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IGDA Forum: BioWare's Doctors On The Power Of  Leadership

IGDA Forum: BioWare's Doctors On The Power Of Leadership

November 8, 2007 | By Christian Nutt, Leigh Alexander

November 8, 2007 | By Christian Nutt, Leigh Alexander
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As part of the IGDA Leadership Forum held in San Francisco, BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have been discussing their company's history, touching on the multiple phases of growth, all the way to their recent acquisition by Electronic Arts.

What is leadership? Considering the question, BioWare's Muzyka stated, "It's really your choice to be a leader, and how to be a leader, and what kind of leader you are." The Baldur's Gate and Mass Effect developer's co-founder presented the issue as part of the 2007 IGDA Forum session titled "Lessons in Leadership," where-in BioWare was presented as a case study in leadership.

Fellow co-founder and doctor Greg Zeschuk also participated, recalling the early days of the development studio. "We were really nascent leaders, trying to figure out how this all worked. We tried to focus on only making really great games. It seemed logical for us to try and strive to make great games -- now, 13 or 14 years later, we really understand what that means -- it's a very serious commitment."

Since then, said Zeschuk, "We've really learned that asking good questions is something a leader has to do. If you're a really great leader, you are asking more questions than you're giving answers, making people think."

He added, "We didn't worry about expressing our values or goals -- we just found employees that understood it."

In The Beginning

As the team opened a new office in 1995 to begin work on the game that would become Baldur's Gate, Zeschuk recalled, "No one really had much of an idea what we were doing ... no one had worked on a game before." Shortly after the opening of the new office, the team pitched to five publishers and eventually signed with Interplay for Baldur's Gate.

Even at that point, as Zeschuk recalled, they were essentially two different teams -- Shattered Steel and Baldur's Gate. "Eventually we started to think about how we could do things differently. We had lots of enthusiasm," he said.

By the time the next office opened, housing some 120 staff members, Zeschuk noted that they seemed to need more structure. After a few discussions, he and Muzyka created a new management technique called "the Matrix," which they thought had never been done before -- "until we went to business school and discovered it had been done for hundreds of years," Zeschuk said.

They still use the Matrix system, demonstrated at the Forum with a chart that resembles a tic-tac-toe board to organize projects by worker type -- workers are listed horizontally and projects, vertically, and at every intersection point there is a lead.

"The thing you never want to do in a matrix is have competing bosses, so it's really important you arrange these correctly," Zeschuk advised. "A lot of our time over the years has been making sure our matrix is working correctly."

Defining The Core Values

After the release of Shattered Steel, the BioWare team began work on MDK2. They continued working on the Baldur's Gate games and began a third project as well. "Running 3 simultaneous projects presented a really tough challenge," Muzyka recalled, as he and Zeschuk could only run one project each.

BioWare highlights "quality in our workplace and quality in our products" as its essential core values, so given the increased workload, "We had to find a way to explain quality that was memorable and easy to understand," said Muzyka, noting some people thought the one word, "quality," was too vague.

"Eventually, we added 'in a context of humility and integrity,' because there didn't seem to be enough of that in the industry!" Muzyka said. At that point, he went to MBA school to better develop BioWare's management process.

Before long the studio had grown again, and Zeschuk and Muzyka saw many team members leave, those accustomed to working relationships as opposed to roles. But, as Muzyka said, they still found "Governing many is the same as governing few, it's just a matter of division into groups," quoting Sun Tzu.

"We never really had an exit strategy," Muzyka said. "We've been asked many times. It was more about the journey, less about the end point. That's still true for us. We're really having fun and we really want to make a great place for our people, make the best story-driven games in the world."

Partnerships And Accelerated Growth

In 2005, BioWare was acquired by Elevation Partners. "We learned a great deal from them in the 2 years or so we worked woith them," commented Muzyka. "We really came to appreciate the value of having partners [like Pandemic], and that's why we're really excited to be joined with EA."

He added, "One of the funny jokes we say is 'hey, we sold the company twice and we still get to run it!' When it comes to the fans on the boards who are upset at where we're at, we just say 'don't worry -- we'll show you."

Amid all this positive growth, was there anything BioWare wished they didn't do, like downsizing or killing projects?

"We've never downsized, but we have had to realign projects.. we've killed projects," said Ray. "We were going to do Shattered Steel 2, but Shattered Steel didn't sell well enough to justify that.. We're both medical doctors. The way it worked is that we graduated in '92 as doctors and we practiced as doctors for a few years ... we founded BioWare in '95, and for the first few years we didn't pay ourselves but worked on the weekends to keep ourself in soup and beans... we had faith in the people, and faith in the vision, and the good thing was we were really nave."

Adds Zeschuk: "It was also our environment... it's not like there was this huge bunch of game developers that flow in and out of the company, so we learned how important each individual was. At the end of the day we felt like every person is like gold. Every person is so important... even as we get bigger. That's one of the really important balance points for the company."

Striking the Right Balance

Concluded Muzyka, "I think one of the challenges we always run into is balancing the three core values.... if you think quality in workplace and quality in products are kind of directly opposed... when you add entrepreneurship into the mix you're asking people to be profitable..." dynamics which are opposed.

What about talent recruitment and retainment? "It's hard to say if there's any one source of talent," Muzyka replied. "Everyone's got their little bit to play. There are a couple of dynamics going on ... there's the existing source of talent, but what's really scary is the dropout rate... there's this issue of making sure we create a sustainable place, and that people think it's worth staying in."

"The whole 'Generation Y' discussion is a management challenge -- you have to manage the gen Y folks in a different way," adds Zeschuk. "Create the environments that are sustainable, and the Gen-Y folks want to stay in.

Continued Muzyka, "As a leader, especially as the organization gets bigger, even the little pieces of time you can give people are valuable. As the leader, I think you forget you're the lifeline of sanity for people... if you're never around, and never meeting with people I think you really get disconnected. Even just any small time you can give is valuable."

Maintaining Values Amid Tough Decisions

Muzyka and Zeschuk were also asked about the hardest decisions they've had to make as leaders. "For us, it always comes down the balance between the values.. we realize something doesn't feel quite right, and we have to step back and figure out why our intuition is telling us it's not quite right," Muzyka explained. "We have to step back and make sure we have the right people in the room and make sure we can solve this... we try to find solutions that are, at worst, neutral for all three groups."

Added Zeschuk, "You might think the acquisition decisions are the tough ones, but in reality they aren't--" provided the values are applied consistently.

What about the strategy for conveying these team values without sounding trite or corporate? "We talk about them a lot," explains Muzyka. "We have studio meetings every month or so where we present new games, and we try to make sure that employees hear things from us first before reading about it."

"I think it's incredible repetition..." Added Zeschuk. "We're not kidding."

Continued Muzyka, "I think the important thing about core values is 'don't break them...' that's why we added integrity and humility. It's about reliable repetition and really following through. If you do break them, admit it -- that's being humble. We've always found that to be the easiest policy. It's easier for us to tell the truth and just focus on integrity. Humility... you can be very aggressive still, and very hungry. It doesn't mean weak and soft... it's a really strong word if you approach it in that way.. When you apply humility and integrity, that made our values rock-solid."

"When we're making those tough decisions, we call them out," Zeschuk continued. "It's not just the words on a card, it's something we actually use... values are most valuable when you can actually implement them in some way."

Muzyka concluded, "We've never written our values on a piece of paper... we never hand them out. We just talk about them and use them."


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