[reprinted from the journal on my company website]
When I first set out as a consultant it was with the intent of helping game companies improve quality of life for developers and run their projects more efficiently. Actually, that’s still my intent. But my initial thoughts coming out of 12 years at a AAA studio were that I knew how to manage projects better than most game companies (Why are their games late and their developers overworked? Clearly it’s because they are dumb, whereas I am smart.) and that if I could just reach the decision makers inside these organizations I could help them solve their mismanagement and all would be right with the world. I suppose in my head I pictured showing up, telling a CEO “Stop using waterfall scheduling based off a 3-year-old GDD”, and then they’d begin shipping high-quality games on time while only working 40 hours a week.
In January of 2012, however, I started writing a lot about leadership in game development and eventually turned that writing into a book. Along the way it dawned on me with glacial slowness (in stark defiance of my earlier assertion that I am smart) that all of the project management wisdom in the world wouldn’t help a company whose leadership continued to evince difficulty leading people well. You can give someone a fantastic shovel, but if they’re intent on digging a hole using a golf ball then you really haven’t improved the situation. There’s an underlying problem you haven’t addressed.
Since that astonishing revelation I’ve sought to reach out to game companies and talk to them about how they lead their people. I’ve continually studied and learned from those both inside and outside our industry, adding to my knowledge base with information on motivation theory, mental models, employee engagement, continuous improvement, and the science of happiness as it pertains to productivity. I’ve made it a point to hunt down the best people leaders in game development and create a standard against which we can all measure the quality of our leaders. After spending a year doing everything I could think of to improve my own understanding of how to lead developers with excellence, I decided to try an experiment.
ABC. Always Be Consulting (if they’ll let you)
During the past five months I’ve reached out to 17 different game companies of various sizes and across multiple sectors of the industry and made them this offer: for just the cost of getting to your studio I would like to spend a day in your offices, talking with leaders and team members, observing how you do what you do, and then report to the senior leadership my findings about potential improvements. For this visit I would charge no fee, merely asking for reimbursement to cover travel costs. In return you receive objective insight from a published author with 15 years of industry experience who’s spoken internationally about leadership and production improvements. It seemed like a no-brainer.
This struck me as a good way to advertise my services as a consultant while helping developers and I endeavored to make the proposition as attractive as possible. I know game companies have employed other consultants who cost thousands of dollars per day, so I figured charging only a few hundred wouldn’t be too much of an obstacle. I would have offered to make it completely free – covering the travel costs myself – but after running the numbers I concluded that paying people to provide them with services was not a sustainable business model. Professor Baghiereh at Tech would be so happy to know I didn’t sleep through all of Intro to Economics.
Now to the fun part: the results. Propriety demands that I name no names, but suffice it to say that mega-budget, PC, console, mobile, social, Facebook, handheld, and MMO companies are all represented here. I spoke with CEOs, executive producers, and various types of directors at small boutiques as well as industry-leading franchises. Here are the responses to my at-cost consulting proposition.
First question: How many studios actually took me up on the offer?
In five months of offering to 17 studios the best wealth of leadership and production information I could reasonably provide, at the lowest feasible cost and making zero money, I visited two. If you're interested in how those visits turned out, send me an email or find me on Twitter. I don't mean for this post to be a commercial, so suffice it to say my clients were pleased.
Next question: What responses did I get from the other 15?
I’ve tried to simplify the replies I received and present them to you as the following Eight Responses:
- “Too busy (but with varying degrees of interest), check back later” – 6 studios
- “Not interested, we’re doing fine” – 3 studios
- “Undergoing leadership change, check back later” – 1 studio
- “Interested but can’t afford it” – 1 studio
- “We’re too small for this to be of help to us” – 1 studio
- “Interested, trying to schedule a visit” – 1 studio
- No reply – 1 studio
- SO uninterested in what I do that I didn't even get a chance to make the offer – 1 studio
I want to stress at this point that I was never met with a rude or condescending response. Even the disinterested people generally approached the topic as though it was a thoughtful proposal but not applicable for them because their studio is running well. Presumably they hit all of their dates, ship quality products, rake in cash, and focus tremendous amounts of energy on the personal and professional development of their employees, all of whom have industry-leading quality of life. Of the 60+ game companies with whom I’ve connected as a consultant, I believe one or two actually meet that description so I know it’s possible.
There are many legitimate reasons why even a low-cost visit like this wouldn’t be attractive. “It disrupts the studio.” “We can’t possibly learn enough from you in one day to make it worth having you here.” “Your credentials just aren’t impressive enough for me to believe we could learn from you.” Any of those might have been the root cause behind “not interested, we’re doing fine” and they are all fair responses. Nonetheless, I highly recommend to studio leaders that they perform some analysis – perhaps with the classic 5 Why’s – to ascertain exactly what they’re thinking when they turn down help because they’re “doing fine”. Your real reasons may be entirely justified, just make sure you know what they are.
I’ll spare just a moment to comment on the largest category – “the timing isn’t right.” There’s never a right time. There. I said it. Having been in that position as a studio developer, I appreciate the feeling of wanting to put something off until after the demo, until after E3/GDC/WWDC/Christmas/summer, until after we ship, hit cert, have the layoffs, hire the director, move to the new building, switch engines, reorganize the team, hear from the new writer, have the board meeting, or suffer through the visit from the EVP of Verbing Nouns. I could go on. It’s a matter of priorities. If you think something is important, you’ll treat it thusly.
It’s Not Me, It’s You. Well, Really It’s Them. At Any Rate, Definitely Not Me.
To wrap this up, here’s a quick summary for everyone who has a leader…the middle managers, the frontline contributors, the boots on the ground. I wasn’t kidding when I said I started down the road as a consultant because I wanted to improve the work environment for individual developers. That’s why I do what I do. And I firmly believe that making sure you’re led well is a huge part of that. Numerous psychological and corporate studies back it up. I’ll keep trying to get out to your place and help improve leadership, but if you’re wondering why I haven’t been to your studio yet, now you have at least Eight Reasons. But please note: they didn’t come from me.