Keynote Panel – Studio Heads on the Hotseat
• Jen MacLean – Chair, IGDA Board of Directors (moderator)
• Dr. Mike Capps – President, Epic Games
• Brett Close – President and CEO, 38 Studios
• Tobi Saulnier – CEO, 1st Playable Productions
• Tim Train – Studio General Manager, Big Huge Games
They originally came up with this panel at a discussion at DICE. They were chatting about feedback about the 1st Leadership Forum, and it would’ve been nice to get some really honest stories and info about what it’s like running studios.
Tim: The culture all started with the name of the company. The basic reason behind why a culture is important is because it’s why people do what they do for you. In reading these accounts about history and thinking about why do people do the things that they do in military for instance, so much of it is about the culture of the group. Culture can make someone walk into machinegun fire on a beach, so it’s fairly important on how you can get people to make video games.
Brett: It’s sort of a self-governing culture. It’s going to be there one way or another. It’ll happen at your company, so if you don’t engage your people about this culture and behavior, that culture will run amok. You have to actively engage people about it and create positive feedback loops that create a great educational and self-governing culture so that people can tackle problems when you aren’t all together.
Jen: Mike, how do you keep people excited about a project during tough times?
Mike: Epic’s culture is about perfectionism. You can do whatever you can to keep people happy, but it doesn’t really matter unless people are excited about the quality of the products and games. Our hiring process is entirely built around passion and finding people who care so much about what they’re doing. Doing whatever they can do to get themselves that invested.
Jen: Your company is not about making a profit, how does that fit into your culture?
Tobi: There are 3 types of people; people who are there for the paycheck, people who are there for the career, and people who are mission focused. In a large company, you have to deal with all of these kinds of people. Since I’m a mission-focused person, wouldn’t it be interested to focus on one type of game. 1st Playable from day 1 is a mission-driven culture and company. There are some large mission-driven companies like Apple; you have to very specifically make the mission clear and obvious for people. 1st Playable has about 30 people right now, and it’s hard to tell if you’re looking for a new person who’s looking to join the team. There are a number of different characteristics that you have to assess when hiring and adding them into your team.
Getting your company up and running
Brett: How do you fund a studio in the crappiest economy in American history? In our vision, we started a little differently; we had the initial funding from our founder and some angels. We’re building a studio, we’re building a pipeline, we’re building a product. In this particular economic environment, it strangely plays in our favor; the growth of the games industry is outstripping the growth of the economy. It’s actual a shelter and a strong place to put money given the current economy. Get revenue as quickly as you can. It’s almost like playing an RTS; you’re building up some facilities, then you get more resources as quickly as you can, and then you build up more facilities.
Jen: Mike: I’m guessing you’re not as worried given the current economic state.
Mike: Well, we’re still worried that sales might just stop. Normally there might be 10 hits this season, and there might only be 3 hits. We picked up a team in Warsaw that got hit by a business crunch. Same thing with a team out in Utah; it’s interesting about how these additions have fit into our company culture and how we can learn with each other.
Jen: Tim, your company was most recently acquired. How has that been?
Tim: We’re now a public company, so there is a lot more beurocracy. Publishers have realized that they can’t really supplant developers and just move them around. THQ has been really great at letting Big Huge maintain their culture. The upside now is that they can focus on just making games. So much of what I used to do was so draining.
Mike: If I were a studio owned by THQ, I’d be really scared since they’ve been closing studios. You weren’t scared?
Tim: Obviously it’s a hard decision for THQ, but if they had come to us and said the whole company is hurting and we need to lay off 10%. But since they closed other studios, it makes us feel safer since they’re basically double-downing on us.
Jen: The closings had to have freaked out your staff, right?
Tim: We told the truth as we saw it and there’s definitely a little bit of “those people died so you could make great games,” but that does lend a little more weight that, “man they really believe in us.” I don’t feel like it freaked people out.
Work life balance
Jen: What does quality of life mean to you, Mike?
Mike: What is quality of life? That’s a good question. How quality of life comes from doing what you love to do. And it’s not just that, but if you’re a great character artist, not only do you get to make crazy cool characters, that art will be seen by millions of people. We aren’t about 40 hour work weeks. We split the profits within the company. We kick people out at 2 AM, because that has an impact on the product. I don’t think the 9 to 5 work style works for our industry.
Brett: We’re an anti-crunch company. A bastard that I worked for would say, “You’re doing what you love, stop complaining.” There are times where you’re going to need to do something for your family or take vacation and we’re going to honor that. I firmly believe that if someone gives you enough notice, he or she shouldn’t be allowed to take time off. If you can’t provide that for them, then it’s a problem in the culture of your company.
Mike: Question for you Brett, we like teams to crunch together, there’s a community that comes out of that. We try to get everyone in there together. There’s an official on-crunch switch so that they can inform their families of what’s happening.
Tim: We’ve been through a few phases of crunch. During Age of Legends, we had a “whatever it takes to get it done,” and people got burnt out completely. We tried to fix that over time. I kind of disagreed with Curt’s talk yesterday which is that there’s no way sometimes to avoid crunch completely. I’m just trying this explanation on for size, but games, as an entertainment industry is like joining a rock band. People in rock bands don’t expect to have 40 hour work weeks.
Tobi: I think there is a poor understanding of what the long-term effects of crunching are on people and their lifestyles.
Brett; We’re exactly in the same position of dialing back, this is a marathon not a sprint, and you can’t work at this pace forever.
Tobi: People want to have an impact beyond just putting in the hours; they want to make change in their work and their communities and society.
Jen: I’m curious given your role of managing an internal team and working with external partners, how do you maintain credibility?
Mike: We’re lucky that we can pick and choose publishers. We’re brutally honest and say that when we’re working with certain people, we’ll call them on things if they do things poorly or wrong.
Tim: One of the things that has come up about internal credibility, having the belief that you’re all working together is something that means a lot people. We have a very open door policy.
Brett: We don’t have any credibility. Until you ship, you really don’t have any credibility. We’re dealing with that by getting people who have delivered things in the past. Actually show that the concepts that you’re pushing are actually really cool and that the increasing credibility bar is making it more difficult.
Jen: What do you love and hate about being a studio head?
Tobi: I’m a little bit of an idealist. What I love is that I don’t have to listen to anyone tell me that I’m not an idealist. I spent a lot of years having people lecture me about how being an idealist made me naïve. What I don’t like, you end up having to make a lot of decisions without a lot of support. You end up having to make up a lot more decisions on your own, and you know your making a lot of mistakes, and there’s no one to blame except yourself. But there’s a payoff.
Tim: Why I do what I do, is because I love geek culture. We all grew up watching Star Wars and playing RPGs. I just getting the biggest kick riding up an elevator with guys in suits and guys and talk about balancing the races in our games. What I love is creating and nurturing a support structure where the geek culture can thrive. What I hate is that I don’t get to participate in that as much, and I can’t be friends with all the cool people in the studio. I’m not going to get invited to all the parties.
Mike: I get invited to all the parties!
Brett: What I love is hanging out with you and drinking wine! A lot of the same sort of stuff. The Santa Claus sort of stuff. I will get you any tool to make you do whatever you need to do. I will do whatever I can do to make your lives great in this industry. What we really want to do is facilitating that fantastic work environment. I’ve been in other industries and it’s incredibly boring. Incredibly smart and creative people in this industry. It’s never fun to tell someone that they don’t fit. By definition, there are people who won’t fit, even if they want to, and it sucks. We’re intentionally not tied to a publisher at the moment, so I have to take on the honesty-guy role of a publisher. It’s hard sometimes having to deliver a harsh message.
Mike: I love making people happy and I hate making them unhappy. I love giving them an environment that can make them happy. The cool thing about being a studio head is that we influence not just the millions of our audience, but also that hundreds of other engineers will be able to use these tools.
Jen: If you had one single piece of advice to aspiring studio heads, what would it be?
Tim: The thing that trips a lot of people up, is getting stuck too much on their idealism. It’s different from the kind of idealism that Tobi’s talking about. It’s about load-balancing and prioritizing. See the big picture and understand the trade offs of what you can really accomplish.
Brett: Be consistent about what you say and what you do. Very simply, if you aren’t straight-up with your people, they very quickly get a whiff of not really being able to trust you. You could lie once and your credibility is basically gone. No matter what, hold that accountability piece, setting the vision, setting the goals, and following through with what you said.
Tobi: Two possible situations; one you have some experience and want to start a studio. Have a really clear idea about why this company is needed. For people who are just thinking that this is what I’d like to do sometime, just be a really good student. Ask lots of questions, learn from everyone around you. At some point, you’re going to have to have the answers.
Mike: Trust your people a lot. They rarely let you down. People really respect you when you trust them. Don’t be afraid to do the mean, bad stuff, 99% of the time it ends up well once I stand up and face. No matter what, the company feels better.
Question 1: It sounds like passion is something you really need in this industry? How do you handle someone who has lost the passion?
Mike: They’re done. I’ve never seen someone who lost passion and got it back.
Tobi: Everyone has a sweet spot, and as a manager, you can do a lot to place that level attention on them and help them in their problems.
Tim: The most important thing is to keep an open dialogue. Maintaining that your expectations remain where they were, but listening to them and whatever their situations might be.
Brett: Just pay them more. All things being equal, people need managers, not jobs. It’s about how they’re being engaged. If they’re doing the work, but has no passion, switch things up. Put another manager on them and see what happens.
Tobi: As a small company, you have to think, this person who’s struggling could be a star someone else. You have to help them recognize that. If you’re constantly trying to rehabilitate that person, you’re preventing them from becoming that star player in another company. You just have to trade them.
Question 2: I read somewhere that Jack Welch recommends laying off 5% to keep the bar up. What’s your take, Tobi?
Tobi: I’m in the games industry because I don’t want to have to lay off people. Corporations have to do that, but I just don’t have the stomach for it. I’m too engaged with people. I couldn’t be a surgeon either.
Mike: It doesn’t make sense in a small company to lay off 10% since we’ve spent so much time and money hiring the right people.
Brett: I’ve worked for some very large publishers and the mandate was 20%. I’d say 75% of that 20% were really good people and that bottom 5% deserved to go. That culling off the bottom, there are some places where that’s healthy. If you’re incredibly picky, you’re going to get the right people. We’ve had very few people who have left because the company is happier, the person is happier. We have the numbers that we need and that’s the core team that we’re sticking to right now. There’s nothing more important than who you hire and who you fire.