Some of you have likely read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. The book dives into the creative process at Pixar and describes how the studio managed their creativity, which resulted in a seemingly endless string of blockbuster movies, and it provides insight into how Pixar maintained its creativity throughout tremendous growth. Reading the book had me reflecting on my own experience in game development, and pondering why some studios fare better than others, despite having fewer resources.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not pretending to be Ed Catmull. I have only 7 years of experience in the games industry and till date, I've only built one studio from the ground up. I haven’t worked in AAA studios or in tiny indie studios. But again, I do have experience in making free-to-play games for web and touchscreen devices in a few of the top studios and I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with some of the most talented people in the games industry.
So, what makes for a successful game studio that’s able to ship quality games and sustain itself in a competitive industry? Based on my experience, I’ve identified seven characteristics that make a game studio successful:
#1 Compact Teams
- Large teams create middle management. The need for communications and various meetings increases significantly and engineers and artists can end up spending significant portions of their time in meetings instead of building the game.
- The absence of ownership. In a compact team, every member cares about the quality of the game as a whole and bugs are spotted instantly. In large teams developers and artists concentrate on one individual piece at a time, failing to sometimes see how their work integrates into the game as a whole.
I’m an advocate of right-sized teams on a game project, starting very small in the beginning and conservatively scaling as the design becomes clear and there’s need for new talent.
In successful studios, game projects start off with an experienced and already gelled core team of four to six professionals and grow up to fifteen to twenty strong as the project moves from concept to pre-production, production and live operation. The growth of the team is organic as new team members get brought in on an absolute need-to-have basis.
For a couple reasons, ambitious team sizes actually slow down the development instead of speeding up the progress. Overall, look to stay lean and make sure that people who join accelerate the progress instead of slowing the team down.
#2 Value Software Over Presentations
Essentially a game team has only one goal: to create a hit. In the beginning progress towards the end goal is exhibited through prototypes and later on through internal and external playtests. Successful studios make fast progress towards first playables and start iterating based on the qualitative feedback these builds generate. In the end, the ultimate test for a game team is the soft launch during which the game has to reach key performance indicators (KPIs).
Studios must have the guts to shut down projects which fail to reach KPI goals or respond successfully to the qualitative feedback the team receives. Closing projects is important because launching a low-performing game globally can become a bad long-term decision for the studio as a whole. It can eat up resources that are needed to kick off new projects or support growing games.
Fast and tangible progress can be made and measured by playing ever-evolving internal builds. Putting emphasis on the playables gets the team into the groove of hitting milestones with builds that have been improved based on feedback. Regularly reviewed internal playables also boost teams’ morale and give a sense of progress towards the launch as the builds improve and feedback gets increasingly positive.
#3 Use Benchmark Games
Benchmarks allow the team to get a game built quickly and have it playable so that playtests and soft-launch data can start guiding the development.
In my experience, the more unique and complex the game becomes in development, the greater the risk grows. Successful game studios tend to limit the risk of over-innovation by choosing very clear benchmark game(s) from mobile, web or board game(s). With clear benchmarks, development done in pre-production and production is based on proven concepts, meaning that the features or systems the team is building exist in one or two reference titles. In addition to decreasing risk, strong benchmarks cut development time as designers, engineers and artists have a playable version to learn from.
Blizzard's Hearthstone is heavily inspired by Magic the Gathering. Designers of the game have
Another approach to using benchmarks, though a bit riskier and time-consuming, is to first thoroughly deconstruct the benchmark game. After that, the team creates their own noticeably differentiated game based on the benchmark. Building on benchmarks is something Blizzard is extraordinary at with games like Hearthstone, which is based on Magic the Gathering; Heroes of the Storm, which used League of Legends as a foundation benchmark; and Overwatch, which is strongly inspired by Team Fortress.
#4 Play Your Games Until Exhaustion
Teams who love to play their game end up building a great game. Often, especially early on in development, it’s hard to play the game you’re building. The build is buggy and lacks most of the final art. Yet by constantly playing it the team ends up not only clearing away all of those bugs and nagging user experiences but also actually creating something that players will love.
In my experience playing the game to exhaustion is actually the secret sauce of tuning and user experience at many successful studios. Simulators help finalize the set in-game values. Play tests push user experience. The first step is always to play the game as a team.
#5 Respect Your Players
Our players are our fans. They play our games even more than we do. They create communities inside and around our games making them into phenomena. Successful studios aim to create games that not only delight their players but also challenge them.
If a studio doesn’t think much about their players it will show in the software. When product managers and designers consider players too simple to understand deeper mechanics, their game will lack meta-game and deeper exploration elements. Take away meta-game and you are left with repetitive loops and poor long-term retention. Losing the respect towards players is a dangerous path that not only hurts a game in development but can also kill a community around a successful game, no matter how much marketing is set to support it.
Companies like Riot, Blizzard, and Supercell invest heavily into their communities and carry deep respect towards their players. This allows these companies to create massively successful long-lasting games that are further elevated by strong communities around the game.
#6 Empower Teams to Make Decisions
Successful studios empower game teams to make their own decisions and carry the responsibility of decisions made. With both internal and external playtests game teams receive a steady stream of very harsh and highly actionable feedback. This feedback should then be converted into quantifiable milestone goals by the team leads.
When a team is empowered to make decisions regarding the development of their game, it increases commitment to execute as they’ve set the milestone goals for themselves. It also improves the quality of decision-making because once the decision is made there’s no one else to blame for the outcome. Finally, by empowering the team to make decisions, the studio enables teams to learn faster. Decision-making requires thorough analysis and with increased responsibility team members will end up making better hypotheses and action plans.
Letting teams experiment and fail is a tough call for studio leads, whose responsibility is to build teams and push them to launch hit titles in the shortest time possible. Yet withholding decision-making power from the team risks downgrading the game teams into pods with less ownership of the product they’re building. I’ve noticed that studio leads that challenge and listen create the best environment of empowerment and responsibility.
#7 Always Ship
Successful studios launch games that grow into hits. Surprisingly often, studios that have all six of the above elements don’t have the guts to pull the trigger and ship their games. These studios tend to be too critical towards their own work to a point where the critique actually hurts rather than helps the development. When critique starts chopping away the confidence of a game team it also tends to increase development time as changes and new features are added to cater to the feedback. Critique is crucial but I believe that the team also needs to stand behind what they believe is right rather than constantly adjust to the never-ending internal feedback.
A friend and ex-colleague of mine who has launched some of the absolute best games on both Facebook and mobile said that there’s only one way to fail in game development and that is by not launching anything at all. What he meant was that you never know if the game will be a hit or not. Sure, play tests give a good indication but in the end, it’s the market that will give the final verdict. Sometimes it’s simply better to release the game out in the soft/beta launch than to build out all the end game features in production just to witness that the end-game features don’t actually work or that the game can’t even hit its KPIs in soft-launch. In the end, the launch is just one of numerous releases the game will be making.