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