Transforming the Games Industry into a Well-Oiled Machine:
Growth, Comfort Versus Opportunity, and Long-Term Careers - Part 4
This is part 4 of 6 in my response to the Gamasutra.com opinion piece entitled “Making the Game Industry an Attractive Place to Work,” and written by Electronic Arts' current head of European talent acquisition, Matthew Jeffery. Click HERE to read the original article.
December 10, 2008
By Eric M. Scharf
If you succeed with your first or latest project, you may wish to move onto the next project, or, you may ultimately wish to grow your company in support of simultaneous development of multiple projects. Growth brings with it a myriad of additional challenges, not the least of which is the effect it can have on the founding and / or earliest members of your development team.
Matthew suggests that a primary concern of employees, in this scenario, is of “getting lost in the crowd.” Company growth, however, now affects pre-expansion employees in a much broader sense and double-barreled fashion.
First, employees who originally joined a small studio, experiencing being a big fish in a small pond or who came to know and enjoy the close-knit communication and operation of a small team, will certainly feel some level of concern towards a potential communication disconnect and infrastructural growing pains that come with the transformation towards bigger business.
Second, and more fundamentally important, employees are affected by the details, steps, and stages of the actual growth plan being implemented by a company’s management. This is assuming, of course, that a company’s management actually has a plan for growth, as logic dictates that you do not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to grow your company without personal introspection and some deep-and-thoughtful guidance from the most trusted of industry colleagues. A growth plan contains many layers and contingencies for failed or unavailable development resources.
Consider the following scenario, which further describes the big picture challenges for employees in the face of company growth. You own a company that specializes exclusively in 3rd party video game publishing. You sell your company to a much bigger company. Your new parent company commands you to establish multiple, original-IP-generating, international game development studios, in locations, for example, such as Florida, London, and Tokyo. You rush to establish these studios, along with the appropriate manpower, and a mission statement for each studio to get cracking on their specific game products.
This scenario sounds simple enough, but three incredibly important and unaccounted elements are absent, which collectively prove to cripple or crush your efforts, as well as the desires of your parent company, over a short period of time.
You are missing a (1) transition plan that carefully prepares-and-trains your 3rd party publisher-minded staff members and transforms your 3rd party business approach into 1st party readiness. You are missing (2) a 1st party game development plan that outlines a robust concept-to-completion development-and-production process for each of your 3 unique development studios, as well as each of their original IP projects (and, with unique projects come unique 1st party game development plans for each one). And, ultimately, you are missing (3) a growth plan, which is crucial in helping your managers determine the proper development team sizes for each of your projects. Remember: if you have never built 1st party teams and products before, you are still, essentially, operating in a growth mode.
No matter the size of your company, if you do not have these kinds of plans in place, derived from the need to grow, you will experience serious and unnecessary problems. The same can even be said for an old school talent who is capable of succeeding in all of the major development disciplines: if you cannot organize your thoughts into a production plan, you will be no better off than a team without a plan as well.
Company growth, in this day and age, is no longer a simple equation, and the always-affected employees (juniors and established veterans alike), with respect, would be better-served to pay more attention to their employer’s core-and-future goals than whether or not they remain the biggest fish in their pond.
Comfort Versus Opportunity
Larger games industry companies, such as EA or Ubisoft, ideally, do, in fact, allow employees the internal development opportunity for creative risk on new ideas, confident that company stability and a massive library of safe-and-established game properties will negate any such risks that turn out poorly. Such an allowance, however, remains purposely restricted and isolated, much like core R&D efforts, thus, shareholders rightfully want product success in the form of safe, reliable repetition and long-term brand familiarity, and, with company executives obligated to follow the money, nothing more exciting than mildly pioneering is ever pursued unless it is demanded from on-high.
This is not to suggest that some games industry executives do not want swing for the fences and really see what their development teams can accomplish if truly challenged. The larger companies, at the same time, in this day and age, do deserve credit for the occasional buy-out of well-known independent developers, with well-known-and-innovative IPs, and, in the process, they procure the exciting-and-risky products their pre-existing employees were begging to work on. They also have an established team (given they all wish to stay on board) to go with the new product line. Yes, employees must be weary of that risky project for which they constantly push their employers, as they just might get it, in a way that still prevents their inclusion in the excitement.
Nonetheless, comfort is king with publishers and their shareholders, and the larger the company, the more separated from one another is the making of a product and the business strategy behind that product. Outside of the occasional innovative-and-successful hit that causes copycat products to leap onto store shelves, this is why we will continue to see a glut of predictable sequels and tame original titles, most of which are visually improved over previous offerings, but with status quo gameplay, as well as improved-or-added multi-player and online components.
And through their association with larger game companies, employees are, indeed, able to work across a broad spectrum of different games, receive the benefits of job variety, have opportunities to explore a variety of careers, and have a chance to increase their skills within one company over a potentially significant period of time. Ultimately, however, like many other topics covered here, such an employee personal growth process does not occur by a snap of the fingers. Employees must, obviously and in general, work hard to achieve this expanded breadth of experience, and, along with a little luck, timing, and knowing the right people, employees will be rewarded for their hard work.
Employees, however, in this vein, cannot and should not simply “wait around” for this to happen. Success, especially that which is generated through the combination of your own hard work, timing, and a little luck, is not like winning the LOTTO, nor is it an obedient pet that will eagerly lick your face on command. There should be no “expectation” of being spotted in a crowd by a Hollywood talent scout, and there should be no teenage sense of entitlement (one of the most dangerous ways of thinking, for yourself and the teammates who rely upon you).
Keeping and growing your existing talent base provides, maintains, and re-enforces long-term reliability-and-trust amongst teammates and consistent quality among your products. What I hope and believe Matthew understands is that, within the larger companies, you will still be adding to your talent base in large and small doses, depending upon the needs of your project(s). The training investment in your resources will continue until there is nothing new to learn and additional personnel are no longer necessary to handle the excess work load.
There will always be something new to learn, no matter the size of your establishment. Smaller companies can certainly attempt to produce one project at a time, thus, more easily controlling development team expansion and career growth, but the larger companies are in a different stratosphere with multiple product line-ups and teams of employees.
Access to such large, internal pools of resources (like at EA and Activision-Blizzard), begs the ultimate question: if a company and its shareholders truly wish to be seriously greedy (requiring a more diligent-and-refined mobilization), making all the money in the world, through the most celebrated products on the global market, and be the dominant, worldwide source for game development, would such a company be willing to make the ultimate, long-term investment in personnel towards ultimate, long-term stability and success?
I am openly suggesting, but not married to, the concept that larger game companies could radically change-up their traditional development processes in favor of aggressively cross-training their existing work forces so that all of that personnel is truly interchangeable and useful on any project type, on any hardware platform. An artist, a designer, a programmer, an audio technician, or a QA tester, for example, who all specialize in third-person sports games development on the PS3, would also be trained, enabled, and empowered to fulfill the same tasks with the same quality for not only the same game genre, but also role-playing games, first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and casual puzzle games, on the PS3, Wii, Xbox 360, PC, and Macintosh as well.
Contrary to potential interpretation, I am not describing a path towards game development zombies who have no specific interests and preferences – and "radical" is probably an understatement when considering what kind of overall financial investment, development infrastructure, and scheduling would be necessary to allow and encourage such a large-scale transformation to occur within such a massive workforce, all at once. Some smaller game companies have been able to succeed with this cross-training approach, however, most still choose to maintain multiple teams for multiple skus due to contractual time constraints, simultaneous delivery of all skus, or simply because they are more comfortable with teams of specialists (in genre and platform expertise).
I suspect that larger companies, with multiple internal and external subsidiary teams, would take either an aggressive or passive approach to implementing cross-training for its global workforce:
1) Aggressive Approach - Select one available internal development team (with no projects in the queue), and authorize that team to, literally, shadow-and-participate-with another internal development team, during the A-Z development of that team’s project (where the genre and platform are new to the visiting team).
The tag-teaming of two development teams on one project will both teach one team about a “foreign” genre and hardware platform and enhance the other team’s ability to deliver higher quality assets with a larger combined team. If, for example, there are six internal development teams within one studio, then, each one of those six teams would take a turn going through the same process (which is repeated until all internal teams can perform each other’s tasks with similar accuracy and quality).
Pros: Two full development teams can learn from one another on-the-fly while participating together on one project that receives the benefit of a larger, combined set of resources than normal, resulting in enhanced project assets and one team being trained on the other team’s genre and hardware specialties. Respect and camaraderie are earned and enhanced, and interest now exists in other genres and hardware platforms where there may have previously been disinterest.
Cons: One project is being completed with an oversized team instead of two projects being completed.
2) Passive Approach – Arrange for veteran game development consultants (from each major discipline, experienced in each major game genre and each major hardware platform) to visit the studio during the planning stages that ideally exist in-between completed projects. These consultants will be required, beforehand, to generate courseware applicable to their genre and hardware platform expertise. These consultants will meet with available project leads (from teams that are in-between projects) to review the courseware towards mutual preparation, and, then, the consultants will teach the available teams, in an on-site classroom setting. Courseware materials would be made available in digital and printed format for future reference.
Participating teams may or may not be able to put the learned information to immediate use (depending upon the genre and hardware platform of their next project).
Pros: Companies with tremendous overhead can maintain the status quo, with their annual project slates and schedules, while exposing their development teams to a good taste of alternative genres and hardware platforms.
Cons: The training-via-consultant potentially means that the consultants will teach over a short period of time, leave the premises, and not be available to assist in any format other than e-mail, due to their own commitments and schedules. The short training periods may be in conflict with the recuperation time many teams receive between projects, which, in some cases, is the first two to four weeks after Gold Master. Thus, you may have worn out development teams being asked to give up hard-earned comp time in exchange for training sessions involving material that may not be put to get use on the next projects. The chances are good that everything learned will become everything forgotten.
Nonetheless, this cross-training concept represents one of those healthy challenges to one’s “passion for games,” as game developers would have to be interested and motivated, first, in the bigger picture and the greater good, and, second, in the opportunity to be trained to develop any kind of video game for any kind of hardware platform in existence.
Interest, realistically, comes into play for people who choose to stomp their feet stating “I only like these kinds of projects, these methods of development, these kinds of tasks, and this kind of hardware platform.” If you were to go ahead and attempt to employ the cross-training system, this category of employee would be a potential deal-breaker unless you had enough of “these kinds” to satiate every employee who felt so strongly about their personal interests.
Motivation, ideally, comes into play when considering how many game developers regularly fret about their job security, I have trouble believing that many people would not at least be willing to sit down and take part in a series of healthy discussions on the subject of game development cross-training.
Imagine how long a game development career might become for a game developer, regardless of discipline (with the generalization that most people within the given development workforce have legitimate talent and services to offer). If, in fact, one of the well-known larger game companies were to pursue cross-training with its personnel, the key question would, again, reside with the employees: who, among them, would truly be a selfless fan of all-things-games, with the motivation to become an established games industry resource for years and, potentially, decades to come?
On the other end of the spectrum, an intense curiosity might just be teasing every games industry executive in the world with the sheer concept of being able to rely on long-term internal teams for all sorts of product types, delivered with equal quality. Imagine the high percentage of quality work force retention.
Imagine that, even if you did have to hire new people, there would be such a robust collection of resources already on board, that training would no longer be such a blatantly additive cost. Anyone familiar with the history of American football will recall the three-way players from yesteryear: offense, defense, and special teams. This potentially-revolutionary theory of mine is, in fact, no theory at all, and it has been in practice for decades, even centuries.
Jobs can, in fact, turn into careers, as long as employers and employees want this equally. Better yet, imagine every major game company having its own “minor league” training facility. Train future personnel without putting your product quality at risk (as learning on the job has its positive and negative results).
The current evolution of game development, versus available-and-legitimate-resources, dictates that industry folk should at least ponder these ideas, and, as I have been known to say, “It is a free conversation (until you sign on the dotted line)."