A game dev studio made of Graduates

Someone emailed me recently to say he’s setting up a new game development studio, and that (for various reasons specific to his situation) the company will consist of around 90% recent university graduates. Without asking for details, I can make a pretty good guess that there’s government funding involved – I’ve previously seen grants aimed at game studios with similar constraints everywhere from the UK to Singapore. Probably this one is tied to a local University (that’s another classic government thing, especially in the EU: grants that have to go to “industry/academia equal partnerships”).

As he says, it’s an “interesting” challenge. Oh, yes. He invited me to blog about it (yes, I know – it’s a way of avoiding paying consultancy fees, but what the heck), so here’s some thoughts. At least this way I can record/archive some of what its like to be a recent Graduate before I get so old that I completely forget where they’re coming from.

(I’m not a recent grad, but I’m not yet old enough to have forgotten being one)

Where do you start?

In the past, I’ve seen people start with the management team. Then move on to the senior staff (hey, he’s got 10% of the company to play with), decide who’s needed, fit them to potential projects, etc. And finally – working with all of those people in place – finding and hiring all the Grads.

But … my first inclination would be to play to the strengths and weaknesses of the majority of your staff. In a brand-new startup with a team that don’t know each other the influence of each individual on the overall success/failure is disproportionately strong. Over time, as things become more settled, influence starts to becom proportional to seniority, experience, and knowledge. But not initially.

i.e. in this case the graduates.

Graduates

In my experience, graduates everywhere (including at least some parts of Asia, although I’ve mostly experienced Koreans not Chinese) are young, naive, eager, foolish, and fearless.

Specific universities mould their grads into having a very different set of characteristics, but assuming you’re picking bright, interested people, then those 5 are always present no matter where they schooled.

Personal Projects

They thrive on being given their own little projects that are their total responsibility. I think this is driven by two things, certainly in tech. Firstly, a fear of becoming the invisible cog in a giant machine that all adults have appeared to be to them, at a time when they’ve only recently found themselves and found their own uniqueness.

Secondly, I think most grads find University is the first time they start to experience personal responsbility, a move away from the family, no longer entirely dependent upon (and sheltered by) their parents. Some people become very independent during uni, others only just dip their toes in the water while there. In most countries, uni straddles the age of majority, and grads find themselves starting to be treated as adults by their society – one of the biggest parts of which is the expectation that they will take personal responsibility.

Clone Wars

I think a lot of people in this situation feel tempted to embark on a clone of a known game. The idea is that this will make up for the lack of experience by obviating the need for decisions on key game design and implementation issues: you don’t have to think, you just just play game X an extra time and “do whatever they did”.

That can work. As a recent example: so far as I can tell, it’s what a lot of the early F2P Chinese developers did – cloned Korean F2P games and just tweaked the “shallow” content (story, plot, theme, geographical location, etc – all the non-programmatic stuff). They’ve all done very well out of this.

However … as soon as market expectations ramp up, cloning becomes extremely difficult. You cannot afford to get “stuck” because you can’t figure out “how” the original game achieved something. With a team of veterans, you have an encyclopaedia of knowledge of techniques in their heads, and usually for each trick the original developer used at least one person on your time already knows that one. Where that doesn’t work, all your veterans each have a bag of tricks and hacks and band-aids that they can use to fudge it; nothing will slow them down for long.

(incidentally, China is probably well into the secand wave of MMO development by now, meaning that new studios there have no chance of doing the “clone + make lots of money” route; the developers that did that are now worth billions of dollars, and they’re already pushing the minimum quality bar up very, very high)

In the end, I think cloning is a bad fit for a bunch of grauates. If you get the timing just right, they’re a very cheap workforce to do it with, and they have too little self-esteem to object (see below). But at any other time, it plays on their weaknesses, and invalidates a lot of their strengths.

What graduates are good at

Grads are great for churning out large amounts of repetitive content. To them, everything still has a newness and freshness that makes even boring tasks interesting (up to a limit). This is partly why they get so “abused” by companies “eating them, chewing them up, and spitting them out”: they’re a cheap but skilled labour force. The mistake a lot of companies make is that grads are also smart enough that they see what’s happening. They’ll eat dirt for a while, having decided that it’s a fair exchange for the work experience and the knowledge they’ll gain both immediately and later.

I think a lot of companies are surprised that despite being more willing to eat dirt than other workers, grads also tend to rebel much sooner. In their minds, it’s a contract, and if the company doesn’t hold up its side of the bargain, they can easily go elsewhere and try again. Older workers have ties (families, fear of finding an equal new job, etc), but grads are both too young and too inexperienced to have picked those up; they can leave easily (or believe they can).

(IIRC South Korea has an interesting take on this: the grads can’t leave, by law, at least in the game development companies. Many of them are avoiding doing their National Service by working at a “critical industry” company instead – if they quit, they’d have to take up their NS place and run around in the freezing cold shooting at each other. Although it only buys the companies 2 years of immunity per grad, I’m sure that has been a huge boon to the SK tech industry)

Grads are also great at innovating, especially in stupid ways. They don’t have wisdom, so they don’t know that stuff won’t work, and will happily do it. Older/maturer grads start to develop suspicions that things might not work, and still charge ahead, but with some doubt; younger ones don’t even realise there’s a possibility of failure.

It’s a bit like an early hand-made gunpowder cannon. It can be a total disaster. And it can rarely be channelled, certainly it can’t be aimed with precision (by definition, the grads ignore the channelling efforts of their managers). But it can be pointed in vaguely the right direction…

Grads also don’t mind having their feel pulled out from under them so much. Upheaval and U-turns by management can give more senior staff cause for fear, especially those that have experienced incompetent management in the past. Where your management is strong, and gifted, and making a difficult decision to U-turn early in response to new realisations / better understanding of the situation, you can end up having to put a lot of work into allaying the fears of panicked workers. (of course, many good management teams underestimate the need for this, blindly expect their staff to trust them implicitly (ha!), and cause an even greater panic, and/or catalyse individuals into becoming the worst of themselves. Then they fire some of their best people, naively thinking they’re getting rid of the worst).

I’m not saying Grads enjoy this, just that they handle it much more easily (although some love it – it’s giving them *even more* of that all-important “real-life work experience” and the coveted “industry knowledge”).

Middle Management

A little story: when I was the CTO at one startup, the majority of our first fifteen or so employees were doing their first or second ever full time job. If I’d had the choice, I wouldn’t have done it that way. Not because of complaints about the people (people are great or terrible largely independent of their level of experience), but because the *collective* lack of experience made the overall team a lot less effective and a lot more fragile than it should have been.

(by the way, this story doesn’t reflect well on me :). I’m sharing it in the spirit of “let’s all try to avoid making mistakes like this in future, shall we?”)

One recurring issue was that the CEO would complain at length of the pointless waste-of-time crap his staff were getting upset about. He’d bemoan that these were tiny issues, that happened all the time, in all companies, and why were we obsessing over them so much? I objected greatly to this attitude w.r.t to our staff, that it was their fault and that they were weak and stupid to get upset – and that their distress was an irrelevance, and to be publically belittled and privately ignored. With hindsight I think that incited me to overreact on plenty of occasions, but … leaving aside the sentimental aspects, he had a good point.

This went on for many months, and at the time I could think of lots of things that could explain why these issues came up – and pointed to ways of solving or avoiding them – but the recurring thought was always: we wouldn’t even see these issues if more of our team had had more real-life working experience. I think we both agreed on that, too. In the darkest hours, he even muttered about considering firing the entire company and hiring an entirely new staff, of similar size, but of “better, more mature” people. If I remember correctly, we’d fallen way short of targets so he was under a lot of stress and just wanted all these organizational problems to “go away” so he could focus on the stuff he loved, the product design and the marketing.

I don’t think that company ever really managed to sort it out, at least not for several more years, just going by the quantity and quality of people that resigned or were “let go” (whether that means redundancies, firings, or whatever) over the years.

I had some vague ideas for solutions at the time – I could see that the problems were catalysed by the attitudes of the most senior people in the company, starting with the CEO, flowing through (and added to by) myself and the rest of the management team, and then down through everyone’s social and professional relationships to encompass the whole company. It was clear that even the best of people couldn’t always refrain from “putting the boot in” when crap flowed to them, making a bigger ball of crap for the next person along. It was subtle and pervasive – no one individual felt that he or she was responsible for what was happening, because their contribution was so small. But that’s the beauty of a team, isn’t it? The whole is more than the sum of the parts… In the end, I decided (amongst other things) that if we couldn’t reform from the very top down, we’d never be able to break out of the vicious cycle. I tried different ways to get the CEO to change, and tried to change myself, and worked hand in hand with some of the other C-level staff that felt similarly about the need for a top-down change, but I just wasn’t good enough to make it all stick. So in the end, I quit, just before the next funding round closed. Wherever the company was going to go with this new money, I no longer felt I could be part of it.

Over the years since, having seen other situations both earlier and later in companies’ and teams’ lifecycles, I’ve come to suspect that the solution might have been less diffcult than I’d thought. That all it needed was one simple thing: Respect. Easy to say, not so easy to visualize and enact, of course. In a company – a startup especially – that means: Complete transparency, Trust, Faith, and (this one was a killer at that particular startup) self-doubt whenever you find yourself disagreeing with your peers.

At that startup, I saw over and over again people with huge amounts of experience – in some cases decades’ worth – being laughed at and ignored by people with none. In the other direction, and no less forgivably, I saw people assume up front that their colleagues were “too stupid” to understand the task at hand and so go out of their way to hide the very existence of it from them. Plus plenty of other activities that ranged between those extremes. At the time, I objected to these things on a general professional level (and sometimes on a personal one); I even managed to fire someone who was a particularly strong offender – but I did it too late, and too slowly. What I didn’t fully appreciate, I think, is quite how *directly* critical it was to the overall wellbeing of the studio itself; I thought it was just one (particularly emotive) aspect amongst many.

And it was lead by the CEO. It got so bad that the management team ended up having two weekly meetings: one official one with all the C-level staff, and another, secret one preceding that one, with the same people – but without the CEO. It was an open secret. All the staff knew about it, except for the CEO, of course. It was a combination of damage limitation on our part, and playing him at his own game (he liked to play us all off against each other, whether deliberately or accidentally, drawing attention away from himself). So, we’d share critical info that we needed but he was refusing to disseminate. We’d prep each other so we could provide a united front on difficult company issues that we knew he’d try and twist into an emotional issue and wriggle out of, or belittle. We’d even occasionally select a fall-guy from among ourselves, someone to put up a strawman argument on new issues, because we’d found it was one of the most effective ways for him to accept suggestions and solutions that weren’t his idea: if he had the opportunity to first demonstrate his own authority by putting someone else down. I still don’t know if anyone ever told him about those meetings, although I’m sure someone must have sooner or later.

Obviously, there’s more, but that’s where this story ends. Any new company of Graduates is (I sincerely hope!) going to have a much more clued-up CEO. But, tempting as it may be to read the story and think it was all the CEO’s fault, it’s dumb to think that one man could control a whole company so completely: there was a collective problem as well. And IMHO it mostly came from the inexperience and insecurities and uncertainties of many of the staff. If so, then the tendency will be there for similar problems to develop, and fester, with any large body of inexperienced staff. The middle management for the new company need to read this story as a parable of an extreme situation they must never get anywhere close to (just to be clear: I’m not singling out non-managers as the problematic ones here – the senior management at that startup included people who were doing their first job too).

They need to not only rise above it (that’s enough to be effective as a company, but not enough to stop the rot setting in, as I think we found out) but also have to step in early and often to prevent bad habits and bad cycles forming. I think we were all too hopeful and happy in our jobs early on to feel enough fear and forsee how much “the little things” were in danger of snowballing; sure, we might have got lucky, it might not have happened – but the risk was big enough, and the outcome severe enough – that we should have snuffed it out right at the start.

That’s going to be a tough job. You have to act a lot more like parents and a lot less like colleagues some of the time. Again, with hindsight, I guess this makes a lot of sense – didn’t I just say at the start that recent Grads are still only half stepped away from their parents, or perhaps even less? Why should it be a surprise that they’re going to need more parent-like support than people in their thirties, forties, and fifties?

And, in contrast to the startup I described, I would hazard that I’ve seen at least one company where the most senior management were more than capable of it, but their middle management were not. It took longer for things to go wrong, it was a gentler slide, but a similar set of problems eventually engulfed them. So it’s going to be doubly hard for the guys running the show: it’s not just “can you do it?” but “can you be sure that the people who are reporting to you are themselves doing it, every day?”.

Projects

Go for the stuff that allows open-ended innovation, and large amounts of creative content. That’s what Grads are great for, in the abscence of anything else.

Make sure – above all – that you have a thriving “internal incubation” system, where everyone – and I mean “everyone” – gets to work on purely explorative internal game designs at least one month per quarter. Perhaps have 50% of your staff at any one time working on non-milestone-driven pre-production experimentation. Kidnap a Google software engineer and bribe them into telling you in detail exactly how the infamous 20% time works (and doesn’t) – don’t rely on the rumours – and work out how you too can afford to sacrifice so much of your time to apparently “pointless” work.

Because until you’ve got your company established, and some of your grads have found their natural places both professionally and within your specific company, you need to do everything you can to keep from killing their spirit and optimism. If you lose that, especially for a new company, you’re screwed. With such inexperienced staff you have very little else to stack the odds of success in your favour. You’ll produce unimaginative, weak games, and the way this industry works, everywhere, your first game is more important to your future than any other single game you do.

Wrap up

That’s enough free consultancy for now. I haven’t said anything about team leaders (lead coder, lead artist, art director, etc), nor about the mix of skills to look for in hiring the Grads themselves. But I think there’s more than enough meat in what I have said to keep you all going, and to give me new things to think about for the next few years.

2 Replies to “A game dev studio made of Graduates”

  1. I wanted to email this to you, but I couldn’t find your contact info(and I’m too lazy to sign into LinkeIN)

    Shouldn’t “on your time” be “on your team?

  2. I had the thought while reading this that a 90 percent grad team ‘could’ work. At the minimum it would require building the ten percent team well in advance. I’d say at least a year, if you where able to build a senior team that truly respected each other, then the respect of the new grads would follow, allowing you to let then do the grunt work and simultaneously explore the options that the old school wouldn’t think of. However building that core team would be a daunting task, and if you had the skill to do that, why are you in a position where you have to entrust ninety percent of your workforce to untried students?

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