Beyond Critical is now available for purchase!
  • Beyond Critical
    Beyond Critical
    by Keith Fuller

    My book on Leadership in Game Development is now available!

Leader of Developers
10 Keys to Game Production

A Simple Test of Leadership

In the 13 years I spent as a developer I worked at two studios, and since I started doing leadership consulting I’ve become familiar with dozens more. As a result I’ve found I can now quickly reach a fairly accurate assessment of the quality of leadership at companies of various sizes. To be sure, the more time you have to spend learning about an organization, the more precise you can be. By obtaining answers to the following questions, though, I can get a pretty clear image in just a few hours. I bet you can, too.

I mention this here because I believe game developers deserve the best possible leadership, but at the same time we typically fall woefully short of properly scrutinizing the leaders we already have. For more than a decade I just threw my hands up along with so many others. “It is what it is.”

That’s not a solution. That’s the problem.

Consider whether these questions (and the answers they elicit) are important to you, then consider what to do about it at your company.

At your studio…

  1. Is leadership the default career path? As Buckingham and Coffman (and 25 years of research)First Break all the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman indicate in First Break All the Rules, one of the most certain ways to riddle your company with deficient leaders is to promote subject matter experts to leadership simply because they’re excellent contributors. The typical thinking is, “You’re such a good programmer, we’re promoting you to lead programmer,” when the two skillsets in question don’t necessarily have even the smallest of intersection. You may as well say, “You’re such a good programmer, we’re promoting you to concept artist.”
  2. How Damaging is a Bad Boss, hbr.orgDoes everyone get regular one-on-one meetings with their lead (preferably at least once per month)? Forging a personal connection with the people you lead is possibly the most important task in front of you as a leader. The number one reason people leave a company is because of a crummy supervisor. Developing a rapport with your team increases their engagement and decreases turnover. Doing the opposite yields the opposite. If you’re the lead, don’t wait for someone else to create a company policy or tell you what to do. YOU schedule time with your people. It shows them you care and makes you more effective at your job.
  3. How often do employees receive performance reviews? In the past few months I’ve told multiple clients: if you’re only doing performance reviews once a year, just stop doing reviews. You’ll save yourself a ton of time and energy and you’ll no longer be fooling yourself with the false belief that you’re helping your people and your company. We humans do a horrible job ofThe One Minute Manager, Blanchard remembering positive events and we’re much too quick to let them be overshadowed by negative ones. That’s not a business thing, that’s simple psychology. How useful is eleven-month old information about a team member? For a better approach, read Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager. Or do what my friend Josh Nilson does. He’s now CEO of East Side Games in Vancouver, but as COO he implemented the practice of having every employee get a review every two weeks. Every. Two. Weeks. And the results were wonderful.
  4. What’s the attitude about continuous improvement? This isn’t just a cool buzzword, it’s a leadership principle. At the 2010 IGDA Leadership Forum, Riot Games president Marc Merrill said, “We never assume we’re as optimal at ANYTHING as we can be.” I’d have to say using Riot as an example for successful business practices is probably an OK move. As a counter example, I once visited a company where a studio leader pointed out a disgruntled artist and told me they’d been unhappy with their role in the company. How long? TWO YEARS. If your company’s leadership is OK with letting relationships deteriorate for that long, I’d challenge their dedication to continuous improvement at any level.
  5. Does anyone receive specific training in leadership skills? It is frighteningly common to see a studio where leaders have arrived in their current roles without ever having been told how to be a lead. That’s how I received my first “promotion” to leadership years ago and it’s still a widespread problem. Many companies seem to assume that because someone has been around long enough, or shipped enough games, or is the studio head’s buddy, they’re going to make an acceptable lead. Even if you’re surrounded by the best examples of leadership our industry has to offer, it’s exceedingly difficult to learn on the fly and effectively switch gears from contributor to leader without explicit training. And how often does anyone find themselves surrounded by exceptional leaders, anyway? If osmosis from similarly untrained leaders is the preferred teaching method for leadership, you’re inflicting a dark spiral of inbred deficiency on your employees.

There are many additional questions you could ask, but even just these five will start to paint the picture. While I’m definitely advising you to ask these questions, I’m not recommending open revolt or mass departures if you find the answers wanting. Instead, engage your studio leaders in a discussion of these issues. It may well be that existing senior leadership values nepotism over training, or prizes keeping veterans happy over filling roles based on emotional intelligence. That’s their prerogative. Once you achieve clarity on your values and those of the studio, though, you should be prepared to act on them. Otherwise, “it is what it is” is all it will ever be.


The five questions above aren’t the only ones worth asking. Just for starters, here are a few more:

Does everyone have a mentor?

Are the expectations of leadership positions explicitly stated?

How do team members speak about leaders when they aren’t present?

Do leaders ask their team members, “How can I help you develop professionally?”

Can every employee answer clearly and immediately when asked, “Who’s your lead?”

Does senior leadership boil down to controlling through fear?


Students Who Want a Games Job: Read This Blog Post

My friend @estelletigani describes her experiences trying to land an industry job after university. Excellent suggestions are contained within.


Every Leader is on the Hook to Fix This

This post by @jeff_archibald deftly explains the symptoms and the underlying disease represented by 60-hour work weeks. When I was a AAA studio developer the vast amount of overtime you put in was inarguably viewed as a badge of honor.

I think many people in the games industry are waking up to the fact that copious overtime hours are a Bad Thing. What I'm not seeing evidence of, though, is people in a leadership position doing something about it.

If you are a leader of any sort -- whether in title, role, or social influence -- YOU are responsible for doing something about this problem. It's not solely up to the CEO or HR. It's on you. Don't turn a blind eye, don't shrug your shoulders, definitely don't tell me "This is how video game development is."

Speak up. Ask your lead what we're going to do at the company to fix the problem of rampant overtime. Be part of the solution, don't dump it on someone else. Mr. Archibald's post has links to a few sources of research indicating why long work hours are bad for you and your company. I've got several more if you need them.

You don't have to try hard to point out numerous game companies that have shuttered even AFTER crunching for months. So you know it's bad, AND you know it's no guarantee of success.

If you're at a studio where you feel like you risk your job if you try to address issues like this, please please please consider: are you really better off staying there?


It Does NOT Get Any Better Than This

Recently I had the pleasure of working with a client who's participating in the pilot program for Fullcrum, my employee engagement service. To explain the timeline a bit, the three main events in this process are:


  • Entire studio takes an engagement survey
  • Facilitate group discussions onsite with all employees
  • Follow up with the leadership with survey data, group findings, personal observations, and suggestions


This particular client, Filament Games, has long been a favorite of mine. I'm friends with the president and creative director, some of their employees are ex-coworkers of mine, they support good quality of life, and they've been exceptionally successful in the learning games space. I expected things to go well during the Fullcrum process, but I didn't foresee how fulfilling it would be for me.

Everything went swimmingly for the first two phases. There was 100% participation in the survey, and the next day I was able to meet with almost every employee in 4-8 person groups. We had some lively, enlightening discussions that gave me a really good picture of which areas of engagement should be addressed by the leadership. That was Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon I was scheduled to meet with studio leaders and deliver my synopsis.

To be frank, I wasn't sure what to expect. Even when you're invited into a directors meeting, even when they give you the floor for 60 minutes, even when you're accepted as an expert on the material at hand, things don't always go smoothly when you start talking with studio leaders about improving employee engagement. Will they react defensively? Will they place any value on your insights? Will they evince any indication of pursuing improvement? You are, after all, going to wind up challenging the company's bottom line for the sake of decidedly non-concrete "people issues".

Some leaders do not take such things well.

Let me tell you, these leaders stepped UP. They were completely engaged in the discussion. They weren't afraid to ask questions of me or each other. They offered their own insights and explanations, and invited each other to recount things they originally said in the previous day's group discussion, meaning they had been listening to each other. You have no idea how rare that is.

These are the people responsible for the direction of a company and the development of more than three dozen employees, and I was allowed the honor of delivering what were -- at times -- rather pointed observations about how to improve their leadership. They listened, and I could tell in their faces and responses that they got it.

This is why I left being a studio developer to make a very difficult living as a leadership and employee engagement consultant: to educate leaders, help studios improve, and see game developers become happier and more productive. It's my dream job, and I recently got to experience it in a very intense and fulfilling way.

For me, it does not get any better than this.



Churn and Burn, Penny Arcade Style

I saw this post by Christopher Buecheler show up on Twitter, in which he comments on this job posting by Robert Khoo of Penny Arcade. OK, "comments on" isn't the best descriptor. "Lambastes" is more accurate.

Read the job description, then read Christopher's post. Five minutes of your time, tops.

I think Christopher is perhaps reading a bit much into Mr. Khoo's description, but Mr. Buecheler's extrapolation is nonetheless entirely reasonable. The position being offered by Penny Arcade is one that openly devalues work/life balance, offering a highly demanding, high stress position with questionably competitive salary in exchange for vague promises of making work "as awesome as possible."

This is indicative of one of the worst mindsets present in game development and one which I actively fight to eradicate by means of properly educating first-time and aspiring developers.

The phrase "churn and burn" has been widely used -- and possibly even coined -- by a particular big name studio to describe their approach to staffing perennial top-selling sports games. The idea is openly described by this studio's leadership in roughly this way:

1) Hire a batch of passionate young entry-level developers who are willing to do anything to get their start in the games industry.

2) Drive them slavishly to meet unrealistic annual product schedules, requiring more unpaid overtime from each developer than would ever be acceptable in a work environment that valued each worker as a person.

3) Within a period of 1-3 years, lay off those who haven't already quit from burnout.

4) Repeat

This loop is inhumane, and devaluing of the intrinsic worth of each developer...and has been largely successful. You can always count on someone with little or no sense of self worth to value "the opportunity" over their own well-being. It is flat out wrong to exploit such people.

As the AAA space has thinned out due to bankruptcies and studio closures, practices such as "churn and burn" have received less media attention, leading some to believe that said practices are no longer an issue.

Stepping forward to seduce us all of that notion is Robert Khoo.

With a measure of fairness, there is -- to my knowledge -- no company history here of burnout and layoffs. But make no mistake, the Penny Arcade name will draw innumerable applicants, and Mr. Khoo is openly trading on that very factor in the hopes that he can fill an underpaid position with a young hopeful who -- either knowingly or otherwise -- will pay for "the opportunity" with the currency of their mental, emotional, and possibly even physical health.

In a series of bullet points being used to "weed people out", Mr. Khoo closes his list with, "You should probably be a fan of Penny Arcade."

Consider me weeded out, sir.