I enjoy hiking or visiting our local climbing gym. I also love spending time with my daughter, and I’m fortunate that my career allows me to have such a great work-life balance.
Q: What are your long-term professional goals?
A: I love what I’m doing right now and want to keep doing it. My long-term goal is to hire enough of the right people to help the company run just as well if I step away. I’m not really looking to retire or sell the company in the near-term, but I hope to scale back my involvement over time to work as much or as little as I want.
Skillz enables mobile game makers to unlock previously uncharted revenue streams by giving them a platform for fair competitive play and real-world prizes. If you’re looking to transform your game into a competitive mobile esport, head to developers.skillz.com.