Becoming A Stellar Games Industry Manager : Networking And Negotiation

Continuing his multiple articles in the series, game HR veteran Marc Mencher doles out advice on getting ahead in the game biz, by discussing the art of negotiation and collaboration for today's game industry manager.

[Game HR veteran Marc Mencher is continuing his 'Games Industry Manager' series on Gamasutra, previously including 'Building A Great Team' and 'Learning To Be An Influencer', with this article discussing the art of negotiation and collaboration for today's game industry manager.]

Social interaction presents designers of online games with some of their most difficult challenges. How do you design a realistic and flexible economy that can survive despite the best efforts of players who use their influence to command the flow of goods and services? How do you provide players with an opportunity to influence the direction and possibly the outcome of the story through their avatars’ actions without weakening the overall player experience or the integrity of the story? These are only two examples that can validate how skillfully the people on all sides of the game’s production have asserted their influence through their communication skills.


Today, you hear the word “network” everywhere. Social networks are more or less organized connections between people with interests in common, like MMO guilds, participants in Internet chat rooms or friends and acquaintances at parties, conventions, business meetings. A network can also be a list of names in an address book or people in an online e-group. It also refers to television companies, linked transmitting stations, wires or filaments or veins or even sewers that are linked or interconnected. In the business world, networking involves making contact with other people and it’s one of the most important skills of successful influencers. Some people have made it a habit to form partnerships and cultivate alliances across a broad spectrum of abilities, locations and interests.

elevator.jpg Networking opportunities crop up pretty much 24/7 -- while you’re waiting for an elevator, standing in line for coffee, traveling, shopping in the supermarket, even going to another floor of the building where you work. If you take even a few minutes to introduce yourself to someone and exchange small talk about anything from the weather to your favorite sports team to who got whacked in last night’s crime drama, you’re networking. More formal opportunities for meeting people include training sessions, special interest groups, media briefings, conventions and of course social gatherings. Helping people connect on the Internet has turned into its own business with virtual business cards, pop-up reminders and a host of ways to get ahead professionally and socially through others -- and an opportunity for networking is an opportunity to exercise influence.

Making Connections

While creating connections within any business or social environment is important, maintaining them is crucial. Timing is everything, so it’s important to learn how to insert yourself into a conversation. We’ve all experienced the uncomfortable encounter with someone who barges into the chat, whether virtual or real time, and starts nattering away without regard for what else might be occurring. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the ebb and flow of a conversation.

Wait until people are between topics, or have made a definite pause in their speaking before introducing yourself. If you’re in a group, match what you say to what has just been said and, if at all possible, do so gently humorously. Non-sequitur introductions are awkward and can make you look insensitive and egotistical. Mention things you have in common like a mutual acquaintance but never imply that you have more of a relationship than you do. This will blow up in your face more times than not. People can usually spot a phony name-dropped a mile away -- and with your luck, the person whose name you’re dropping is the best friend of the person to whom you are speaking!

Another important part of networking is introducing people to each other. It not only helps build alliances but also shows that you’re interested in other people. Help the people who work for you learn the right way to network. Many years ago at a GDC, an industry luminary gave a presentation to a packed house. After the talk, an assistant producer who would never have had the courage to introduce himself to the speaker did so because his executive producer encouraged him –- and it turned out that the famous speaker was very gracious, thereby making the encounter even better!

Carry business cards with you all the time. You never know when someone will ask you for one (or when you might need a piece of paper – how convenient that you’ll have something with your information on it!) If you aren’t so good at remembering names, it will be really helpful to have the business card to jot down a few notes on the back. Maintain contact details of everyone you meet, including phone, email, job title and location. Whether you use one of the networking services or a simple database program, it’s useful to be able to sort your contacts in a variety of ways, like companies, area(s) of expertise in the industry or mutual acquaintances.

Remember when you were a kid and your mom made you write thank-you notes? Whether it’s a handwritten note or a quick email, that kind of courtesy never goes out of style. Follow up an initial meeting with a new acquaintance as soon as possible. Send a short email to say how pleased you were to meet. The rewards may not be apparent at the time but they’re definitely worth the effort. These are great ways to create a positive impression and help people remember who you are in a good way, which is an important part of successful networking.

Let’s face it -- this industry can be a pretty small world so you never know when you’re going to come across someone you used to work with or someone who knows someone. If you’ve got a trail of burned bridges and failed communications behind you, the best networking in the world probably won’t help -- a strong network of friends and colleagues who respect you will!

If the opportunity arises, invite acquaintances to social occasions, especially industry events. Try to get together for a meal or a drink or even coffee when you’re in the same city or a conference together. (Even if you’re in different parts of the country, you’ll probably encounter each other at one industry gathering during the year.). If you know someone is looking for a job and you hear about an opportunity in her area, let her know (obviously be discrete if her employer doesn’t know she’s planning to jump ship.) Even if she can’t apply, she may know someone in her network who can. If you’ve got a bright young intern who would benefit from additional mentoring, you might know a colleague who’s in a position to help -- and if he can’t, he might know someone who can. It’s all about the networking!

  • Be natural and open -- insincerity is off-putting -- but also be appropriate and aware.

  • It’s okay to initiate conversations at social meetings, but don’t intrude.

  • Get people to talk about themselves without asking inappropriate questions about their work or personal life.

  • Don’t take refusals personally. The person you want to talk to may be late for an appointment or too jet-lagged to make conversation at that point.

  • Don’t volunteer information about your own achievements unless asked and even then be modest (without being too humble -- a good influencer knows how to project an air of confidence without taking up the entire spotlight or being annoyingly self-effacing.)

  • Treat senior management and industry “celebrities” with the respect they deserve, but don’t fawn over them or indulge in name-dropping.

  • Always have your business cards ready!

negotiation.jpg Negotiation

Diplomacy is defined as “...the skill in managing negotiations, handling people, etc., so that there is little or no ill will;”1

It’s about forging alliances, whether in your professional world, your home community or your MMO guild. You never know when you might need some extra support or information, and even with your best networking contacts, you still need tact, diplomacy and excellent “people skills” to handle negotiations well.

The classic approach to negotiation is for two sides to defend their own bargaining positions. While this is easily achieved in a duel outside Ironforge, it’s a little more complicated in the real world. Winning a battle of wills can still prejudice your relationship with your counterpart, and could negatively affect the outcome of the project which is why you need to develop productive approaches in which you are clear about your needs and your goals. Being successful in that kind of diplomacy will gain you more influence (and some real gold) in the long run.

Conflict can actually be a source of creativity if you can redirect it to find productive solutions and turn it into an opportunity for negotiation. If you find yourself involved in conflict, take a deep breath and focus your attention on the impersonal issues underlying the dispute. Ask a question that probes for the cause of negative personal criticism. Then delineate the impersonal issues that you think are involved and see if the other party agrees.

Figure out what you want from a negotiation and then role play the encounter, including possible counter-offers and other agendas. (Hopefully, this won’t become a super-secret dramatic closed-door meeting full of Dire Plots and Rampant Paranoia. Try to restrict that to table-top RPGs!) When you’re in the negotiation session, stay focused and calm so that you can identify mutual goals and determine ways to achieve them. Work towards an agreement and make notes so that there can be no misunderstanding. This approach is going to be much better for you and your team than a screaming match in an exec’s office followed by door slamming, shouting and a possible escort from the building compliments of Security.

Even with the best intentions, arguments can escalate during the negotiation process so be prepared to bring all your networking and negotiating skills to the table to dissolve conflict by acknowledging differences, validating other people’s feelings, creating a dialogue by focusing on neutral criteria and looking for areas on which as many people as possible can agree.

1 Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

Despite your best efforts, other people involved in the negotiation may become difficult or rather than take responsibility, and claim that the final decision really rests with his or her manager. Another scenario may involve other parties saying that if you don’t give in to their demands, you’ll lose their support altogether. Be strong and try not to get flustered even when you’re threatened -- and continue to press gently but firmly for your goals. Avoid making concessions just to avoid further conflict, but if it really looks like the negotiations are at a standstill, be ready to call a moratorium. Walking away from a challenge is harder to do in the real world than it is in an MMO world, but it can be done.

  • It’s easy to spot the first signs of dispute if you are alert to nonverbal communication.

  • If a discussion gets too heated, consider deferring it to another day or move the conversation to more neutral territory.

  • Try to defuse irritation by acknowledging the other party’s feelings and be open about your part, if any, in the misunderstanding

  • Concentrate on establishing a positive, non-judgmental atmosphere for the negotiations

  • Try to find a common ground for goals -- “win-win” is ideal but not if you don’t mean it.

  • It’s not necessary to agree on every point.

Often the negative emotion involved in a dispute can be discharged if you show that you’re willing to listen without agenda to the other party’s issues, and hopefully the courtesy will be returned. Outline your interpretation of the other person’s viewpoint to be sure that you understand and reinforce the message that you are listening.

  • Identify the interest behind the other party’s demands – Why is that of interest you?

  • Clarify any issues that you are not clear about – What do you mean when you say that?

  • Look for common and complementary goals – It might work out for both of us if...?

  • Find alternative ways of meeting mutual interests – How else could we achieve our goals?

  • Decide on a neutral course of action to reach an agreement – Let’s try to agree on an action plan that works for as many people as possible.

Using Neutral Criteria

Focusing on neutral criteria can help you move more easily from argument to dialogue to negotiation because these items tend to exist independently of the individuals involved. Disputes about personnel issues should be resolved with help from Human Resources. Frame discussion about personal (as opposed to personnel) issues by suggesting that everyone review available criteria for guidance about the situation -- and consider having a neutral mediator present who can help people express themselves effectively.

  • Aggression – Isn’t there a better way to come to an agreement?

  • Different Perceptions – Hm, I can see how that happened...

  • Gossip – I wonder what that’s based on...?

  • Defensiveness – Blame is unconstructive. Let us focus on solutions.

  • Misunderstanding – What causes you to think that?

  • Worry – How can we work together to resolve this?

  • Being Undermined – What leads you to believe that’s happening here?

  • Lack of Trust – Can we put our differences in the past?

  • Resentment – Can we talk about the things that are bothering you?

  • Obstacles – Let’s focus on the things we can influence...

Friction among teams, managers and even departments is an all-too-common feature of corporate life because people are involved. Conflict erodes the efficiency and morale of the entire organization, especially in small and/or start-up companies where resources are stretched to the max and budgets are small or non-existent. It’s one thing to start your new MMO character with nothing but a rusty sword and two coppers in your belt, but resolving conflict in the real world requires more than killing a hundred rats.


It requires interpersonal skills and the appropriate use of influence to mediate between adversaries, diffuse anger and bitterness, restore peace and establish a common sense of purpose. The key to doing this successfully lies in helping all parties define what they want and accept that what they need may require concessions. If the calm, reasonable approach doesn’t work, you may need to pull critics to one side at the end of the meeting and work directly with a mediator.

Working Through Differences

If mistrust has arisen, bury the hatchet by first getting everyone together and encouraging them to be open and honest about the situation. Apologize for your own mistakes and ask what can be done to rectify them. Voice your own concerns sincerely and listen carefully to everyone else. Learn to tolerate and explore the reasons behind differences because opposing views can often spark the best and most creative ideas. Allow for different points of view as you explore agreements.

Often, a key to a person’s emotions can be found in nonverbal signals. To be an effective influencer, learn to read these nonverbal signs and handle them accordingly. It’s more productive to manage emotions than to be lead by them. By paying close attention to the actions of those around you, you can fine-tune the way you manage them, which allows you insights into their feelings and concerns. This isn’t as evil as it sounds -- when used properly, this kind of positive influence can actually help the team avoid thing that keep it from achieving its goals.

Negotiation and Collaboration

Whether you’re working out an employment agreement, a game design or a production schedule, there’s also something that needs to be negotiated. Enter each negotiation with a positive attitude and do everything you can to keep the atmosphere from becoming adversarial. This can be a real challenge when a game developer and a publisher can’t agree on things up to and including whether the product is beta or pre-alpha.

You get the support from others by mutually respectful and productive dialog that enables you to reach (more or less agreeable) resolutions. Your ability to influence others will increase if you are able to be calm and firm but flexible. Establish the interest you have in common with the other party and aim to meet their needs as well as your own. Always retain your composure to be able to better deal with any difficult situations as they arise.

As a team leader, you can build and manage effective collaborations by being aware of the team’s needs and avoiding “positional bargaining,” a situation in which both sides present their case with increasingly stronger arguments in favor of their position. Positional bargaining is like playing “King of the Hill” because both sides jockey for top position at the expense of other players (sometimes including their own teammates.) The result is a weakened team, a lot of resentment and impaired productivity that will ultimately hurt everyone’s career.

collaboration.jpg You also want to find solutions that work for the whole team, in part by creating solid agreements and alliances that help build the team’s confidence and motivate it to put forth its best effort regardless of challenges. However, before you can resolve the details, you need to be clear about the “big picture” and determine what’s best for the project as well as the team.

If you’re new to your organization, don’t expect to gain the team’s confidence overnight. Take it one step at a time so that you can earn their trust and reinforce your position as team leader. People will be more inclined to listen if you communicate clearly and openly.

Before you can have any influence with senior management, you need to develop sufficient confidence in your ability to get your ideas across successfully and by motivating your team to meet deadlines in a timely and productive way. A key part of achieving this requires that you be clear about your goals and your motivation. Take every opportunity to demonstrate that you can be trusted with challenges and authority. Exercise your powers of persuasion through mature judgment, evident knowledge about issues and potential resolutions, and the ability to put your ideas across clearly and dynamically.

  • Identify the interests and concerns of those you hope to influence.

  • Be aware of other people’s responses to your communication style.

  • Watch for clues that tell you that your approach might not be working.

  • Be ready to junk a suggestion if you’re not getting any response (at least a negative response tells you something!)

Ways To Use Influence In Positive Ways

There are lots of good ideas here -- you don’t have to implement all of them at once but keep coming back to this list regularly and often, especially if you’re running into roadblocks:

  • Recognize that influence comes from developing good relationships and sharing ideas.

  • Understand that effective influence stems from dialogue.

  • Be flexible in your approach and consider the concerns of others.

  • Remember that people respond well to honesty and courtesy.

  • Many objections can actually contain ideas that will improve things for your team.

  • Always keep your cool, no matter the provocation -- your poise will work in your favor.

  • Be confident and relaxed -- basically, never let 'em see you sweat!

  • Take a deep breath before you react to a criticism.

  • You don’t have to grovel to the decision-makers.

  • Be an optimist -- look for solutions rather than dwelling on problems.

  • Observe what good leaders do and aim to follow their lead.

  • Ask for feedback about your strengths and abilities -- and your weaknesses.

  • Understand that setbacks will happen and don’t let it get you or the team down.

  • Listen to your instincts when you are making difficult decisions, but don’t let the drama and politics get you down.

  • Try to be aware of other people’s preconceptions. Listen carefully to voice tones and notice if someone starts to get upset.

  • Be aware of body language in meetings -- yours and others.

  • Avoid giving advice unless you’re asked for it and then be sure that it’s relevant for the person and not an opportunity to grandstand.

  • Vet your intuitions by asking questions on the relevant points.

  • Don’t agree to demands that aren’t right for your team.

  • Use “we” rather than “you” when seeking the support of others.

  • If you want to bring contentious issues into the open, do it gently and without rancor.

  • Keep the goal in mind when you’re explaining ideas.

  • Remember that junior staff members are tomorrow’s bosses.

  • Be open to new opportunities and new colleagues -- and share them with others.

  • Keep in regular contact with your acquaintances through emails, telephone calls, or cards.

  • Find out what interests team members have outside their work.

  • Build confidence by focusing on people’s strengths.

  • Keep your team informed about developments insofar as you’re able.

  • Motivate quieter team members by asking them for their ideas.

  • Look for signs of doubt, such as lack of eye contact.

  • If you cannot achieve big goals, try smaller ones.

  • Be fair when you assess others’ ideas -- give them the same respect and courtesy that you want them to give you.

  • Show enthusiasm when you talk about your ideas or when you work with your team -- energy is contagious.

  • Notice how the most influential person in a group isn’t always the leader.

  • Make sure that everyone on your team feels valued.

  • Help your team figure out why they dislike something and then help them find positive ways to deal with it.

  • Ask your team to suspend personal judgment and focus on what’s the best for the project.

  • Build consensus by listening to everyone’s input and encourage your team members to do the same.

  • Work to gain the respect of your superiors but don’t fawn over them or be obnoxious.

  • Imagine how you would react to your own proposals and give other people the same respect you want from them.

  • If someone objects to your proposal, ask for their ideas on how it could be improved.

  • Gain respect by addressing issues and working towards mutual concessions rather than winning arguments by brute force or talking over the opposition.

  • Handle deadlocks by being firm but still flexible and gentle.

  • Stay focused on your goals when you are faced with conflict.

  • Find the cause of a problem and if it was your fault, do something about fixing it rather than acting defensively.

  • Respect diversity and everyone’s right to their own opinion.

  • Remember that the best views are a synthesis of many people.

  • Learn from the way you dealt with past conflicts.

  • Examine the causes of a misunderstanding thorough and do your homework.

  • Be ready to adapt your manner to match your audience’s response.

  • Also speak with an upbeat tone when describing solutions.

  • Start networking today -- pick up the telephone or send an email!

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