At the 2007 IGDA Leadership Forum, Epic Games president Mike Capps' talk, "Building the Perfect Team," discussed how to successfully run and team-build at a relatively small company -- based on his experience at Epic, which despite being 16 years established, only has about 90 employees. Capps also has experience building teams from the ground up working on America's Army
and at Scion Studios.
Why does he choose leadership roles? Says Capps, "I lead because I hate inefficiency... or, what I perceive as inefficiency."
He continued, "People use these lofty terms like 'Team Dynamics' and 'Culture'. What this really means is that we want people to work harder than usual, and work hard on the same thing. We want this unity of purpose -- this willingness to sacrifice for this purpose. This doesn't mean sacrificing your family, friends, and life, which is a problem in this industry. What I mean is sacrificing fun stuff for the sake of making the game."
Sacrificing The Inefficient
He cited a list of what he calls "enjoyable inefficiencies" -- petty squabbling, intolerance for failure, territorial behavior, random web browsing, random "research projects," tasks that look deceptively like progress but don't help to ship games -- and playing Unreal Tournament
during lunch. "These are fun things that don't help you ship a game," says Capps.
Capps gave the example of "Project Lowlife", which was designed to get the Unreal Engine to run on the lowest hardware possible. He also spoke about recruiting for America's Army
without being able to say what the project was. Lastly he talked about starting Scion with the unifying goal off beating Epic at its own game. The common thread in these stories? Capps says they were successful because the teams shared a unified goal and had confidence in their leadership.
"In both cases, we just gave the projects names and nearly impossible goals," he said. "If it's impossible everyone will give up. Your team has to be confident in you and your decisions."
What To Look For
Capps said bad spelling is an "automatic pass" when someone applies for a job at Epic. "If a programmer spells badly then they probably don't check their code," he explained. "If an artist has bad spelling, then they're not used to having their work judged by others."
Demonstrating passion is also something Epic looks for in a candidate. The company starts with a general evaluation: candidates are asked to juggle skills, their ability to take direction is observed, and candidates that say "I don't take tests" are automatically rejected, Capps said.
Capps then discussed the next step: on-site interviews. For artists, it's about team fit and "seeing if they're crazy," because by this point, management knows the candidate's skills. For coders it's a technical interview -- and also about team fit. In general, Capps says, they weed out four things for coders and artists: Those who won't work hard, those who "will bail on us," are a jerk, or people who secretly want to be designers.
Capps also talked about interview psychology. "You want candidates that will feel lucky to be at the company. You don't want brilliant people that do not fit into the company culture."
Once the right team is assembled, Capps said, one must think about rewarding its members to encourage good performance. "Managing rewards is a big part of getting your team to work well, but they're really dangerous," he said. "Rewarding people for finding bugs is dangerous. You want to reward them for shipping games."
He gave an example of how it's potentially dangerous to praise workers that stay until 2AM, because it might encourage them to stay later again.
Review performance was the next topic. Epic reviews twice yearly -- project leads give input, as do random peers familiar with the employee's work. The review points are quality and attention to detail, creativity and problem solving, communication and teamwork, and work ethic.
Epic also includes 360-degree feedback (wherein the employee reviews his or her boss) climate surveys, and random HR one-on-ones. Epic also uses "3 C's" meetings -- compliments, concerns, criticism -- to review the company and employee happiness. "Once you have a better environment, you'll have a team that will do more good things for you."
Giving notice on improving performance is a legally tricky process, according to Capps. Epic has the employee sign a written statement about their performance. "I use something called the 'Red Folder' technique. Any time you walk to someone's desk and open a red manila folder, they know its serious." The producer, discipline lead, and HR are involved. There is a short lifetime for this review, usually two weeks. If it goes poorly, they terminate.
Finally, Capps touched on the worst-case scenario. "Punishment and firing is critical to maintaining team trust," he noted. "If you have a bad hire, it's important to the team that you get them out, and get them out quickly. If you have a guy that just plays WoW
for a week, the rest of the team is going to wonder why they're working so hard. Nothing de-motivates like working next to someone that isn't working hard."