The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) 2015 Developer Satisfaction Survey shows that a majority of developers believe that the most important factors for industry growth are advancement in game design (71%), advancement of storytelling (54%), and more diversity in game content (53%). But the future of the industry depends on more than just being more inclusive and diverse: it also depends on engaged leaders who actively work to unlock their team’s potential. Speakers at the 2015 IGDA Leadership Summit discussed different ways that leaders in the game industry can approach leadership to drive engagement.
In his keynote speech, Scott Crabtree from Happy Brain Science explained how fully engaged employees ultimately benefits any organization’s bottom line: it builds trust, reduces turnover, and motivates them to give their best every day. Success, he stressed, was achieved by leaders and employees working together and building trust. Though it takes time to make that investment, the payoff in the long-run is well worth it, both in terms of productivity and the quality of the product delivered.
Among the points that Crabtree stressed was the importance of setting goals; ensuring that everyone on the team has the same understanding of those goals and the quality of work expected of them; and giving the opportunity to drive progress and celebrate it when it is achieved. But organizations should also invest in their people: they should help employees grow their skill set and visualize their career, show appreciation for the work they put in, and make them feel recognized and cared for as individuals.
On the tactical side of things, Rhys Dekle, Senior Director for Worldwide Business Development at Microsoft Game Studios, made a striking historical analogy between independent game development and the Mann Gulch fire. One of the greatest tragedies of its time, the events of Mann Gulch changed the way wildfires were fought forever, placing a greater emphasis on safety, training, and better communication between leaders and their teams.
Like fighting the blaze of an unpredictable wildfire, game development is still a largely unexplored territory in which independent developers must navigate with few resources and knowledge. While individuals on the team may have the skills and training to complete the tasks they are given, conditions in the field can change rapidly, and decisions must be made just as quickly. This is when communication, credibility, and culture are incredibly important to keep everyone on the right track.
“To have a vision isn’t enough. You have to communicate your vision,” Dekle explained, noting the pitfalls of believing that simply putting the most skilled person in charge will necessarily result in improving the team’s response to crises. “Having a group identity, a shared set of values, and a communication system that allows experiences to be imparted can help you.” In other words, providing a common culture and a way to learn from mistakes is essential.
James Gwertzman, CEO and Co-Founder of PlayFab, Inc., went a step further in his talk, comparing game development to military maneuvers in a talk that drew on various treatises about combat. Like troops on a battlefield, game developers are subject to the fog of war: there is no way to see the entire territory, and unexpected events are constantly happening. Imperfect information or imperfect transmission of information makes navigating a difficult task even under the best of circumstances.
Commander’s intent is a military strategy designed to overcome these obstacles by encouraging leaders to focus on making the top-level decisions, communicating those decisions to those who will carry them out, and providing them with the resources they need to do so. Once the action has been accomplished, teams should provide feedback to their leader to ensure the intent was understood clearly and to course-correct if necessary.
The key to good commander’s intent is to strike a balance between being specific enough to achieve concrete goals, but not so much that unforeseen events render the goals obsolete. The intent is to align behavior sufficiently so that everyone is moving in the same general direction, but people have room to improvise and generate their own solution. This challenges the idea that micromanagement and minimizing risk to the fullest extent possible is the best way to deal with a problem.
The importance of keeping the human element in mind was reiterated by Jen MacLean, Senior Director of Client Relations at EdAssist. Speaking from more than 20 years of experience in leadership, MacLean pointed out how the game industry’s narrow focus is causing it to miss the forest for the trees.
“I think we are too focused on creating our own dream job,” she said. “We need an industry which creates a dream career.” In her talk, MacLean demonstrated how greater economic trends — impending labor shortage, greater talent mobility, and changing demographics — can potentially hold a large impact on the game industry in the future.
Companies that fail to align with the priorities of their employees, such as more child care, better professional development, and flexibility, will find themselves losing to other employers who are willing to provide them with that. Some parents, for example, are willing to sacrifice higher pay and raises for better child care options elsewhere, proving that the problem isn’t something that can be solved with a simple paycheck.
Industry leaders must be able to acknowledge that their employees—as well as themselves—are only human. This is no easy feat, and requires a great deal of trust on the part of both parties, as well as a willingness to be more open.
In a deeply personal talk, artist and game developer Renee Nejo questioned why telling stories has become something that takes place in safe spaces rather than being used to attempt to bridge gaps in knowledge and experiences. Describing her own experiences growing up half-Diegueno, she admitted that shame from a self-perceived lack of authority to speak on the subject had inadvertently kept her from sharing her stories with the people who needed to hear them most: those who had never experienced it.
“Empathy helps cross that severed connection. … Shame makes it nearly impossible to appeal to the empathy of others,” she explained. “Vulnerability, however uncomfortable, is necessary.”
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what games are asking people to do? Be vulnerable enough to open themselves up to new experiences? Nicole Lazzaro, the founder of XEODesign, certainly seems to believe so.
In her talk about the need for creative leadership in developing experiences for virtual reality (VR) platforms, Lazzaro described VR as an ’empathy machine’ that represented more opportunities, but also more physiological and psychological design challenges than film or games. As a relatively new platform, there is still a lot of work to be done before VR becomes the fully immersive experience that the audience expects out of the technology. For example, there are significant issues with player comfort, including phobias or disgust that might be inadvertently activated.
But though the challenges of working in VR may be new, Lazzaro said the skills needed to solve it are not so different from the past. The platforms may be different, but leaders must remain attuned to the same thing they always have.
“It’s not what ships in the box. It’s not the hardware. It’s about the people. It’s about our players.”