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'Democracy is a killer, sometimes, in making games'
'Democracy is a killer, sometimes, in making games'
May 1, 2013 | By Kris Ligman




"Democracy is a killer, sometimes, in making games."
- Richard Tsao, Ubisoft Chengdu's managing director, talks about the unique challenges (and advantages) of game development in the Chinese mainland, in a Siliconera interview.

Richard Tsao began his game development career at Microsoft and Crytek, before moving over to Ubisoft Shanghai. In 2007 he founded Ubisoft Chengdu, where he currently serves as Managing Director. The 180 employee studio in China's Sichuan province was largely responsible for development of 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, a project it took over from Ubisoft Montreal and shipped within a six month turnaround.

"No other studio around Ubisoft would pick this up," Tsao told Siliconera. "They wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. Why? It's like five months to make 80 percent of the game. You know? Who in the right mind would sign up for that? But it was a great opportunity for us."

"There are strengths and weaknesses in every culture," said Tsao, who is Chinese-American. "When they [Chinese developers] have a very strong direction and good leadership they trust in that leadership so wholeheartedly that they will execute and create better quality, faster than any Western game studio that I've ever seen. That includes Blizzard and Valve."

When Ubisoft Chengdu inherited the Scott Pilgrim project from Montreal, only one of its seven levels and one set of characters were complete. "But all the preproduction was done. The whole plan was done," said Tsao. The studio just had to organize itself around following that plan.

Tsao continued:

[In Asia] if you have very good creative leadership and you say this is the direction I want to go Ė we want this color blue. Iím just using blue as an example. Nobody is going to question if that blue is going to be the right blue. What I find the biggest challenge in Western companies is every single person, down to the individual artist, will feel that blue is not the right blue. So, more than half the energy, when creating game in the West is corralling cats, trying to convince them why this blue is the right blue. Donít question the blue, please.


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Comments


Chris Clogg
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I think it needs to be more of a sky-blue really.

Christopher J
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Not sure how it works in Asia but in America, if the color blue is the wrong blue. The leadership isnít the one that gets fired.

Raphael Alexis
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I have to agree to some level. There needs to be a decision-hierarchy and quite frankly, whoever is in charge...is in charge. Still, there should be a platform for team input. Actually, I believe we adopted that style from the Japanese - which I realize does not have a lot in common with China yet still counts as "Asia".

Sticking with your blue example, of course, if I'm the guy in charge of the colors and I say it's gonna be blue, the only real question left for my texture artists would be "what shade?", however, if I had made a mistake and actually wanted something completely else blue...nobody would question me and just see it through even though it looks ridiculous?
As always, perfection is a fickle thing - with flawless leadership "underlings" are not required to think about what they're creating, they just need to create and be done with it. In any other scenario, it's nice to have a security grid of co-workers notifying you of potential errors, risks and so on...even though it does cost time, considerably so when one doesn't have their full trust.
Having people question your every decision is the other extreme and I really have to agree that this ain't best practice.

Christopher J
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As a leader, If you have people constantly questioning your decisions, itís because you have not EARNED their respect. That is not their fault; itís the fault of the leader. Respect is not an entitlement regardless of your ďtitleĒ. For a leader that has earned his respect, this isnít even an issue.

A strong leader can take the information provided by his team, no matter how much info it is, welcomes it in fact, and finds ways to use, or not use that information to the benefit of the team and their goals. A ďgreatĒ leader can find ways to balance it all out, if they canít, then the wrong person is leading the team.

Maria Jayne
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I think there is something to be said for having sole creative control on a games development, the danger is when that creative control produces a crap game nobody wants.

Given games are made by such a large group of people and have so much money spent on their development, I think I see why it is safer to get input from a number of sources on what is "fun".

Of course when that input is the publisher telling you to make it like some other game, perhaps not.

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Jonathan Jennings
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I have worked on a team where every thought , idea, and consideration is explored. sometimes it's nice but if you always have to receive a thumbs up from everybody on every implementation, idea, or mechanic, it cripples the speed of your development process. because while anyone can spit out an idea at anytime , it is a much bigger task to collect every and get approval . it doesn't have to be bad but again once EVERY suggestion is explored it can really hinder a projects progress.

Michael Pianta
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I don't have professional game development experience, but in other creative projects it has been my experience that SOMEONE has to be in charge. A smart leader will still listen to input and respond, but someone has to have creative control so that decisions can just be settled. Otherwise nothing ever gets done and the project becomes incoherent.

Simon Ludgate
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I think there are two interpretations worth considering.

A) If you are confident in the process that produces the blue, then you shouldn't question the blue.

B) On the other hand, if you have no process that produces the blue or if you have good reason to DISTRUST the process that produces the blue, then you probably should question the blue.

I think the problem with some American studios isn't the democracy or the questioning of the blue, per say, but in the process by which the blue is derived and delivered.

Joe McGinn
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I know what you mean Simon. But then they will also challenge the process. ;-)

There's a time to stop arguing and get down to doing the work. And Richard doesn't say it's better or worse, but that their are different advantages to different cultures. In China the advantage is that, if you do have the right decisions, the work gets done faster than anywhere.

Obviously, the downside of that is if you have a bad decision no one is going to challenge you on it. So if you are going to work in Asia, the most important thing is to have an experienced top-notch leadership team.

Russell Watson
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Have to agree with this.

Good leadership is great, good leadership should accommodate channels for feedback and structure it as part of the iterative process so the feedback is managed. Don't exercise you're right to feedback on stuff through an established channel? tough, don't complain if its ignored or nothing changes. I've worked on too many projects where feedback is given on the spot by people who have no place in giving it and the feedback is implemented blindly. Things end up not being evaluated in the bigger picture.

However you can only lead if people are willing to follow. I'm find that an increasingly common reason why people distrust the process for producing the colour blue is simple rooted in ego: "i'm right, I'm immensely talented, they dont know what they are talking about".

Or maybe it's just because I'm getting older I'm noticing it .

Remy Trolong
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If the blue has been confirmed in pre-production, you don't have to question the blue. Things have to be clear when you start production. If you're still asking yourself if it's the right blue at this stage, i think you missed your pre-prod objectives.

But someone said to me someday : "Do you know what is a camel? It's a horse drawn by a community"
This should agree with the main article :)

Joe McGinn
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Agree, this is consistent with my experience working in China (and Taiwan). You absolutely need that great leadership and decision making, but if you have that then amazing things can be accomplished because the whole team pulls in the same direction.

Jari Hokkanen
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I do agree with this. Sometimes you just need to lead and not hear any whining.

Thibault Coupart
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Dictature always had the advantage to be more efficient than democracy for accelerating the decision process, nothing new here.

But you deprive your project from individual creativity and ability to bring interesting idea on the game that you would have missed, because you are not perfect and exchanging ideas with colleagues can bring your game to a better state.

Many studios (especially in the social / mobile sphere) go more and more agile, see Wooga website, office and organization, you have a small team responsible for one project and no hierarchical constraints, and it works quite well : third world facebook developer right now...

You can manage a team by giving orders, but being able to motivate people so that they will work for your project with passion by themselves is definitely better..

Tom DuBois
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Did anyone else play Scott Pilgrim the game? Wasn't very good. Was the point you can ship a mediocre game by sticking to a plan?

Sun Moon Hwang
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I've noticed something in the Asian game industry while working there - Feedback is a taboo, challenging the hierarchy. Feedback is taken personally and leadership/dictatorship is mainly created by lack of communication- not because it was the right direction.

So working in the American game industry where culturally you can discuss whether blue should be blue is a great because...I agree with John Stewart Mill who said "There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation."

Now if you want to make games cheap and fast, China should do the job. But remember the golden rule - you can not get good quality if you want cheap and fast. (Unless you are cheating!)

Jonathan Jennings
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I think the old statement is :

Cheap,
Fast,
Good

choose two lol.

Sun Moon Hwang
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Yes. Choose two. lol.

Yiannis Koumoutzelis
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Jonathan it is an old but mostly valid method of making core decisions for production. Not all three are possible in most cases, unless we talk about a burger, pasta, pizza, or a hot dog :P

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Yiannis Koumoutzelis
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Every time there is a debate of such nature, that is, if it is better to follow direction or design by committee look this definition up: Movie Director.

A good leader WILL listen to his team, (would be an idiot if not) but he will do as he must according to the plan, because it is he/she who has a solid vision of the task ahead and what the whole product should become. There is time for discussion, and there is time to fall in line and proceed with production as planned. After pre-production all team members should be focused towards the agreed goal. Only improvements that do not re-align unless there was a serious failure during planning should be entertained. After all said and done, and democracy aside, it is the leader who is responsible for the success of the project, not a developer/artist intern. Same as every good leader should listen to his team, a good team should support the leader's choice with full heart and abilities!

Some times the ideas fit, some times they don't. Companies spend a lot of time and money to make sure, the person they hire is not only good at what they do, but also a good fit for the company culture and management. That also means a person more likely to fall in line with the rest of the team. A concept that it is also debatable but after many years in the industry i think it is better to be safe than sorry. It sucks blowing an entire team and a project of millions in the air, because of one unfortunate choice.

There must be a reason why in every job ad for producers/product managers/directors they talk about someone who can inspire, AND be the standard bearer, maintaining entire team's focus on the goal. You think it is a coincidence? I think not.

There are good examples of both strategies, but i would think that the Directed approach has achieved far more than the communal approach. Think about it. Even in the most modern approach. Which projects got the biggest support in Kickstarter? Communal or directed?

Zack Wood
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Great article. I envied and admired how people in Japan were capable of working hard on something without constantly questioning the leader or wanting to do their own thing or whatever (how Americans always are).


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