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.

9 thoughts on “Culture, Reputation, and Running a Game Studio

  1. CaesarsGhost

    I know somebody who worked at Bliz pre-WoW… he still converses with many former colleagues who stayed. He will honestly tell you that things at Blizzard are not now, what they were, Pre-WoW.

    That’s what happens when companies get larger though. They gain critical success and become more and more corporate. Blizzard did it, just as Google did.

  2. adam Post author

    To a certain extent, yes. But then again … nothing is inevitable. You *can* reduce or prevent this stuff from happening. You may not like some of what it costs you to do so, but it’s possible.

    A great example is Microsoft. When Microsoft started growing large (a long time ago) it was widely expectd that they – a giant-killer – would soon be killed themselves by a young upstart. But they did a very good job of doing everything they could to avoid that fate. You cite Google, but again Google grew faster and larger than any other tech company had without imploding, *and* managed to retain much of what made it great / attracted people to it for a very long time. Sure, it started cracking a while back, but it made it a lot further than most people would have predicted, I believe, helped not-a-little by things such as its infamous company motto.

    On the whole, most companies do very little to try and get this right / stop the rot from happening, and they suffer for it sooner or later. For instance, ook at how hard EA finds it to recruit good people despite it’s size and allure.

    Ignore culture at your peril :).

  3. Harald

    Could you elaborate on your dislike of Blizzard’s policy on paid addons? It seems to me that their actions are fairly reasonable.

  4. adam Post author

    @Harald

    “1) Add-ons must be free of charge.”
    “4) Add-ons may not include advertisements.”
    “5) Add-ons may not solicit donations.”

    How dare they? They’ll ride off the back of other people’s work, but demand that no-one makes money out of it (as if Blizzard weren’t making enough money already). This is philosophically similar to the Glider case where Blizzard argued that they couldn’t afford to design their games to satisfy the market (!), but other people were intelligent enough to fix the flaws in Blizzard’s product, and they (Blizzard) were jealous of the money available that way … but even then still “couldn’t afford” to just follow suit, without going out of business (!!) … so they chose to resort to legal threats instead. (kind of hard to believe their claims of not being able to afford this stuff, really).

    They don’t own the add-ons, and they don’t own the developers of them. The arguments about “blah blah it’s their game they can do what they want” are specious. Yes, they can do what they want. But equally, so can everyone else. If you chose to “open up” your product platform, you should abide by that decision, not try to retroactively close it down. Certainly, you can’t just go around dictating what everyone else does with software OUTSIDE your product that happens to interface with it via the interface you provided. Generally speaking, if you support companies to legislate against every derivative product/business, then that way lies the death of innovation, entrepreneurship, and product development. EVERY software product relies upon some other.

    Ultimately, legally, it’s very hard to see what leg Blizzard has to stand on here. Except for the court case they won against Glider on terms that most people seem to agree were outrageous and Blizzard *should not* have won (although there may have been other fair ways to win that particular case), I’d have thought they’d have a hard time. Of course, I expect they have a legal team the size of a small country, and until/unless an equally strong legal challenge is mounted, that case now exists as precedent. Ugh.

    (recap: Blizzard got them by claiming they were pirating WoW each time someone ran the 3rd party app, because “running software you own, on your own computer, is software piracy, if you run it in a way that we – the authors – don’t like”. I hate it because it seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what a “computer” is, and what copyright is. Obvioulsy, I am not a lawyer, so I may well have misinterpreted the specific legal basis here, but I’ve not yet found a different interpretation reported anywhere).

    So … YMMV, but … for me this is “Blizzard, STRIKE TWO!”.

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  6. Andrew Crystall

    Oh there is a differentiating factor, Adam: Tools. Most game industry tools are, from a designer’s perspecive, not so very good. I’m a big advocate of visual scripting and the very rapid iteration it allows because I’ve seen how it works (and it’s drawbacks too, certainly) first hand.

    The games industry is still in the dark ages as far as that’s concerned, and to be honest there’s a pretty big gap in the market for a company which can provide a deacent interface for designers…

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  8. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Adam wrote:
    If you chose to “open up” your product platform, you should abide by that decision, not try to retroactively close it down.

    I don’t agree that’s what they’re doing, but I’ll address this statement at face value.

    I absolutely disagree. To me, the ability to control the game is paramount for a developer. Another way to look at this is by comparing it to harassment. The problem with someone spouting offensive things to someone isn’t that they’re being offensive, but that they’re making other customer(s) uncomfortable. Better to handle the situation and potentially chase off one “bad apple” rather than risk that person chasing off many others.

    I personally believe the reason why these rules are coming about is because it will end up costing Blizzard more money directly in customer service costs. Let’s say I download an ad-supported addon. During a raid, I click on the ad instead of a target to heal, and a site loads up obscuring my view of the play field. The raid wipes and everyone complains. If I’m the average player, who am I going to complain to? If that answer is “Blizzard” in some of the cases, then they are going to have to spend money to take care of what is someone else’s problem. And, most people who are not quick enough to blame the addon developer aren’t going to be happy with Blizzard trying to “pass the buck” or disable their useful addon.

    You also have the issue that if Blizzard later incorporates the addon into the base UI, you have some ugly business issues to deal with. I used to use the Cosmos UI system. I don’t anymore because most of the UI functionality was added to the core game. If you build a business around a plugin, like a quest helper, then Blizzard decides to add that into the core game, where does that leave you? Yeah, sure, it’s easy to say “You’re S.O.L.” but that creates hard feelings and perhaps incites someone to get litigious here in the U.S.

    That said, I think they did go a bit too far. No soliciting for donations, even? That seems over-reaching. But, it’s probably easier to just say that than to try to set down a bunch of rules for where and when you can ask for donations and then monitor that.

    In the end, it is Blizzard’s game. If people don’t like it, then can try to convince Blizzard otherwise or vote with their wallets and go play some other game.

    My thoughts.

  9. adam Post author

    @ Brian

    “I personally believe the reason why these rules are coming about is because it will end up costing Blizzard more money directly in customer service costs.”

    Sure. But then, that’s the flipside of the money they saved by doing a lot less prototyping, design, and development – and the additional subscribers they’ve earned – compared to if they’d not had plugins. It would be more rational to say “no more plugins. Ever”.

    (and hey, that might be what’s really going on: they’re intending to remove *all* plugins, but felt that would be too much of a PR disaster all in one go, and they couldn’t replace them overnight anyway, so … kill them off slowly, to the point that when they finally pull the plug there are no plugin authors let to complain, and to give themselves time to replace them all while the flow of “new” plugins dries up because of the punitive threats of legal action)

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