“This is Mark Kern, President of Red 5 Studios and former team lead for World of Warcraft.”
The FedEx box has my name on it and is brought directly to my desk. Heads turn. Packages always illicit a Christmas Morning-like reaction from nearby coworkers, no matter the lack of wrapping or bows. No matter it’s probably work-related. No matter whatever’s in the box isn’t for them. And that’s exactly what Mark Kern is counting on.
Inside the box is … a smaller box, nestled in protective foam. It’s about the size of a small paperback book, and it’s adorned with colorful space scenes and the phrase:
not the end
a new beginning
There’s also a number: 1.
Inside this box is another. And another. And another. And, finally, another. Each has a number (2-5), and each is emblazoned with more art and more clues to the puzzle. The completed message reads as follows:
not the end
a new beginning
not a new world
but an old world
no change is peaceful
and though life struggles
it also strives
to forge a new path
through the darkness
to rise to the call of glory
not the end
a new beginning
with new eyes to greet it.
A poem, perhaps. Or maybe a philosophy.
“We’re trying to send a message,” Kern told The Escapist, “about what we’re trying to accomplish here and our values, and we definitely carry those values over to what we’re trying to do for our game, as well.”
Inside box number five (which is red) is a tiny iPod shuffle, nestled in more protective foam, with a name engraved on it; the name of the intended recipient. Printed on the inside flap of the box is an invitation to listen to a pre-recorded track on the iPod itself. I plug in my headphones and press play. I hear Mark’s voice, addressing the person for whom the iPod was intended.
“You’ve got a passion for detail and a flair for gameplay that we admire very much,” Mark says, addressing the person by name. “At Red 5, we’re assembling a team of incredibly talented individuals dedicated to pushing the envelope.” He then suggests this person may be just what Red 5 is looking for and describes how they may go about logging on to the company website to learn more.
As far as recruitment techniques go, it’s first-rate, and definitely a departure. As for the iPod, “it’s a symbol,” says Kern. “In some cases, we’re looking for very special purpose people in very special purpose fields, and in another it’s a sort of general thing. But … the message is personalized, and there’s also the website. When you go to the website, it’s completely dynamic … custom tuned for you, down to even suggesting a role that we think would be interesting.”
Mark is shy about telling me how much the company spent on this project (custom-engraved iPods and elaborate packaging is far more expensive than simply picking up the phone), but he does offer this bit if insight into how it will affect his bottom line: “Imagine if you’d hired a recruiter,” he says, referring to the industry-standard cost for recruiting new hires. “The whole program pays for itself with basically two recruits.”
I ask him how many of his potential recruits have responded favorably. “Well, it’s still ongoing,” he says, “but the response has been terrific. Anything on a direct mailer typically has 2 percent response rate. The response rate here was almost 100 percent.”
“We took a lot of care in finding out and learning about people, before we addressed them with this,” he says. “There’s a very high correlation between people coming in and offers going out, so it’s been a very successful program for us.”
Not only in finding the right people for the right jobs, but also in generating buzz for the freshman MMOG developer, which has yet to publish or even announce their first title.
“We didn’t want to take a furtive approach or try to be secretive about things,” says Kern. “This was partially … an announcement of our company. We’ve been in stealth mode for a while, and we really wanted to get the word out that Red 5 was here, and we wanted the package to really symbolize some of the things we stood for. … [We’re a] very team oriented, people oriented company, and the amount of personal attention that we put in just to contact [the potential recruits] kind of reflects the personal attention we put into people’s personal growth here, and I think the message got out. … People would open these things at the office – obviously they draw a lot of attention – and people look over and say, ‘That’s really cool, who are these guys?’
“We’re not antagonizing, you know, entire companies, these obnoxious recruiter techniques we’ve all experienced. We’re just looking to meet a couple of really cool people as individuals, and it made a lot of sense from a strategy point of view, in terms of what we wanted to accomplish with building our team. And also, we think it’s a better way to reach people as a good citizen in the industry. “
The iPods were designed and manufactured by Apple at Red 5’s request. “We worked with [Apple] pretty early,” Mark says, “even before the Shuffles were available, because we knew we wanted that form factor … so they really helped us get everything together on that, and now they’ve actually made it an official program.”
But why go through all that trouble? Surely a company at the start of its journey has better, more productive things to be spending its time and energy on, rather than crafting a Russian doll-styled box for an iPod.
“It’s different for a new company that’s starting up,” Mark explains, “because you kind of have a core group of great people, but you need more. And you need more very quickly, and you’re trying to basically stand out from the crowd.
“We also wanted to make it exclusive, you know. We’re trying to build the world’s best [MMOG] team here, and we’re not going to do it by basically mass mailing to people. I think that’s the wrong message and the wrong way to build a team like that. So basically we wanted to communicate that this was a special invitation for a select number of key people who have had great careers, who have done great work that we’d like to work with, or at least meet and talk to and bounce ideas off of.
“And for us, we take a long term view of things. We want to establish relationships and start networking in the industry early, and there might not be a good fit … in the beginning. That’s OK, we’re the type of organization … that just [wants] to maintain relationships, and it could be years later before the right opportunity arises, and I think that’s fine. … Hopefully at GDC we’ll get a lot of people coming up saying, ‘Hey I saw that package you sent out, and that was really cool,’ and we get to meet even more people.”