"Everyone loves their baby, right? And you often have to tell them it's kind of an ugly baby."
Jason Della Rocca is a nice guy. He's also one of the people responsible for Execution Labs, an incubator that provides a platform and four-phase program for developers. He's seen plenty of pitches in his time.
"You're going to jump off a cliff and you're going to be falling and you have to be okay with that"
What are the red flags for people in his position - looking to nurture the next generation of talent - that could make them think twice? GamesIndustry.biz sat him down to find out more about his Simon Cowell moments.
"We try to do it in a constructive way, but there's certainly some where they're just out to lunch and you have to point them in the right direction. Or other stuff, where they think they're all going to work remotely and part-time, and it's like, you've got to commit. A lot of it is about the attitude toward the risks, and being an entrepreneur and being a startup and not fully embracing that. But you have to encourage it. You've got to jump off the cliff. You're going to jump and you're going to be falling and you have to be okay with that."
Most tellingly, Della Rocca and his team want to know what you're going to do if they say no. Cry? Call your mother? Or just get on with it and make the game anyway?
"If they say, 'Oh well fuck it, I'm going to go back and work on the next Assassin's Creed,' then really was their heart in it? Were they willing to make the sacrifices? What you want to hear them say is 'Well I really hope I can join, but we're committed. We're going to do this. We've all agreed, this summer we're going to quit our jobs and go work in the basement. We're doing this with or without you, even though we'd like to do it with you.' That's what you want to hear, but you don't hear that all the time."
The truth is, says Della Rocca, most teams that pitch to them and get a "no" know that they're going to get a "no." They're not ready, it shows, and they know it. Della Rocca seems to actually relish the chance to help teams in that situation out, to guide them.
"They're too junior or the game's not fleshed out enough, or there are cohesion problems with the team. It's not hard to tell people 'you're not ready, you have to fix this, or go find that.' There's actually some pleasure to that in the sense that you're helping them. It's like, 'listen, you guys are good but you need another programmer to help you or you need to work on this.' So even in that rejection process, we feel like we're being helpful.
"The harder part is once we pick you, and you're in the family and you're having trouble, how do we guide you? Usually it's much more about personal dynamics, dealing with pressure and stress, it's about team conflict. It's a lot of human issues."
Della Rocca admits that was one of the surprises that came with founding Execution Labs in 2012, the social dynamics of taking a bunch of development studios under its wing and acting as shepherd, rather than boss. And it's not as if Della Rocca was unprepared for that sort of role; he's a former executive director of the IGDA and founded industry consultancy Perimeter Partners in 2009. Still, there have been challenges.
"It's not hard to tell people 'you're not ready, you have to fix this, or go find that.'"
"There is a bit of a challenge in that these are not our employees. We can't command them around. It really is an odd dynamic where on the one hand, they look to you for guidance. But they also need to take responsibility for their team and their startup. And you want to help them, but you have to do it in such a way that you're not saying, 'I'll do it for you; here's how to fix things.' But you encourage them and give them some advice," he explains.
"Certainly on the more technical or production elements, that's more doable. 'Have you thought of this? Maybe you should schedule this. Is that really top priority?' You can have somewhat of a rational discussion and they decide whatever. But when it's more of the human, dynamic, interpersonal stuff, it's really hard. And that was somewhat unexpected. We knew it was going to be a challenging, stressful experience, but the peculiarities of everyone's personality and working in that context… It was just challenging."
Execution Labs is currently looking for people to apply for the program. You need to have a small team, up to five people, and be able to work in Montreal (where the lab is based) for the duration of the program. You don't even need a demo, provided you can show a solid background and strong concept. Apply here.
And if the title of this piece has put you off, don't let it. Della Rocca is a big softy really.
"I tend to be the good cop. I don't know. I'm Canadian; it's just in my nature to be nice and polite and stuff. It's not like anyone on our team is an asshole; we're all good people, but I'm probably the softest one of the bunch."