BioWare co-founder: "It's easier to be a half-assed or outright bad leader"
Dr. Ray Muzyka shares his approach to achieving good, and eventually great, leadership
Dr. Ray Muzyka may have retired from making games, but the BioWare co-founder hasn't left the field behind entirely. Muzyka today took a break from running his sustainable investment firm Threshold Impact to deliver the opening keynote address at the 10th annual Montreal International Game Summit. Muzyka also spoke at the inaugural MIGS, but that was well before BioWare was sold to Electronic Arts, before Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and a dozen other opportunities for him to learn.
Muzyka began his talk by questioning the nature of leadership, rhetorically asking what qualities constitute good leadership. Whether leaders are measured by the ways they take care of their charges or the results they get, Muzyka said the key was sustained effort over time. Everybody is a leader in some ways, Muzyka said, both for themselves and for whatever teams they happen to be part of.
"The unfortunate truth is it's easier to be a half-assed or outright bad leader," Muzyka said.
In the modern age, focus is crucial, Muzyka said. There are a plethora of gadgets that enable people now, but technology can be overwhelming, and even paralyzing. It doesn't replace good leadership or focus, Muzyka said. Good leaders need to cut through the noise and provide a clear path forward for their team. That starts by providing clear and consistent core values. It's not just about what you consider important; it's about what you don't consider important.
At BioWare, Muzyka said there were three core stakeholders of equal importance: fans, employees, and investors. Each had a core value associated with it: quality in the products, quality in the work place, and entrepreneurship.
"Together, these create a balance, sustainable business for the long-term dedicated to our core values," Muzyka said.
"If you're not honest externally and internally, it's hard to take feedback and learn from it"
Breaking down the values a little further, Muzyka stressed the importance of integrity and humility. Everyone makes mistakes, but the key is to strive for high integrity, and acknowledge it when you're wrong.
"If you're not honest externally and internally, it's hard to take feedback and learn from it," Muzyka said.
Muzyka also emphasized the power of a clear, passionate vision, and the willingness to let that vision evolve over time. BioWare's vision changed over time from just making great games to add in emotional engagement and continued service to their fans.
Realizing that vision requires teamwork and collaboration. Managers need to give their teams credit and support at every opportunity. Muzyka likened the company to a bus, where everyone needs to be in the right seats, but those seats are constantly changing. Leaders need to grow as the business scales, Muzyka said, and exemplify the work ethic they want from their team. If they don't, they don't have a seat on the bus.
The best efforts of a leader won't count for anything if the company doesn't have a good culture, however. Muzyka said it's difficult to shape company culture, but "it's really the shadow you leave behind as a leader." It's like rocket fuel, which is a double-edged sword as it can either blow up on the launch pad or take the entire endeavor to undreamt of destinations. If the culture is healthy, effective leadership is easier, Muzyka said.
As BioWare expanded from one studio in Edmonton to an EA brand with locations across the world, Muzyka said there were challenges balancing the quality and scope of the games with the resources and time they had. As a leader, Muzyka had to check with both the teams and the fans to realistically strike that balance in the best way for as many people as possible.
"Don't build everything for everyone," Muzyka said. "Focus on what's important."
Muzyka also talked about incentive systems and how to maximize team engagement. Different people are motivated by different things, so finding the right incentives is key to motivating the team. The answer, he said, was to set up the right metrics based on what's important to you, and what's aligned with the values of the team, whether they be utilitarian (more money), theoretical (knowledge and training), individualistic (recognition), social (interaction), traditional (being part of a group hierarchy, with a clear title and role to match), or aesthetic (a pleasing work environment, nice office). Everyone values each of these rewards differently, but it's important for an organization to have something for everyone.
"You can always improve as a leader by communicating better," Muzyka said.
It's about practice, getting feedback, training and learning. Each message needs to be tuned to the audience, whether it's for the players, the team, or the press. A key part of good communication is listening to all the stakeholders and integrating their feedback.
It's also important to be able to change with the market, Muzyka said. Common strategies for companies include being innovative and/or taking advantage of disruption. In gaming, the addition of rapidly changing technology and business models make it both difficult and exciting to innovate or disrupt. If you can't adapt and evolve, you'll fall by the wayside.
"To choose and execute your strategies well, you have to be decisive yet flexibile," Muzyka said.
On a team, it's common to have to discard plans once you encounter the environment you'll be operating in. However, that planning time isn't wasted, Muzyka said, as the information gathering and analysis involved in forming those plans still benefits you as you improvise solutions to the actual situation.
With a clear and inspiring vision combined with hard work and humility, leaders can achieve amazing things regardless of the discipline or demand. That approach has helped Muzyka immensely at BioWare, at EA, and now at The University of Alberta, Threshold Impact, and other institutions where he's in a leadership role. And as his career has shown, it's an approach that's scalable, one that works for a start-up game studio as much as for a publicly traded megapublisher or a fledgling investment firm.