Leadership in the game industry is a very important topic to discuss. Before diving headfirst into Seth Spaulding II’s book, Team Leadership in the Game Industry, let me discuss what brought me here. As a 3rd year Game Design student at Full Sail University that is finishing up a leadership class, I have discovered many things about leadership in the game industry that I was previously unaware of, further strengthening the proposition that leadership in the game industry needs become a topic with an urgency of discussion. We need to bring this topic to the forefront of the minds of studio management in order to produce higher quality, and more efficient, results from the game industry; but even more so from the individuals that work within it’s framework. The reasons for this are many, and most of what I learned came from studying, Team Leadership in the Game Industry. What follows is a short summary of some of the finer points of this book, and what spawned the profound growth, as a leader, that I have gained from it’s contents.
As is often the case, the book begins with, what I believe, is the boldest statement found within its contents.”… one of the aspects of the job that I’ve always found challenging is the scarcity of strong team leaders, the misguided criteria we typically employ to select leads, the lack of support we make available to leads once in place, and the disasters experienced by teams, projects, and companies due to these conditions…(Spaulding, pp 1).” To me, what made this statement so profound that it stuck with me throughout the rest of the book, was that this statement is made by Spaulding himself; a man employed in a leadership role in this very industry for 12 years (at the time the book was written). This particular chapter continues this topic of discussion. The main idea to be gained from it is that the game industry, despite all of the great minds and talent found within its disciplines, does not support a climate that is conducive to teaching leaders to be great leaders, but rather giving leadership positions to people that exhibit great skill within their particular craft. This thrusts them into a position where they must demonstrate an entirely new set of skills without any support or preparation to do so (Spaulding, pp 3). This is what so often results in failures that stem, not from the person themselves, but from the lack of support they receive in approaching a project with a completely new mindset. To me, this offered encouragement as a student that is getting the opportunity to develop leadership for this particular industry in a classroom, whereas the game industry is currently comprised of individuals who are “self-taught.” This leaves a large window of opportunity for students like myself in an industry that is in a constant state of transition.
The second chapter of the book pertains to the make-up of a studio; more specifically, to creating an organizational chart. According to Spaulding, one of the best ways to attract and retain skilled people within your company is to establish a company culture that is desirable to prospective talent. Although the book gives many examples of how to do this, the thing that stood out to me the most was in its discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of different sized studios. What stuck out to me was the positive environment for a small-sized studio. I personally have always felt like the game industry was a great place to work because teams seemed so tight-knit; and where else can you find so many like-minded people to call friend, as well as co-worker. According to Spaulding (pp. 25), a small sized studio is the only place to really get a feeling of a “studio-wide,” family type environment. The problems that arise from this, however, far outweigh the positives that I find in this size of a studio. As studios grow, as is the intention of most studios, these employees sometimes find it difficult to adjust to the new setting. Leadership, in particular, has a difficult task as they face the risk of alienating people who are not legacy employees, while at the same time fighting a war on another front in that they have a difficult time letting employees that have fallen behind, which they used to call “family,” be terminated for the good of the company (Spaulding, pp.25). This is what brought me to the appeal of growing within a mid-sized company that seems to hold the ideal environment for growth as an individual and, as a leader, an environment where you are not at as much risk with being over-loaded with too many people reporting to you and having to directly report to your director (Spaulding pp. 31-32). Generally, I thrive in an environment where I feel over-loaded, but I think the best place for growth as an individual, would be in a place with plenty to do yet not too much to wrap my head around.
In the third chapter, Spaulding presents us with how leaders are chosen in the game industry, and how this is a model that needs to be reworked. Many case studies are offered, but one resounding fact stick out. Most bad leadership, from a leadership role, comes from bad management decisions (Spaulding, pp. 71). The reality is that much of upper-level management finds it difficult to place the correct people in the correct roles. This results, many times from trying to move employees up in the leadership chain, and sometimes even laterally, when they exhibit no leadership skills, but rather strength in what they are already doing (Spaulding, pp. 71). The reality is that leadership is a skill set all of its own, and moving highly skilled people into a position in which they have little, to no skill, and out of a position where they are producing quality work, only makes the company, and its projects, suffer.
So what are the leadership traits to look for in a possible lead? In the fourth chapter, Spaulding answers this, and in turn, offers valuable insight to people that may be looking to move into leadership in the game industry. The biggest point I see made in this chapter seems to be a repetitive theme throughout the book; communication. Although I have always felt like I am a great communicator, what changes when you become a leader is that you are no-longer in a role where you communicate at will, you MUST communicate EVERYTHING about the game to another level in the leadership structure (Spaulding, pp. 89). Being in the game industry, communication is always important, but at the leadership level, your communication becomes a two- way street. You must be reported to with full comprehension, and be able to communicate all of that information accurately (Spaulding, pp. 90-91). This is the area in which I feel I need the most work. I need to be prepared to understand all aspects of the game, being reported to by different people. Beyond this, I feel confident in my ability to accurately pass this information on.
In the fifth chapter, I was treated to a variety of leadership styles, as well as a brief summary of the differences between leadership and management. The odd thing to me was that, at first glance (Spaulding, pp.116), it seems as though people would actually be more closely aligned to a management role when FIRST entering a new studio, rather than growing into such a role. This is because, management positions are catered to people who are focused on the company and its projects whereas leadership tends to first serve the needs of the people being led (Spaulding, pp.116). The book then moves into a list of leadership styles. This was great for me because I was able to see styles, like the directive style, that rarely work, while also allowing me to choose my current style based on the strengths I see in myself (Spaulding, pp. 117). From there, I chose a style that I would most like to develop throughout my career; the participative style, which encourage input in decision making that gives highly valuable team members a sense of ownership that gives them emotional attachment to the project and, as a result, the leader (Spaulding, pp. 117).
To this point in my studies, I have remained focused on always working in the field of design; in being a part of the creative beast that, literally, creates the games. In chapter 6, I found myself questioning the role I wanted to take within the game making process. The chapter offers insight into the different leadership roles within the industry, giving lists of responsibilities and qualifications for potential applicants; much like a job listing. It was here that I found myself gravitating towards a production role. The responsibilities of producer seem to encompass all aspects of game creation, from development to the actual business of getting games made. Producers oversee all aspects of development while at the same time, communicating the state of the game to publishers and balancing the budget (Spaulding, pp. 144). This stood out to me because I have always found myself just as interested in the business side of games as I am in development and the creative process.
Chapter 7 discusses leads/directors, and what it is that they are. I could not sum this up any better than by directly quoting Spaulding when he states, “Directors of all disciplines are expected to set cross-project standards. They are the champions of their disciplines to the rest of the company, and are evangelists for the studio to the rest of the industry (pp. 181).” I almost want to lend the term “God Amongst Men,” to this statement. To be a director of you department is, in essence, what all employees should aspire to. Although the title entails more than just being the best at what you do, that is essentially what the title says. Outside of the projects being created by the studio, there is no greater measure of an individuals worth in the industry, and often time, being a director in your field trumps even the projects themselves. Spaulding does a great job of describing this role, in all its glory, and further strengthens this by drawing a parallel between his concepts and the real world. He offers a list of the responsibilities of a director as compiled by attendees of the 2006 Art Director/Art Lead Round Table at GDC. He then points out how many of these traits are synonymous with the exercise found in Chapter 4, “Build Your Ideal Leader” (Spaulding, pp. 181-182).
Dealing with employees that are, in whatever facet, detrimental to the best interests of the company, is one of the most difficult tasks to master as a leader. Unfortunately, this is where I foresee my biggest weakness, and where many leaders fall short. The reality is that in any creative field, it is hard to tell someone that what they are doing isn’t up to par for any reason. Especially in an industry where talented people are employed because of their demonstrated strengths, it’s difficult to admit to yourself that they are no longer a positive factor to the team. Often times, it is not identifying these people that is the problem, but rather in dealing with the situation quickly and effectively. Spaulding describes his own difficulties in this particular area of leadership when he says, “Some of the biggest regrets I have as a manager involve failing to act quickly and decisively after becoming aware of difficulties” (Spaulding, pp. 215) This is what has inspired me to actually take up practicing “terminating” some of my friends as practice (It beats watching re-runs of Donald Trump in reality television).
Spaulding’s final chapter shows us the light at the end of the tunnel, offering us many possible results of great team leadership. The good doesn’t come without offering a stark contrast in mood however. Among the list of great possible outcomes he does identify, he makes a point to say that great leadership does not directly result in making great games, and, being that this is the ultimate goal, it is discouraging to know that no matter how great of a leader you are, you can’t do it alone (Spaulding, pp. 243). One of the greatest bits of insight he offers is that, “Great games are made by great teams, not by great individuals in any area…” (Spaulding, pp. 243). Among all of the great things that result from great leadership, you are never guaranteed a great game. There is, however, one quote that summarizes what leadership can accomplish; one that resonates with me as a newly-discovered, future leader in the game industry: “Solid team leaders, however, will probably make your games better, and will definitely allow your company to focus more on making a game great and less on simply getting a game through the development cycle” (Spaulding, pp. 244).
So where do we go from here? With the foundations built from the study of Team Leadership in the Game Industry, we are outfitted with a better understanding of the state of the industry in regard to leadership today, what kind of leaders we are, what kind of leaders we can become, how to become the better leader we want to be, and the results of exhibiting this type of leadership. We have to start these changes in the industry now. Unfortunately, many of the failures of the industry are rooted in the way it chooses and supports its leaders. The sad truth is that, not only is there nothing being done about it, but most people in management aren’t even aware. Although the biggest thing to accomplish now is to spread awareness about these issues, we CANNOT stop there. I end here with a quote from George Clooney from his 2012 appearance on “Inside The Actors Studio”: “Knowing about something does not change it, and never has.” He went on to say, “Shining a light on something does not, ever, make it simply go away.”
Spaulding. Team Leadership in the Game Industry. Cengage Learning US, 2009. (pp. 1-244).