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GDC 2002: Moving to Multiple Projects

After completing their first game, many developers undertake the challenge of growing their company. Making the transition from a single game to multiple games is no small feat. Systems, processes, and organization need to evolve as a company grows in size. In this feature the founders of Bioware, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, discussing their experiences growing Bioware from a single-project developer to one handling multiple projects (from three to five projects, depending on size and scope). During the course of Bioware's six-year history, the company has grown from two people in a basement to more than 120 employees.

After completing their first game, many developers undertake the challenge of growing their company. Making the transition from a single game to multiple games is no small feat. Systems, processes, and organization need to evolve as a company grows in size. In this feature the founders of Bioware, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, discussing their experiences growing Bioware from a single-project developer to one handling multiple projects (from three to five projects, depending on size and scope). During the course of Bioware's six-year history, the company has grown from two people in a basement to more than 120 employees.

The goal of this article is to build a solid foundation of ideas that need to be considered when growing a company - this is an overview, not a discussion of the smaller points. We strongly believe that to move from single to multiple projects you first need to understand and manage growth. Our goal with this article is to outline the changes that occur as you attempt to transform from a single team company into a multiple project studio.

Why Grow?

One of the first questions that must be answered when you are contemplating growth is "why grow?" With the answer in hand you might decide that growth is too costly. Or you might decide that growth helps lead you to your ultimate vision for your company.

Regardless of what choice you make, our opinion is you must only grow with a full knowledge of the impact of your actions.

At Bioware our reasons for growth were simple: we wanted to develop more than one product at a time, we wanted to leverage technology development quickly across multiple projects and platforms, and we wanted to provide a variety of opportunities for the people that work at the company. We were somewhat aware of the changes to the company that would occur with growth, but experiencing the growth firsthand gave us tremendous insight into impact the growth had on Bioware. Consequently we believe we can share our views and help advise others in positive growth strategies.

What are good reasons to grow?
There are a number of good reasons to grow. Some of the reasons are readily apparent before the growth happens while others are more subtle. We list some of the more important reasons to consider growing your company:

Stability. With a multi-project company you have at least one significant benefit: multiple projects mean multiple chances for success. Another possibility for stability with multiple projects is having multiple publishers - it's wise to have more than one publisher in order to minimize your risk in case one publisher has difficulties. At Bioware we initially had multiple projects with a single publisher, but we have since started working with other publishers to limit our exposure in the case of instability in any of our publishers.

Larger Workforce. With a larger company and multiple projects you will likely employ more people than a single project company. One positive aspect of having multiple projects running is that ability to conscript people from other projects to help in the very final stages of the game. Often these fresh faces can bring enthusiasm for the big final push to get the game out the door. At Bioware we typically conscript people even just to play the game and find bugs near the end of the project - every little bit helps.

Career Growth Path. With multiple projects there is a need for multiple project leads. As people gain knowledge and skill they will desire progression in their careers. By having new projects occurring within the same company over time, you'll provide new senior positions for people who have earned their stripes. At Bioware we promote from within and try to match the desires of our people with the number of projects and the roles on those projects.

Technology Leveraging. With multiple projects it makes sense to leverage technology developed at the company across multiple projects. This lead to two benefits: the architects of the technology at the company can easily make modifications to the technologies on an as-needed basis for the various teams that use it, and the training time is reduced if people from within the company are added to a project that uses a familiar development environment. At Bioware we have independent Tools, Graphics, AI/Networking, Production Art, and Animation groups that work on common technologies and systems across all of our games, as well as making significant customizations to the technology for each game. The added benefits are each game can inherit the advances made for the other games and people that join projects from other teams normally are up and running quickly.

Company-wide Process Improvements. As your company grows things that might not have been practical to implement at a smaller size such as financial systems, human resources departments, and full-time systems/network administrators can be justified. If implemented wisely these systems and processes can provide benefits to your employees and company such as benefits programs, better financial controls (banks and other sources of finances such as publishers will like this), and less network downtime.

Ever Greater Revenues. Provided your games continue to succeed at the same level when less were being made you should see increased revenue growth as your company increases in size. Also, with more projects being released you should see a stabilization of cash flows -- at a one-project company cash flow can vary greatly in years in which products are not released.

What will you lose when you grow?
With growth comes sacrifice and change, which can be tumultuous and painful if not carefully prepared for. This section describes some of the things that will change when you grow:

Feeling of Family. One of the most special experiences in the game industry is sitting down with a number of like minded peers and working extremely hard as a group to create an impressive game. There is an incomparable feeling of camaraderie when working in this type of tight knit group. At a certain point your studio can lose this if you grow too large. At Bioware we noticed the first, most significant change in atmosphere after we passed forty to fifty people - something was different about the company- not necessarily bad, just different. We still work very hard to maintain a family feeling, but it gets harder with each employee we add.

Daily Knowledge of Activities. When your company is small you are aware of everything that is going on with everyone on a daily basis. As you grow there comes a point when you don't necessarily see everyone every day, and you can no longer keep up with what is going on. Effective delegation can combat this problem, but often the result is a second-hand information flow, rather than a direct recounting of events from individuals directly involved. This has become very apparent recently at Bioware where we've put in a number of systems to resolve problems that arise - we often hear about things after they are fixed completely without our involvement. It's a strange feeling (disquieting, yet extremely satisfying in many ways) to discover that things can run quite efficiently without you…J

Intimate Product Knowledge. It is very difficult to know more than one game inside and out. If your company is working on three or four it gets even worse. One advantage we have at Bioware is that as co-executive producers, each of us pays particular attention to certain games - that way we can share our attention across multiple projects. We also have wonderful and talented leads on our projects that we can depend on.

Deciding to Grow

One recommended technique is to look at the above reasons for growth, weigh the costs and benefits and make a conscious decision to grow only if it is worth it. After weighing the pros and cons, then decide how large you want to be -- this is important as there is a considerably different approach in becoming a 30 person development studio compared to a 1000 person publishing operation. Make a conscious decision what you want to do and set goals to attain your targets. We consciously decided we wanted Bioware to be able to support between three and five projects at any one time (some large and some small), and we have grown accordingly.


First Steps

Evaluate the Company Culture
What are your company's values and culture? Is it a smaller boutique studio that specializes in making a single type of game, or is it already a more formal corporate environment with a firm grounding in the business of making games? It's advisable to try and match your growth goals with your existing company structure as it will make growth easier. It's possible to change company culture, but it has to be done actively over a considerable amount of time.

Evaluate Management Structure
Do you have the managers necessary to run multiple projects, e.g. if you want to run two projects do you have two producers? Also recognize that new management challenges arise once you are no longer the one resolving interpersonal issues - can you trust the people you have in place to take care of all personnel problems? Is there a clear reporting structure for managers? How do you add new mangers? Do you hire them or promote internally? Are you sure your new managers share your view of management?

Evaluate Communications
How many of your current communication techniques are effective in an organization where you'll talk meaningfully to the majority of people less than once a week? How are you going to disseminate information to the whole company? Who are your internal advisors?

Evaluate Operational Structure
Before growing you need to consider some of the more mundane elements required in running a business, such resources as: office space, copies of software, number of computers, IT staff, and general admin staff. Consider that requirements for some of these resources don't increase linearly as you grow, but instead exceed your expectations, growing practically exponentially. We've certainly found this to be the case with IT staff as we've grown - we hit critical mass and went from one to five full time network/systems administrators (plus two full time webmasters) as our network expanded and as we got more aggressive on the Internet.


Evaluate Company Resources
A growing company needs to consider core resources such as HR completely differently than it did when it was small. A larger company can no longer evaluate issues on a case by case basis and instead needs some general policies that can be applied to a variety of situations. These often relate back to company values - this helps keep them grounded. A larger studio can't avoid some 'red tape' - the key is keeping at as minimal as possible. Our approach has been to establish core company values. We have only two core values: quality in our products, and quality in our workplace, that can be applied to all situations. Our policies are a direct offshoot of our company values.

Evaluate the Preferences of the People at the Company
As archaic and simple as it sounds, this is probably the most important point to consider. You need to have a shared vision of your ultimate target company, and this vision must be shared with the people who are at the company. If they don't agree with the direction the company is going they will simply leave. Carefully consider this when growing your studio as it may literally end up completely different from when you started the process.

Different Structures of the Growing Studio

Team Based Approach
This method involves no overlap between projects - each team is sacrosanct and shares neither personnel nor technology. This does work, but there is little intra-company spirit, and you're more likely to have competition between the teams that can sometimes get ugly. Works well for a 1 or two team company. We consciously decided to avoid this structure as we grew.

Departmental Approach
This method involves overlapping most development duties and assigning them to specialized groups that takes care of their one task. The challenge here is a lack of team spirit; people might have faith in the company, but they likely have little attachment to any particular project.

The Matrix
(Bioware structure) This method is effectively a hybrid of the team and departmental approaches, drawing upon the strengths and the weakness of both. Everyone is both on the team and in a department, but they sometimes have competing goals from the team and department, and hence they need strong leadership (and corporate values/goals) and extremely clear communication to be effective. When the Matrix works it is very powerful, but when broken it is very destructive. The matrix is based inherently on conflict between teams and between the teams and departments hence the matrix leads need to be strong-willed as do the project leaders and departmental leaders. Yet everyone needs to have the overall goals of the company at heart, first and foremost at all times (this should complement and supercede the specific project or departmental goals). This structure works well for a mid-sized developer of 3-6 projects if the communications infrastructure is well-thought out and if appropriate senior (producers, department directors) and mid-level managers (leads on the projects) are available.

Less- or Unstructured Approach
Another possible structure is a much less structured company: multidisciplinary teams form and dissolve on the basis of the needs of subprojects. In this format there is much less management and structure than above approaches. A few developers use this approach with variable degrees of success - the success of the team and project is more directly related to the personal qualities of the team members rather than any particular manager or visionary, though a strong company leader is likely a critical element in this approach succeeding.

Assesing the Impact of Growth

Positive
In addition to business awards and other accolades that indirectly generate increased revenue (via increased company profile leading to improved quality of job applicants, increased availability of financing and better contracts), growth is positive as it can lead to:

Duplication of valuable skill-sets within a company - one of the challenges facing any company is turnover of staff. With a larger company there should be some duplication of skills that can reduce the impact of the loss of key staff. Of course, there is also increased demand in a larger company. In general with more people at the company there is also an opportunity to apply more people to certain problems for limited periods of time - there is an advantage of flexibility of staffing.

More development bandwidth to try a variety of design ideas - with more people and projects you can try out more ideas. This is of course of benefit in that the more projects you release the larger chance you have for a success.

Increase in the value of the shareholders' equity - as owners of the company this will ultimately translate into better sales prices should the owners decide to sell. It will also allow greater debt capacity (you can borrow more if your equity is worth more - since banks look at things like debt to equity ratios).

Improved compensation and opportunities - growth also provides opportunity to reward staff with increased compensation and provides an outlet for staff to grow within the company (instead of leaving it). In short, growth allows for more opportunities for people with more experience and has the potential to keep them stimulated in what they are doing longer.

Negative
Growth can be destructive when it leads to:

Less personal accountability for success of all of the company's projects. In a large faceless company it's hard to get excited about every release. There is a careful balance that must be managed to be large enough to do a lot, but not large enough that people don't care.

Fragmented communication. Probably the first thing you'll notice in a larger company is that communication is much harder than when the company was smaller. At Bioware we've worked very hard to maintain strong communication as the glue that holds the company together.

A lack of focus for both the company and individuals. As a company grows there often is a loss of focus as competing forces within the company pull it in multiple directions. When it gets too large to be controlled by the existing management it will quickly spin out of control.

More complicated business and personal interactions. In the early days of Bioware life seemed much easier and simpler. Perhaps it was, or perhaps we were just naïve. Whichever it is, we can never return to the free and easy approach of our first few years.

Running out of money and bankruptcy. The big scary result that is perhaps the most common result of growth. Once the company hits all the above bad points this one usually isn't far off. It unfortunately happens more often than we all realize!

How do you Reconcile Competition for Resources?

Balancing projects within a growing company is challenging and fundamentally different from the issues faced by a one-project company. Not all projects have equal potential so senior studio personnel have to sometimes make hard decisions to decide who gets most of the pie. Some ideas on how set priorities include: priority based on release date, priority based on potential, priority based on project momentum, and most importantly the potential for profit (return on investment, net present value, etc.) from a given project. It's most wise to put your money into the sure bet with the greatest and quickest chance of profitability.

Communication Rechniques for the Growing Company

Open Communication
One way to communicate is to tell everyone everything all the time. This gets hard if you have bad news to share. Open book policy means that people have expectation of getting more information all of the time - if you stop providing this at some point rumors will run rampant (e.g. in terms of financials people will wonder whether the financials have deteriorated). So, once you go down this path it's very hard to turn back.

Structured Communication
Another way to communicate is to carefully structure communications either in company meetings, personnel meetings or company bulletins and memos. This makes it easier to share information but can lose that personal touch. This usually involves the partial sharing of financial information, and open discussion of company direction at frequent team and department meetings, and full company meetings. This is the approach we take at Bioware.

Rumor-dispelling
Zeschuk's law: The number of rumors generated at a company per week is directly related to the size of the company! In a growing company people often don't know whom to believe when it comes to what sounds like important company business. It's important to understand that rumors are a sign of a lack of communication and they should dissipate once communications improve.

No or Poor Communication
This is bad - avoid it! (If you're wondering why, that's proof right there that no communication is something to avoid. Effective communication can be a lot of work sometimes but in the end [in our experience] it will save reams of time and is well worth the up-front cost in terms of time).

How Can You Tell When You've Grown Too Fast?

Some simple metrics to gauge when you're grown too fast: you don't remember the names of people in the company (of course, this can also be due to the porous memory of a manager), people aren't sure who their 'boss' is (this can also be due to poor communication of what the company org chart looks like), failure of scheduling for no apparent reason, poor integration of new personnel into existing projects or departments, and deterioration of the company financials.

Other metrics to consider include looking at financials more closely - some common ratios to consider such as:

ROA, ROE, ROI, debt ratios, inventory turnover, days inventory, measures of cash flow, measures of profitability, etc., may be useful to look at (and having a good internal financial system and controls will allow for these ratios to be understood and evaluated).

Another area to consider is role definitions: are people overloaded due to increasing demands on their time in a rapidly growing company? One way to tell this is for staff to write down everything that they are doing in a day - this allows you to identify specific roles that are being filled on a project and in a company, and consider ways to hire more people to delegate to should people get overloaded.


Setting Growth Targets

Understand what kind of company you're trying to build and work slowly toward it. Set goals on what kind of company you want to have based on your personal goals and the goals of the key people in your studio. Make sure everyone is on the same page with the same target in mind. Don't grow quickly without a plan or goal.

Financing your Rapidly Growing Company

Options to consider in financing your company are varied and likely beyond the scope of this talk. However, it is important to consider the cash flow requirements of your company at all times - continually do cash in/cash out assessments of your business, build up lines of credit and reasonable levels of debt with financial lenders, and structure your projects to provide sufficient profitability in advances to allow for a safety cushion near the end of the project, during that all-important time when you are seeking new project funding and still awaiting the start (hopefully) of royalties from your last project.

How to Optimally Use Your Bulk

Some of the best ways to use your new found size (and we mean company size, not waist size) include: sharing technologies and ideas among projects, having people consult on projects they're not normally working on in order to give an educated and focussed critique on their area of expertise (organizational learning), and to build value-added services that are great to have, but can't be justified with only one team to support or when cash is too tight to justify non-critical expenditures

Managing Multiple Projects

The Art of Executive Production
Exec producing is about sharing your knowledge with the teams, and getting the teams to share their knowledge with each other. Another key task is mentoring up and coming producers to help them learn the 'right' way to do production. E.g. leading by example, respecting and trusting the team members, and guiding the project with a gentle, but firm hand.

Trust the People that Work for You
If you are the type of person who has to do everything yourself don't grow your company, you won't be happy. Managing multiple projects is all about learning how to delegate, often to the point that all you have left to do as a task on the project is play the game and make suggestions.

Building Synergy Between Projects
Successful companies in this context share a few qualities: consistency of personnel (maintenance of Organizational Learning), solid inter-project communications, and a desire to help the company in general, not just personal projects.

The Importance of Company Values

What's the easiest way to make competing decisions? Have a solid set of company values that can always be referred to with every single decision. Bioware approaches this topic by consistently preaching two key values both internally and externally: we value quality in our projects and quality in our workplace.

Every company issue we run into can usually be answered in some way by referring back to these two company values. Can your company say the same?

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