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IGDA Interview Series: Keith Fuller

Posted By Jillian Mood, Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Updated: Sunday, November 1, 2015

An integral part of the IGDA Leadership Summit this year was the support from Keith Fuller, who is one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable employee engagement consultants in the industry. He gave an incredible 3-hour workshop at the LS and will also be presenting at the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS), which is quickly approaching. He was also a natural choice for our second interview.

 


 

Jillian Mood, IGDA: First, I wanted to say how amazing it was to meeting you at the Leadership Summit! Could you explain what your role was at the event and how you found the whole experience?

Keith Fuller, Fuller Game Production: It was a pleasure meeting you, too!

I was approached many months ago by a few different leaders within the IGDA. They told me a new event was being planned as a successor to my all-time favorite industry conference, the IGDA Leadership Forum. Would I be willing to help organize it?

With nary a concern about the time requirements involved, I gave an unequivocal yes. For the next several months I had the pleasure of working with folks like Kate Edwards, Tom Buscaglia, and Tristin Hightower in finding the best and most diverse cast of proven industry luminaries to participate as speakers and panelists. Start to finish, it was immensely satisfying for me for two main reasons, the first being it was a hugely successful event! The sessions were exactly what I was hoping for in terms of breadth, depth, and concrete takeaways, and many people told me afterward they look forward to attending again next year.

The second reason I found the event fulfilling is that I got to meet many Facebook/Twitter/email friends in person for the first time. I got hugs from fabulous speakers and industry legends the likes of Jen Maclean and John Vechey! I mean, come ON.

JM: What inspired you to start your own consulting business?

KF: I worked as a AAA studio developer for 11 years at Raven Software, shipping a dozen titles across multiple platforms. As a producer on titles like Call of Duty, I treasure the time I spent with enormously talented teams. However, I also experienced more than my share of dysfunctional leadership. After being laid off, I wanted to see what I could do to fix the sort of leadership problems that had plagued me and my teammates for so many years. Encouraged by others who had gone before — friends and mentors like Sheri Rubin, Clinton Keith, and Adrian Crook — I struck out as a consultant. This venture has been personally fulfilling to an extent that few ever get to experience, and incredibly challenging. Supporting a family of five with an entirely unpredictable income in an industry populated with leaders who predominately think they have no need to improve — well, it wasn't the most financially sound move, shall we say. I hope to never go back to living on food stamps, but I'm also very appreciate of the freedom and fulfillment I've experienced over the past five years.

JM: Out of all the industries, why the video game industry?

KF: It sounds — corny? cliche? — but these are my people. My first paid gig out of university was as a programmer at a game company. I've spent almost 20 years in the industry. Game developers are fun. We make products that entertain men, women, and children all over the world. Why would I focus anywhere else?

OK, I'll answer that one myself: I'd focus elsewhere because trying to get people to recognize a need for leadership improvement in games is the *opposite* of lucrative. But for me that doesn't outweigh all of the pros listed above.

JM: When a studio has reached out for your expertise, what are your first steps to help improve the culture?

KF: Every gig is different. Actually, out of all the clients I've had over the past five years, less than half approached me. Usually, I have to reach out to them, offering initial free examinations or really lightweight services as an effort to start a relationship and establish trust.

To actually improve a culture you need leaders on-board. I define culture as "the set of decisions that employees make automatically because they see leaders doing it every day". Ergo, if you want to modify the culture you need to modify the actions of the leaders. A telling first step is to ask the CEO, et al, "What are the values of your company?" If they can't tell you straightaway in clear terms, or if they don't have them explicitly written down somewhere, it's evident there isn't a well understood set of priorities driving decision making. So that's pretty much step zero.

JM: In the game studios you've worked with, what do you believe to be the top three areas that needed the most attention?

KF: Possibly the most common problem we have in the industry is our believe that being a really good contributor means you're automatically qualified to be a leader of contributors. Great programmer? Let's promote you to lead programmer. No training or mentoring needed, because clearly you have amazing leadership ability. Actually, the skill sets of contributor and leader have only the tiniest overlap, so if you don't train a new leader then the only education they get is from watching other leaders in the company — all of whom are also untrained. It's a downward spiral of inbreeding leadership incompetence.

Second, I would provide this analogy. Would you buy a car and spend every last dollar of your monthly income on the car payments, without setting aside any money for fuel, oil changes, and maintenance? Well that's exactly what we do with our leaders. Every hour of every day they spend keeping plates spinning, with no time left for developing the team members for whom they're responsible.

Lastly, I'll share the single most common response I get when I tell people that I help improve leadership. "Man, that's GREAT, Keith! Our industry really needs that! It's a rampant issue! Our studio's fine, mind you, but the rest of the industry? Totally dysfunctional! Best of luck!" I'd simply advise studio leaders to consider, for just a moment, that there is a chance — infinitesimal, astronomically improbable though it may be — that their own fecal matter might emit a slight aroma.

JM: What advice would you give to job seekers to help verify the company they are interviewing with has a great culture that they would fit in with?

KF: Man, is that a good question. I have students ask me that frequently, too. "If all of this 'values' stuff is so important, Keith, how do you expect us to know which company is worth our time?" And I think that response is the best place to start: realizing that it's not just a matter of getting your foot in the door or landing your first gig. You need to approach it with the knowledge that you are inherently valuable. As a person. And that means it's not OK to blindly put up with an environment that makes you uncomfortable or devalues you in any way. The best insight you'll get before working somewhere will come from people who've been employed there, so networking and joining communities ahead of time is a great move. That's how you can learn about the company. But it's also important to learn about yourself. What are the three things you most want to achieve? What are the three values most important to you? What are three things you will never, ever do for a company? If you approach a job hunt with even those questions answered you're already better equipped than most to make a cultural assessment.

JM: Final piece of advice, what is the one thing you would advise the leaders of game studios to do differently?

KF: Require everyone to have regular, frequent one-on-one's with the people for whom they're responsible. The single most important factor in employee retention and in the worker's own fulfillment in the workplace is their relationship with their boss. Make sure they have one.

JM: You had a very inspirational workshop at the Leadership Summit!

KF: In a stunning turn of events, I'll be talking about the importance of values [at MIGS]! Also, a primer on emotional intelligence, motivation of teams, and three tiers of feedback. I plan to tackle this all in a slightly unconference-like way, though, in that I'm giving the attendees an opportunity to upvote the topics they'd most like to explore. We'll do what they say is most important first, which I hope will increase the value they derive from the class and make the most of our time. Also, free hugs.

JM: Thank you Keith for sharing!

 


 

Upcoming interview: Allison Stroll, a senior PM at Microsoft Core graphics. Allison has experienced the industry boom and bust, shift from arcade to console, become a "real" entertainment source as Hollywood took notice, shift from PC gaming to console gaming and back to PC again. Get ready for an deeply insightful account of her experience in the industry!

 

Join the interview series!

If you would like to send a proposal on a subject you would like to hear about, be interviewed yourself, or nominate someone, we’d love to hear from you! Send thoughts to Jillian -AT- IGDA -DOT- org.

Tags:  2015  Adrian Cook  Call of Duty  Clinton Keith  fuller game production  igda leadership forum  IGDA Leadership Summit  interview  Jen Maclean  jillian mood  John Vechey  kate edwards  keith fuller  migs  montreal international game summit  Raven Software  Sheri Rubin  tom buscaglia  Tristin Hightower 

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IGDA Interview Series!

Posted By Jillian Mood, Saturday, October 17, 2015

Hello IGDA Community!

This is my first posting which I am excited about! I will aim to get exciting news posted on here frequently. I wanted to share news on the Interview series, if you didn’t check it out in the newsletter this past week here it is below! I am planning out the schedule and awesome people’s stories and advice to share, if you would like to propose a topic or nominate someone for the series reach out to me anytime at Jillian -AT- IGDA -DOT- org!

 

IGDA Interview Series: Ben Kane - 14 October 2015

We are thrilled the first interview in the series is starting with a fantastic indie success story!

Ben Kane is a independent "jack-of-most-trades" game developer and co-founder of Steel Crate Games. Ben is known for creating minor hit "DLC Quest" and more recently for his work co-creating the virtual reality bomb-defusing game "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes". Ben is a software engineer by training but has balanced all aspects of running an independent business for the past five years, sharing much of that experience in a year-long series on YouTube called Indie Chatter. These days, Ben is focused on wrapping up development on "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes" and keeping up with the wild ride of virtual reality technology.

I recommend watching this video first to check out this intensely suspenseful game!

And now, onto the interview...

 


 

Jillian Mood, IGDA: Hello Ben!

Keep Talking and Nobody ExplodesFirst, I want to congratulation you on your success with your career and the recent explosion (excuse the pun) of interest and industry attention with "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes"!

Ben Kane, Steel Crate Games: Thank you!

JM: You have had such an interesting career path, could you describe how it led you to co-founding Steel Crate Games?

BK: I've been a game developer for a little over six years now. I cut my teeth in the AAA industry with Electronic Arts before throwing caution to the wind and becoming a full-time, solo game developer. There were a few years of learning the ropes as an "indie" but I eventually hit my stride with a game called "DLC Quest". I had intended on sticking with my own solo projects, so starting up Steel Crate Games was never something I had considered. When our team came up with the idea for Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes at the Global Game Jam however, it seemed like the logical choice was to drop everything else and see how far we could run with it. That turned out to be a pretty significant event in my career path to say the least.

JM: It's so exciting that KTANE came from the Global Game Jam in Ottawa! What was the game jam theme and describe the brainstorming process leading to developing a game about defusing a bomb in VR?

BK: The theme of the jam was, "We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are." It was a difficult one to wrap our heads around. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were going to make a virtual reality game. At the jam, we had other developers come up to us and ask to try out the VR headsets we had brought with us. We obliged, and pretty soon there was a crowd of people watching one person wearing a headset, looking around on a virtual roller coaster that only they could see. We looked at the absurdity of the scene and decided to make a game where all of the passive onlookers could instead be involved in the same game as the person in VR. From there, it was just a case of coming up with a scenario where different views, different sets of information, could be fun. Bomb defusing seemed like a simple enough thing to tackle in the 48 hour jam.

JM: Tell us about the fantastic team working with you. What is the team dynamic like? What are you plans for the studio's future and will you stay focused on VR?

BK: The core team is made up of Brian Fetter, Allen Pestaluky, and myself (with fantastic music and art provided by Liam Sauve and Chris Taylor respectively). The three of us are all programmers, so it's not an ideal spread of skills, but we managed to identify our weaknesses and find help to fill those gaps. Functionally, we're all pretty good at splitting up the work and maintaining an even allocation of responsibility. If we had a hierarchy, it would be totally flat. Our studio's future is a conversation we'll be having over the coming weeks. For a while now, it's all been about preparing for Keep Talking's launch. Now that it's out the door and being well received, any plans we had might need to be revised a bit. We certainly have lots of hopes and ideas for VR, but Keep Talking might occupy a bit more of our time yet.

JM: There is so much attention and press on VR now in the industry. Do you see it continue to grow rapidly?

BK: Virtual Reality is fantastic tech with some never-before-seen-experiences and some very hefty barriers to entry to go along with it. Much of the hype right now is around the potential of VR and while we've seen a lot of promise, it's getting close to the point where VR will need to deliver more than just demos. It's exciting to know that they're just around the corner. I just hope that expectations haven't become, pardon the term, unrealistic.

JM: Congratulations on speaking at the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS) in November. Your talk title looks very interesting "Making a game nobody can play for a market that doesn't exist (yet): Lessons from Virtual Reality."

What do you think the audience will learn from your session and what do you hope to convey to keen developers?

BK: It's been a fascinating and challenging ride over the past year and half trying to develop a virtual reality game. I hope to be able to share some of what we learned making a VR game when nobody knows how to properly use VR yet, and how we demoed it to an audience that has wildly varying expectations of the technology. Hopefully it'll be an inspirational talk about how we managed to stay afloat during the early days of virtual reality gaming.

JM: You've successfully started a studio and created a game for a market that doesn't exist. Do you have any advice for indie developers looking to start their own studio for a market that clearly now exists?

BK: Staying flexible has been key to our development. Our initial schedule, and even some plans for launching on VR hardware, are laughable now in retrospect but we made them with the best information we had at the time. Try to be aware of anything you are completely banking on, and then ask yourself what you would do if that aspect suddenly didn't work out the way you need it to.

JM: Lastly, you were married last month, so congratulations! Do you and your wife play video games together?

BK: Thank you! We're actually still working our way through New Super Mario Bros. on Wii, so we've got a bit of a backlog. We tend to play board games more often however, and those are some of the biggest influences on Keep Talking's design.

 


 

Join the interview series!

If you would like to send a proposal on a subject you would like to hear about, be interviewed yourself, or nominate someone, we’d love to hear from you! Send thoughts to Jillian -AT- IGDA -DOT- org.

Tags:  2015  ben kane  dlc quest  ggj  global game jam  interview  jillian mood  keep talking and nobody explodes  migs  montreal international game summit  steel crate games 

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