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Book Excerpt: How Game Developers Choose Leaders
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Book Excerpt: How Game Developers Choose Leaders

March 30, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next

[In an extract from his new book, Team Leadership In The Game Industry, Firaxis veteran Seth Spaulding uses key examples to demonstrate how to pick leaders and discipline-specific leads within your own game development firm.]

So how do companies select leads? In most cases, it's a very rational process. The scenario from the company's perspective involves finding and developing new leaders as the company grows and project teams are added.

The company ideally started with strong department leaders with good management skills and a talented and energetic production staff. The need to develop leaders from the production group emerges with the company's growth.

The Ideal and the Real

The goal is always to find the right people and match them to the right role within the company. Assuming an ideally staffed and well-functioning studio, an individual production employee is seen during the course of a development cycle to demonstrate an inclination to work with others and does so effectively, usually through mentoring and in group feedback sessions at early stages.

They are recognized for their work ethic and sense of responsibility to (and sometimes beyond) their specific task lists, and as such they are offered a position as a specialist lead or sub-lead at the time these become available. At this level, they work for a project cycle or perhaps two under the supervision and mentorship of experienced art leads, other specialist leads, and the art director, from whom they receive guidance in the duties of their new role.

From there, if they prefer to remain at the specialist lead level or return to the role of senior artist, that path is open and ideally just as attractive a career option as the management track. If instead they continue to show aptitude and desire for greater leadership opportunities, they may continue to move into a greater management role, possibly as an art lead on future projects, inspiring their teams and building morale across the company.

Unfortunately, there are several possible points of failure in this sunny scenario, which seem to occur with regrettable regularity in the games industry. The most prevalent points originate from the first two assumptions -- that a studio is fully staffed and well functioning. The sad fact is, no company in my direct experience has ever been ideally staffed. The result is that the candidate pool for leaders in an organization is probably going to be sub-optimal, particularly when a studio moves to multi-project development.

Even if your company is staffed with a dream team of talented, experienced, and driven individuals, there is no guarantee that any of them are going to have the aptitude or desire to manage. The possible solutions then amount to selecting a candidate for a lead position with reservations about his or her potential for the role or looking outside the company for a candidate who more closely meets the job description.

Either choice can be problematic; indeed, for a small developer, the latter may be impossible. Due to production schedules, it may be highly unlikely that even a mid-size developer would choose to begin a possibly lengthy search when the need of an individual to fill the role is immediate.

The second assumption -- often unspoken -- is that a studio is well functioning or perhaps rationally functioning. As far as lead selection goes, the issues of favoritism or nepotism and simple inexperience do exist and, in the case of favoritism, can be extremely dangerous even if it is merely perceived to exist. Suppose, for example, the best person to lead a project happens to be the president's best friend. If you find yourself justifying a lead selection by including his or her social relationship as a factor in any way, it may be perceived very poorly by the company.

That negative perception should disappear to a large extent if and when the individual demonstrates effective performance in the role to the team. Even still, the idea that favoritism exists in an organization however small or large can be very detrimental. A far worse scenario emerges when this hypothetical individual is not qualified or is perceived to be not performing to expectations and no action is seen to be taken by senior management.

Inexperience, while an innocent and recoverable condition, can lead to many problematic leadership selections. The most common errors based on inexperience involve selecting leads based solely on production art, design, or coding skills. The result is often a lead who is most comfortable doing the job that he or she has always done and trusting that the team will take care of itself from a supervisory perspective. Few if any teams are capable of this; indeed, selfmanagement of this type is impossible for larger groups that require interdepartmental communication coordination.

In many ways, the process of selecting a lead from an internal group of candidates should be looked at as a job interview, with all the positives and negatives that go with that event. If you have ever had the experience of interviewing and failing to get a job, you know what that rejection can feel like. Now consider that a valuable employee has had that ego-damaging rejection and tomorrow they have to go in to work, smile, and do a great job. Managers need to recognize the individual goals of their staff and not let an internal rejection for a lead role spiral into a negative outlook on their prospects for career advancement within the company.

In some instances, the number of hypothetically suitable lead candidates can also cause problems. As we saw in some of the organization charts in Chapter 2, "The Anatomy of a Game-Development Company," there can be three or more specialist leads per project working under each art lead. Presumably, some or all of these specialist leads will want the opportunity to be what I'll call a "full lead" at some point.

Typically, not all of these candidates will be suitable or will even want a full lead role for any number of reasons, but the situation can be complex in some instances. The director and other managers must at times make difficult decisions between internal lead candidates based on the criteria they set for the position. These decisions will always disappoint at least one prospective candidate and will disappoint them for a considerable amount of time given the multiyear length of current development cycles for AAA games.

In these cases, management needs to provide very clear expectations of the role, honestly assess each candidate, and communicate the decision-making process to all parties. In addition, future commitments for lead roles, if they are made, need to be kept. Instead of telling a rejected candidate, "You'll get the next lead spot that comes up," I recommend something with more flexibility, like "I greatly value your contribution at all levels and as appropriate, I am going to work to make this company match your career goals."

On the opposite side of the spectrum are cases where a potential or proven solid lead needs to be persuaded to take the role for a given project. This is ultimately a no-win situation. In such a case, it would be plainly evident that any sort of passion for the project was missing, and I feel that passion is a key characteristic of a lead. That said, there are occasions when the situation calls for just such action.

At the GDC Art Director/Lead Artist Round Table in 2005, I asked attendees what motivated development production personnel to become leads; surprisingly, the answer from a number of participants was "more money." If you find your company in this situation, take a close look at the list of responsibilities on your leads and pay attention to the overtime being logged. These experienced individuals are key to your company's continued success, and they should be supported, and their quality of life considered, every bit as much as every other staff member.

Finally from the Pandora's box of what can go wrong, leads can fail. They can decide that the move to a lead role doesn't appeal to them for any number of reasons, or the team and management can make the determination that they are not performing to expectations. Perhaps they fail to motivate their team, or they lack the skills to cooperate with fellow leads and effectively communicate to the team from a position of power.

Management in this event is forced to make a decision to either move them out of the role and find a more suitable lead or support them through the project if the issues are not so severe or circumstances simply dictate this strategy. Obviously, neither of these options is desirable, but at the point that the determination to remove the lead is made, it is vital that management take swift corrective action.

The following case studies of unsuccessful leadership examples represent composites from my own experiences, observations of colleagues around the industry, and tales from others -- many coming out of the Art Director/Lead Artist Round Table at GDC. I would like to point out that I have enjoyed a great many successes and worked with a number of talented individuals, many of whom are interviewed throughout this book.

However, it has been said that success is a poor teacher -- and I can confirm that the most valuable lessons I've learned have come from making painful mistakes on the job. The second most valuable lessons have come from hearing about the painful experiences of other people and taking lessons away. This second tier may be a bit less effective, but they are also a lot safer for your career and gentler on your psyche.

Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next

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