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GDC 2002: Moving to Multiple Projects

May 15, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

After completing their first game, many developers undertake the challenge of growing their company. Making the transition from a single game to multiple games is no small feat. Systems, processes, and organization need to evolve as a company grows in size. In this feature the founders of Bioware, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, discussing their experiences growing Bioware from a single-project developer to one handling multiple projects (from three to five projects, depending on size and scope). During the course of Bioware's six-year history, the company has grown from two people in a basement to more than 120 employees.

The goal of this article is to build a solid foundation of ideas that need to be considered when growing a company - this is an overview, not a discussion of the smaller points. We strongly believe that to move from single to multiple projects you first need to understand and manage growth. Our goal with this article is to outline the changes that occur as you attempt to transform from a single team company into a multiple project studio.

Why Grow?

One of the first questions that must be answered when you are contemplating growth is "why grow?" With the answer in hand you might decide that growth is too costly. Or you might decide that growth helps lead you to your ultimate vision for your company.

Regardless of what choice you make, our opinion is you must only grow with a full knowledge of the impact of your actions.

At Bioware our reasons for growth were simple: we wanted to develop more than one product at a time, we wanted to leverage technology development quickly across multiple projects and platforms, and we wanted to provide a variety of opportunities for the people that work at the company. We were somewhat aware of the changes to the company that would occur with growth, but experiencing the growth firsthand gave us tremendous insight into impact the growth had on Bioware. Consequently we believe we can share our views and help advise others in positive growth strategies.

What are good reasons to grow?
There are a number of good reasons to grow. Some of the reasons are readily apparent before the growth happens while others are more subtle. We list some of the more important reasons to consider growing your company:

Stability. With a multi-project company you have at least one significant benefit: multiple projects mean multiple chances for success. Another possibility for stability with multiple projects is having multiple publishers - it's wise to have more than one publisher in order to minimize your risk in case one publisher has difficulties. At Bioware we initially had multiple projects with a single publisher, but we have since started working with other publishers to limit our exposure in the case of instability in any of our publishers.

Larger Workforce. With a larger company and multiple projects you will likely employ more people than a single project company. One positive aspect of having multiple projects running is that ability to conscript people from other projects to help in the very final stages of the game. Often these fresh faces can bring enthusiasm for the big final push to get the game out the door. At Bioware we typically conscript people even just to play the game and find bugs near the end of the project - every little bit helps.

Career Growth Path. With multiple projects there is a need for multiple project leads. As people gain knowledge and skill they will desire progression in their careers. By having new projects occurring within the same company over time, you'll provide new senior positions for people who have earned their stripes. At Bioware we promote from within and try to match the desires of our people with the number of projects and the roles on those projects.

Technology Leveraging. With multiple projects it makes sense to leverage technology developed at the company across multiple projects. This lead to two benefits: the architects of the technology at the company can easily make modifications to the technologies on an as-needed basis for the various teams that use it, and the training time is reduced if people from within the company are added to a project that uses a familiar development environment. At Bioware we have independent Tools, Graphics, AI/Networking, Production Art, and Animation groups that work on common technologies and systems across all of our games, as well as making significant customizations to the technology for each game. The added benefits are each game can inherit the advances made for the other games and people that join projects from other teams normally are up and running quickly.

Company-wide Process Improvements. As your company grows things that might not have been practical to implement at a smaller size such as financial systems, human resources departments, and full-time systems/network administrators can be justified. If implemented wisely these systems and processes can provide benefits to your employees and company such as benefits programs, better financial controls (banks and other sources of finances such as publishers will like this), and less network downtime.

Ever Greater Revenues. Provided your games continue to succeed at the same level when less were being made you should see increased revenue growth as your company increases in size. Also, with more projects being released you should see a stabilization of cash flows -- at a one-project company cash flow can vary greatly in years in which products are not released.

What will you lose when you grow?
With growth comes sacrifice and change, which can be tumultuous and painful if not carefully prepared for. This section describes some of the things that will change when you grow:

Feeling of Family. One of the most special experiences in the game industry is sitting down with a number of like minded peers and working extremely hard as a group to create an impressive game. There is an incomparable feeling of camaraderie when working in this type of tight knit group. At a certain point your studio can lose this if you grow too large. At Bioware we noticed the first, most significant change in atmosphere after we passed forty to fifty people - something was different about the company- not necessarily bad, just different. We still work very hard to maintain a family feeling, but it gets harder with each employee we add.

Daily Knowledge of Activities. When your company is small you are aware of everything that is going on with everyone on a daily basis. As you grow there comes a point when you don't necessarily see everyone every day, and you can no longer keep up with what is going on. Effective delegation can combat this problem, but often the result is a second-hand information flow, rather than a direct recounting of events from individuals directly involved. This has become very apparent recently at Bioware where we've put in a number of systems to resolve problems that arise - we often hear about things after they are fixed completely without our involvement. It's a strange feeling (disquieting, yet extremely satisfying in many ways) to discover that things can run quite efficiently without you…J

Intimate Product Knowledge. It is very difficult to know more than one game inside and out. If your company is working on three or four it gets even worse. One advantage we have at Bioware is that as co-executive producers, each of us pays particular attention to certain games - that way we can share our attention across multiple projects. We also have wonderful and talented leads on our projects that we can depend on.

Deciding to Grow

One recommended technique is to look at the above reasons for growth, weigh the costs and benefits and make a conscious decision to grow only if it is worth it. After weighing the pros and cons, then decide how large you want to be -- this is important as there is a considerably different approach in becoming a 30 person development studio compared to a 1000 person publishing operation. Make a conscious decision what you want to do and set goals to attain your targets. We consciously decided we wanted Bioware to be able to support between three and five projects at any one time (some large and some small), and we have grown accordingly.

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