How to make bonuses work for game development

How to make bonuses work for game development

By Paul Mottram

May 9th 2013 at 10:00AM

Zoë Mode's Paul Mottram considers the role of bonuses and what they could do for your studio

[This feature was published in the May 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Bonus schemes are very much in the spotlight at the moment.

It’s the dark side of capitalism, with obscenely inflated payments rewarding risky behaviour, and promoting a culture of greed. Despite a worldwide economic malaise, there is an industry where coke-fuelled parties, champagne baths and lunchtime visits from exotic dancers are the norm.

Against a backdrop of cuts to social services and spiralling unemployment, high-performance cars and trophy partners abound. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the games industry…

It’s fair to say that many industry veterans might not recognise the above description, and that’s for a very good reason. It’s totally untrue. Complete balderdash in fact.

Even in the halcyon days of the games industry, bonuses were never on the same planet as what your average investment banker or commercial lawyer has come to expect as pin money, and, in recent years, most workers in the games industry regard simply holding onto their job at the end of a project as a bonus.

Now this is a terrible situation. As the lack of cash reward has become a standing joke among the cynical wags that inhabit our industry, bonuses have lost the power to motivate. As a result, bonus scheme announcements are often greeted with disbelief or derision by team members embittered by too many broken promises over the years.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Blame for this current lethargy is shared industry-wide. I’m sure most bonus promises given in the last decade were well intended, but in reality the end of many projects sees companies with empty coffers and no means to fill them.

Or, if there is a small pot of money left over from dev costs, there are surely many better things to spend it on than lowly staff members, right? After all, that’s what the ‘discretionary award’ part of the small print is for.

Wrong. Bonus schemes, when used correctly, can have powerful effects and if they are to have their intended results then staff need to have faith – they need to know that if they deliver on their part of the deal, the company will cover their end.

WHY BOTHER WITH BONUSES?

The rewards of bonuses to staff are obvious – at a very basic level they give them more money. But there are other bonuses too – they make them feel valued and respected by their company. That in turn makes them happier with their career.

So what are the bonuses for your company? Many studies have shown that happy people make for a pretty good workforce. They are more motivated and willing to put in extra effort to make the thing they are working on faster or better, or both. This can only be a good thing for your company and its customers.

As an industry we demand a lot – we frequently ask developers to work extra hours and make personal sacrifices, and often, the only motivation is the potential of a future for them at the studio. Times may have been tough for independent studios in recent years, but this type of threatening motivation is just not sustainable.

We need to look instead at how we reward developers and grow as an industry. We need to be more creative in rewarding staff, from their working environment to company benefits.

WHAT ARE THE PERKS?

For now, let’s just talk bonuses. This is something we’ve been addressing over the last year at Kuju, trying to reinvigorate a scheme that people had lost faith in and create something that not just rewarded the team, but gave them renewed faith in the company and their own contribution.

We reward the team for being on time, achieving a certain Metacritic rating, and give them a share of any royalties we may receive. There are several reasons for this approach:

Reduced Slippage

Keeping a development team on a project for extra months can be financially crippling – an on-time completion bonus will almost always be smaller than the cost of even a small project over-run. Bonuses decrease in value each week a title is late to reflect the extra costs incurred but ultimately that money pales into insignificance compared to the slippage – not to mention the damage done to the publisher relationships.

BOOSTED QUALITY

Metacritic can be argued as a good and a bad thing for games, but for developers it matters. Most publishers judge developer quality from their aggregated scores and a large number of consumers look to the site to decide whether to purchase. So it makes sense to have a percentage of the team bonus reflected in the Metacritic score.

All projects are different so targets are viewed on a per project basis – whilst I hope to see a fitness game get 95 per cent one day, it doesn’t seem too likely. But encouraging everyone to think about the quality of the work they are creating, since it has a direct financial impact on them, can only be of benefit to each game as well as the overall studio reputation.

LOW-RISK REWARDS

Royalties are a bonus for the studio too, especially on a publisher owned game that may need the advances recouped. If you’re lucky enough to start seeing some, then they should be shared. This is, after all, where big money can be made and if the company is making millions then the team that made it happen deserve a share in them too. Given that you pay nothing if no royalties are earned, it is a low-risk way of rewarding and incentivising staff.

HOW DO WE MAKE THEM WORK?

The key to a bonus scheme is to offset the terms at the start of development – coming up with a bonus at the end to retrospectively resolve problems is pointless – plan them into budgets from the get-go.

At Kuju we decide upon a fixed percentage of the development budget, which is then distributed upon completion according to a clear set of pre-defined criteria. If the team meet the criteria then they get the bonus.

Ultimately, if the game is late and not very good, you’re not going to be paying out bonuses, but if the team do deliver a great game on-time they should be rewarded for doing so.

IT’S A COMMITMENT

A bonus scheme can only get full buy-in from the team once it pays out, so committing to it is essential. We’ve been lucky enough to pay out several bonuses to our teams over the last year. No-one has been made a millionaire yet, but we’ve already seen unexpected new dynamics arise in the studio.

Not all project roles are as glamorous or creatively challenging as each other, but knowing that the bonus pool is linked to the success of the game has seen people stand up and take control of areas they may previously have shied away from – certification tasks have never seemed so appealing.

The other great perk is team unity – when it comes to someone not pulling their weight, a team with a common objective can be a much more powerful motivator than an angry producer.

COST IMPLICATIONS

Some may question the fact that a bonus will affect the profitability of a project, force you to increase your charge out rates to publishers or deliver with a smaller team.

How you decide to address this is down to each company, but at Kuju we’ve decided to absorb the cost ourselves rather than push it onto the publisher.

It all comes down to risk management, and if you can ensure that publishers, shareholders and the development team all have their interests aligned, then everyone benefits and the cost is more than worth it.

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