In this last part of The Talent Game I’ll share advice on how I think you should lead your team, as a group and individually, to ensure you have a great and productive studio that thrives. We’ll also tackle the thorny issue of team members leaving.
Leading by example
It’s a big responsibility having a team of people who report to you and expect you to lead them.
You need to be the perfect employee, because people will take their lead from you. If you dress poorly, are always late in, or upset people with your language, they will likely follow your lead; and if they do, how can you pull them up on it?
People used to say to me, ‘It must be great being your own boss, you don’t answer to anyone’. My answer was always: "I answer to everyone: clients, players and the team. If anything fails, the buck stops with me".
Be happy and positive
There are good days and bad, for everyone and every studio. In your position you have the greatest sway over the mood, so however you feel, you must be seen to be happy and positive – even if inside you really don’t feel it.
If you’ve got problems, it’s not going to help if everyone gets down about it. If something bad has happened, you’ve already experienced it once; if you keep going over it in your head you’ll just experience if many more times and it won’t change what happened.
You need to be the perfect employee, because people will take their lead from you.
If something has gone wrong, it’s in the past, don’t dwell on it – move forward. Never worry what could have been. You need to build up really good mental resilience.
When you face problems, immediately think of them as challenges. If you need some of your team to help solve your challenge then ask for their help. Don’t burden those who can’t help. They say ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, but that’s only if they can actually make a difference. Otherwise you’re simply creating stress and worry in someone for no reason.
Act with honesty and integrity
You wouldn’t want someone to lie to you, so you mustn’t lie to them. That doesn't mean you tell them everything – and they won't expect you to – but the minute they catch you lying they will lose trust and respect for you; so don’t do it, even if that means learning how to handle awkward questions at times.
Getting the very best from your team members and getting the work done
It’s really important to show your team trust and respect. I always find that involving the team in planning gets significantly more buy-in and gives them responsibility.
Set high-level objectives for the full project first, and having agreed on the targets then break this into monthly milestones, up to the first release, ensuring you have at least 15 to 20 per cent of the time left free for the alpha and beta phases.
Don’t schedule any code or asset production into this time, it’s reserved for testing, debugging, balancing and mastering. Ensure that all team members are comfortable with the overall schedule, as they are going to be responsible for delivering it.
In the first phase of each milestone, work out with the team exactly who is responsible for what and ask team team members to produce their own schedule, ideally using only 75 per cent of their available time. This means they have a little buffer time for holiday, sickness or over-run.
Give praise where due, and if there are any unpleasant surprises (there shouldn’t be) speak to the individual privately afterwards.
It’s important you check that what they are claiming is sensible, especially any new team members who may not be so good at making their own estimates. The fact that everyone plans the work themselves, the rest of the team sees what each member is planning to deliver, gives everyone ownership and the responsibility to deliver what they’ve promised.
When you reach the end of the milestone, ensure everyone reviews the milestone together. This way everyone will be able to see what each other did against what they were supposed to do. This self-imposed accountability is easily the best way to manage people. Generally everyone wants to impress you and their peers.
Give praise where due, and if there are any unpleasant surprises (there shouldn’t be) speak to the individual privately afterwards. It’s possible there are good reasons that they weren’t able to deliver. Don't recognise individual pieces of work with monetary rewards.
Many managers plan in isolation and just allocate the work out, but this doesn’t get buy-in and if the work doesn’t fit the time available and team members won’t be happy about trying to make it fit.
Clear career paths
Ensure there’s a clear, open and fair system for pay reviews and promotions. Ensure everyone knows what’s expected of them and when and how they will be promoted.
Ensure the pay is kept confidential, but that there is a fair and unbiased system for determining everyone’s pay. No-one should ever feel they have to threaten to leave to be considered for a pay rise.
Encourage team members to question things, to make creative suggestions and contributions. Listen to their ideas and reasons. You don’t have to enact all suggestions, but don’t be dismissive or over-negative, give each one fair consideration.
Encourage team members to question things, to make creative suggestions and contributions. Listen to their ideas and reasons.
If you’re not going to follow someone's suggestion, take the time to explain why. It takes longer, but long-term it will engender loyalty and respect. One expression I often use is: ‘Don’t say no, say why not.’
Keep your team informed
Your team should never hear news about your studio from others, especially if it’s on a public news site. Trust your team with any news first. If it’s great, celebrate the moment with them; if it’s bad, show you acknowledge it, that you are disappointed and that you’ll do what you can to avoid it happening again.
Maybe you can give a little more information than is in the public domain, so people understand what happened and why. Trust them to keep the additional information confidential – most people will respect that.
The little things count
Even if money is tight, you can still do everything in your power to make sure people see you care for them. Be accommodating of personal requests like attending dentists, school plays, etcetera. Perhaps introduce flexi-time with core hours for team meetings.
Have a tuck shop where you trust people to pay for what they take. Make nice gestures, like Christmas presents, Easter eggs and birthday presents. Have a Christmas party, a summer BBQ and maybe other social events, such as going to the pub occasionally. All this makes work feel like a shared endeavour, where great games get made with friends.
Good people will be happy if they feel they are being treated fairly, even if they know they could get paid more elsewhere. It definitely isn’t all about the pay for most people, and for those few for whom it is – well, it’s probably best for you and your studio if they decide for themselves to move on.
This can often be seen as a difficult time, but it’s best to hold your head high. If you are deciding it’s time for someone to go, it should never be a shock to them.
This is one of the hardest and most emotional parts of being a boss, but a good boss does this well and it’s all about being fair, and organised!
You need to have communicated with them over the previous weeks, and maybe months, as to what you expect from them if they are to stay. You have legal obligations regarding how you warn them that their work is not up to scratch, so make sure you've taken advice from an expert.
When someone is leaving, whatever the cause, thank them publicly for their time and contributions and wish them well in the future. Make sure you allow them to tell you privately how they feel about leaving.
No team ever remains static. Things change, whether that’s your studio circumstances or each team member’s priorities – it’s something you need accept and run with.
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by listening and being sympathetic. This is often called an exit interview, but try to keep it informal and friendly. You can and should offer to help them find a new position that suits them better.
You can’t satisfy all the people all the time and that’s something you just have to accept. I was once told that it’s useful to explain to reluctant leavers that you’re not making the decision lightly and that their departure will allow them to find something that suits them even better.
They may not agree with you in the moment but in many cases that’s exactly what happens.
A dream team is never finished… it’s always in flux
No team ever remains static. Things change, whether that’s your studio circumstances or each team member’s priorities – it’s something you need accept and run with. It will feel like a never-ending task, but that’s how all companies, big and small, exist. Embrace the ebb and flow and swim with it.
A great game development studio is only as good as its team...
And that team is a reflection of you – so you need to lead by example. This will be a lot of work but if as a result you have a great studio, full of really talented, passionate, dedicated games developers, it’ll be worth it!
I really do wish you all the best of luck and hope your dream team can make some fabulous, critically and commercially successful games!