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How To Create An Award-Winning Game Company

These are my thoughts from the recent IGDA Leadership Forum, specifically the talk given by Marc Merrill, president and cofounder of Riot Games. If you want to know the right way to start a game company, listen to this guy.

Embarrassing Admission

Sheepishly, I must admit that the sum total of my knowledge of Riot Games came from meeting three of the company's developers the morning before Marc gave this talk. I had heard of their flagship title, League of Legends, but knew precious little about it. As a result, Mr. Merrill had some ground to make up in order to get me interested. He didn't waste much time.

Wait...What? How Did You Start Your Company?

Here are some of the facts he laid out early on that impressed me:

  • Riot Games is about 4 years old (from zero to hero in only 1200 days)

  • It started with two founders with no game development experience

  • Now has 130 developers, offices on two continents, and a boatload of awards

And those awards are not just for their first game (as if winning multiple awards for your first game is something to sneeze at), but for their company. Listening to Marc's presentation it's not hard to see why. Riot has been developed from the ground up as an organization guided by its foundational values. The company's culture is based on Results, Integrity, Openness, and Team.

Culture With Results

I don't know about you, but over the years I've heard so much from studio leaders about values and goals and culture that I start yawning as a purely Pavlovian response. Here's what makes Riot Games different in my opinion: they've not only made decisions (about production, about customer management, about hiring practices) that are aligned with the values they espouse, but they've also -- and this is the really distinguishing characteristic -- been inarguably successful as they've worked to remain true to their desired culture.

There are plenty of companies that say they're going to Do Great Thing X, but then what changes are made to bring that about? Or how many organizations start off talking about Valuing The Employee or Creating A Culture of Excellence but when the project goes off the rails it's back to early 1900's sweatshop practices? And in any of these situations, does an award-winning game result from their efforts? Or do you just get unhappy, crunched-out employees, a 70-something Metacritic, and layoffs?

A Telling Point

While Mr. Merrill had many things to say about how and why Riot Games is the way it is, the most meaningful pronouncement he made is this statement about the foundation of leading the company:

"We never assume that we're as optimal at anything as we can be."

So not only does Riot focus on remaining true to their core values, but they're pushing their thinking in terms of production practices, aligning with partners, growing their employees, and improving their products. They use Agile and Lean production because it fits with their culture and allows for continuous improvement of what they're making and how they're making it. They review team members on characteristics such as attitude, quality, timeliness, and communication so they can be sure everyone is contributing and fulfilling their potential to the best of their ability.

On a Scale From 1 To 10, Riot Gets An "Impressive"

I think it's fantastic to see a studio founded on dreams and persistence. I think it's even better when a couple of hometown boys make good and then go on to make really smart business decisions, work hard, and achieve a commensurate level of success. What sticks out to me about Riot's story, though, is that the leadership is not resting on its laurels. It's not, “We made it, now let's sit back and coast.”

This is a critical element that trips up a lot of organizations. Success is often a trap and a whole lot of studios miss their saving throw. There's a reason most everyone looks back to post-WWII Toyota (or even as far back as Toyoda) as an example of excellence: they didn't stop at success. For everyone in leadership out there, take a page from Toyota's book and never stop seeking continuous improvement. Or if you speak English better than you read Kanji, just talk to Marc Merrill.

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