[In his latest Asian-specific Gamasutra column, Beijing-based game developer Frank Yu asks a simple question, "what is it like to lead game development teams in China?", and comes up with some interesting answers on recruitment and retention.]
So what is it like to lead game development teams in China? Well, the best answer is it depends. Game development in China has some distinct differences based on many factors such as location, management style, capital, genre and most important of all clients.
The game industry of China can be divided into three main types of companies: There are companies that mainly provide game development outsourcing/work for hire, those that create original IP/franchises and those that operate foreign licensed games by localizing, distributing and running these games in China.
In some cases, many companies have done all three at some time or continue to provide two of the services concurrently at the same time.
As you can see, this leads to complications via conflict of interest or where outsource companies are also developing their own brands or operators are also developing their own version of the content they license. Although the concept of a "Chinese wall" exists, it is really up to each company on how strictly they wish to comply with those safeguards.
Some companies in China blatantly disregard or abuse this situation by actively outsourcing or licensing with the intent to copy or backward engineer content.
Another factor that seems to surface within the Chinese game industry seems to be that designers and engineers that are great at outsourcing and work for hire projects may not be the best type of engineers or designers for new product development, ideation and franchise creation.
One type of project values precision, risk averse, customer service and detailed planning while the other seems to need mavericks and wizards who can accept risk and literally think out of the box and zing some concepts out of the park.
This transition from outsourcing to ideation remains the largest challenge for many Chinese game companies wanting to move up the value chain ladder. To begin the climb, each company needs the right type of people.
What all these companies do face is a constant need for talented and bright engineers, artists, designers and producers. Although China graduates a staggering amount of engineers and software developers, getting the brightest and hardest working among recent graduates remain a challenge for all companies.
Companies like Microsoft, Google, Alibaba, Lenovo, Goldman and GE usually gets the first pick among the top graduates from the best schools in the country. Game companies in general pay less for engineers and artists than multinational or global fortune 500 companies.
Instead, many companies recruit from 2nd tier universities or even from cities in China outside of Beijing, Shanghai. Game companies look for graduates with both a passion for and deep understanding of games. Although we have the occasional elite school graduate in the game industry, like the U.S., some of the best workers come from lesser known universities or even self taught from high school.
Another problem is that China faces an extreme and dire shortage of competent leads and other middle management. In the game industry, finding producers, design, art, and tech leads remain a challenge as companies expand and poach staff from each other. Staff in China tend to jump more quickly than in the west to new jobs for faster advancement and higher pay in an economy and industry that grows at double digits.
However, that does not mean that the staff and engineers are not loyal hardworking employees but it does mean that retaining and training staff is just as hard as recruiting them. In local game companies, whole teams and departments will get poached by competitors simply because they follow their mentors and leaders to whatever entity has hired them away.
One also needs to consider the special needs of the skilled technology workers of China. They are the most employable and sought after labor sector in the country. Many of them need to accumulate cash quickly in their careers to buy houses and get married (they usually need a house first just to get married) to please both parents and rush into the middle class.
Although passionate for games and making great products, they also see themselves as the sole support for their families when their parents retire. So the pressure to work for cash comes as much from parents and girlfriends, as from a sense of greed or personal ambition. As many of us who hire in China know, finding those few superstars to lead and manage game teams can make or break any project.
As you can see, many of the issues in the west with recruiting game teams remain similar in China. Even if salaries are lower and more graduates are available, the need to train new staff and retain them can erase any gains from costs and surplus graduates can provide.
The industry continues to grow and evolve and so does the need to find the talent to drive the change.
[Frank Yu is the CSO and COO for Shouji, a Beijing based mobile game developer. Prior to his current position, Frank started and led the first China game team for Microsoft and served as the first Xbox Regional Business Manager for Asia. He can be reached by email at [email protected]]