In the seventh and last of his GDC 2015 takeaways, Eric summarizes a talk that might come in handy for anyone in a management position, whether in a big studio or at an indie developer: Game Studio Management: Making it Great!
This was one of those talks where I waffled about going right up to the door. After all, I don’t have anyone to manage yet, and, given the choice, shouldn’t I be attending talks on game design?
But the business side of game development is where I’m missing experience, so I decided to do what I could to shore that up and seized the opportunity to see how a game studio should be run from someone who has the job of doing it. That someone was Jesse Schell (Schell Games), and in his talk he focused on how important encouraging communication is to making a studio better.
He started by describing the categories of information that flow through a business: Facts, Opinions, and Emotions, which are about Projects, Processes, and People.
Facts and opinions are obvious, but what is emotional information? Is it just information that Bob is sad, Dotty is happy, and Steve is, well, Steve? Sure, it includes that, but it’s also information that provides clues to hidden problems.
Bob, for example, might know that Steve’s decision to implement procedural level generation two weeks before mastering up is a horrible idea, but Bob can’t express it because Steve is the boss, or because Steve is a jerk (Sorry, Steve). He will, however, express it to the colleagues he is close with. He will also unintentionally express it to Steve in that 40 milliseconds it takes for a microexpression to betray a person’s thoughts before the mask goes up.
These microexpressions are one reason Jesse stressed the importance of face-to-face communication, as even Skype doesn’t quite have the fidelity required to pick these up, even though we often process them subconsciously. (They’re sometimes the cause of that can’t-put-my-finger-on-it-but-I-don’t-like-this-guy sensation.) And the farther a form of communication moves away from face-to-face, the less emotional information gets conveyed. Face-to-face > Skype > Phone > Email as anyone who has misinterpreted someone’s emotional state (or been misinterpreted) in an email can attest.
And those discussions with colleagues about what’s really going wrong are an important clue to discovering problems that never reach management through the usual hierarchies, which are fact and opinion focused. If a company has the kind of culture that encourages open and honest communication, that valuable information actually has a chance of reaching management.
In game development, there are typically two ways to divide up an organization into a hierarchy. The one that’s most visible to the outside world is the development team, where a producer and director sit on top of leads, who sit on top of specialists (who sit on top of uncomfortable chairs). The other division, the one the credits rolling at the end of a game don’t make clear is the functional team: the technology division, the art division, etc. Organizations that are large and can afford the added layer of middle management tend to have both (Matrix Management). But neither reporting line is very effective at capturing emotional information; only secure and positive relationships can do that.
You can’t confide in your boss that you’re stressed out because they might see it as a sign of weakness, and it could affect your next performance review, but you might confide in Dotty from another division, whose only interest is in making sure you stay sane so you can go out for sushi once in a while. She might, however, have a connection she can use to convey the information to the boss that you couldn’t. Information held close to the chest by one person isn’t likely to reach higher ears; the more people who have it, the more likely it is to flow to the right places: the people who can act on it.
Jesse advised studio managers to find ways to encourage those positive relationships and get the information flowing. For a specific example from his own studio, he mentioned holding a game jam, where everyone puts down what they’re doing for a week to work on something new with each other. He also gave an interesting example about an out-of-date coffee pot and its ability to gather a crowd in the office, along with the communication loss that resulted when they replaced it with a more modern version.
Although encouraging positive relationships is difficult, the truth is simple: if people are more comfortable with each other, information flows. I mentioned this in the first GDC takeaway, but Jesse referenced research on Collective Intelligence by Dr. Anita Woolley that showed the effective intelligence of a group is not a factor of the members’ individual intelligences, but their ability to share and communicate.
If you’ve been in a group that has a self-designated leader who dominates the conversation, you know how low a group’s IQ can dip when one person runs the show. And if you’re someone who always feels like you’re the one stepping up to put everyone on the right track, hint: you’re probably the cause of your group’s low IQ, and likely the reason you’re off track in the first place.
Most organizations choose to officially designate people whose jobs it is to lower the group IQ. In fancy business terms, they’re called “bosses.” So why pick on bosses? Putting everyone on track is their job, right? The problem comes with costly meddling, and Jesse explained why bosses are incentivized to meddle:
Boss meddles + Successful result = “My meddling worked!”
Boss meddles + Unsuccessful result = “I did all I could!”
Boss doesn’t meddle + Successful result = “I’m worthless!”
Boss doesn’t meddle + Unsuccessful result = “I should’ve meddled!”
There are no combinations where the boss is motivated to keep their hands off the project, even if meddling causes problems. Good bosses manage to avoid the temptation to meddle by giving their employees great power to go with their great responsibility, but bad bosses can’t give up that power for fear that their employees might screw up. Fair enough – the boss is the one who takes the blame in the “doesn’t meddle” + “unsuccessful result” scenario, but meddling behavior is not good for a studio.
Jesse listed a few common issues that block the flow of information (emotional and otherwise), of which meddling fits into #3: Noise. Here’s his list:
The trouble it takes to pass along information
People not having information in the first place
Distractions that disrupt the flow of information
4) Mental ruts
Being closed to new information
Being afraid to pass along information
Besides meddling, noise also includes interruptions, stress, false information (lies), and, of course, physical noise.
To foster positive relationships, Jesse warned studios to be very careful in who they hire because one wrong employee is enough to trigger a negative chain reaction. Remember the example above with the self-appointed “leader” lowering the group’s IQ? That could happen to your entire studio if you hire the wrong person: a jerk.
He found that, when a company is given a choice between a competent jerk and a lovable fool, the successful company is the one that chooses the lovable fool. A lovable fool, by virtue of being lovable, manages to build positive relationships with other employees, and those relationships improve the flow of communication. However, the competent jerk, like any jerk, impedes communication. Jesse then proceeded to divide jerks into categories, according to how they impede communication. See if you recognize anyone:
1) Inaccessible Jerk
Doesn’t spread information
2) Unreliable Jerk
Gives untrustworthy information
3) Rigid Jerk
4) Disrespectful Jerk
Spreads bad information
5) Vague Jerk
Spreads weak information
6) Unfair Jerk
The reason Jesse listed out the jerks and made sure we all had someone in mind during the talk was to help emphasize the value of hiring and fostering likeable people for opening communication blocks and improving a studio. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working with one of the six, you understand how toxic they can be to a workplace, so don’t hire them, even if they’re a superstar, because they’ll drag down the rest of the team.
Although I wasn’t sure what I would get out of the talk before going into it, Game Studio Management: Making it Great! turned out to be the talk where I took the most notes, and the information about collective intelligence came along at just the right time following the Game Design Workshop to help cement the awareness of what makes an effective group.
I hope you were able to get something out of these GDC takeaway posts. If this is your first one, and you want to read more, the other six are:
Takeaway I: Game Design Workshop
Takeaway II: Rules of the Game: Five Tricks of Highly Effective Game Designers
Takeaway III: Game Design Case Studies
Takeaway IV: Shaping Online Behavior
Takeaway V: Finishing Games, Efficiency and Polish
Takeaway VI: Going Indie
Takeaway VII: Studio Management and Emotional Information