Five years ago when I first approached the subject of what it takes to be an outstanding manager, we were enjoying a rise in free-to-play MMORPGs. DDO (Dungeons & Dragons™ Online) had been released. We were playing City of Heroes, Eve Online and Guild Wars, and waiting for Age of Conan with its highly-publicized “mature” content. There was a lot to play online! Facebook was three years old and had just opened its doors to anyone over 13 with a valid email address.
The online landscape has changed dramatically since then. Facebook has become a household name (as well as a verb and an adjective.) People are immersed in Farmville, Cityville, and dozens of social games—that is, when they’re not posting pictures, “Liking” all kinds of things and filling up virtual Walls with comments on just about everything. Companies are scrambling to add “social content” to their existing games and obsessing over microtransactions, virtual goods and the arcane language of metrics.
It sure seems like anyone with a computer and a little seed money is making a social game. Hey, you have a computer! And maybe a little extra money? Now all you need is a fantastic idea for a social game that could make you rich, and you’ll be ready to jump into the pool.
Just one question: Are you planning to do all this by yourself?
Tackling this solo may sound like an ideal way to control everything but it’s not a great way to get things done, especially in the current crazy competitive environment. (Not to mention, no one can ever control everything. . .)
Something New, Something Old
The products may be new but the challenges from concept to release remain the same: need more time, need more money, could use some help. While some things have changed in the past five years, there are still basic unchanging precepts about jobs, teams and management. Whether you’re working in someone’s basement (yes, people still do that) or in an actual office for an established company, you still need a team and a team (usually) needs a manager who can match the right people to the game jobs, make sure they know what to do and help them do it.
Whether you’re making a big MMO or a small social game, teams always need the same things: consistent reliable leadership, positive motivation, achievable goals and the individual ability to work and play well with each other.
Building a team is like building anything else (including video games)–the best plan in the world won’t survive without a solid foundation. The stronger the plan, the more positive the environment, and the better your talent, the more successful everyone will be.
The Usual Suspects
Savvy managers know that along with stuff like education and experience, they have to take personalities into account when building a team. Although everyone is unique, there are some archetypes, if you will, that seem to persist in the video game industry.
The Intern: You usually have the services of an intern for the summer or for one semester. You put a lot of effort into training the intern, often because you’re short-handed. You need to be able to entrust the intern with certain responsibilities. If you’re lucky, you bring someone on-board who is not only eager to have a career in the industry, but is also a hard worker and understands (or at least learns during the internship) that for all the “glamour,” this is still a business. If you’re really lucky, the intern helps improve your overall process and becomes a qualified candidate for full-time employment, which is a nice way to capitalize on your training investment.
On the other hand, you might also get stuck trying to find work for the son or daughter of an executive (or friend of the executive) who spends more time checking Facebook and taking long lunches than working. There’s not much you can do except find some moderately meaningful work for this person and be cautious about what you say because it might get repeated, with or without interpretation, to your boss or your boss’ boss or. . . you get the idea.
The Eager Volunteer: “I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” is the favorite refrain of the eager beaver who is always volunteering to help, regardless of his or her workload. Some people can multi-task very well, while others continue to volunteer eagerly but have time management issues that will eventually come back to bite you.
Your challenge is to find a way to help this team member achieve gradually increasing successes while learning some much-needed time management skills. The darker side of this situation is the volunteer may get others to do the work and then takes credit for it in hopes that you will assign even more work.
The Ladder Climber: This team member comes in several guises. It might be someone who has been able to jump from a “service” department like clerical or HR into Design or Production. While they have the skills to do the work, their goal is to get as high as fast as they can, and sometimes they will use their in-house “connections” to insure that those above you see their efforts, whether or not they have done the work themselves, or whether the work they did was correct. When problems arise, the Climber is frequently the one who pushes a team member—including you–under the bus rather than admit error.
The Anxious Being: More often than not, this person is extremely intelligent and can do remarkable work but has absolutely no self-confidence. What you get is a blow-by-blow report of what they will do, what they are doing, what they just did, and what they will do next. There are probably very good reasons for the anxiety but you haven’t been hired to be a therapist so you need to find a way to get good work without the running dialog. Hopefully, this person will gain confidence through consistent successes.
The Resister: Nope, won’t do it your way or anyone else’s way. Period. Refuses to accept more responsibility, or worse, accepts it and then refuses to ask for help. Resisters have their own priorities and schedules. This is especially dangerous when the Resister is a programmer who is quick to kludge and able to hide the evidence.
The “Assistant”: This self-appointed back-up is happy to speak for you in meetings and give others the impression that you’ve delegated a lot of responsibility. Assistants may even take it upon themselves to advise others on the team about how they’re doing and what they can do to improve. Because this person is usually a smart hard-working employee, the assumption of power may go unnoticed for a while.
The Newbie Know-It-All: This person is often a combination of Eager Beaver and Newly-Hired Graduate/Former Intern. Frequently an avid gamer, he hits the ground running, works super-hard for the first month, and then begins an aggressive campaign to get hired as the Senior Game Designer because, after all, he has played Every Game Ever Made and knows Everything and Everyone.
The Rock Star: This would be the Untouchable Golden Child, the one management just loves, the one who frequently is called in as an expert trouble-shooter. She doesn’t appear to have to follow any rules or answer to you even though she’s on your team. Her work is actually quite good but if you catch her in an error, rather than admit she was wrong, she’ll blame it on people who “don’t know what they’re doing,” tell you she has a fix for it, and then make the fix without discussing how it will affect the rest of the program.
It would be great if you could build a work team like you build your fantasy sports team–just choose the prime players, set the line-up, swap players at will, and do whatever it takes to win, but the reality is that it’s your job to find a way for your team to work together.
You want people with solid game design experience but they also need to be able to work comfortably in this new continuous deployment world of social games but somehow understand that the basics of production never really change.
There’s no limit to the personal and group potential of a great team. Given an “impossible” task, team members can (and should) reinforce each others’ confidence and skills. It’s the synergy thing–the collective ability to achieve innovation and success.
Drafting Your Dream Team
There’s no “magic number” of people that insures you’ll have a successful team. Whether you have fewer than 10 or more than 200 , the team’s shape is far more important than its size. Finding people with basic skills is a given; getting people with the right mix of skills is crucial if you want to succeed.
In addition to technical expertise in specific game-related disciplines (i.e., engineering, marketing, production, creative, testing, etc.), each team member needs:
- Solid problem-solving skills
- Accountability as an individual
- Good interpersonal skills and flexibility
- Commitment to working as part of a team
- Respect for colleagues regardless of experience, age, gender, etc.
You need to hire with an eye to how skills and personalities will complement each other and grow the project in exciting ways. This includes how you fit into the mix as the manager.
Your Management “Style”
Even if you’ve been a manager for a while, it’s not a bad idea to do a little research about management principles, if only to refresh your memory. You probably already know that there are some basic foundations for a solid management style:
(1) Honesty: The word “transparency” is thrown around a lot these days instead of honesty which some people regard as old-fashioned. Perhaps a better word would be “opacity”–the degree to which light is not allowed to travel through something. Think of it as how much upper management really wants everyone to know. In some cases, it’s actually better to be honest about the degree of opacity than to claim full “transparency,” especially when everyone is aware that it just doesn’t exist.
(2) Flexibility: In the social game arena, flexibility is one of the most important qualities for success. The requisite almost-daily “throw the pasta on wall and see what sticks” approach means that people can’t get too attached to a concept or idea if the group or the metrics don’t support it. When you’re not coming up with cool stuff for your game, you need to be fixing the stuff in your game that needs tweaking, figuring out what all those metrics really mean, playing other social games to see what Everyone Else is doing and oh yeah, trying to maintain a balance between work and the rest of your life.
(3) Responsibility: As a manager, you set an example for your team (you know, sort of like being the older sibling.) It doesn’t mean you should be autocratic or condescending. It does mean that you need to be fair, consistent, and aware. It also means that you favor delegation over micro-management, and that you know when it’s time to have fun, and when it’s time to knuckle down, dig in, and just get the work done.
(4) Accountability: This means doing what you say you’ll do, sharing the credit, and taking responsibility when it was your fault. Your team needs to be able to trust that you will act in their best interest and management needs to know that you will act in their best interest too. Hopefully, these two elements are not mutually exclusive; if they are, see “Integrity” below.
(5) Commitment: Being a great manager means that you’re always balancing your commitments to the company, your team, the product, and all the personal outside stuff. It’s great that you’re one of the hardest-working people at the company, but how do you display that? By working 24/7, putting work ahead of family, allowing management to make consistent and excessive demands on your team? Or worse, throwing your team under the bus rather than standing up for them and taking responsibility?
(6) Integrity: Being a manager isn’t about power, it’s about helping others achieve a group goal, in this case to build a successful game. It’s about being honest with yourself and admitting when you’re made a mistake. One of the toughest challenges you’ll have as a manager is to navigate between being part of the team AND a management representative.
You may not be comfortable with the way the company is asking you to handle various situations. There may even come a point where you can no longer compromise your integrity and you decide to leave the company. Under no circumstances should you encourage mutiny among the crew, and whatever you do, don’t leave your team to clean up your mess.
Leading the Charge
Different people respond to different types of goals; some prefer ambitious, challenging ones while others do better with smaller bites of the elephant. If possible, set both general and specific goals for your team that aim high but remain realistic. Encourage everyone to participate in setting personal as well as team goals. Part of your job as a manager is to provide some level of career mentoring, whether it’s formal or informal. Hopefully, your company realizes that offering identifiable career paths is a good way to retain employees.
Most people respond best to consistent, constructive and positive leadership. Without being annoyingly rah-rah, show confidence in the team’s ability to reach its targets and make each team member feel appreciated. Believe it or not, this doesn’t have to cost you a dime; “Thank you” has a great deal of positive power when said sincerely and at the right moment. Taking the opportunity to call out various accomplishments at all-hands meetings shows the team that you care and shows management that you’re on the right track.
Whatever you do, don’t promise the world and expect your team to deliver every time you feel pressure from management. It’s great if you can pull it off once but you don’t want management or the client to assume that they’ll get everything they want whenever they want it (especially the night before the deliverable is due!) Protecting your team is as important as helping them. And it should go without saying that you should never use the team as a scapegoat for your failure as a manager.
This isn’t the Middle Ages where serfs were expected to work the land and quietly accept whatever was (or wasn’t) given to them. Today we have unions and we have the internet where abuses are Tweeted, Twittered, Facebooked, LiveJournaled, and posted pretty much everywhere, instantly (and often by employees while they’re at work.)
Change affects everyone and people need a chance to react. Tell your team about changes as soon as you have enough detail to answer questions, and if you can’t provide the information, offer to report to the team as quickly as you can. Listen carefully to your team’s reactions – the more committed they are to the project and the more they feel that they have management support, the better able they will be to handle change, even if it’s negative.
Technological advances, new competitors, or simply new tastes in the market (like social games) may be seen as threats by more “traditional” companies, but even unwelcome changes can be a springboard for improvement and renewed motivation. As manager, it’s your job to analyze proposed changes objectively. How can drawbacks be offset or eliminated? How can positive aspects be exploited? Follow this analysis by brainstorming alternative courses of action with the team. Devise a flexible plan that offers the least disadvantage and the greatest opportunity for progress and financial success.
Although there’s a good chance that some team members who were there at the beginning might not be there at the end, start with the goal that everyone will be able to contribute throughout the project. Things happen. After the game has been green-lit, the guys who built prototypes on the fly for the big marketing pitch may decide to start their own blue sky prototyping company. The publisher may cancel your game and refuse to let you use the assets. Your job is to help your team deal with the changes and still keep working (assuming, of course, the project remains viable.)
Don’t paint a rosy picture if it’s just not true. Be honest and don’t let the team go down a road when you know the bridge has been washed out. Have faith in your team and give them a chance to offer suggestions about how to deal with negative situations. The ability to manage change is a critical skill that can make or break a team.
Does Anyone Know Anything?
With the current flood of social games being released almost daily, and the resounding success of a handful of companies, people are scrambling to figure out just how the competition is forging ahead so rapidly. Tweets and Twitters pop up all the time with catchy titles like, “The 10 Things You Need to Know about Social Games” or “How to Make Metrics Work for You.”
It’s popular to use phrases like, “Nobody really knows anything” or “Throw out all the old stuff” when talking about social games. When you scratch the surface of a hot FB game even slightly, however, you’ll see a stratified foundation (sort of like the cross-section of a geological formation) that shows a more or less logical progression of game development. While the platform and the concept of social games are new, in fact, a lot of what’s happening is really giving old models a facelift.
Be sure that someone on the team (who may or may not be you) monitors external changes that could affect the success of your efforts and your product. Whether that person comes from your company’s Marketing Department or is a consultant with an intimate knowledge of the industry from outside experience, the information has to be fresh and accurate, and delivered in a way that doesn’t create a false impression or worse, an atmosphere of paranoia.
Present the team with the data and give them a chance to discuss the latest trends (makes for a great “working lunch.”) Work together to figure out why something was successful and how those lessons can be applied to your product. Maintain a balance between metrics and game design. Marketing’s research is important but so are your game design and content. Success comes as a result of finding the “sweet spot” in the market, not just from copying whatever the most popular FB game has right now.
A side note here about your own experience: Odds are that you have been working in the video game industry longer than five years, although not necessarily at the managerial level. Hopefully you’ve learned the difference between your favorite games and what’s hot, and you’ve kept up with the latest trends in the industry. It’s particularly difficult for “old school” producers and managers to embrace the new social games model because it seems to go against what we remember from games with longer production cycles and bigger budgets.
It’s also possible that members of your team have more hands-on experience with social games than you do, at least in the beginning. As tempting as it is to dismiss social games as a trend, you may find yourself scrambling to explain to management why the game isn’t successful. Do your research (and harvest a crop or two) so that you understand how these games work.
We aren’t going to spend a lot of time discussing the applicability of agile development and lean management principles here but there is one important element of those philosophies that does factor into your success as a manager: how do you address things that didn’t work? This can be anything from an issue with the code to an item that didn’t work properly in the game space to a concept that failed to catch on and make money.
There is a level of anxiety across the board because competition in this market segment is so ferocious. No one wants to take the blame for a failure and most people are uncomfortable with the concept that if one group failed, the entire team failed. What’s important about a failure is how quickly you can fix what’s wrong and learn from the mistake. Hopefully you’ll stay in business long enough to make more mistakes (and have lots of successes too!)
Points to Remember
- Be flexible and fair
- Delegate whenever possible
- Treat your team with respect
- Stay current with industry and competitor trends
- Do what you can to help team members progress in their careers
- Keep everyone focused on the goal
- Remember to say “thank you”!