Culture, Reputation, and Running a Game Studio

What’s the biggest single challenge to a Studio Director? Or to the VP of Development / Studios who oversees a handful of publisher-owned studios?

Recruitment

In the games industry there are no raw materials of variable quality, there is no variety of base services to build upon; everything that distinguishes one company (and set of products) from another comes solely from the people they hire.

In the games industry there are no raw materials to pay for, there are no service charges. There are only salaries and employee-support costs.

Recruitment is where the studio heads find their hardest problems, and see their biggest successes/failures as the studio grows in size. Eventually, all their own experience and ability at design, marketing, sales, programming, art, etc become subsumed by their ability to attract, recruit, retain, lead, and motivate their people.

Recession

…is the best thing for new game studios to happen in the past 5 years. It’s achieved four things:

  1. Removed lots and lots of people from their comfortable jobs, by force
  2. …simultaneously…
  3. …indiscriminately w.r.t. quality of personnel…
  4. …and made even the supposedly “secure” games companies (EA, Microsoft, Sony) suddenly look as fragile and short-term as the riskiest of startups

The VCs have been blogging about the benefits to startups wrought by this recession, and I’ve put it to a couple of them now that, for the game industry, this one – recruitment – is the biggest by far, and each time met with straight agreement. Our industry is very like Management Consultancy: it’s driven by the people. Nothing else matters.

Culture

I’ve worked with a lot of experienced managers who’ve been adamant that “no-one leaves their job because of (too little) salary”. Also with slightly fewer who were convinced that “no-one accepts a job based on salary” (more often, that was rephrased with a rider to be: “no-one good accepts a job based on salary alone“).

In that case, why do people accept / leave a job?

“Culture” is the catch-all term that describes not just the direct environment which people experience each day in the office, but also the emotional and psychological experiences that they go through while there.

It describes how their colleagues think and act – and how those actions effect the individual. But it also describes how the “teams” within the organization think and act, which can often be very different from the people within them. You often see teams of smart people “acting dumb”, or teams of nice people act like assholes when taken collectively. Group think is powerful, very powerful.

But it’s hard, very hard, to really see the culture of a company until you’ve worked there for a couple of years, and in a couple of different divisions, and perhaps a dozen different departments. Which is not an option for most of us. You can work somewhere for just a few months and pick up the culture if you know what you’re doing and really work at it – but even that requires skill and dedication, and can only be done AFTER accepting a job offer.

(this is one of the reasons I posted my Manifesto for a Game Studio online – you can get a strong taste of the culture of my next startup, and decide if you want to work with us, without having to sacrifice a year of working there first)

Reputation

Game industry staff often worry about reputation. The companies (as represented by the senior management) themselves often don’t.

The former care how their organization is perceived, and assume everyone else does too. They assume that a “better reputation” will lead to “more sales”.

The latter have access to the actual sales figures, and have convinced themselves that this is a nice idea but simply not borne out by fact (in some cases this is true, in some it isn’t – but it’s much easier to look at the figures on paper and believe it’s true than to see the flaws in that logic).

But the truth is that it IS important, very important. It’s the external reflection of the internal culture. As such, it’s what most people use to make a decision about whether they want to work there.

Obviously, it varies. The older and more experienced you are, the more you come to use a company’s reputation as a barometer of its culture – and the more heavily you weight this in your decision about accepting a job. The younger, more ignorant staff generally haven’t been burnt by terrible culture, or haven’t yet learned what to look for / avoid in their next employer.

Back to the issue of Recruitment: the biggest successes/failures are going to be from the more experienced people you hire (and, remember – hiring a “bad” person into a senior position is not just a loss, it can easily cause negative productivity, by screwing up lots of other staff who were doing their jobs better before that person arrived and started interfering / roadblocking them / etc).

So … you probably should care about your reputation, somewhat in proportion to the size of your company.

Blizzard

Pre-WoW, Blizzard had an exceptional reputation, for a handful of common reasons (amongst others):

  1. Never shipped a game that wasn’t really good fun
  2. Frequently invented + defined large sub-genres with their games (Warcraft was one of the first RTS’s, Starcraft created the “truly strategic” RTS genre, Diablo re-invented the hack-and-slash RPG, etc)
  3. Publicly talked about “finishing” their games, and then deliberately deciding to spend another whole year (or similar) working on them before shipping, to make sure they were really polished
  4. All of their games were best-sellers – i.e. they didn’t just make cool stuff, they made cool stuff that the market appreciated and paid for, too

Now, I’m not so sure. If a recruiter called me tomorrow with an “amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to work at Blizzard, my first reaction would be hesitation: would I really want to work at the place that Blizzard has become?

While people have queued up to defend them, the history of their actions against Glider, and now this absurd crackdown on World of Warcraft add-on authors, have left me with a sour taste in the mouth.

In my opinion, using the law to beat over the head people who discover flaws in your basic business model / acumen is the last refuge of those who recognize their own incompetence but would rather not go to the effort of raising their own quality bar. Blizzard seems to be making a habit of it. That’s not encouraging. Ten million paying players for one MMO is great, but … the sales figures of their games were only ONE of those bullets I cited above about Blizzard’s reputation traditionally. Money buys a lot of forgiveness, but not infinitely so.

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