The business book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank, and specifically the section on Company Building, sparked some thoughts related to the way game development teams seem to flounder as they move through the process of making a game the way businesses flounder as they grow larger.
For building a company, Steve Blank explains that successful companies tend to grow through three steps: a startup phase, where an autocratic visionary calls the shots and makes things happen fast, to an early growth stage, where a leader emerges who guides people through missions rather than orders, to a late stage, where the people in charge formalize procedures and manage through systems. The author mentions that companies led by people who can’t make the transition in their role tend to break down, and the same thing could be said both for game projects and studios as they grow.
Many times a director who experiences some success with a small team in the beginning by calling all of the shots to get things going and people pumped up about a project can’t seem to give up micromanaging even as the team grows, resulting in frustration, flagging motivation, and inefficiency. The easiest symptom of this problem to spot is the line at the director’s desk of people who need to confirm things to move forward because they know that if they make the decision on their own, it’ll only be overruled later. This gets even worse when the director can’t remain consistent, because then, not only is the line big, people have to keep returning to it every time a change is dictated from above.
The development teams that proceed smoothly tend to follow the same process as the businesses that grow from Steve Blank’s book: they start with a charismatic vision holder who gets the people with the wallets on board and narrows the focus of the project to a clear goal, then, as they grow large enough to get leads, the director leaves decisions to the leads, while influencing them indirectly through constant and consistent communication of the project mission, and finally, as the project’s goals are set and it’s just a matter of putting in the time, the director formalizes the process for getting things done and moves into more of an overseer role, where he or she is actively gathering data to find possible roadblocks, but lets things get done.
While no director is going to be perfectly suited for all three roles, directors who have managed to ease out of making every decision and who have avoided becoming complacent tend to come out better than the ones who can’t at least get those two parts right.
Giving up control is difficult. People with a strong vision tend to get an adrenalin rush from calling shots and making flash decisions, but once there are experts in place, the directors become one step removed from the problems those experts and their staff are dealing with. In other words, the director is usually going to make the wrong decision, so it’s better if they provide a direction and let the experts decide how to move in that direction – only stepping in to communicate when it feels as if the experts are moving in the wrong direction – for example, if a director’s vision is a survival-horror game and people are putting in unicorns and fairies because they’re hilarious (unless the unicorns eat brains and breathe fire or the fairies rip intestines out, they’re probably deviating from their mission).
The complacency issue is something that can strike directors who get the delegating decisions part right. Even when the project is going into full production, they swing too far the other way and leave everything to their leads, stop communicating their vision, and just become the lazy guy who smiles for magazine interviews and fiddles with their smart phone all day, leaving leads to fight it out and the project to go off the rails. Although keeping a project on the rails is often seen as a producer’s job, it’s important for a director to be aware of the overall schedule and have processes in place for making the tough decisions when they’re needed: Do we need more staff? Do we need to cut some features? Do we need to change the order we’re making things? Do we need to ask for more money or time? etc.
On a macro level, the same life cycle applies to game development studios (they are businesses, after all).
The independent studio with a few people can be more or less led by the employees arguing with each other, doing whatever they think is best, and shooting from the hip, but once a studio grows large enough to have employees who aren’t owners, they have to start considering how the projects they take on and the decisions they make affect the overall studio mission because the old independent atmosphere will instantly demotivate anyone coming in from the outside.
Just as a business with a leader who dictates by whimsy and force tends to break down as it grows, so too would a game development studio. Employees don’t feel invested in what they’re doing because, honestly, no one has taken the time to communicate what they’re doing. There’s no employee mission statement in place to provide a base for dialog, so it’s just one person’s opinion smacking against another’s, and the one with the fancier title tends to win, whether they’re right or wrong. Before dismissing mission statements as business school fluff, the mission statements mentioned by Steve Case in his book aren’t the usual vague, for-investors, feel-good nonsense, they’re very specific, and, rather than take power away from employees, they give them the power to fight back and do the right job, even when no one is looking. The example provided in Four Steps is for Cafe Press, and it answers very specific questions about: why their employees come to work; what they need to be doing with their day; how they will know if they’ve succeeded; and what revenue and profit goals they have. Without this plan, decision making reverts to a game of who can talk the loudest, and that’s only good for the person who is loud (at least until their studio goes under or someone slashes their tires).
When studios get too big to lead by mission and have to implement process, they would theoretically move into the third stage of business mentioned by Steve Case, but the model starts to break down there. The problem is in the nature of the product being created. For a business to survive in the third stage, it requires a mainstream, money-making product it can continue to innovate and iterate on, but games don’t really work that way for long. Sure, a studio can squeeze a few IIs and IIIs and Championship Editions out of a game, but at some point the studio has to invest in completely new ideas, and process tends to interfere with that. Process is usually about quality control, etc. when a company just becomes too big for a leader’s vision to filter down to every employee, but there’s no guarantees when it comes to a brand new product. The one exception might be if a studio can find a very dependable niche to be in, like, for example Telltale Games with adventure games, or Double Fine with its post-Brutal Legend small games strategy.
In the third stage, a studio that wants to continue growing is going to have to find an effective hybrid strategy that involves exploiting those IIs and IIIs to make money, while maintaining a startup mentality when it comes to individual projects, risking money on brand-new ideas, and, more importantly, investing in brand-new talent. Relying on directors who were around from the “good-old days” tends to create stagnation, and these directors aren’t always well-suited for coming up with new ideas in a market that was different from the one they were raised in. Unless they’re flexible superwomen and supermen, they’re going to rely on old models for how games should work and what sells or what people want, which means producing content unsuitable for current markets.
As mentioned in Four Steps, what was a good leader for one period of time may not continue to the best choice when circumstances change. On the micro level, replacing a director mid-project will ordinarily cause chaos and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary (having someone above the director who can guide them into who they need to be is a better solution), but on a macro level, a studio is too important to too many stakeholders (employees, shareholders, etc.) that making the change when it needs to be made could be the key to survival.