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Building the Right Team & Culture: Square Enix Montréal
by Mads Prahm on 07/09/12 01:26:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


Late last year I was presented with the opportunity to relocate from Copenhagen to Montréal, to help set up a new game studio and build a new game development team from scratch. For me, the chance to be part of creating the studio culture from the start was a very exciting opportunity, so once I had convinced my family to join me on this adventure, we made the move.

Some of the team working away in the temporary space... I love the start-up feel we have right now!Some of the team working away in the temporary space... I love the start-up feel! 

This spring, we made our first crucial handful of hires and started the conception of a new Hitman game. The goals for the project are to create innovative, new game features, exciting worlds for players to immerse themselves in, and to set the bar for what future games will look like. We want to develop features that have never been seen before in games and improve on known features that will work better than anything gamers have tried before.

So, how do you build a plan that will reliably create innovation? The recipe is actually pretty simple: you start with a group of bright, passionate people, and you set some very important and challenging goals for them. Then, you empower them to make their own decisions for weeks at a time, where you don’t tell them what to do. Instead, you give them the tools to experiment with and the ability to prototype, iterate and evaluate their own ideas. In my past experience, I have seen variations of this method deliver innovative new game features and experiences.

I have heard that at Google, their employees get to work on their own ideas one day every week -- that's a great concept! When people work on their own ideas, they put all their passion into what they’re doing, and are more effective because they can make the decisions necessary to reach their goals. That’s why, on my team, I want people to work on their own ideas every single day of the week!

So, how is it possible to implement this philosophy to deliver a great, coherent game? It’s all about how you set goals for your teams, and how you empower them to make their own decisions on how to reach those goals. If the goals are inspiring and visionary, and you leave enough room for people to interpret them and make them their own, then you create the possibility for them to take ownership and contribute their own ideas and passion to the game they are making. Goals also need to be ambitious enough to create a bit of tension, or discomfort, that will inspire people to outperform their own expectations, and generate out-of-the-box ideas. You need an ambitious, common vision for what that game is going to be, and everyone on the team needs to buy in to that vision. If people are excited about the vision, then they can put their own passion and their own ideas into realizing it.

It’s also important to find people who really want to work together, and who want to work on a specific part of the game vision; a small team that is ready to take ownership of that part of the game, interpret the game vision, and make it their own. I like to think of this team as a band, where each member contributes with unique talent, skills and ideas. When the band has worked together for a while, they develop their own ways of working, their own identity and sub-culture, and they start believing that they own the game feature that they are working on-- because they do.

Passion is really the fuel that drives this creative machine. In my experience, passion is not something you can teach people, but luckily, it’s contagious! As a producer, it's very easy to kill passion with too much control, but if you give it room to live, it can spread like wildfire. Sometimes, people can be so passionate about their ideas, that they convince their co-workers to create something that isn't in the plan. I call this "pirate work". If you see this from your game team, this means that there are passionate people in it. Celebrate that!

The key thing for me this year is to find smart, talented people who can think for themselves and who I can trust to make the right decisions. I believe in a generous ratio of highly experienced developers who have seen it all, mixed with a selection of younger, passionate people with fresh perspectives, who are excited to break new ground and raise the bar. Above all however, I want to find people who want to help me in creating the best place to work, while also making a great game!

The team as it stands today
The team as it stands today

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Stephen Dinehart
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Great piece Mads! Congrats on your exciting venture in the New World! It's fun to get a peak at your team and space.

Your statements remind me a lot of the philosophy outlined in the Valve handbook leak (however real or unreal).

Now, just for the record, the Valve handbook reminds me of a Walt Disney Productions employee handbook circa 1943.

Innovation is a hard nut to crack, but I certainly believe you guys have the right formula to create fertile creative ground.

Eric McVinney
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Not going to lie, I'm really jealous that you got the opportunity to work at Square-Enix (or at least another branch of) :P

I honestly feel that if everyone were able to have more creative input or be allowed to express their creativity in their projects to share with the company, things would be a lot better for both parties.