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This year marks of the 25th anniversary of Insomniac Games' inception. From Disruptor, to Spyro, to Ratchet and Clank, the Burbank-based developer has built a name for itself in the industry for building quality games and sharing knowledge about game development with the rest of the community.
At GamesBeat this week, company founder and CEO Ted Price took the stage to chat with Fireside Games' Morgan Webb about the nature of company values, and what they mean for companies like Insomniac Games.
After Price wrapped up his chat, we were able to sit down with him for a longer conversation for the leadership lessons he's picked up over the last 25 years, discussing everything from his search for functional company values to questions about crunch and unionization in the game industry.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for context and clarity.
Do you remember what year you started thinking about culture and mission statements?
Price: Yeah, I don't remember what year specifically it was, but it was probably around Resistance. The first or second Resistance, when we made the transition from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3. And also the transition from Ratchet to an M-rated game. We were asking ourselves, what types of games do we make? Given that we are making a more serious, grounded, albeit Sci-Fi game, what is the message that we have for this game? Are we being consistent with our messaging?
We weren't trying to answer the question "what is our vision?" But it was, "are we as a developer, giving to our fans, telling the stories we want to tell, and do those stories make a difference?"
That was when I think it started bubbling up in a more practical way. At the same time, we were also talking more about values at Insomniac, and what are the values that are important for us to espouse while we're making games at every phase? Pre-production, production, post-production. Can we be consistent about how we embrace them at all the phases so we don't feel schizophrenic?
Revisiting your DICE 2014 talk, you talked about employees being afraid of you swooping in and giving conflicting feedback, and needing to step back from roles in that way. What have you learned in the interim about giving feedback as a CEO?
Well I---the observation was borne out of Insomniacs' frustrations with me and my tendency to offer unsolicited advice about anything on the games. That---outside of learning I had frustrated people, it was horribly inefficient for production because I often gave conflicting suggestions. Conflicting in the sense that a creative director or department head or a lead might say one thing, and I might come in and in passing, say something else. And then the developer, whether he or she is a programmer, artist, sound engineer, something, goes "who do I listen to?"
That was an important realization for me to have. Since then, I've tried to distance myself from that aspect of development as much as possible while still giving feedback that our creative directors and teams can take or leave. Since then, we've developed a more--I'd say organized approach to giving feedback from our executives and creative directors who are not involved in a project.
Almost every week, a bunch of us will play builds of whatever game is in production, and we'll share those with everybody, and the creative directors on each project decide how they're going to approach this [feedback.] Maybe this feedback is irrelevant, maybe it doesn't match the feedback for the project...our goal is to be objective observers and offer a perspective that you don't get if you're working on the game daily.
How does it feel, stepping further and further away from game-making and having to isolate your feedback like that?
I struggled for a while...with the challenge of not being as creatively involved as I have been in the past. And what I found filled the gap for me was culture at Insomniac. And thinking more about what "what makes Insomniac special? Why do people want to come to work at Insomniac? What are we doing that could be improved culture-wise?"
Asking and trying to answer those questions with our team leadership at Insomniac was as much or more of a challenge as giving creative feedback on the games. I also realize that those questions don't have crisp answers ever. There's really not---culture, like a lot of game design decisions, is not black-and-white. And it takes listening to people at Insomniac constantly and asking questions and allowing people to feel free to speak up about things they may not like to take your culture in a better and better direction.
I'll give you an example. I do ask-me-anythings every day. I say "send me whatever question you want." it can be a really tough question, it can be something you think I'll be embarrassed to answer. I don't care, send it to me, I'll answer it. It's a great way for me to share information about things that people at Insomniac have never [seen] shared before at other companies.
That's one aspect of trying to create a culture where you can get your answers, and have an honest discussion about really difficult topics.
Marvel's Spider-Man was the company's physically largest game to date. Now that the dust has settled, what's the big thing you've been thinking about in regards to how big that game got. Did anything notable change that you think has helped the company?
Oh yeah, technologically, our core team, which is the team that creates our engine and our tools made a lot of major advancements in various areas. I mean, a good example is in streaming speed. Having Spider-Man swing through the city at the speed he does and load everything in without obvious artifacts, that's a huge testament to our core team who was able to develop that tech.
Our core team worked hand in hand with our environment team, so everything was collaborative in how we could make that work. I will also give a lot of credit to our art teams and our tools team who focused on more proceduralism in the games. Building a city the size of New York at the level of detail we did with the team we have would have been very very difficult without using procedural tools both external and internal. So a lot of practical improvements to our production processes came about as a result of Spider-Man.
At the same time, right now we're going through postmortems, I would imagine most developers do, given its size and the number of people on it, there were a lot of things that didn't go well. And we have to be honest about them and "how are we really changing it?" The temptation I think for most developers, including us, is to say "yeah, we didn't do this well, we're going to fix it." And then, when you get into production on the next game, you rever to old habits instead of walking the walk and adhering to what you promised.
That's something we've been focusing hard on as a leadership team, is making sure that when we make a commitment to making a material change in our production process, we stick with it. And, if it's not going well, we can commit to modifying it and changing it. A good example of that is, on all of our new projects, we've committed to getting buy-in from the team on scope, staffing, vision for the game. Instead of saying "okay team, here you go, here's the vision for the game, and here's how many people we have, and here's when we're releasing it."
We're now discussing this it way in advance, and getting the whole team to understand what the vision is and understanding what the scope is, and getting the leadership team to get buy-in from everybody. And then, because things inevitably break during pre-production or production, when we have lost buy-in, our job is to go back and regain it. Answer the question: "okay, we're out of scope." or "okay, this mechanic didn't work and we're now behind, how are we going to fix it without going out of scope?" Let's everybody discuss solutions and get buy-in for the solutions.
Is there anything about the staffing up process that you think Insomniac has done right for growing to a Spider-Man sized team?
We have, through the need to grow the team during Spider-Man, realized that our onboarding process could definitely be improved. Improved in terms of simple things. Introducing everybody to teach team member, explaining what that team member does. Helping teach team member explain what the production process is for the games. At that point, we hadn't codified that particularly well.
I think our tools and art and audio and design teams and gameplay programming teams have done a great job of onboarding terms of our tools. We have proprietary tools, so they are different than what somebody is used to outside of Insomniac, but the ramp-up time is very fast, because of having a support team around one.
But I think what's also important is that it really isn't easy to hire people. It just isn't. We can't turn on a switch and say "we're gonna hire ten more programmers and five more artists." We spend a lot of time, having people come in and talk to the entire team. We spend time checking references, we want to make sure, like I said in the talk about culture, that these are teammates that we want to be working beside for the next X years. Versus just say, checking a bunch of boxes and saying "oh you're a great artist, you have a great portfolio, you'll fit." No! That's maybe even less than half of the battle.
In your GamesBeat talk, you discussed how your perspective on company values changed as the company transitioned from "make the best games" to "Make games that bring value to people's lives." Can you discuss when you realized values could be more than just a whip to crack, but a tool to be used to answer employee questions?
It was a long and drawn out moment---a bunch of us had worked together on vision statements, and I was leading the charge with this idea that "we should be the best developer." We should all get that idea because we all came to games to make amazing things, so let's be the best we can be."
I remember presenting that in a company meeting, and immediately afterwards when I asked if there were questions, 5 or 6 people said "What the hell do you mean? Can you quantify what 'best' means?"
I realized then that it could mean many things. It could mean Metacritic, it could mean sales, it could mean general online fan reactions. It could mean how you feel about the game. It could mean having something that breaks boundaries in terms of genres. But it was almost impossible to define in way Insomniacs felt rang true with them.
I realized that pretty quickly based on the comments I got and then from the apathy afterward. And then, going back to the transition, it did take a lot of discussion and collaboration between our leadership team and the rest of the Insomniacs to understand what it was we'd been doing.
Sometimes you're working so hard for so long that you lose sight of the threads that run through the things that you've been doing. And it took a personal experience for me, it took hearing anecdotes from other Insomniacs, and it took forcing myself and others to step back from production, look at the big picture and ask "why are we here? Why are we doing what we do? And that's where we began to realize that what we do is about more than a Metacritic score, it's about more than game sales, it really is about making an impact on people.
I think that's probably---if you're not doing game development, name your job, I imagine most of us want to have a positive effect on the world. And that's a great feeling I think to go home each day and be able to say "I created a character that is going to bring a smile to people's faces later," or "I just wrote a chapter of a story that I think is going to impact people in this way." I'm sure people were feeling that on Spider-Man, as we worked on bits and pieces that would bring smiles to people's faces.
Quality of life is a bigger conversation than ever in 2019. 2018 was a really rough year headline-wise for the games industry (Telltale, Rockstar, Riot Games), did reading coverage about those companies help you reflect on life at your own company?
We all read industry news, we all commiserate when things don't go well in the industry for whatever reason. It can be a whole host of issues, from quality of life to financial crises...
Sexual harassment at Riot Games, for instance.
It could be anything. What we do, we try to focus on ourselves. We ask "what could we be doing better?" What is it about Insomniac we can improve? A lot of that is just asking people to speak up. Asking "what are the things you like and don't like about Insomniac?" And more importantly, just giving people the freedom to say whatever they want to say when they want to say it. If I have to send out a survey every 3 weeks to get feedback on how our culture is doing, I don't think that's a very effective way to understand what's really going on. I think people speak up more often when they're upset about something.
An example might be, you're in production, you have a deadline for a level, something went horribly wrong during production of that level, and now we are behind. How are we going to fix that problem? There are many ways to fix it, but there's--every single way will have an effect on the team. Having a culture where you can say "please speak up if you see things going off the rails, and then once you speak up, let's work together to figure out how we can fix this."
The solution may not be pleasant for anybody. We work within constraints constantly. Whether it's time, money, staffing, or scope of a game. But we have to come up with something. Instead of making this a secret cabal deciding the solution, let's be transparent about it.
How well do you think Insomniac is handling crunch these days?
We're having open conversations about how we work. About how we tackle production, about how we tackle problems in production, and how we can get better at addressing those unforeseen circumstances in game development. Because we're a creative industry, you never know what is going to work and what isn't going to work.
Discussing it is the first step, as a team, asking "how can we be better?" is the question we've been asking.
Have any answers emerged from those questions yet?
I mentioned buy-in. That's a big one because if a team feels that the plan they're working on has a good chance to succeed, and there's time built in for experimentation and time built in for failure, that's a great place to start. As I said, inevitably it breaks. Inevitably that time you thought you had evaporates for one reason or another. At that point, it's important to go back and ask everybody "okay, what are we going to about this, do we have buy-in on the solution?"
So it's "do we have buy-in to go forward, or do we need to pull the escape rope?"
Well there's never---you always have to move forward. When you're talking about a game that you've committed to deliver, there is no escape hatch. It's figuring out, which levers do we pull? It's not an escape hatch, it's levers. There are lots of things we can do that change the games' scope, or the way we're telling a story, or the way we're delivering a mechanic that may end up being better in the end anyway than what we originally planned.
That takes experimentation, and discussion, and an open mind from everybody.
If Insomniac employees were to organize, to come to you and say "hey, we love it here, we love this company, but we want to have a union of our own to represent us at the table," do you know what your response would be?
Well I've certainly gotten---I think Insomniacs have been aware about what's going on outside Insomniac in terms of union discussions, my approach is, always have an open door, an open mind policy. If there are problems, I want to know about it so we can fix it at Insomniac. I think we have a very open dialogue about what works and what doesn't, and we do our best as a team to put solutions in place.
It's important to recognize, games are not a static production process. Every company is different, and, we are constantly evolving as an industry because the hardware, the delivery mechanisms, and the players are evolving as well.
We have to be flexible, we have to be able to react quickly to change, and try things out that may not work, and we're always open to---we as a company, for the last 25 years, [aim] to continue to evolve to meet the demands of the industry.