The high Fryer

The high Fryer
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

May 19th 2011 at 9:30AM

Laura Fryer has made it to the top as general manager of Warner's Seattle studios. Develop catches up with her ahead of her Develop Conference keynote

When Laura Fryer moved from her executive producer role at Microsoft Game Studios to oversee Warner Bros’ Seattle-area operation, she eventually found herself managing three of the company’s sizable studios.

Having gained a wealth of experience at the top of Monolith, Surreal Software and Snowblind – which today share a single location – Fryer is heading to the Develop in Brighton to offer advice on managing studios and making money from creative endeavors.

Develop caught up with Fryer to find out what’s motivating her trip to the UK’s cheerful seaside city, and hear about what work the studios she leads have underway.

What do you plan to talk about in your Develop in Brighton business keynote?
I’m going to talk about balancing business needs with the needs of creators. How can we keep food on the table while still making a great game? It’s been a challenge for as long as there have been hungry artists, so it’s obviously a hard problem, and I look forward to sharing our approach.

What makes the topic you are approaching particularly relevant to the industry today?
Now more than ever, our industry is subject to massive upheavals in technology, platforms, and ideas, which makes game development even more challenging from a business perspective.

Change represents both opportunity and risk, creatively and financially. If we can work with it, we can foster and protect the creative process while still adapting to the business environment.

Why talk at Develop in Brighton? What’s the appeal of the conference?
I have a lot of industry friends on the other side of the pond, and I’ve heard good things about Develop in Brighton, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity for ‘a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach’. I look forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, and sharing and learning as much as possible with both.

How is studio management changing as the typical game studio changes?
I think the biggest change over the last few years has been the growth in both team size and number.
Teams are bigger, with bigger budgets, but there are also a lot of new opportunities for smaller teams.

Both of those pressures – to grow larger and to grow more numerous – have added lots of moving parts, lots of interfaces and lots of chances for things to
go wrong.

It’s one thing to help a team of 10-to-50 people to work well together, quite another when you scale into the hundreds of people. But there are ways to manage that kind of complexity, and keep everyone engaged, happy, and working towards a shared creative vision.

What has your move to Warner taught you about studio management?
It’s been like swimming in the ocean after swimming in a pool for your whole life. I’ve learned to scale my communications across larger groups of people. I’ve learned that as the number of people grows, the odds of misunderstanding approaches 100 per cent.

I’ve learned the difference between shipping games at a software company and shipping games at an entertainment company. I’ve learned how much it costs to throw a party for 600 people. I’ve learned that trust is our bedrock, that our differences make us stronger, and that we’re more together than apart.

What does the future hold for Monolith, Surreal and Snowblind?
Snowblind is currently working on The Lord of the Rings: War In the North, the co-op action RPG launching this year. By conference time we should also be able to talk about the latest game from the creative team behind No One Lives Forever and F.E.A.R., and what we’ve learned along the way.

The three studios are closely aligned. How are the separate outfits evolving and developing together?
We started out in three separate locations, and then moved together under one roof, so that’s a big change that’s still unfolding.

Being together has lots of advantages; it lets us work more closely, adapt fluidly, play each others’ games, offer advice, help each other, inspire. It’s also nice to be able to choose between multiple projects, and be able to change projects without having to change friends.

On the other hand, it’s a little scary, because team cultures can be subsumed by the whole.

But, when you let go of your fear, you discover that you can hold onto what is really important, the best of each studio’s culture, while also becoming something more together.