“Whenever he started to get discouraged, he reminded himself that what he was doing, as uncomfortable as it was at the moment, was in reality much better than staying in the Cheeseless situation. He was taking control, rather than simply letting things happen to him.”
This is one of my favorite lines from Spencer Johnson’s famous book Who Moved My Cheese? I’ve read self-help and business books throughout my professional career, but I rarely refer back to them. Not because they’re not valuable, mind you; it’s really more about my limited schedule. But the messages in this book are so simple and powerful that I’ve read and re-read this literary gem many a time. When Gordon Bellamy, the Executive Director of the IGDA, asked me to write a column that was related to human resources, I couldn’t think of a more apropos topic than dealing with change.
The topic is especially appropriate in light of all of the changes going on in the American economy, the current global climate, the advances in technology and the changes within our industry. I won’t bore you with re-telling the story, but the Reader’s Digest version can be put into one sentence “If you don’t evolve (seek other Cheese), you will become extinct.”
Last year, for me, that writing on the wall was abundantly clear. Our industry was evolving, and I had to evolve with it. When the opportunity arose for my two partners and me to start our own company, Hidden Variable Studios, we jumped at the chance. OK. I didn’t jump. I was actually dragged.
Why? Although everyone likes the idea of working for themselves, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. How do we find the money to start the studio? Do we work from home or get an office? What about all of the government filings and regulations? Do we adhere to a traditional waterfall production process or try agile development? How do we market the game and stand out from the crowd? What platform do we develop for and why? And that’s all before we’ve even chosen exactly what game we wanted to make!
There was a lot of apprehension and fear regarding starting our own studio. The anxiety felt paralyzing at times, but we knew that we had to “go out and find new Cheese” and evolve, both personally and professionally. So we started breaking down the variables by addressing the last question first. The explosive growth of casual games on mobile platforms was staring us right in the face. Good! One question or obstacle (or whatever you want to call it) down — many more to go.
The rest were each taken one-by-one, examined, discussed, researched and ultimately decided upon. We sought out private investors first before exploring publishers. We decided on an office (versus working at home) but in a redevelopment zone for the tax breaks. We researched and found a competent yet still affordable legal counsel who was familiar with our industry. We researched steps to institute an agile framework. We started building and reinforcing our networks early to support a grass-roots PR blast for when our game finally launches.
With each step accomplished in the process of building the studio, the fears began to subside, and the confidence grew. We leveraged our momentum and started our own studio in January 2011. Back then (just nine months ago!), we felt like we had the majority of things figured out. We had exhaustively researched and created a master plan, secured funding from our investors, created our policies, decided on our first IP, picked our office location and successfully received the thumbs up from all of the government agencies.
However, just five months into the studio’s life, we already had to make changes. As an example, we created a paid time off policy with the standard “one year equals two weeks of PTO.” However, increased media regarding crunch and forced OT in the industry got us thinking, prompting us to reevaluate our policy. We’re business owners now — if we really want there to be change in the industry, it’s on us to enact it ourselves. In true agile fashion, we scratched our old PTO policy entirely. In fact, we don’t even have a policy. Essentially, our new policy is that we expect our employees to make decisions that are in the best interest of the studio while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Basically, take as much time off as you like (with prior notice), and we’ll simply talk about it if we think there’s an issue or misalignment. Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that we’re willing to change and try it out and not be immobilized by the fear of “What happens if …?”
As I look back over the past nine months, there were a lot of fears about change. In hindsight, it seems easy to talk about how readily we overcame them. As this issue goes to print, we’ll be soft-launching our first game, Bag It! on both iOS and Android devices, which will no doubt prompt a host of new opportunities for change (and the fear and unknowns that come with it) that we’ll have to sort through and overcome.
What opportunities for change lie ahead for you and your company? What fears are you working to overcome? Remember: If you don’t evolve, you will become extinct. When you move beyond your fear, you feel free. Here’s hoping that you find your Cheese!
Amos Marvel has been a human resources professional at various game studios and is one of the co-founders of Hidden Variable Studios. When he’s not sweating about change at the studio, he enjoys playing tennis, cycling and finding the fun in everyday life.