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Ted Price explains the Insomniac approach to creative leadership
Ted Price explains the Insomniac approach to creative leadership
February 5, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

February 5, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC, Production



What does it take to lead a creative team in today's game industry?

"It all boils down to one word: 'courage,'" said Ted Price, CEO of Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developer Insomniac Games.

In a (very unfortunately titled) talk at this year's D.I.C.E. Summit, "Trust & Ballz," Price explained his mentality for leading his studio.

"We're still independent in an industry where most of our competitors have become part of larger companies or moved out altogether," Price noted. "We are fortunate to have more wins than losses."

Price is the company's CEO, but claims he has to constantly force himself to not meddle in the creative process of the developers he's delegated creative roles to. Some comments from developers under him have shook him to the core.

When leading the original Resistance for the PlayStation 3 launch, he said, he felt amazed by what he had achieved along with his team. But this is the feedback he got: "I have no idea why you're the creative lead on this project, you're a total bottleneck," said one developer. "You're supposed to be the CEO and thinking about long-term strategy."

He decided to step back from creative decisions, but found himself unable to stop meddling. Eventually, a creative lead came to him and said this: "I don't care anymore. Just tell me what you want me to do."

"Those I had delegated to became disenfranchised," said Price. "Leads were terrified that I would step in and second-guess them...what I didn't realize was that I was stripping away the creative authority I delegated."

"My comments resulted in changes to the games that drove the creative directors up the wall," says Price. " As I do less and less on the creative side, my real role has become apparent: That's removing roadblocks to creativity."

Trust

A lack of trust "poisons any creative endeavor," says Price. Here are his three secrets to building trust:

Creating transparency. "We struggle daily to communicate creative decisions and why they're made," says Price. The team has experimented with many ways to do so, but here's his main hint: "In this day of electronic communication face-to-face communication is often the most effective way of getting your point across."

Fostering honest communication. "Are people just being polite or are they just telling us what we want to hear?" Price asks. "Figuring out a way to encourage honesty, with creative issues especially, is really important." Insomniac has instituted a group meeting for creative leads where "bluntness is a requirement."

Allowing mistakes. "A culture where mistakes are frowned on absolutely crushes creativity," says Price. "If they're punished for failure, you're screwed." Price related a story of a creative decision he made on Resistance 2 that players and critics hated. He told his team, "if you think you screwed up, don't worry -- I screwed up bigger than you have."

He tells his team "Go big and fail. Taking creative risks is not only okay, it's required in a business like games development."

Ballz

Though most any other word would have been a better choice, Price stuck with "ballz" ("with a Z") as his word for courage and willingness to act. What precepts come from that need?

Accountability. "It's really hard to tell people when they're screwing up," says Price. It's something he struggles with daily. "A lot of people hate confrontation," he notes, but there is a major challenge here: "When you don't hold people accountable for not getting the job done, those who get the job done leave."

Decisiveness. When it comes to being a creative lead, "you've got to be the rock, and say, 'Here's what we're doing,'" says Price. "They're looking for you not to waffle." In game development, he says, "We take too much time to make decisions. We get gridlocked. We're all familiar with the creative soup that is making games, and when you're in that soup it's really easy to avoid making a decision."

Vulnerability. To create a culture where all of the above is possible, says Price, you need to be vulnerable as a leader. What does that mean? "Being vulnerable is being able to be challenged on anything. It means being able to admit it when you're wrong." The team has weekly playtests for its in-production games, with blunt feedback encouraged from everyone on the team. The leads are "willing to be vulnerable, and be challenged on the decisions they're making -- but this only works if we, as leaders, are willing to do it."

Price shared these thoughts as part of a presentation at the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, which runs through tomorrow.


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Comments


Jon Fox
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I can hardly trust the "Insomniac games" method of leadership when their entire business plan is "Let's have one good idea, then ride it until it's a bloody mess streaked across the pavement". Especially the part about having Ballz. This from the company that had a really interesting looking trailer for Fuze, then stuck their tail between their legs to create another generic first person shooter that may as well have been titled "Gears of War, but with magic guns" because their publisher mommy said "No."

All hopes ride on Sunset Overdrive as of now.

Christian Nutt
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It seems a bit harsh to hang all of the Fuse blame on Insomniac when there was a publisher in the mix. I'm not saying I know the story either, mind you, but at least I allow for the benefit of the doubt.

Jon Fox
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Don't get me wrong I'm sure they have talent. I mean, they're able to keep making games somehow. It just seems to me they have a peculiar habit of being "In the right place at the right time". Spyro is a popular series, but only because it was a popular type of game to make back in the days of PS1 same goes for Ratchet and Clank. Resistance was a popular title, but a good portion of that is due to the original Resistance being a launch title for PS3. Resistance was a pretty straight forward FPS for its time.

But the very existence of Sunset Overdrive and what used to be FUSE tells me that they're are at least trying to create something new and exciting, which is more than can be said about most game developers these days. However, intent and implementation are two very different things.

Freek Hoekstra
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like he said you can fail as long as you learn from your mistakes,
having the soul sucked out of that game was a terrible decision, and one they probably won't make again.

one can hardly fault someone for one failure, only when it's repeated can you truly blaim someone

Steve Peters
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Let's not forget that EA was providing the financial backing for Fuze, and Insomniac would have signed a contract that would have given EA authority to have the final say in anything, and the ability scrap any ideas they deemed "too risky". Insomniac was legally responsible for obeying essentially any orders EA laid out, and there would have been repercussions if they did not. Let's not judge the developer who gave us the good Spyro games, the ever charming Ratchet and Clank series and Resistance, based on one creatively inhibited endeavor.

Jon Fox
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See, that to me seems like a scapegoat these days, especially when EA is concerned. Sure, EA is a dick with no brain but I feel like no one ever TRIES to stand up to them in any way because EA just waves their wallet around and threatens to cut funding. Truthfully no one really knows what goes on in EA's circles because they keep that underwraps, but whenever something bad comes out it eventually comes out that EA was to blame. I'm just questioning whether the developer could also be to blame for not standing up for themselves.

David Fried
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Oddworld stood up to EA, and the marketing budget for Oddworld : Stranger's Wrath was stripped bare. End result? Stranger's Wrath (an amazing game for its time, and critically acclaimed to this day) sold poorly and Oddworld had to shut down. It's funny too because EA went out of their way to convince us that they were "different" now, and wanted to "support creative games." But when Lorne wouldn't fall in line and do exactly what they wanted, they screwed us in order to "prove" they were right.

So yeah, EA is a valid excuse. Just look at any company EA has bought and any game that comes out after the purchase compared to before. You can pretty much hear the timer ticking down until the talent leaves.

Ron Dippold
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Can I buy some Ballz with these Beenz or Flooz I still have lying around?

Ara Shirinian
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Re: ""I don't care anymore. Just tell me what you want me to do.""

I have experienced this effect from several different angles. In the worst cases I have seen people who otherwise produce masterful elegant work churn out dismal quality (approved by management of course) due to the results of these kinds of managerial behaviors. They check out because the work dynamic is telling them their own expert faculties can no longer be relied upon.

In addition to what's mentioned here, the essence of the problem often is due to the reality that the manager simply is not in the logistical position to make the best creative decisions. At best they do not have the time nor the depth of low level systematic familiarity to properly struggle through all the myriad subtleties and tradeoffs that led the developer to arrive at the work result that they did on their own. In these cases, what managers often forget is that the decisions the developer made was careful, measured, and often factored in many more critical considerations outside of the manager's awareness.

It is so unfortunate that so many of us had to go through one or more development cycles to learn this lesson the hard way. It is even more unfortunate knowing that many more will have to crush spirits/ have their spirit crushed before learning from this too.

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Michael Joseph
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You blame the environment for that? Sounds like a people problem. If you don't have the right people with the right attitudes and understanding and talent, then no... it's not going to work.

Real teams don't feel like democratized environments when the members know and respect each others abilities. The types of problems you see with everyone having an opposing opinion and questioning every decision often occurs when the trust and respect for the talents of their teammates breaks down... assuming it ever existed.

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Daniel Backteman
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Extra Credits coincidently just released a video addressing this creative philosophy: "Fail Faster".

Iteration is the way to go, failing paves the way. Trying to design/create something perfect from the get-go, and not accepting anything other than perfection, is shooting yourself in the foot.


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