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Hacking the Game Industry, Part I: Three Reasons Why Your Company Should Run Internal Hackathons
by Andrew Pedersen on 03/11/14 02:38:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


With the new year well underway, game industry leaders have likely had no shortage of discussions about improving their company’s work quality, accomplishing financial goals, and of course, advancing innovation in 2014. One strategy that many business leaders may not have considered to make strides in these performance areas is to run company-wide hackathons. A hackathon is an event in which individuals collaborate on an intensive project in a short period of time, often ranging from one to seven days. While the word “hackathon” originates in software development, the term has expanded to include innovation efforts outside technology in areas such as civic, marketing and sustainability. It’s also important to note that I’m not just talking about organizing a game jam, which is a specific type of hackathon in which games are developed. It’s time to think BIG.

Hackathons offer game companies personnel development, a cultural lift and inspiration for innovation. Our industry landscape is shifting faster than ever, and it takes bold ideas to stay ahead in such a creative-driven field. Whether you’re a CEO, studio head or an indie game developer, I encourage you to reject logistical concerns and instead focus on the tremendous benefits of organizing internal hackathons.

This is the first in a three-part series, which will outline why game companies should run hackathons, how to organize the events, and finally, how to extend the value of the hackathon. I invite you to share your thoughts and participate in the conversation along the way.

Why I believe that company-wide hackathons are crucial:

1.      Hackathons develop talent into cross-functional rockstars. Work often pigeonholes people into a single specialty and defined set of responsibilities. During a hackathon, this notion is thrown out the window, revealing employees’ wide areas of interest and talent. For example, GSN Games’ Lead Artist has successfully spearheaded six game production projects in the semi-annual hackathon events, even though he has little background or training in game design and production. Through the event, employees have a chance to work outside of their day-to-day responsibilities, and are able to express their ideas in a fun and engaging way. These fresh perspectives introduce new ideas and ways to approach problems, while building valuable cross-functional relationships that allow teams to deeply understand each other’s roles.

2.      Hackathons cultivate a culture of creativity, collaboration and innovation. During hackathon kickoffs, individuals “pitch” their project ideas to the entire organization and recruit other people to work on their team. Since everyone has their choice of what they’d like to work on, all of the team members are passionate about and committed to the project’s goal. This united effort brings together cross-discipline teams, often comprised of people who do not frequently work together. Hackathons can quickly integrate new staff members into the organization’s culture, while also offering more tenured employees the opportunity to deepen their relationships through meaningful work. The democratic nature of the hackathon process builds morale by asserting that everyone has a voice, plays an important role and has the full potential to create something great.

At a company-wide level, hackathons demonstrate that the organization values its employees personally and professionally. For example, in a recent hackathon, several engineering team members traded code for tool belts to construct an original Arkeg, a classic arcade game machine with a built-in kegerator, all in the name of building company culture with a startup feel. Leaders and participants alike enter the event with an open mind to be most effective and innovative, fostering a culture of trust. This accepting work environment turns the hackathon into a company perk, showing employees the paramount importance of people to the organization.

3.      Hackathons inspire everyone to be even more amazing. With the importance of rapid innovation and long-term strategies in our industry, slipping into the day-to-day grind is dangerous for game companies. With all eyes on each small team, hackathons encourage participants to challenge conventional ways of thinking within the organization. Everyone wants to excite their peers with their hackathon project presentation, which motivates employees to deliver outstanding results. During the final, company-wide presentations, participants are also able to increase their visibility amongst peers and leaders, which could lead to new or more opportunities in their everyday roles.

When individuals, teams and a company overall does amazing work, other amazing people want to be involved, too. Not only is a hackathon beneficial for a business, its company culture, employee retention and more, but it’s also a great tool to recruit top talent.


Hackathons have the power to transform individuals, teams and entire companies into innovators, which positively impacts a company’s culture and potentially the bottom line. I’d like to hear your comments – does your company run internal hackathons? What’s the rationale?

Andrew Pedersen is Senior Vice President and Chief Studio Officer of GSN Games. Andrew oversees the company’s social casino game production across mobile, social and web-based platforms.

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Roger Haagensen
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Stuff like this is awesome, other variants of this is the xx% free project time that Google let it's employees use for whatever projects they want. And the Skyrim developers was given the chance to work on whatever they wanted for Skyrim which resulted in a bunch cool new features.

Sad thing is that these are the exceptions, most companies and publishers would cringe at the thought of letting devs waste time on anything besides the project, just keep that crunch going.

Deadlines need to be looser and marketing need to back off the PR machine a bit and instead get to know/understand the product better and work with the devs.

Alan Barton
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Its a sad irony of our industry that many programmers go into the games industry to design games, yet so many dev companies don't allow programmers to design games. We are told by others what to write.

Michael Parker
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Game design is harder than you think.

Matt Wilson
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@Michael Parker: That is the best reason to encourage practice I've ever heard.

Alan Barton
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@Michael Parker: "Game design is harder than you think."

Wow what a false assumption your statement is. Many programmers have many years of experience of what works in games and what doesn't and its not just a few programmers like this, so don't try to say that. I would say most programmers go into games programming because they love games. They have to love games, because its so much hard work over so many years to learn games programming, so it has to be something they love doing and all the time they are studying what works in games and what to implement in games.

Also for example, FYI, I've been playing arcade games before video games even appeared in the arcades!. (I was playing the electromechanical games before video games even existed!). I've also got 33 years experience programming and I got into programming to write games! So I do know games and I know what works and what doesn't work in games. Also my first professionally published video games were written entirely in assembly language, so I've been doing this for a very long time. I've also designed and self-published my own games.

Yet I still hold to what I say. Many games companies do not allow programmers to design games. I love the idea of game Hackathons, but Hackathons won't achieve their goal in some companies when programmers are not allowed in far too many companies to use their knowledge during the creation of games. (Simple fact of life, programmers know what a program can and can't do far more than anyone else on the team, therefore they can see many low hanging fruit easy to implement low cost game design ideas that will complement the game). Sadly in many many companies, programmers are not allowed to contribute games ideas. I've seen it in so many companies, so don't anyone try to tell me it doesn't happen. Unfortunately the games programmers in many companies are not allowed to design the game. Their entire work time is increasingly micromanaged into doing exactly what others want them to do. (And don't bother telling me about the need to schedule time, that can so often be used as an excuse to prevent people contributing when there are many opportunities where time can be allocated from otherwise wasted time in other areas).

And that is before we even get into discussing some passive aggressive's in some companies who actively obstruct and hold back the ideas of others out of insecure fear of their own position. They don't want others to outshine them and their self interest has the side effect of holding others back. Yet these kinds of people so often deny they are doing it.

The bottom line is the company cultural environment in which most programmers work actively excludes them from really contributing to the games design in many companies. Games Hackathons are all about exploring games design aspects etc.. and its a wonderful idea, but in many companies it won't happen. The culture of many games companies actively prevents programmers contributing to games designs.

Its a hard truth to accept. The idealists say no no can't be. The passive aggressive's as usual deny they hold others back. Meanwhile the power hungry office politics liars types just lie it doesn't happen. Bottom line there are many vested interests in too many companies that work to hold back and control the programmers for a myriad of reasons and its worse the larger the company gets. (Small companies do allow programmers to design some parts of games but as the programmers help that company grow, they end up finding they are increasingly being prevented from contributing to future games design ideas in that company).

We need to talk more openly about the office culture created by the fears and desires of all staff and how that can all too often adversely effect and side line programmers in many games companies. Many companies do not have a good balance at all and it gets progressively worse the larger many companies gets.

We all want the company we work for to do well and many games companies could do financially better if only all their staff were really allowed to contribute and it would also be a better happier working environment for all, without the fearful making life harder for others. That is why creating a company culture of truly openly encouraging all staff is so important and it even helps the fearful overcome their fears and in doing so, prevents their fears harming and holding back others.

It will be very interesting to see if other posters try to deny this, because what I have said here does happen all too often. Hackathons are a wonderful idea, but for them to even have a hope of working, we all need to talk more openly about all of this.

Robert Green
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Game design is much harder than most people think, but it's also hard to know who is going to be great at it, since there's a fairly limited range of games that most people can build by themselves, and most people already employed in the industry don't have a lot of spare time to develop their own work.

In my experience, it's hard for anyone not in a design role to attempt to contribute to design without someone raising the dreaded "design by committee" objection. The logic seems to be that if you allow anyone else to have input, then everyone must be allowed it, and then everyone would have to agree upon it, which everyone knows is a recipe for failure..... because they've been told it by other people who haven't necessarily tried it.

Mark Venturelli
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Have a little more respect for design. Why doesn't the company give programmers the chance to do art as well? If a programmer is interested in design, he/she should show some actual design work and chase the opportunity himself/herself.

Michael Parker
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I have a friend who works as a programmer outside the games industry (for a gas software company) and I asked him:

In your industry, does everyone fight about what should be in the product, or what the product should be? He replied:

"Of course not, we have a product manager to handle those decisions - he's the one who talks to the customers, knows upcoming products, knows our competition, understands our relationship to investors and what the company needs financially, he understands the big picture. He is on the front line testing our software with users and he is the one who gets shouted at every time it's slightly wrong. He knows what's needed much more than any one of us because the company has invested in giving him all that information and tools to make those decisions. If we all fought about what the product should be without that information, we'd all focus on irrelevant details, the important things wouldn't get done, and actually I think it would be less fun."

Then I asked him: "Aren't you jealous of the product managers having all the fun, when you only get to do programming?" and he gave me a funny look and said "No, I don't want to talk to customers or sit in meetings discussing where the buttons should be placed, or spend hours deconstructing exactly how competitor products work. I enjoy programming, thats why I took a job programming."

I do wonder what makes the games industry so different, and whether it's a good thing?

Alan Barton
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@A programmer in the gas software company.

The huge difference is the games industry is a creative industry that attracts creative programmers. Also don't ever forget the first games designers were the first games programmers and it didn't end with the first games programmers. The tradition of programmers also being games designers has continued unending throughout the entire history of the games industry. The true indie developers have continued to demonstrate this is true.

Its just some in the workplace want to control and pigeon hole programmers into non-creative serf roles doing their bidding. That undermines and undervalues the potential contributions that many programmers can make to the success of projects. If all you want are software creation servants you won't make the most use of the very creative programmers who want to work in the games industry. Too many programmers have been pigeon holed into this kind of mindset by team leaders who place their need for control over the success of the company and the happiness of staff. That kind of team leader can't see any other solution.

If a company wants to pigeon hole programmers like that, what will happen is the most creative programmers will instead leave and work for competitors, all because people who think programmers should be non-creative don't want to allow the programmers the ability to really contribute to the games design.

That isn't the way to create a competitive company and it'll create unhappiness in the programmers working for such a company which isn't good either. What happens in these sorts of companies is that they mostly end up with non-creative programmers and an ever increasing number of trainee programmers who know no different than a life of servitude to that kind of company structure. That is the kind of company that will end up going out of business, because it won't be able to compete and the more inexperienced programmers they get, the more problems they will find in finishing products reliably and that creates the vicious circle of adding yet more micromanagement in the belief that'll fix all problems when it won't.

Many games programmers are creative programmers and want to be creative. They willingly and freely want to contribute their ideas to the success of the company. They simply want and need the opportunity to be allowed to contribute. Any company that sees this and allows them to contribute will gain hugely over the companies that don't want to think of games programmers as creative.

Michael Parker
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If truly understanding the nuances of the game design require you to put aside a few hours every day to go through test feedback, analyse statistics, talk with publishers and producers, understand the marketing strategy, understand the target audience, decompose other competitor game systems and analyse how they work, do you think it's worth EVERY programmer doing that? And every artist, and animator?

Or is it better for a smaller group of people to specialise in digesting that information and feeding it into the product strategy for the team?

I've been on both sides - programmer and designer, and I know exactly where you're coming from, but there is a flipside to what you're saying. I've worked, as a designer, with programmers who simply cannot understand why we want to make simple design changes, because they didn't attend playtest sessions, haven't understood the target market, and haven't put in the homework to understand how recent game systems work. Once I had a programmer argue that "no-one wants the fire button on the trigger! Pressing 'A' is much better!" (xbox pad - we were making a first person shooter). I've also worked with programmers who "really get it" and have been fantastic at working through designs and giving useful input.

As a programmer, I've had designers who change their mind every day on a whim, based on the last game they played, but I've also had designers who I can go to, to ask about certain parts of a design which I'm unclear on, and they will tell me exactly how it should work, which other games do similar things, and a little background on why it's needed. Those are the designers who instill you with confidence, who you should trust and spend your time programming rather than questioning their decisions. If the designer is bad, that doesn't mean you should do the design, that means you need a better designer.

On the other hand, companies don't have to work top-down. It is definitely possible to get EVERYONE involved with the design of the game you're making, so that everyone understands exactly where you're going, and has input and offers sensible suggestions about design decisions, but it's VERY difficult. (and not everyone actually wants this, believe it or not). It requires a huge amount of time and patience, a very skilled and clever workforce, and typically, a small team (its near impossible with a large team). It's also a massive risk attempting this. If you get halfway through this process and it falls apart, and suddenly no-one is consulted on decisions, and you're handed designs instead, the team can split into factions, everyone with their own ideas about what's best, it completely cripples the team. It's much safer to never even try it, which is why a lot of companies don't.

To be honest, if you've got a lousy lead designer or producer who won't listen to anyone and is driving the game into the ground, that's a problem with the company, and design by committee isn't going to save a game like that.

Your point about "attracting creative people" - this isn't necessarily a good thing. The sayings come to mind: "Too many cooks spoil the broth" and "Too many chiefs, not enough indians". Have you ever worked with a fresh graduate who thinks they know everything and will proclaim "they know what this game needs"? It's exhausting. Have you ever worked with a graduate who says "I don't know anything, but I'm willing to learn and will work hard, let me know how I can help!" - Which would you hire?

Your point about "There are some programmers that are good designers" (see, history, and indie games, etc). As a programmer, you can probably see the logical fallacy here:

"There exists programmers who are good designers, therefore all programmers are good designers."

I would point you to the thousands of failed games that are released every year - for every well designed game there are literally thousands of failures with terrible design.

Your point about "losing the most creative programmers if you don't let them design" - actually, I've found the opposite - that the most successful programmers career-wise have been those who didn't demand design input and were happy to focus on the programming. They'd tend to be quiet ones in the corner that are sick of everyone arguing all day and would rather just fix bugs and implement features. The sort that get their work done quickly and go home on time and actually maintain a sensible work life balance.

Alan Barton
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No one knows everything and everyone make mistakes. That's life. That isn't a reason to exclude people from contributing ideas.

@"do you think it's worth EVERY programmer doing that"
That's a straw man argument and you are attacking the straw man. People need to be allowed to contribute ideas. Its their choice, that doesn't mean they will all be contributing and even the ones who do choose to contribute ideas won't be doing it all day long every day. A designer is doing the work every hour of every day, so they still get far more into the design than anyone else.

Yes expediency is vital on all projects because every project is consuming vital finite resources such as time and money. However the assertion that allowing people to speak undermines expediency, is a Logical Fallacy and it is a tyranny. Yes the initial act of dictating to the workforce saves time initially, but that assumes the dictation is right. That is an assumption, not a fact and its easy to show that kind of thinking leads to mistakes and wasted time and money. Not least of which, if the dictation is wrong, they waste time and money. I've seen so many times how evidence exists that the dictation is wrong, but the dictator doesn't want to hear the evidence. Therefore their failure to want to hear they can be wrong is why they fool themselves into believing they are right. Everyone closed to wanting to hear from others runs the risk of fooling themselves and they place themselves at a competitive disadvantage against anyone who's open to learn more.

Determining right from wrong requires evidence. If anyone can provide evidence then we should all be happy to listen to that evidence. The end goal is to make the best product possible in the given time. If they cannot provide evidence, then their idea is opinion not fact. Also if others can provide evidence to the contrary, that also has to be taken into consideration.

Also all products (not just games) have to have a product designed for a target audience and a marketing strategy to go with it. That sets the overall direction and overall goals for all work on the project. When I've been a team lead, the one overriding feeling I've always had is that being a leader is like the old say, "herding cats". The point being, the people leading the project do set a direction and overall goals, but within that direction they must allow the people on the team some freedom because the people on that team will want some freedom of thought. All leads on a project need to encourage everyone on the project and making people feel their ideas counts is vital in achieving that. Openness is vital.

Also all product design is a risk. There are any number of reasons products can fail. That doesn't make a tyranny a means of reducing risk, it actually increases the potential risks. The only way to mitigate as much risk as possible, is to listen to as much evidence as possible.

Encouraging everyone to think scientifically and openly when designing a product will help to improve the product whist reducing the potential risks. The alternative is running the company like a tyranny which will fail for many reasons.

Its not hard then to see which has the better chance of success. Encouraging everyone to think scientifically and openly reduces risks, creates happier workers, and has better potential to find better and faster ways to produce better products. The rewards are very clear.

Andrew Pedersen
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First, I'm glad to see a lively discussion around this topic. There are a wide variety of ways you can harness the passion and talent your team outside of hackathons. Skyrim's (and Google's) approach of dedicating a % of dev time to "cool new things" is another. Personally, I prefer hackathons as they provide an opportunity for folks on the team to cross over into other disciplines, work with folks they don't traditionally interact with and share ideas. The other benefit is a hackathon is an event, something to look forward to, participate and celebrate. Regardless of the name or structure of the program, the bottom line is we work with talented people who have innovative ideas and solutions to tough problems – give them a platform to do so and I believe you will be impressed with what they create.

Alan Barton
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I don't know if I would use the word lively. I'm finding it very deeply depressing. With some of the attitudes here, its left me feeling there is no point programmers wanting to design games or even learning more games design, (so what is the point of Hackathons) because the designers show here they will play passive aggressive out of insecurity of their own position in these bigger companies, to actively resent programmers wanting to design games. Of course they express their resentment with words like you don't respect designers or trust designers, which is short hand for get out of my area and don't question or add anything to the design.

Its so ironic. Games Programmers study for so many years and are encouraged to study and then when we do study for decades, that's seen as a negative. Doomed if you try and doomed if you don't. :(

I guess this is another aspect of what was discussed in this thread and I see there is now over 80 posts on it. :( … its very clearly hit a very deep nerve in our industry.

I guess this is another big driving force for the growth of indie development where the creative programmers are getting out of these increasingly stifling work atmospheres to start their own companies or work in the smaller development companies, where they are allowed to wear more than one hat without fear of chastisement for daring to want to contribute to the games design.

Very depressing. I'm looking for a new job now, but if creative programmers are being seen as such a negative these days, I'll have to give up with most bigger games companies. I love games, but I don't have the money to start my own company. Frankly I don't know what to do.

For what its worth, I like the Google method of 20% as that can be saved up and used in bursts. I hear a lot of Google's new services have grown out of the 20% projects. It shows programmers want to be creative and it shows they can be a success when they are allowed.

I think another very interesting way to encourage programmers is Value's very unusual company structure. I guess no solution is perfect, so I'm sure it has its problems, but that said, I find Valve a very interesting company who are doing incredibly well for themselves. Their projects (as far as I understand it), are kind of using evolution to find what lives and what dies!. Its kind of like using a Genetic Algorithm applied to project selection!. Its interesting that when its thought of as a Genetic Algorithm, its no wonder its working and I think that is also how Google's 20% works and also how Hackathons can work. If someone in a Hackathon can hit on an amazing idea, its allowed to live in that company.

I think there is another thing Google, Value and Hackathon running companies have in common. These kinds of companies are usually run by programmers. Its no wonder then, that they can see how to get the best out of programmers and why they are so successful in such deeply technical industries. There is a very important message there, which all games companies can learn from. How many will though. :( ... I guess that's an oppotunity for the companies that do get it.