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The Developer's Renaissance: 3 leaders on life and career in games

During GDC 2022's "Main Stage" event, titled "The Developer's Renaissance," leaders from Eidos-Montreal, PlayStation, and Devolver reflected on social justice, shipping games through a pandemic, and their own careers.

During GDC 2022's "Main Stage" event, titled "The Developer's Renaissance," three leaders in the game industry reflected on social justice, shipping games through a pandemic, and their own careers.

David Anfossi, head of Guardians of the Galaxy studio Eidos-Montreal, spoke via live video about how his studio adjusted to work-life balance during the pandemic.

One realization that he had near the onset of pandemic-driven remote work was that leadership didn't fully understand the needs of their employees.

"We realized we didn't really know [our employees] or their concerns," he said. "We assumed we knew each other, which was totally wrong."

Anfossi stressed "communication, communication, communication" within a studio and particularly being accessible as a studio head. In order to remedy some of the communication gaps, the company formed a retention committee that held surveys and meetings that would make more transparent the needs and concerns of employees. This helped leadership support the staff more effectively.

The other major initiative that Eidos-Montreal took on was implementation of a shorter work week. Anfossi said home-based work initially led to a drop in productivity and to improve that productivity, the studio decided to try out a four-day, 32-hour week.

Anfossi said the results of these initiatives have been "great...very positive but we still have to adjust and test new things."

PlayStation's moves toward a more equitable future

Taking the stage in-person next was Davina Mackey, director of support services at Sony Interactive Entertainment and president of [email protected], an internal group within PlayStation advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

Mackey said that games are now having their own DE&I movement, and there is still work to be done. She used Sony as an example of a company that has evolved in its approach to DE&I as the world saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, and other paradigm-shifting events.

"We were very successful at cultural awareness," said Mackey, "but there's more to DE&I than cultural awareness." She said on top of that awareness, there needs to be action.

"We were data-starved," she said. SIE didn't have a global DE&I strategy and there were few metrics to guide any DE&I action. Mackey added that "there was no incentive for middle management to encourage DE&I."

"I would say I was a pink unicorn," she said, because there was no one else like her represented in the upper ranks at SIE, but the company has worked to change that, she said. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the rising BLM movement, SIE head Jim Ryan called on Mackey and other Black employees to discuss how SIE should take action.

"We asked for programs, we asked for sponsorship, we asked for proper funding, and we got it," said Mackey, with PlayStation getting behind the BLM movement from an executive level. Part of this was the creation of social justice funds--SIE with $1 million and Sony with $100 million.

Today at SIE, there's a true global DE&I strategy, said Mackey, complete with demographic data. "Having access to this allows SIE to set KPIs and metrics--to move the needle...for those groups that are under-represented," she said.

"We need managers and leaders who are aware of their bias and can use empathy to make decisions that are fair," Mackey added. This means training managers on inclusive leadership and working to achieve equity--important steps, particularly in the wake of ongoing discrimination litigation against Sony PlayStation.

The evolution of Devolver Digital

Last up at Main Stage was game industry veteran and Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson, who delivered a frank and often hilarious talk on his journey through his game development career, and how in the end kindness, respect, and humility can bring big success.

Wilson, who also worked with '90s-era id Software and founded Gathering of Developers among other efforts, had an important realization at a young age: "I didn't wanna work very hard but I wanted to make a lot of money--so I knew I needed to be an executive."

He talked about seeing his friends make super successful games like Doom while "smiling men in suits"--publishers at GT Interactive in this case--would take a large chunk of the profits. Wilson said he renegotiated the terms with the publisher, finding they were taking roughly four times more per unit than what was fair.

Wilson said these "sharks" were inspiring--in the way that they he did not find these smiling men in suits very impressive. "They didn't care," he said. "They just wanted that sweet, sweet cash, and to take credit for the thing my friends made."

Wilson, who had nary any experience in games business at the time, taught himself everything he needed to know to negotiate these new terms. He added with a laugh, "Here's the secret--it's not that hard. Sorry to anyone in publishing, marketing, or finance, but it's not very hard!"

He mentioned other parts of his career like his time at Ion Storm, founded by John Romero and Tom Hall. He was there only for a short period of time, saying that he and his cohorts' inflated mid-twenties egos got in the way of the studio's long-term success.

Wilson also reflected on Gathering of Developers, a.k.a. G.O.D. Games, a creator-led company that was founded upon the concept of fair business deals and respect for game development teams. He and his partners eventually sold it to Take-Two Interactive.

He thanked '90s game publishers and their unfair business practices for leaving a hole for G.O.D. Games to fill with their fair deals and respect for developers. "I truly feel like I stand on the shoulders of shithheads," Wilson laughed, recognizing that "we ended up selling out to the same bastards we set out against."

Then there was Gamecock Media Group, another independently-minded game publisher that Wilson co-founded. It was a short-lived venture and he said he founded the company when he was angry and amid a midlife crisis. Again, he said his ego got in the way and the company became about himself.

This all leads up to Wilson's 2009 co-founding of Devolver Digital, the hugely successful independent game publisher known for games like Hotline Miami, Death's DoorFall GuysInscryption, and many others. Like past ventures, Wilson founded Devolver to be fair, and focused on creators. The difference this time, Wilson said, is he worked to put his ego aside. "Devolver wasn't about me," he said. Recently, Devolver went public on the London Stock Exchange for nearly $1 billion.

Wilson's still with Devolver, but his new focus is on the recently-announced DeepWell, a publisher for FDA-approved games that are structured around cognitive behavioral therapy. It's an important area for Wilson, who had lost a sibling to depression and who has had his own struggles with mental health. Wilson announced that DeepWell would be hosting a mental health game jam in May this year in cooperation with Global Game Jam.

Being kind and fair to others can lead to big success, but putting your ego aside as well as being kind to yourself can lead to even bigger success. Wilson said, "What is about you, is what you put your energy into every day."

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