Recap: GameDev Talks 4 - How to Manage a Team
Now that your game idea is shaping up, it’s time to work together and get the project rolling. Rallying together a team to breathe life into your game can be an intimidating challenge.
How exactly do you find a team for your game, and how do you manage them in order to deliver the game that you have always dreamed to make?
The fourth Project PIGI talk covers insights on team management and how to organize and maintain a successful game development team. Our distinguished panel of speakers includes Gem Raagas (Monstronauts), Jester Tesoro (Definite Studios), Jozette Anne Tuquib (Secret 6), Raniel Sales (Ubisoft Kyiv x Ketchapp), and Ryan Sumo (Squeaky Wheel, Paradox Interactive). Bea Aranas of GDAP PH led the conversation. In the discussion, the team managers divulged their insights on keeping a game development team productive, efficient, happy, and energized through their everyday working experience.
Where do you find people to join your team? What are the signs/qualities that you look for before accepting them into the team?
Gem: To find the talent, we set out our feelers on social media like Facebook and LinkedIn. For qualities, it is measured with exams and interviews for the positions. In general, we look for the person with the right skill set and attitude - the right attitude contributes to the resulting output or deliverable.
Raniel: LinkedIn and job boards. Mindset is very important. While skillset is king, but we also look for a leadership mindset, and not just a drone who works day-in and day-out. We need someone who is willing to help team members in other departments and is excellent at communication and collaboration skills.
[On starting a studio] I started Lightbreak Games with friends, schoolmates, former teammates. One dev, one artist, and me, and we just started doing projects. And it’s just as you said - is the group in sync? Even if in the beginning we were not as skilled, but once you find the correct people to journey with you, it’s the most important thing - you will be facing a lot of hardship together, so it’s important that you start it up with people who will ride the storm with you.
Jozette: For our artists, we really go through ArtStation. We also tap into schools for interns or fresh graduates. We really look into their portfolio because we get to see how driven they are in terms of their work, we look for versatility in terms of the output.
Jester: JobStreet, LinkedIn, and Facebook groups - especially on GDAP and IGDA groups. For Senior positions, we go head-hunting or go for referrals. The educational background doesn’t weigh as much if it could be replaced with their experience and skill set. The personality should match with our culture - it’s the final question.
Ryan: I found my Squeaky Wheel co-founders in game jams, and check out the games that they made. We were not really friends, but I got a good idea of what kind of games they were interested in making. Those events are helpful to get to know people and know who you vibe with. Word travels about the skills of the people you try to work with, too.
Team composition also matters. Our team had different personalities but we were all introverted. It’s hard to get excited, and it was hard to be a high-energy person. Having good chemistry with the team is good, but you also need to give the team energy and find some balance.
What are the tools that you use to keep track of your team’s productivity?
Ryan: Excel/Google Sheets for time-tracking and shared schedules. We had an activity tracker (Procastri-Tracker) that tracked the amount of time spent on social media vs the amount of time spent on work, to get a better idea of how you spend your time and have the opportunity to self-regulate. Jira (and Jira-likes) to track efficiency and production.
Raniel: Trello, Asana, Microsoft Planner. At Lightbreak, we liked the physical approach with post-it notes and whiteboards. Confluence for documentation, Jira for bug-cracking, and a spreadsheet of goals/KPIs plus long-term personal goals. We do monthly check-ins to make sure they are growing their personal technical skills.
Jozette: We piggyback on the tools the client is using in outsourcing. Internally, we use Discord to track our daily tasks - it’s the closest simulation to approaching each other. We use Google Sheets as the main tracker for everything else.
How do you keep your team members motivated and avoid burnout throughout the whole production process?
Jester: We keep the team motivated by giving them goals and talking to each member individually. Our management and employees have a quarterly talk, where we try to align personal goals with the company goals. We don’t push these employees away if it doesn’t work for them, but the best option is that the goals do align. We make sure that everyone has what they need in order to do their work which is the responsibility of the management.
We rarely do OT, we don’t work on public holidays, we usually have a long holiday break.
Gem: Each person understands motivation differently. You have to understand each person in the team. One channel is through performance evaluation. They are motivated through incentives, by achieving something, some are happy with compliments every now and then. We try to reward everyone’s hard work at the end of the year when it permits. For those who want to level up in their career, we give them a set of challenges or give them someone to train. We also have game nights and virtual parties.
Passion and motivation come and go. When working, don’t bank on that. It’s self-discipline that moves you forward.
How do you find the balance between sticking with deadlines versus extending them?
Raniel: At Ubisoft/Ketchapp, we have split deadlines to soft-launch. However, we also hold a certain level of quality for each of the games we launch. And we know that if the game’s quality is not up to par, it’s better to extend the deadline rather than get the dreaded “unfinished game” feedback. There’s also the other side of the coin: when you extend the deadline, you need to defend that decision from a lot of people and take a look at what is causing the extension or drop in quality. You need to learn from those mistakes during the post-mortems.
Jozette: In outsourcing, it’s a bit tough. Everything is hanging on that deadline. The pressure goes to the lead and project managers that we are 10 steps ahead in planning and scheduling - if anything goes wrong, it will lead to burnout which can cause you to lose your team. Project managers need to understand a bit about art, programming, or quality assurance.
Ryan: If you’re working on your own game, it’s important to have your own deadlines. At Squeaky Wheel, we were handling an Early Access game that we needed to update constantly. Once we were nearing our deadline, and it looked like we weren’t gonna finish everything that we had planned, it’s time to think about what we were willing to sacrifice. It’s a tool to manage deadlines and expectations. It also reveals what’s really important to the game.
Gem: In production, there are 3 things you need to balance: scope, time, and cost. You need to make adjustments to each variable, but quality should be the core of each decision. You need to separate the needs and the nice-to-haves. Deliver the core before you add the polish.
How did you manage the work-from-home switch brought about by the pandemic?
Jester: It was super hard. I had to adapt because I’m traditional. First, we delivered the equipment to all the artists. Then we tried, tested, and set up all our tools and systems. Today, most are very comfortable with working from home, and now we will allow people to work from home permanently.
Jozette: We immediately packed and sent the equipment to the employees, and made sure everyone had access to good internet. For management, we needed to have empathy and accept that you are no longer working the “perfect” 8-hour workday. You need to be able to tell how your team members are via chatting and voice calls. The pandemic made us more sensitive to people’s needs, and we’re still evolving.
Raniel: There are a million reasons why efficiency will go down in the work-from-home setup, but of course you have to try and support your team members as much as possible. We still set a daily standup with cameras on to maintain the human connection. For large triple-A companies, security is also one of the biggest concerns. We use remote desktops to manage the confidentiality of the projects.
Ryan: It was never a problem since Squeaky Wheel was a work-from-home setup from the start. We just worked as usual, and it was not a huge problem for us. Before, every two weeks we would have a face-to-face meeting - so during the pandemic, we needed to figure out how to connect online and keep up motivation that way.
What incentives keep game developers happy working in a team?
Raniel: Pizza and donuts! Food is one thing, but of course, when it comes to other perks and benefits: we have health insurance, all Ubisoft employees get access to the games, we have learning platforms, and of course, the merch and freebies that everyone likes to collect. We accommodate mental health and vacation leaves, we are very careful of our inclusivity clause.
Aside from the material stuff, transparency is a big deal. It’s better to give updates to the team members and package feedback in a transparent way that doesn’t hide things from them. If you have the right members, they will get a lot from this feedback.
Jester: We offer different upskilling programs. We allow a few hours every week and month for this training. During quarterly evaluations, we allow people to change their goals and next steps in their careers. Health insurance is super important. We also have company activities and movie nights.
Gem: One thing that contributes to the happiness of the employee is the company culture, alongside working with easy-going people at Monstronauts. We try to avoid hierarchies - we have point-persons. If the environment is healthy, it works out for the employees.
Jozette: At Secret 6, the variety of work is very important. It’s the job of the management to find work that will challenge employees. When you give the employees work that they love and they are really passionate about, that is where they grow and prosper.
How do you manage conflict in the team?
Gem: You have to listen to both parties individually. Once you’ve heard both sides, you need to meet them together and find a compromise and try to resolve it. You make sure that the team members never feel dismissed - always acknowledge their side.
Raniel: After you hear their sides, you need to explore the compromises. Normally, if you try to be the middle man, you need to pick the most valid points. The team members who are open-minded and will listen to the facts should be able to resolve the conflict. The problem in game development is when you bring pride and ego into the mix. It does not end well. That’s why picking the right team members from the start is so critical.
No one should make assumptions about the other’s goals or actions. So many problems are caused by people not understanding what the truth is. It seems like a huge problem, but it can be solved with a 5-minute conversation.
Ryan: A lot of times, people will have disagreements but it’s not a real team-breaking conflict, just a problem that will take time to solve. If you’re both aligned and go through the communication process, you can remind each other to the points that you agreed to help both parties get back on track.
Jozette: My experience is when the employee’s goals and the management’s goals do not align. Open table discussions should be not rushed. I think it’s important to be calm and factual. You should be open to solutions, and sometimes there are multiple solutions to choose from. Make sure both parties are aware of the steps you will take to resolve the conflict.
How do you keep the salary process fair, and how do you offer opportunities for professional and personal growth?
Raniel: We have a salary grid reviewed based on the market average and positions. For professional growth, an employee’s goal is always to level up. The career path has been open from day one. Set goals and we will help you achieve them.
Jester: We do a study of the market average. We put a range for each position, which can be seen by everyone. We need to update to remain competitive. For personal development, we offer in-house training and HR gives other life skills training.
Jozette: We have a salary range and discuss goals with our employees twice a year. We ask what kinds of projects they want to experience, or what kind of work and tasks they are interested in doing and learning. We try to gauge if they want to be leaders or seniors. We don’t want to pressure them into roles they don’t want. For personal growth, we are interested in their goals, such as starting a family, and how we can support them through adjustments. These are hard discussions that could make or break a team.
Gem: From the start, even at the interview, we are transparent with the team if the company can afford them or not. Our other basis is the performance evaluation and team impact. They know the state of the company in terms of revenue and sales.
Ryan: Generally our salaries were low compared to market rates, even mine, but we had a very generous profit-sharing scheme, based on how long they have been in the team.
As we continue through our series of game development talks, we would like to invite aspiring game developers to register for Project PIGI and jumpstart their careers and passion. You can view the full session on how to manage a team here.
Kenzie Du Games reviewer and journalist at VirtualSEA.