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Manifesto for a Game Development Studio (or any creative tech company)

Here are the founding principles of my next startup. It’s incomplete and imperfect, but for where I want to go … it’s a start. Incidentally, if you share them, and want to work with me, you should get in touch (adam.m.s.martin at gmail.com). I’m sure we can find a way to work together.

EDIT: if you’re interested in these ideas, have ideas of your own you want to discuss, or are just looking for other like-minded people … I’ve set up a Google Group for this at: http://groups.google.com/group/game-studio-manifesto

30 hour working week

  1. 4 days a week, 7.5 hours a day
  2. Salaries are 20% below the going rates; we aim to employ 20% more staff than usual for a given project size; cost is the same, output is the same (modulo an output-reduction/cost-increase due to increased overheads/inefficiencies for larger team size)
  3. everyone takes the same day off. I’m thinking Friday. Friday sound good? Let’s make it Friday. You know that if you’re in the office, so is everyone else (modulo normal holidays, off-sites, illness, etc).
  4. if we ever have to “crunch” and work unpaid overtime, I’m afraid we’ll all have to start coming in 5 days a week. I know, it’s tough.

Self ownership

  1. you own your work: no-one will chase you; informing people of your status, and of delays, is *your* job
  2. you own your project: everything works on Scrum (where the “team” owns the entire process – no producers, no project managers); NB: if you claim to “know Scrum” or be a Scrum Master, or “have used Scrum” and you don’t understand/believe this team ownership thing, here’s a big fat hint: YOU MISSED THE POINT
  3. you own the company: everyone has vested equity (not options) in the company

Mentors not managers

  1. increased organizational power is based on your ability to bring others up to your level. It’s based on your contributions to the other individuals. It’s not based on your organizational prowess
  2. if you cannot mentor, cannot explain complex/new things simply and clearly … you will not advance in the management chain (you should become a Domain Expert instead!)

Your value is what you are paid

  1. This is an implicit assumption in all salary negotiations and performance reviews.
  2. It will also be required to be *stated* explicitly in all negotations and reviews
  3. If your manager believes you’ve got better, they have to increase your pay
  4. If they do not increase your pay, they’re not allowed to give you a positive performance review
  5. There is no point in your career where “Becoming a Manager” is a requirement to get your salary any higher; the only benchmark is “can you further increase your usefulness to the company?”

You have a duty to become the best you can be

  1. Playing games, during company time, is an expected part of most jobs, since we are a “game development company” and you *need* to know what our competitors are doing
  2. Learning new skills, during company time, is an expected part of most jobs, since we’ll always be looking to make use of any “better” new technologies and tools that become available
  3. Not going on paid training courses, not increasing your understanding of our industry, allowing your personal skill progression to plateau … makes you sink behind what your peers in other companies are doing, people who would like your job. Get too far behind and we’ll give it to them. You owe it to yourself, as well as all the rest of us, to make sure YOU, as an individual, are constantly getting better, and learning new things
  4. The structure of the company is explicitly designed to support as many people as possible to become the best they can be. If in doubt, or in difficult situations where no alternative is “easy”, we will err on the side of helping people to improve themselves.

100% Organization-level transparency

  1. knowing what is happening in the organization is a right, not a priviledge
  2. knowing the reasoning behind organization decisions is a right, not a priviledge … from the reasons behind a marketing campaign being run the way it is, to the reasons for the product strategy, to the reasons that one particular tech is being used rather than another
  3. being informed of the progress of ongoing processes / issues is an expectation, not a priviledge … that means that people working on things are expected to proatively inform the rest of the company what they’re up to
  4. transparency overrides privacy (unless forced otherwise by explicit legal requirements)
  5. e.g. the salary someone earns is a personal and private matter – but the salary the company pays to each of its staff is not, and every member of the company has full free right to see that info. The company knows additional things – e.g. thanks to tax law, companies may know of other income their staff are receiving – but those are not part of the company, hence they are not part of the transparency

The buck stops with the directors

  1. any issue that necessarily has to be handled by an individual, that can’t be handled by the “team ownerships” etc, or e.g. is “sensitive” or a private personnel issue, WILL be handled by a named director instead
  2. no manager can accrete decision-making power, unless they are a company director
  3. e.g. if too much power is taken away from teams by directors, by accident or device, the directors will become overworked and will have obvious incentive to push decision power back to the teams

Google 20% time

  1. Problem: it’s either half a day, 12.5% time, or 1 day, 25% time. I’m not happy with either – one whole day makes things much easier mentally for the person to switch, but I’m afraid that converting it to 25% time and having people available only 3 days in every 7 would be too destructive?
  2. As per Google, this is not a right, it’s a priviledge
  3. all 15% time projects require sign-off by the person’s direct manager (with appeal to a director)
  4. all 15% time projects require monthly status presentations to show what’s been achieved, and the manager has to approve or deny continued work on the project

Team budgets – food; drink

  1. every project team has a weekly budget for food, and one for drink, and is expected to on average have one team lunch a week, and one team evening social (with free alcohol) per week

Healthy food; healthy environments

  1. the office will not have Cola vending machines, or ChocolateBar vending machines. *If* it has any vending machines, they’ll be majority subsidised – free, or practically free
  2. the office will have a surfeit of fresh fruit, renewed every day, starting at or before anyone gets into the office
  3. any meeting called before 11am will have some free small fresh food with substantial sugar content (for anyone who missed breakfast. Until they recharge their blood sugar, they’re probably cranky and irritable – and irrational – or simply silent and unthinking, like a robot, and make everyone else suffer because of it)
  4. choosing to hold meetings physically outside the office, e.g. in local cafes, and having the company pay for coffees and snacks, is a right, not a priviledge, for all employees

Remote working, and Online Working

  1. at any given time, we aim to have a substantial minority of staff working remotely / telecommuting, e.g. around 20%
  2. remote workers can expect slightly lower salaries than their full-time equivalents; the company gets more value out of people who are co-located – but it makes all of us work better to have a mix of co-local and remote colleagues, so we welcome the presence of remote workers
  3. all employees are required to be online and available *and reactive* on IM during all working hours
  4. all development systems and tools will support remote working by default (e.g. remote compilation, remote builds, remote deployment, remote access for all internal systems). This is one of the ways that having remote staff makes our overall operations better: better tested, more robust, more adaptable
  5. all employees will have their own password-protected SSH keys stored on a free USB key; all company systems will work on SSH key-based auth; all workstations will be configured to do single-sign-on using the individual’s SSH key – no passwords required

Guards against the unscrupulous

  1. all ownership is only part-vested, tied to time served AND ALSO personal performance targets. This will take substantial time to invent/negotiate on a per-person basis (I know, I’ve tried. Sometimes, I’ve given up on it, because it was so much effort. But … in the short and long term, its worth it)
  2. managers have more time to look for problematic individuals, as they’re freed of some of their normal duties in other companies
  3. teams, being self-owning, have the power and the incentive to reject any failing members. Over time, failing individuals will either change, find teams that do welcome them, or find themselves conspicuously under-employed, making them an easy target for management attention (this does not imply “firing”, it’s up to the management what action they take, but they clearly now have staff they’re paying for and getting nothing from)
  4. directors have a lot of burdens of responsibility under this system; they also have a lot more visibility into the company’s status than in a standard company, so more chance to fulfil their responsibilities
  5. most of the processes are designed to be self-healing/recovering when encounting unforseen problems: the teams and individuals that do the bulk of the actual *work* are self-owning, the managers whose roles are mostly shepherding are largely disempowered to break anything, any unusual problems fall into the laps of the Directors who already have total legal power to enact whatever is needed anyway, etc.

Next steps

Please help me debug this thing … add your own suggestions, or highlight the flaws in what I’ve written, or point to evidence both for and against the realities of what might work … etc, etc, etc.

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