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IGDA Leadership Forum: Studio Heads Speak Culture, Challenges

The company culture-centric keynote panel at the IGDA Leadership Forum saw Sony, Riot, and Eidos execs discussing burnout, crunch, studio loyalty and long-term career paths.
The IGDA Leadership Forum's first day keynote panel invited studio heads John Hight (Sony), Marc Merrill (Riot Games), and Stephane D'Astous (Eidos Montreal) to the stage to discuss their operations. The three discussed the ins and outs of their studios at the San Francisco-based event, ranging from staffing issues to how to help develop the careers of employees, studio culture, tech, and more. Hight, who runs Sony Santa Monica (as well as overseeing Incognito Entertainment, developers of Warhawk, who are remote) is at a first party, publisher-owned internal studio. D'Astous works for a third party (Square Enix, which acquired Eidos in 2009), and Merrill works for a startup free-to-play studio which concentrates on the microtransaction-supported PC title League of Legends. One interesting difference that Riot Games has over other studios, given the nature of its product, is its ICE team, said Merrill. A "team that aligns well with our company priorities is our ICE team -- or improved customer experience team." It's a cross-discipline development team designed "to shield the feature team from issues that arise... our goal is to deliver the highest quality content possible." To that end, the ICE team "rapidly responds to issues that exist while not slowing down our longer-term goals." Riot also has to work on process to make sure the teams don't burn out -- since League of Legends is a constantly-evolving service, development is never at a standstill. Said Merrill, "It's been a big deal to create processes internally that we don't burn out our guys, because it's a really long road. We have an internal rotation system where we have matrixed resources that can be applied to different goal-oriented teams [that] people will advocate to be part of. It's been helpful for us that we have this open dialogue with our employees to figure out the best way to ensure that they are staying engaged, excited, motivated." D'Astous brings a very Montreal perspective to the question of retention. As a Ubisoft veteran who's seen talent hop back and forth between local studios, he feels that loyalty will be more like the movie industry now and in the future: more project-based than studio-based. Said D'Astous, "I'm not saying that we want to go on that side of the trend... I think we need to be aware that people want to migrate and have better mobility. That's where management has to kick in... You need to have a difference to retain those people." And when it comes to crunching, Riot tries to avoid it as much as possible with planning. Said Merrill, "We try our best to plan very well and to allocate resources very effective and to have the team very involved in the resource allocation and planning process... "[When] the team steps up and volunteers to tackle the issue, rather than management coming in and mandating, we've been able to generate buy-in and get people aligned with the vision and understand why it's important. We try to commit to the guys that we will make it up to them." Hight's problem is that the team at Sony Santa Monica is often only motivated to action by emergencies -- which creates a vicious cycle. "The producers had grown accustomed to creating fires to motivate people... It might have been on the schedule for months but until [that aspect of the project] would go public, people would not take it seriously." While Hight said that Sony Santa Monica's culture was unfortunately shipping-focused and didn't pay much attention to developers' career paths, he's been working hard to change that. D'Astous said that Eidos Montreal has "a formal eval and a review at mid-year and embedded in the form is 'Where do you see yourself, what's your career path?' "We're trying to find different paths for different people. Our games are taking a bit too long, maybe three years. Not everyone is built to run marathon after marathon. We're seeking after Deus Ex to see if we have different products that are different lengths." Riot has a slightly more Silicon Valley culture -- and Merrill takes a page from the Netflix Culture Deck. Said Merrill, "Who would you fight to keep is one of the questions that they ask" To that end, employee compensation is gauged on individual basis, as are stock option grants. Hight, however, from a more traditional game studio background notes that at Sony Santa Monica, "we try to have equitable compensation for the role that you're in." When a game becomes profitable "is where the meritocracy kicks in" but "everybody shares in the pie." D'Astous said that Eidos Montreal is "trying to implement a project bonus" based on both game reviews and the producer's say, but notes that a culture of bonuses can be bad. "When I was at Ubisoft, the project bonus was too strong, too heavy-weighted.. It created clans and people didn't want to share beyond the project... When I moved to Square Enix, we wanted to create a well-balanced bonus plan." He also noted that "there are things you can do beyond money to reward people, and we are working in that direction also."
 When it comes to tech, Eidos Montreal is currently developing on two engines -- internal tech for Deus Ex and Unreal Engine 3 for Thief. The projects dictated these choices after a lengthy review period. Of course, Sony Computer Entertainment has an internal tech advantage, Hight notes. "What's grown up in first party Sony... The engineers have a barter system going, and they try to outdo each other." The studios, including Santa Monica, Guerilla Games, and Naughty Dog have an informal policy: "They're allowed to borrow it, but there's this understanding that 'Hey, I just give you something really cool' so they try and focus on an area we might be weak on to one-up us." Interestingly, but not too surprisingly given the nature of the product, Riot Games has a social media strategy it shares with its rank-and-file developers. "We actually encourage every employee at the company to directly interface with the customers... We want to take this posture of being highly transparent" in places like Twitter and forums. Though the developers get some training, they are encouraged to be public about their work -- something unheard of in the console world.

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