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Becoming a Stellar Games Industry Manager, Part 1: Building a Great Team

In the first part of a series on how to effectively manage a game development team, HR veteran Marc Mencher details the very first step: how to build a good team, and how to communicate with them effectively.

Want To Build a Great Game? Build a Great Team First

If I could solve all the problems myself, I would. --
Thomas Edison, when asked why he had a team of twenty-one assistants

So you’ve got this fantastic idea for a totally cutting-edge game that does all this cool stuff and should make you boatloads of money. It sounds great but … are you planning to build this all by yourself? Even if you’re a one-person production house who can survive on huge amounts of caffeine and absolutely no sleep, it’s really not a great way to get things done. Assuming you could do it all, you’ll be too trashed to enjoy the results of all that work!

The solution to your dilemma is a four-letter word: T-E-A-M.

What's a Team?

Team: A group organized to work together.
(www.dictionary.com)

A team is a group of people working together to achieve a goal, which can be anything from winning the World Series to creating the newest FPS. At its best, a team uses a ton of mad skills to come up with (hopefully cost-effective) non-traditional solutions that give their company a major edge on the competition. At its worst, it’s a bottomless pit with the potential to sink the company ship forever.

While there’s no single rule about when to use a team, certain situations seem to lend themselves better than others:

  • the task is too complex for one person to handle
  • the solution requires a wider range of skills than once person can provide
  • the results have potentially significant consequences for the entire company
  • the resources need to be maximized (business-speak for limited budget)

Successful team building and management is probably a manager’s most difficult – and potentially most rewarding – challenge.

What's Teamwork?

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results. – Andrew Carnegie

All teams need the same things: effective leadership, positive motivation, achievable goals and excellent communication in an open, supportive and mutually respectful environment. In other words, team members have to be able to work and play well with each other. Building a team is like building anything else (including games) -- the best plan in the world won’t survive without a solid foundation. The stronger the plan and the more positive the environment, the more successful your team will be.

What Makes a Good Team?

Gettin' good players is easy. Gettin' 'em to play together is the hard part. – Casey Stengel

There’s no “magic number” of people required for a successful team (other than more than one). Whether you have two people or 200, the team’s shape is far more important than its size. Finding people with basic skills is important but getting people with the right mix of skills is crucial if you want to succeed.

Look for team members who posses demonstrated experience in at least one of the three major skill types (and yes, more is better!):

  • Technical expertise in specific disciplines (i.e., engineering, marketing, programming, etc.)
  • Solid problem-solving skills
  • Ability to make clear decisions in a group
  • Ability to take responsibility for their own actions
  • Ability to grow in their role and help the team grow
  • Good interpersonal skills and flexibility
  • Demonstrated commitment to team work

Ask the Tough Questions

Ask potential team members to evaluate their own skills and weaknesses.

  • Do they fit into the team’s key roles?
  • Do they seem able to grow with the project and benefit from lessons learned?
  • How do they view their role within a team? Are they willing to do whatever is asked?
  • Do they show enthusiasm for and understanding of the team’s purpose?
  • Have any of them ever worked with any other potential team members?
  • Have any of them ever worked on a team?

Years ago, industry gurus warned managers to beware the lone programmer in a room. While people laugh, the fact is that anyone on a team who really prefers to work alone will need to adapt pretty fast or be left behind. A lot of new people just entering the industry (and even some older ones) balk at what they perceive as enforced socialization or excessive supervision. They don’t like being held accountable, they don’t like deadlines and they don’t like to let go of the cool assignments. If that’s the case, they are in the wrong end of the business! Be sure that potential team members really understand what’s involved when they make a commitment to the job.

If you’re building a team for a long-term project, you’ll want to know how team members see their own career goals. In addition to the standard “where do you want to be in five or ten years?” you might want to find out:

  • Have you thought seriously about your career options overall? How about here at the company?
  • Have you considered what experience you need to follow your career path?
  • Are you aware that your contribution to the team’s success may help advance your career?
  • Do you understand that ultimately, forward progress on your career is in your hands?

What's "Synergy?"

Synergy is the highest activity of life; it creates new untapped alternatives; it values and exploits the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between people.
– Stephen Covey

Although the term isn’t new (it comes from the Greek word sunergia meaning "cooperation"), it didn’t become a “hot” concept in business until the early 1990s. Positive collaboration is essential if you want to take full advantage of a team’s abilities. Although the saying may seem trite, a great group can grow well beyond the sum of its parts. Growth doesn’t come just from the group’s actions but also through each team member’s personal development.

Match the Team to the Task

The project will determine the type of team you need so it’s important to be very familiar with all of your options, from a spontaneous one-shot brainstorming session to a formal team created at management’s direction.

Some situations call for “informal” teams created on an ad hoc basis:

  • Temporary teams pulled together for the a specific task
  • A change in strategy that requires special skills to deal with a one-time challenge
  • Spontaneous “hot groups” for brainstorming outside the formal team
  • Cross-functional teams that provide the chance to learn about the roles and work of others.
  • Formal teams sometimes need informal elements to stimulate and refresh their work.
  • Teams cease to be teams if one member becomes dominant.

Cross-functional teams may also be created at any level to benefit from high levels of expertise:

  • Business teams at all levels of an organization sometimes put people with similar expertise in long-term teams to oversee specific projects
  • Formal support teams provide internal expert administrative backup in their own fields.

TYPES OF TEAMS

TASKS AND CHARACTERISTICS

EXECUTIVE TEAM: A cross-functional group led by a chief executive. Members are chosen by role (i.e., VP of Development, etc.)

Manages organization or divisional operation on a daily basis. Regular formal meetings (agendas & minutes). If leadership is weak, the team can become a forum for personal battles and ladder-climbing

CROSS-FUNCTIONAL TEAM: Multidisciplinary, interdepartmental team that can exist at any level

Designed to remove obstacles across departments. Team members apply a variety of skills to achieve goal.

BUSINESS TEAM: Tasked with long-term management of a project with a focus on financial results.

Runs a unit to achieve the most cost-effective results. May endure revolving door of managers with fairly close supervision and scrutiny from senior management.

FORMAL SUPPORT TEAM: Team provides services (financial, MIS, administration, staffing)

Heavy load of routine work, often highly procedural and hierarchical. Limited opportunity for advancement.

PROJECT TEAM: Specifically designed for the project, often with clear ending date.

Requires subgroups, detailed planning, tight scheduling, close discipline. Needs close team understanding to offset rigid restrictions. Also needs closer supervision due to high number of contractors and temp workers.

CHANGE TEAM: Group of experts tasked with evaluating and upgrading processes. Value depends on collective abilities. May start as special team attached to senior management.

Influences corporate culture to achieve improvements with new methods. Often run by contractors with direct reporting to senior management; often seen as “hired guns”

“HOT” GROUP: Short-term group designed for brainstorming; frequently multi-disciplinary; frequently meets off-site

Concentrates on high-level tasks like identifying and targeting new markets or creating new directions for the company. Usually high-powered people (often consultants) who can devise exciting new ideas quickly for senior management.

TEMPORARY TASK FORCE: Short-term group tasked by senior management with finding solutions to specific problems or issues

Designed to work at high levels (overhaul the company’s entire IT system or design new production methods). Works under intense time pressure to generate cost-effective alternatives that grow (or save) the company



Who Leads and Who Follows?

Everyone on the team needs to have great skills and leaders need to have lots of great skills, not just as individuals but also as motivators, guide, mentors and yes, occasionally traffic cops. They need to be able to lead from the frontlines, from within the team, from the sidelines and sometimes push from the rear. Some of these skills are very subjective – like having a positive attitude, a strong personal vision and the ability to translate that vision into action while making sure you give everyone a chance to make a contribution. A team’s success will depend on the quality of its collective thinking under your direction and its ability to act on that thinking creatively and efficiently.

As the team leader, along with everything else you’ll be doing, be prepared to:

  • Plan roles to be filled and select the right people
  • Help establish team objectives and values
  • Lead the team in meetings, activities, production, etc.
  • Be sure that targets are achievable
  • Insure that values – including mutual respect and trust – are observed
  • Analyze and correct failures swiftly and surely
  • Celebrate successes enthusiastically
  • Represent the team loyally and accurately both inside and outside the organization.

Your team looks to you for inspiration, so be ready to:

  • Keep the team together and running smoothly, especially during crunch time
  • Stay positive and accessible
  • As much as possible, never ask anyone to do something you haven’t done or wouldn’t do
  • Help the team keep their eyes on the prize: the higher you aim (within reason, of course), the greater the shared excitement when the team hits the target
  • Be on the lookout for bullies, slackers and attention-grabbers
  • Keep the competition on the team pro-active and friendly
  • Avoid getting yourself or your team tangled up in office politics
  • Help team members make a solid commitment to each other and the project’s goals
  • Recognize and celebrate team and individual successes

Throughout the course of a project, you’ll have a lot of other roles, from advocate and liaison with management to the mechanic who has to make repairs, deal with the “squeaky wheels” and fine-tune the team’s engine. Initially you’re the person who organizes the team. Once you’ve got the team together, you become a facilitator, cheerleader and (hopefully infrequently) troubleshooter.

“Action” words for successful team leaders:

  • Listen
  • Ask
  • Respect
  • Assist
  • Share
  • Support
  • Facilitate

Understand Everyone's Job (Including Your Own)

In an effective team, team members know their roles thoroughly. Even if you’re not a programmer, for instance, you’ll need to have a basic understanding about it, if for no other reason than you’ll need to know whether your team can or can’t make a particular thing happen in the game. If you’ve never done art, find a time when you can sit down with an artist and watch what she does.

Although individuals may emerge in one of the following roles, the leader will probably have to be all of these things at one time or another:

TEAM ROLES

CHARACTERISTICS

TEAM LEADER: Builds the team; nurtures collaborative spirit

  • Excellent judge of individual talents and personalities
  • Adept at finding ways to overcome personal weaknesses
  • Creates and maintains open lines of communication
  • Inspires and sustains enthusiasm

EVALUATOR: Guardian and analyst of team’s long-term effectiveness

  • Never satisfied with less than the best solution
  • Expert at analyzing solutions for finding and correcting team weaknesses
  • Committed to making appropriate course corrections
  • Constructively assesses and recommends remedies.

 

IMPLEMENTER: Finds ways (preferably positive ones) to keep the team moving forward

  • A born scheduler who thinks methodically
  • Anticipates delays and finds ways to prevent them
  • Has a “can-do” attitude
  • Rallies support and overcomes defeatism

CHEERLEADER: Sustains and encourages the team’s vitality and positive energy

  • Enthusiastic, positive, willing and able to find innovative solutions
  • Eager to take a leading role in team support
  • Helps others see problems as challenges that can be met

EXTERNAL CONTACT: Maintains the team’s external relationships (with management and/or outside the company); makes sure the client is happy but doesn’t abuse the team

  • Diplomatic and acutely aware of others’ needs
  • Presents an authoritative but reassuring presence
  • Fast, effective grasp of the overall picture
  • Trustworthy; respects confidentiality
  • Helps maintain a professional atmosphere (keeps the team from bashing the client no matter how arbitrary demands may be)

COORDINATOR: Helps devise and manage the team’s production plans

  • Can prioritize on the fly with rapidly shifting deadlines
  • Understands everyone’s role and skills, and can assign accordingly
  • Excellent personal multi-tasker
  • Can give clear instructions

ENFORCER: Insures that high standards (and company policies) are maintained

  • Works with the team to establish rigorous standards
  • Good judge of personal and team performance
  • Not afraid to point out problems
  • Able to stand up to bullying; able to protect the team
  • Able to praise when appropriate


 

With your help, team members need to “own” their jobs and be held responsible for finding the best ways to support each other and do excellent work. Multi-skilled team members should know what each role does, and should be able to cover at least one other person’s job if necessary. This kind of flexibility makes the team stronger and provides additional insurance for success.

If you’re a new leader joining an existing team, be prepared for caution and doubt mixed with hope and interest. To some extent, your ability to succeed depends on the previous leader’s standing and the reason for the leadership change, so it’s important for you to make a positive first impression. If the team you inherited has done well under a strong leadership, recognize that; if not, presume that the members hunger for reform. However, even if your predecessor was disliked and regarded as totally incompetent, or if the team is failing, don’t dwell on past faults or poor performance and don’t bash the departed. Demonstrate trustworthy behavior, promote team bonding and appear confident without being brash or egotistical. Refocus the team towards the goal – in essence make it clear that you’re all going forward from here together.

DO

DON’T

Change your leadership style according to the team’s needs

Dismiss conflict as someone else’s fault – be sure you’re not the one to blame.

Stress and support values established by the team

Ignore issues that call for management intervention, either yours or those above you

React positively to new and creative ideas, even if you don’t agree with them. During a brainstorming session, there are no “bad” ideas.

Fall victim to the “not invented here” approach that kills new initiatives.

Encourage individual and team learning at every stage of development

Remove team members simply because they lack formal training

Things to Avoid

  • Especially if you’re working for a major player in the entertainment industry, try not to get all “Hollywood” on everyone. You may be asked to work with voice talent, a famous writer or sports figure. Odds are pretty good that your team will be a little jealous, so don’t rub it in (too much, anyhow!) and don’t be condescending when introducing the celebrity to team members. Don’t turn into the Drooly Fan or the Geeky Gamer Person either. The celebrity probably doesn’t want to hear how many times you saw his most famous movie or how you modeled your Level 70 Dark Elf after his famous fantasy character. Be professional! Management will appreciate it and so will your team.
  • Don’t play favorites with team members. There will be some you like better than others -- that’s natural -- but your job is to make the best product in the shortest time for the least amount of money. Keep the drama to a minimum and get things out in the open the minute as quickly as possible. Festering problems turn into major issues that can stop production dead in its tracks. There’s an old game master adage, “If you can’t be fair, be arbitrary.” That works when you’re programming the AI for the final boss but not when you’re the team leader. Be fair, be consistent, be flexible.
  • Having fun is important but all play and no work means the game doesn’t ship and none of you will have jobs. Know when it’s time for a party and when it’s time for the team to push on through the night.
  • A few words about crunch time: do everything you can to avoid it. According to the IGDA, “In the short term, working over 21 hours continuously is equivalent to being legally drunk.” Crunch time is one of those odd status symbols in our industry that everyone has probably gone through at least once (or knows someone who knows someone who…) People brag about surviving it and in some cases, have come to believe it’s a necessary evil. Can it be avoided? Not totally. Is it fun? Not hardly. There is little or no romance about being stuck in the office for several days with your co-workers, without benefit of showers or any contact with the outside world except for the pizza delivery guy. While crunch time appears to increase productivity, it’s really an extremely expensive way to get the work done.

Points to Remember

  • A team is crucial if you want to survive to enjoy all the work you’ve done!
  • Take the time to gather the best people you can
  • Make sure everyone is committed to the team’s goal and willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen
  • Be sure each team member can cover the job of at least one other person
  • Encourage your team to take responsibility for their jobs and reward their initiative
  • Create a positive energized work environment
  • Be accessible and flexible
  • Keep it real!

In part two, we'll discuss managing your dream team!

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