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E3 Interview: Riot Games' Bellezza On Managing Growth, Company Culture

Riot Games producer Paul Bellezza talks to Gamasutra about how the company has managed its explosive growth since the success of League of Legends and its recent purchase by China's Tencent.
When Riot Games producer Paul Bellezza left the company roughly a year and a half ago to focus on indie pet project The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, there were about 40 people working on League of Legends. Now, a few months after his return, the company has 220 people devoted to the game, and Bellezza manages a team almost as big as the entire company he had left. To say its been an adjustment would be an understatement. "There's definitely growing pains," Bellezza told Gamasutra during an E3 interview. "We just moved into our new office a few weeks ago, and that was cool because we were crammed. You could not make a meeting, you'd have to do an interview outside because there was no meeting room. You go from learning how to make a game with small group of people just making decisions to 'Oh we have to consider the audience here, we have to consider what the community wants' and gut-checking things." That internal growth could have been even more explosive, Bellezza said, if the company didn't take such pains to screen potential hires to make sure they'll fit into the tight-knit culture that already exists in the company. "We really believe you can be super-talented but, at the end of the day you need to be a team player and work with our community and believe in our goals," he said. "We'd rather train someone who has the potential to be really awesome, and empower them to go forward. Hiring like that takes time and it takes active recruiting and it takes a lot of patience, and ramping up has been good but challenging." "I would love us to ramp up to 500 people right now, but it's not the right way to do it," he continued. "We'd lose that culture that makes us scrappy and adaptable. We have to look within at times and say 'Are we doing the right thing for the player.' How many people come and go because they get all cocky, and go 'Lamborghinis for everybody!' No, we have to do better, because this could all go away." That carefully maintained culture hasn't been impacted by the company's recent purchase by Chinese social giant Tencent, Bellezza said. "The agreement was we would get to push forward with what our vision is," he said. "It's collaboration, if anything." Tencent isn't involved in the actual design and development of League of Legends, Belazza said, but are focused on setting up servers in China and helping to localize the game for a new market. "You have to be able to understand the culture," he said. "Jokes that work here might not work there. There are certain things that are offensive over there that are not over here. Instead of just designing nationally, we have to design internationally. That's not saying I should make the most Chinese nationalistic hero, but... we recently launched Monkey King as a hero, and he's internationally famous, not just in China, people know who he is. He's an aspirational guy, [Americans] can get him." Bellezza's role at Riot involves leading the team that designs the bi-weekly releases of Champions, special playable characters which can be sampled and then bought via microtransactions in the free-to-play League of Legends. Anyone at the company can submit a Champion idea, Bellezza says, using a simple submission form that could be as basic as a bit of reference art. Then a team of lead designers from areas such as art, design and story approve it, and it's off to the races. "There used to be a little more beuracracy, but we blew it up because we felt like our quality bar was suffering," Bellezza said. "Some people would demand 'It needs to be like this'... we disintegrated that and let the team drive it. The team can get argumentative, but what we've done is empower certain owners to get feedback and say 'OK, I hear what you're saying, I'm going to address it like this,' or 'I hear what you're saying, I'm going to respectfully disagree and go in this direction.'" While the team once took a "natural selection" approach to prioritizing production of approved Champion ideas, Bellezza says they now try to coordinate to provide what the community feels is necessary. "The problem with [the old system] is you might get five assassins in a row, because everybody loves making assassins," Bellezza said. "Now, instead of going 'You, make that!' I open it up to the team with the leads and say, 'OK guys, we need a support character. I empower you guys to go forth and make something a Champion you feel fits that.'" Having an idea that the team can get excited about is more important than imposing design ideas just to fill some sort of perceived hole, Bellezza said. "You guys need to own it, you need to drive it, because otherwise it's going to be someone from on high demanding something, and that's not necessarily the best," he said. "We're kind of a flat organization in a way. We believe if you empower the team to be creative, feel creative, and drive decision making, but hold them accountable to making decisions and reaching goals, you're going to get a better result."

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