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People Make Games

All too often, something is lost in translation when defining a studio or project: the human element.

Andrew Grapsas, Blogger

February 25, 2011

6 Min Read

It's really easy to get lost in the numbers. They frequently pervade our lives. What's our street date? How long is pre-production? What are our analyitics? How many days will this task be? How many programmers will this project need? What will this cost us?


If you're not reading LeanBlog, I highly suggest you check it out. Mark's most recent post (Enough With the Factory Bashing) somehow plucked a string and struck a chord. I've never visited a factory; but, I can definitely tell you how damn valueable a trained, motivated, skilled, and properly listened-to employee is.

With Lean and a lot of other contemporary philosophies (Agile, for example), there is a renewed focus on the individual as the most critical part of the equation. After all, a tech company without any people would just be a collection of idling computers. What's a compiler without someone to write code for it, or Maya without an animator to move a rig and export animations? Not much.

So, why does it feel like the human element is, too often, lost?

Indoctrination in the "Numbers of Life"

Often times, producers, managers, and employees find it easy to focus on a date. It's simple, really, our organizational lives revolve around moments of time and, well, hell, a number is something that can be compared, contrasted, and evaluated.

How many calendars do you look at during your workday? Outlook? Google? Do you have project management software that ticks down the days remaining until the shining example of game development you've orchestrated must be demoed at E3?

You probably have to be at work at a specific time (9:00 AM or 10:00 AM), have an expected lunch hour (12:30 -> 1:30 PM?), and, honestly, let's face it, you're human: you want to get home, so you're anticipating 6:00 PM, or 7, or 8, or whenever you're allowed to leave your work space.

You have a salary ($60k, $70k, $80k, $90k, more?), a morgage ($1500, $2000, $3000 a month?), and bills ($60 for gas, $100 for electricity, $100/mo paying your recent engagement ring purchase down).

Maybe even your reviews have been somehow synthesized into numbers (70%, that means you're satisfactory... or something).

We're educated and constantly reinforced to view things in terms of numbers (I got a 92% on Professor Grapsas's quad tree assignment, awesome! Or, I have 7 jellybeans left, if I eat 3 jellybeans, there will be 4 remaining. My barrito costs $10, I have a 2% coupon on barritos. My mother-in-law is coming over in 2 weeks.).

So, naturally, we tend to take these mental models of time and numbers and apply them to everything else. Soon enough, these are the most imminent elements within our minds.

What we should be asking ourselves is: what can I do to make my employees have less road blocks, understand their domain better, and, generally, achieve their goals?

Instead, we recall that we have a phone conference at 2:00 PM, a meeting about resource allocation from 3:15-4:00 PM, that we have to prepare something for someone's yearly review, and that there are 10 days until the next deliverable and 32 outstanding features.


As my fiancee says, "Children don't fail in school because they don't want to succeed."

Everyone wants to be a success. No one wakes up and says, "I'm going to suck at my job today, gee, that'll be swell!" A more appropriate reflection might be, "I'm going to be asked to write a backend hook for the new monetization system. [That's boring/I don't know how/I can't think of that because there are external pressures/I hope that doesn't involve talking to my manager]."

"Before we can build cars, we must first build people." ~ Toyota

Toyota had it right. If we're constantly following the traditional perception of a factory (read: focusing on numbers instead of people, quality, environment, etc.), we'll have all of the same difficulties and challenges that have plagued these models.

People aren't machines. We can't add another programmer to the assembly line and definitively expect an increase in output (The Mythical Man Month emphasizes this). Instead, humans are complex beasts composed of thoughts, dreams, motivations, and fears. Every individual has unique abilities and capabilities.

A good manager can read these qualities and properly nurture an employee.

Peopleware says, "Your employees are very aware of the one life they have to live." Give them a good life, and they'll treat you well.


A manager's job description is to enable those individuals that they work with in order to achieve success.

I've previously touched on various musing about how to create great places to work with brilliant people. But, there's a lot more to be said.

Let's get to Joe Developer's complaints for the day:

That's Boring

Joe isn't being challenged. Dan Pink says, rather intuitively, that employees need to be challenged and engaged in order for them to really be driven and succeed. They need to have an opportunity to master the tasks they're required to do, and to share that mastery.

I don't know how

Many employers offer educational benefits (typically in the form of a yearly committement for paying $x towards pre-approved classes). How many employers push their employees to attend classes? How many bring professors or experts on-site to provide continual education? I know EALA did it while I was there, and I loved it! I learned a lot about optimizing C++ from those classes.

An employee that doesn't know "how" is like a child embarassed to go up to the black board and solve a math problem. We're constantly taught that not knowing an answer is a sign of slacking and displays a lack of capability and intelligence. That's just not the case. When presented with the proper tools and support, more ofen than not, an employee would rather learn the new system, technology, etc. and perform the task; but, when improper support is provided, resistance increases.

I can't think of that because of external pressures

Maybe the employee doesn't have health care and her knee hurts. How can she be expected to focus on her work? Maybe she knows the deadline is too imminent and doesn't feel like she can ask for it to be pushed back, generating anxiety that's keeping her from doing her work. We have to consider these things. As much as possible, employers need to focus on making their employees comfortable, healthy, and stress free.

I hope that doesn't involve talking to my manager

More often than not, individuals that quit do so because of someone they directly report to. Managers can make or break an employee's experience. Treat them with respect. Treat them correctly. Let them know you really appreciate their time and commitment.


Sure, we need time estimates. And, no, don't hide your calendar. Just, next time you have to make a big decision, consider how it's going to impact your employees. Remember, there's a human part to all of this, too.

About the Author

Andrew Andreas Grapsas is a game programmer at Arkadium, Inc. developing facebook games. Previously, he was a gameplay and animations programmer at Kaos Studios|THQ, and intern systems programmer on Medal of Honor.

Andrew is actively writing and programming for various projects. You can read more at his blog aagrapsas.com. He promisses to update it soon.

Follow Andrew on twitter!

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