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Team & Corporate Structure: Is The Standard Way, The Best Way?

UK-based game management consultant Max Meltzer takes a look at team and corporate structure within the game industry, contrasting standard team structures with the emerging 'core' and 'virtual team' set-ups.

In a typical business market that stimulates growth in the same way as the games industry has, the number of companies seeing increasing success rises in correlation. However, although the games industry has this outstanding growth, the amount of companies failing, filing for bankruptcy and closing down is shocking in comparison to any other industry on record. This is because of a well-documented lack of professional management inherent at most development studios. No where has there been a bigger example of this than in the United Kingdom where the amount of development studios closing down in relation to the country's industry growth is staggering. It is clear that in favorable market conditions, the areas holding back the majority of studios link to Team and Corporate Structure and that not enough thought is going into this very important part of running a business -- a game company.

Where Can Managers Start to Improve the Situation?

First, a manager must decipher what team and corporate structures are in place at their studio. If they don't instantly know what structures are in place, this is a phenomenal issue. Forget the primary technical issue in the development of their game, if they don't know what structures are in place, the studio is doomed for failure – fact. Running a successful business needs as much complex thought as designing and programming a full physics engine. In a games studio, you can't have one without the other.

What are the Team Structures?

In the entire business world there are numerous team structures, all relevant to their particular industries. In this article, there will be a focus on three that are all fully relevant and are in-use industry wide. The three include:


• Standard
• Core
• Virtual

Standard Team Structure

Titled ‘Standard' because of its 95% majority usage in the industry. Historically, it became the standard by natural progression, more work needed to be done therefore a game developer hired more people and a team was formed. Just because it's the most used, it doesn't mean it's the most efficient team structure to employ.

Advantages

Easy Integration. Since it is the most popularly used form of team organization it is easy to integrate. This is so, because every developer is experienced with such a structure and understands their role within it.

Better Management, More Control. Since the entire team is physically within the same building, communication is at its peak, since face-to-face communication is by far the best method in all situations. The physicality of this team structure typically means it is easier to find and solve issues together. It is also easier to spawn a team spirit, particularly in crunch periods, which can spark increased motivation.

Disadvantages

Significant Overheads. Of course hiring a full team and owning or renting office space with all that goes with it (i.e. electricity, computers) a studio is going to run high overheads. In fact, overheads can amount to a quarter of the budget on some productions, which is an incredibly high ratio of cost.

Core Team Structure


Stubbs the Zombie is the first game from Wideload Games, spawned by Bungie Studios (Halo) veterans. It is the premier games studio to successfully implement a ‘core team' structure.

Not a new structure, but the introduction of improved modes of communication such as the Internet and mobile phones has made outsourcing to foreign countries a more viable option and therefore has contributed to the adoption of this structure. The foundation of this structure is by forming a ‘core team' made out of a studio's best professionals, typically a programmer, an artist, a designer and a producer (the team can be bigger). This ‘core team' outlines the basis to a game using their skill and knowledge, and then they draw up a schedule. In order to move along that schedule, they hire contractors/outsourcers on a need-to-do basis, rather than employing a full team.

Advantages

Reduced overheads. Since a studio only hires when there is work needed to be done and do not employ a horde of full-timers, a studio avoids the steep overheads that go with employing a full-time team. In a generation of game development when games developed under the standard structure can require up to 200 full-time employees, the ‘core team' structure can significantly save money in the overheads.

Job Satisfaction. As core team members have a big influence over the direction of the game, this logically, results in increased job satisfaction. The issue with ‘standard' and ‘virtual' structures is that because the team is so large, many employees feel they do not actively contribute much to the game's overall design. Since contractors typically, only work for a short period of time on one aspect of the game, they experience something known as “adrenaline motivation”.

Disadvantages


Rectifying the Problem – Hire an experienced team instead:

“Hiring established [outsourcing] teams is a smart way of reducing risk. Streamline Studios has been offering an established team dynamic for over 4 years. It's been a major USP for our clients as they can rely on established processes, quality controls and effective communication that come with experience”.
–Alexander Fernandez, Founder, Streamline Studios.

 

Increased Risk. Simply by using this form of team organization, a studio raises the risk. Partly because on hiring contractors a studio has no prior knowledge of their personality and style of work, this could, in-turn, lead to future work-related clashes. That said, the lack of aptitude/skill tests available before hiring means although a resume looks good, the person may in-fact not be very talented at all, which is detrimental to a project. By using this team structure this is the risk you must take on. (there will be standards as more people use more references).


Case Study: Issues of Core Team Structure

“While the contractors were great at keeping costs low, [I] found that hiring was difficult since there weren't many reference assets and tests available. There wasn't a single producer, and someone needed to manage the art direction and contractors. This task fell to the internal staff, which took them away from the actual work they might have otherwise been doing. The resulting feedback delays lengthened iteration cycles.”
-Alex Seropian, Wideload Games (developer of Stubbs the Zombie), extract taken from IGDA Chicago Lecture

 

Virtual Team Structure

This structure has much in common with its predecessors. Taking a standard team hierarchy and fusing that with outsourcing. However, the mix conjured is an entire team made up of outsourcers, who work from home. Communication is done primarily via Internet, phone and email. Such a structure, while used in multiple other industries, takes its routes in this industry from the mod scene. Under this structure we have seen the development of successful games such as Tactical Ops and Counter-Strike (figure 1.0).


Figure 1.0

Advantages

Near-Zero Overheads. With effective planning, a virtual development team can have near-zero overheads. There is no office, no printing, no physical transport and so on. Since communication can be done over the Internet, exclusive of telephone charges (see www.skype.com), there is also zero cost. The only costs that may have to be exerted are related to personnel payments and related issues.

24-hour Work Period. The opportunity is there to open up a 24-hour work period, operating a rotational development scheme. Since the virtual structure permits people to work from home from across the country, it is applicable therefore that a game could have people working on it all day, literally.


My Tip: The disadvantage of having workers on a game all day is that for example:
a) Programmer A may cause a code conflict or complication unknowingly which Programmer B on the other side of the world will wake up to and not be able to correct until Programmer A wakes up again, therefore paralyzing their work day.
b) Programmer A may need to communicate with Programmer B over an issue, but the time zones mean they can't. However, if managed effectively to eradicate such issues, having a 24-hour cycle can be very advantageous.
 

Disadvantages

Communication. The biggest disadvantage and major deterrent of this form of team organization. Since face-to-face communication is ruled out most of the time, communication of highly technical issues by email, instant messenger and even by phone can be highly impractical.

Time Management Strain. Any producer / manager that works in this team structure must have a very clear vision of what they wish to achieve in order to stay on schedule. Since the majority of communication occurs via phone, email or instant messenger, a producer may spend an hour discussing an issue, which may have only taken 15-minutes face-to-face. So a manager must be very particular in ensuring there is sufficient documentation and communication plans in-place in relation to the game design and team members, in order to reduce the amount of time he must spend directly communicating with each individual member.

What are the Corporate Structures?

Corporate Structure means different things to different folk. This article looks at it in how developers can organize their company in direct relation to project developments by selecting a specific structure. The corporate structures selected to be analyzed here are more relative to project team developments, since every game studio is driven by its software projects. Considered the most relevant to this industry are:


• Cross Functional
• Staff Organization
• Matrix Organization

Cross-Functional

This is known as the ‘standard' in our industry. The fundamental basis of this structure is that the manager (producer) is a ‘non-expert'. In essence, the producer is without expert knowledge on a particular area such as programming or art.

Advantages

The reasoning behind this is that it is more beneficial to have a non-expert, yet management trained, producer at the helm because they will have to deal with such a diverse range of expertise. A ‘non-expert' manager will also not be tempted to get fully involved in the development process and therefore maintains a more objective view of the development environment. This makes it easier for the manager to evaluate a team's cooperation and motivation.

Disadvantages

A non-expert manager often finds it difficult to communicate with specialists. Therefore, evaluating risks and scheduling tasks is often very difficult and can primarily lead to ineffectual planning and in the long-term, affect a game's development in such ways as, for example, going over schedule.


Case Study: Is having a technical producer really beneficial?

“ I think having a technical background should be a great help. You have the knowledge of how long something should take, and you can run the programming group very effectively. From what I've seen in my experience, the best run game I've been on was run by a Producer with a technical background”.
-Bobby Steele, Producer, Kid Designs, "Fight Back against Non-Expert Managers"

[ My tip if you are a ‘non-expert producer': Hire a technical associate producer.]

 

Staff Organization

In its adapted form there is a small, but healthy, portion of the industry that encompasses this structure. It is often spearheaded by an expert, such as a Creative Director, who is technically very efficient while also providing the creative and managerial direction.

Advantages

Having a technically skilled manager at the helm means he can effectively communicate with other technical experts on the team. This means developing a schedule, evaluating risk and so on, becomes far easier because the expert manager has had hands on experience and will have an inherent understanding of how long tasks should take and the complications involved in completing such.

Disadvantages

Some firms have realized having an ‘expert' producer can result in a hands-on management approach which bares to strong a grip. Sometimes an expert producer can want to get involved too much in contributing directly on a technical level, which can disrupt the team itself; it also defocuses the producer from what should be the priority, managing and guiding the team to task completion.

Matrix Organization

The basis of this structure is that individuals are placed into a ‘talent pool'. For example, a programmer will put in the programming department and will report to the department head. However, that programmer may be assigned to Project A under Project Manager A for a few months, then be assigned to Project Manager B under Project B for the consecutive three months. In essence, after the programmer has done his work on one project he returns to the programming department ‘pool' making himself/herself available for selection on another project.

The only games company known to use this structure is Electronic Arts.

Advantages

This type of structure encourages individual specialization which on a personal level is superb for an employee as it allows them to focus on a particular area that they enjoy, and coupled with specialized experience and training that can become experts in their field. This is particularly beneficial to the company encompassing this structure because they develop and employ experts in each particular field aiding them to become the most technically efficient studio. It also helps to encourage developers to stay on as veterans, since they also gain much job satisfaction. That's the basis anyway.

Disadvantages

The major disadvantage is that of conflicting loyalties and interests. An employee may find themselves working on a racing game for a few months then are moved onto an action game. The first conflict may be of interest, in the fact they would prefer to work on the racing game, than the action game, and thus while working on the action game, they have lowered motivation. The second conflict is in loyalties; simply put an employee may prefer working for one manager rather than the other.

The Bottom Line

The most important facet of this conclusion is not to rule out all the other team and corporate organization methods and techniques that I haven't included, as they could also be just as apt for a development studio's specific set out and objectives as the ones I have. This article should be observed as offering a taster into the type of structures available to the modern developer.

So – is the ‘standard' way the most efficient way? The answer is a resounding NO. There are times where studios would benefit from, even periodically, integrating core team or virtual team structures, for example, in order to reduce overhead in order to survive. Or, in order for them to develop a new demo pitch; which they wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford using the standard team structure. However, the critical issue in this industry is that there are too many non-business professionals in development studios who are not doing enough to analyze what is best for the company in both the short-term and long-term. I urge for the sake, of particularly, the independent scene, for studio owners and managers, regardless of a non-business background, to spend time analyzing and evaluating what is best for their game development business.

Final Note

I hope the article has raised developer's awareness of the importance of organization in a business. In order to continue reading of this subject and to help secure the future of your own games studio, particularly if you're not an experienced businessman I suggest buying Designing and Leading Team-based Organizations by Susan Albert Mohrman, a small 120-page handy guide as a general introduction and starting point.

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