How to build a stronger development team

How to build a stronger development team
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

June 12th 2013 at 11:00AM

Develop gathers advice from some of the industry's most experienced in team management

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

Few youngsters who consider a future career in games development likely look forward to tackling the challenge of structuring a studio.

With all those visuals, narratives and gameplay mechanics to ponder, it’s easy to forget about management structures, workflows and human resources.

But that isn’t just true of teenage dreamers planning employment in the word of making games. For new studios, creatively focused teams and even industry veterans, it can be all to easy to turn a blind eye to the way a team is structured; a grave mistake when you consider the impact on end product.

Speak to numerous established team managers, MDs, CEOs and HR specialists and you’ll hear it time and again; better management means better games. And nothing, surely, is more important than the quality of your final product, however you define that quality.

“Your management structure has two main areas of effect on product; how effective we are at producing a game that meets expectation, and how happy the team is whilst working on the game,” says Stainless Games production director Ben Gunstone of the importance of developing the right company organisation.

“The end result is that our studio management and structure helps to ensure that quality games are produced that meet expectations and the team enjoy working on them.”

Put like that, it sounds ever so simple. The well-managed team makes good games well. But building a team, employing the right people, choosing a hierarchical model and implementing the best HR process isn’t so easy, as there is much to consider.

“A studio’s management structure does a lot to shape its culture and priorities,” says Phil Mansell, executive producer on RuneScape for the ever-expanding UK developer Jagex.

“It comes down to decision-making. Firstly, who makes the calls for what decisions? Is the studio product, finance or marketing-led? Does the development culture favour technical, design, artistic or scheduling above the others?

“Secondly, what is the process? Do decisions come from just a few individuals, is it diffuse and consensus-driven, or is it delegated down through reporting lines?”

There’s clearly much to deliberate over, and it’s a process that can’t be rushed, as these tendencies within a team will steer decisions throughout development cycles, and infuse themselves throughout all layers of management and creative direction.

FLEXIBLE THINKING

And one of the key decisions when committing to a management structure is about flexibility. Is it best to conceive an approach to how you position your team and stick to it, or remain free to change and adapt?

“Flexibility has been in Goodgame Studios’ DNA right from its founding in 2009,” offers Olliver Heins, head of games at prolific German indie outfit Goodgame.

“That enables us to adapt to change instead of having to rebuild everything from scratch. We can easily expand the existing organisational structure and management model for new departments – for example, for mobile development or new international markets, or for new requirements concerning time frames or technical demands.”

Goodgames approach is an entirely logical one, and shared almost universally. Being flexible as a company is today core to any games studio, especially in a market evolving with the veracity of the development sector. Trends come and go, business models change, and audiences diversify almost weekly, so remaining adaptable is vital.

“Each change [in the industry] has to be dealt with and there are multiple changes going on,” confirms Mike Simpson, studio director at Sega-owned studio The Creative Assembly.

“The requirement to finish major projects that used to take four years in 18 months has been dealt with by team size, structure and process changes. The move towards games as a service means working on multiple threads in parallel as the team continues to support all its past efforts rather than kissing them goodbye on release day.”

Similarly, the need for regular updates for online games means breaking traditional publisher departmental splits between development, marketing, sales, QA and IT and creating new cross-discipline live operations teams that are nimble enough to handle bi-weekly updates.

“These changes are all great for developers,” continues an optimistic Simpson. “They give individuals more opportunities to use their talents effectively and creatively, and to have a real impact on the end result. It’s a new golden age for games development.”

SERVICING NEEDS

“Running a game as a service has meant we’ve experienced a different type of turbulence compared to traditional development studios,” continues Jagex’s Mansell.

“Rather than new genres and distribution channels, we’ve had to adapt to greater market competition, evolving business models and a broader player base.”

For instance, as the demands on Jagex’s teams have grown and subsequent scheduling has become more complex, the team has needed to strengthen its production methods, both through dedicated project managers and via more powerful scheduling systems.

“We’ve also needed to become more commercially focused and have brought on specialist staff for monetisation and analytics,” adds Mansell.

“It’s been a challenge to become more rigorous and business-savvy without undermining our independent spirit, but we’ve found a pretty good balance so far,” the Creative Assembly, Jagex and Goodgame certainly aren’t alone in finding they need to keep flexing their team make-up and management systems to keep apace with industry trends, but, according to some, there simultaneously remains a need for consistency, even in these dynamic times.

Stainless Games’ Gunstone is part of what he calls a “relatively static” team, and with good reason; namely leadership. Even the flattest teams (more on that later) need a degree of hierarchal control, lest they loose structure altogether and fall foul of many of the trappings of letting creativity prosper without control.

“It’s important that we have leads in place for any project: lead programmer, artist and designer, supported by a producer,” asserts Gunstone. “On a smaller team this does mean we wouldn’t have many other people on the team, but leads are vital to ensuring product vision, both technically, artistically and design-wise are adhered to and driven by people who are able to see a bigger picture.”

However, it remains the case that budgets, production pipelines and project timescales are changing, and thus a studio management method that supports these trends is increasingly popular.

One approach is in adopting contracts that favour the short term, as Nathan Adcock, PR and marketing manager at games industry recruiter OPM Recruitment, has seen with increased potency.

“We have noticed a lot more studios are hiring people for short contracts,” he says. “If a studio is working on a project that will only take six months, they only need some people for those six months. It makes a lot more sense to get someone in for a short time rather than trying to find work for them once that project is over.”

TINY TOWERS?

Similar to the questions around balancing regularity and fluidity of management approach is the topic of the depth of the structure you adopt. While outside the games industry hierarchical models prosper, where numerous neatly formed layers of management stack one atop the other, in this field it’s much more common to find pancake-flat systems.

In former issues of this magazine Irrational, Gearbox, Valve, Blitz and even tools companies like Autodesk and Havok have espoused the benefits of flat management, which is often presented as a creatively democratic plane where anybody from CEO to receptionist can have their ideas listened to.

“We highly value our employees because we know we wouldn’t be as successful as we are without these gifted people. We entrust everybody with autonomy and responsibility, everyone is able to make a difference here from day one. We think of ourselves as one team, not in terms of status, and try to establish an atmosphere of learning from one another and inspiring each other,” says Goodgame Studios’ head of human resources Hendrik Mainka of democratic management models.

“This approach works very well for us and enables us to offer a great work-life balance with regular working hours and almost no crunch times at all.”

It’s a sentiment you’ll here echoed throughout the industry, with indies and triple-As alike devoting their staff to flat structures. But there are alternatives, and many insist there is a place for some hierarchy.

“We use a hybrid approach which uses a fairly hierarchical model for resource management but a decoupled and flatter approach for creative decision making,” states Jagex’s head of HR Laura Hare.

“It’s important to use to have strong team structures and reporting lines, but also having a more open approach for creative matters. I think either can be made to work, as long as hierarchy and process aren’t stifling and don’t get in the way of communication, feedback and flow of ideas.”

Elsewhere, there are those who implement even less traditional management systems that studios still considering how they might build their team may do well to contemplate as an alternative to convention.

“As a Swedish game studio, we represent something that is quite different from, say, US studios,” states Peter Lübeck, studio director at Malmö’s LittleBigPlanet PS Vita developer Tarsier.

“At least that is what people tell us. Our culture is generally more open, transparent and involving, and even though we often apply seemingly similar management structures, the end result is often quite different.”

The idea is that people are more involved in the development process and can question anything and anyone at any time, without risking harsh reprimands. There is none of what Lübeck describes as “management by fear”, and while Tarsier does implement a hierarchy, there is less aggressive policing of decision making compared to other at Western studios.

“We give people room to shine, grow and criticise, and we seldom make decisions without having given people the opportunity to speak their mind,” continues the studio director, before adding an encouragingly frank detail.

“There is a downside of this as well, in that we sometimes don’t act on things quickly enough. There are obvious benefits of strong, top-down decision making, but that’s not really us. We’re trying to find a sweet spot. I will let you know when we find it.”

PEOPLE POWERED

Whatever the management approach a games studio adopts, it is, of course, only a matter of organising people. What is arguably far more important is the way you treat those people, and that is the role of human resources.

Human resources – or HR – is technically a rather cold term for your workforce, but today really describes the discipline of HR, which is about recruiting staff, introducing them to their role, and keeping them happy. And it’s an essential art for any modern studio, whether you actually have a member of staff on your team with HR in their title or not.

And it is Goodgame Studios’ Mainka that offers Develop an description of its HR approach typical of many studios.

“We highly value our employees because we know we wouldn’t be as successful as we are without these gifted people,” says the head of HR.

“We entrust everybody with autonomy and responsibility, everyone is able to make a difference here from day one. We think of ourselves as one team, not in terms of status, and try to establish an atmosphere of learning from one another and inspiring each other.”

That approach, insists Mainka, works very well for Goodgame Studios and enables the senior team to offer a great work-life balance with regular working hours and that ever-desirable complete lack of crunch times.

And, says OPM’s Adcock, it is a games developers HR approach that is paramount in a studio attracting the right fresh talent. As much as supporting the staff with the right benefits, and HR team must also be the front of house for recruitment.

“Regarding HR, it is very important [in attracting staff],” claims Adcock. “The HR team are often the first or initial contact candidates have with studios, so their demeanour and approach is vital in making a good first impression, being able to represent the company to its best advantage and influencing candidates who are also interviewing elsewhere.”

While most large-scale teams have either an individual or an entire division devoted to human resources, today many small or medium-sized developers find themselves assigning such duties to a member of staff embracing several roles, or employing their first HR specialist. For them, understanding the role and its nuances is essential.

“From an HR perspective you should always be there to support the development of the game as a whole and take barriers away rather than impose them for the sake of process,” suggests The Creative Assembly’s recruitment and HR assistant Emma-Jayne Cole, who points out that historically, HR has been seen as the work of a person tucked away in a corner, processing payroll, filling in forms and welcoming new starters.

“Successful HR is far more than that when you can work in a truly innovative and integrated way with every part of the business,” she continues.

“As a result, the studio will thrive and employees will feel contented. So in essence, keeping games developers happy lies in the simplicity of giving them enough creative space and freedom to do what they do best and appreciating their efforts thereafter. A restricted creative person is a miserable creature indeed and in my opinion will be reflected in the quality of the game.”

DIFFERENT SIZES, SAME ISSUES

Clearly then, human resources and studio management is a fine art. It’s the subject of much business theory both inside and outside the industry, and a constant challenge to even the most colossal of teams.

But that doesn’t mean that carefully considered management methods aren’t important to the likes of independents and small-scale operations. And, more significantly, it’s perfectly reasonable that they can adopt much of the theory and practice of what senior staff at larger teams implement.

“Regardless of your studio size, many of the same things apply in one way or another,” confirm’s Tarsier’s Lübeck.

“All the responsibilities that the management team has in a larger studio still need to be handled by someone in a small studio.”

According to the studio director, titles and hierarchy are perhaps not as relevant as some would assume, but ownership and responsibilities are. Your team may feel you not need an HR manager, but if you have any employees at all, someone must assume responsibility for any HR related duties and queries, such as recruitment, contracts, salaries, labour law issues and so on.

“It could be the same person who does the graphics programming and refills the coffee machine, as long as it is perfectly clear who it is, what the responsibilities and expectations are, and that that person has a clear mandate to act on those responsibilities,” concludes Lübeck.

It’s an encouraging note to end on, and one that highlights the fact that managing – while an acquired skill – is not as abstact as the likes of coding, and, with a little bit of thought and effort, can be perfected at any development studio.

MANAGING MISTAKES

A trio of experts detail common management shortcomings, and how best to avoid them

“I believe having a structure that is too rigid or based too heavily on theory can be disastrous. In our case, we tried to compensate for our rapid growth from a small, inexperienced studio by applying a rigid structure based on theory of project management methodologies and the like. While that is as good a place to start as any when you don’t know what you’re doing, I believe you need to be very open to adapting your structure as you go along.” - Peter Lübeck, Studio Director, Tarsier Studios

“Studio structuring can become too much of a format. Creating structures and systems is good to avoid reinventing the wheel time and time again, but there needs to be a balance with continuously asking if the framework or structure in place is fit for purpose. Leaders in our business need to work with an open playing field. It’s a very different set of skills working with a preset way of doing things to creating the way we do things.” - Phil Mansell, Executive Producer, Jagex

“Common mistakes come from either too little or too much direction from the top levels. It can be just as disastrous to provide too little direction – presuming everyone knows what they are doing – or too much – presuming no one knows what they are doing. We also hear lots of stories of development teams expanding massively and too quickly and this can lead to an existing company culture dissolving.” - Ben Gunstone, Production Director, Stainless Games