On Leadership and Promotion In the Game Industry
I wrote a series of tweets about leadership and promotion in the game industry that went somewhat viral (at least by game developer standards). Here’s a link to the original tweet.
Below is a merged-together version with a few of the sentences joined together properly for more clarity. (The part in square brackets was added here for clarity.)
In the fallout from the Kotaku Anthem piece, there hasn’t really been enough talk about how bad the industry is at promoting and training leads. I’ve worked with a lot of people who were promoted to positions they were unprepared for, and everybody suffered for it.
Most people know, at least at an intellectual level, that being a lead is fundamentally different from being an individual contributor. Regardless, people still get promoted to lead positions all the time without proper training, and even then, the reporting and feedback structures aren’t set up to deal with it. Sometimes it’s because everybody wants to try to be friends, and telling your boss that they suck at their job feels like it will screw up your professional and personal relationship.
EA actually has, in theory, pretty robust mechanisms for giving feedback and reporting team morale, but in my experience most people aren’t good at giving feedback anyway. Often, the only training on how to give feedback is for managers, not for their reports. And of course, nobody wants to be the person who tells their boss’s boss that their boss sucks at their job and then gets bitten in the ass about it later. (Also, it’s pretty common to hear complaints in any organization that HR isn’t trustworthy about keeping feedback confidential.)
So you have this endless cycle that people get promoted to positions they’re not prepared for, they work really hard but often do the wrong things, their bosses don’t get good enough feedback about how they’re doing, the project suffers, and they get shuffled into a new role……only to be replaced by someone who is likely to go through the exact same process. This is often why games and studios die; Not because the Evil Corporate Overlords deliberately make bad decisions (this almost never happens), but because making games is hard, leading teams is hard, giving feedback is hard, creating the right structures and building trust to give good feedback is hard, and spotting talented team members who can lead a team or a project is also hard.
As side note, there’s also a major issue with people getting into lead roles because they’ve been adjacent to success, ie they worked WITH a really good lead/director on a project so it’s assumed they know how to recreate the magic. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they know how to talk very convincingly about how to Do Things The Right Way, but that doesn’t mean they actually can. And because making games is so difficult, they’re often given a lot of leeway when they’re actually floundering. This is discussed in the Kotaku article briefly but is, IMO, the most important way that big companies screw up their relationships with their studios; How many times have we read about games that were rushed out at the last minute because they spent too much time in Preproduction Hell? There’s a difference between deliberately doing a lot of prototyping (there’s a great GDC talk about prototyping Titanfall 2 “action blocks” like this) and just lurching back and forth between ideas. (and apparently trying to prototype in Frostbite is hell), [and this is something that the ‘corporate overlords’ should have been paying more attention to].
One of the solutions is for us all to treat game development like we’re professionals. And I mean that in the sense that you need to hold yourself and coworkers to professional standards; learn best practices and hold your team accountable at all levels.
I’ve been a part of a project that was basically on fire for almost its entire development cycle and IMO our studio leads gave the game team leads way too many chances. Being slow to address these major issues delays an inevitable morale hit, but too bad. Get the pain over with! I’d rather have a rough month and then ship the game than have a rough year and have the game canceled. Or even if the game was canceled EARLIER (which it probably should have been), just get that shit over with. Restructure the team, fire the toxic people ASAP, do what needs to be done!
That may have seemed like a tangent but it’s an example of less than professional behavior by leadership. Trying not to hurt feelings or damage morale by admitting that things were going poorly ultimately dragged the pain on for too long, and did no good. Not that it’s not important to get along with coworkers and make friends on the job, but ultimately you’re there to do a job & if the studio goes down because people were too afraid that admitting the problems was going to hurt feelings, then everybody’s worse off in the long run.
(Just to be clear – I worked at EA and in general it was a good experience. I would definitely go back given the right circumstances. This thread is not meant to be specifically about EA – it’s just a good jumping off point because of the Kotaku article.)