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Looking Back on a Decade of Coaching and Training Agile Game Development

As I've passed a decade as an independent agile coach and trainer, I reflect on what got me here, where we're at and what the future holds.

Clinton Keith, Blogger

June 3, 2019

7 Min Read

It was July 2004 and I was at my wit's end.

Two years previously I'd joined a startup game studio, called Sammy Studios. We were owned by a Japanese Pachinko game manufacturer called Sammy Corporation, which wanted to become a major western game publisher. They'd invested tens of millions of dollars in our startup and we were growing quickly...too quickly in fact and we were a chaotic mess.

I was just promoted to CTO. It was one of those promotions that have a clear underlying understanding that "you are being promoted to fix this mess or suffer the same consequences as your predecessor".

Desperation is a strong motivator. I'd run a studio before, but it was one that was far more stable. I started reading everything I could on the latest ideas in management. One called "Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager's Guide" by Craig Larman led me to "Agile Project Management with Scrum" by Ken Schwaber and Mile Beedle.

Scrum seemed like it might be a good fit for us, so I attended a Scrum Master course hosted by Ken Schwaber. The course was illuminating. It created a mind shift about not only how to make games, but how to coach an organization to better serve its more valuable assets: its people. It created a vision.

However, having a vision is not the same as implementing it.  Not by a long sho t. It turned out that standing in a circle for 15 minutes a day didn't transform us into an effective organization.  Quite the opposite, it created some negative reactions.


Even while we were adopting Scrum, we were mocking it.

But we persisted. We made many mistakes, but we adapted. We started to see the benefits of Scrum. They weren't what we'd expected: no miracles, but we did start to see teams managing more of their day-to-day work and starting to take more ownership over solving problems rather than leaving it to management.

However, after several years, Sammy Corporation decided to acquire Sega who wanted nothing to do with us. We acquired ourselves from them and renamed ourselves High Moon Studios.

A year later we sold the studio to Vivendi. They needed to spend a lot of their World of Warcraft money and we were happy to take it. Vivendi appreciated the benefits we were seeing with Scrum and started sending me to their other studios to talk about it. I also started to talk Scrum at the Game Developer's Conference.

Then Activision and Vivendi merged. During this time we were visited by the Activision scouting party that led the way for an executive review of the studio. Activision was mainly interested in Blizzard and looked at the other studios as baggage to discard if they couldn't help on their existing titles. During the scouting we were told to remove all evidence of agile from our walls if we hoped to survive the review. This and my experience visiting other studios convinced me it was time to move on. So in March 2008, I became an independent agile trainer.

Decades of office work did not prepare me for the life of a traveling trainer. The repetitive and predictable nature of my life disappeared, to be replaced with a life filled with airline chaos, packing and unpacking and entering studios where I knew almost no one.

Although I missed working on a game and seeing the same friends every day of the week, the experience of glimpsing the life of an average of 15 studios a year over the past dozen years has been illuminating. We're all much more alike than I would have guessed. We share many common problems. We all want to have purpose and release great games and enjoy making them.

The Golden Years and the Backlash

Scrum enjoyed (and suffered through) a period of time where it attained a fad status. Studios were embracing it as a miracle solution to their problems, much as we did. It wasn't hard to get work training game developers.

However, like us, studios realized that getting agile to work was hard. It required a cultural shift, which is never easy. Some main causes were:

  • Modifying the practices to fit a command and control culture. Scrum "managers" were assigning sprint work in tools and weaponizing various aspects of Scrum to micro-manage teams. 

  • Following the defined practices of Scrum without question and never modifying them based on  what the game and teams are "telling" you.

Many blamed Scrum for their failure to see success applying Scrum.  Just as Scrum is too simple to credit with success, it's also too simple to blame with failure.

One of my first experiences as a trainer was visiting a large studio in Montreal that was adopting Scrum. I was introduced to a junior producer who said: "we're staffing up from 20 to 200 in the next month to get a game out the door in 18 months. This game will run on an engine which has yet to ship a game."  "But", he added with enthusiasm, "we're going to be using Scrum!".

Back then, I found it difficult to say "Implemented correctly, Scrum will likely tell you very quickly that you won't be able to achieve that goal" because I knew I wouldn't be invited back, and I wasn't. Sadly, they struggled for 18 months, struggling to hide all the transparency that could have saved them the pain until the game was cancelled. As expected, Scrum was blamed.

The gold rush of agile also produced a lot of brands of agile that went to war with one another.  Differing brands of agile, which diverged only in minor ways would accuse one another of being complete failures and that their brand was the perfect approach.

This seems absurd to me.

  • I've seen many different methodologies result in great games.

  • Unless the wheel of history has come to a complete halt, we'll keep improving how we make games and eventually look back on our methodologies we use today as outdated.

  • The very first value of agile is "individuals and interactions over processes and tools". This includes agile processes and tools as well. People are the main ingredient, not what brand of methodology you use.

More Pragmatism
Since I became an independent trainer in 2008, the industry has seen tremendous change.  Mobile, for example, has grown to dominate the industry. Mobile game development now spends most of its effort in live support. The player feedback loop has gone from years to weeks. This is fertile ground for agility. Feedback loops of weeks allow far more experimentation and transparency than a two year console cycle where your game has one change (maybe two with a day one patch) to capture market share.

AAA development practices are starting to look like mobile game practices: viewing games as an ongoing service and focusing more on adding post-launch value.

With more experience using a pragmatic approach to agile, we have far more success stories and a greater abundance of beneficial practices and approaches to apply agile to game development.

The pragmatic approach includes:

  • Adopting an agile mindset for all disciplines

  • Continually experimenting with improved practices

  • An executive-level understanding of how to work with agile development teams

  • Not getting stuck on following practices by-the-book

Going Forward

My job as a trainer and coach is much more interesting these days. Rather than giving the same beginner course over and over, I work with studios and teams that understand the basics and the principles up front so can focus more effort on addressing the specific needs of the studio.


But we still have a long way to go. 

  • Leveraging creativity and engagement through increased self-organization, trust and respect for developers

  • Relying more on the emergence of a game and a focus on iteration outcomes rather than a detailed schedule that drives output. 

  • Focusing on outcomes and managing debt to manage ship dates more reliably.

  • Improving practices to move quality upstream in the development chain.

I look forward to the next ten years. Change is accelerating and agility is still the best approach to staying on top of it.

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