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A recipe for "Special Team Magic"

Funomena director of development Lulu LaMer details three keys to keep devs motivated, and three more to keep them working well together

While many of the talks at the Montreal International Games Summit this week were intended to help developers build their games, one track of presentations was dedicated to helping them build their business. Funomena director of development Lulu LaMer gave one such talk, explaining the studio's approach to building a sustainable indie studio with a motivated team.

"Funomena has as high priority goal to stay in business making creative, experimental games independently," LaMer said, and it has established a strategy to ensure that goal is always realized.

The heart of the strategy consists of three interdependent factors, the first of which is simply staying in business. To ensure it can meet that goal, LaMer said Funomena has a runway of potential new funding opportunities in mind and is open to experimenting with new avenues so long as they stay within the company's core values. They're also very budget-conscious, she said, ensuring that the expenditures scale appropriately with income and projects are getting finished on time.

Another part of the strategy is ensuring the studio's accomplishments are well known. Part of that effort is handled through marketing and PR, but the company also puts an emphasis on outreach and speaking engagements throughout the industry as well. LaMer noted that co-founder and CEO Robin Hunicke has been a regular speaker on the conference circuit for some time, and says she uses her high profile to increase the visibility of not only Funomena, but of the studio's other employees as well.

"You need to understand yourself what motivates people, what they enjoy about their jobs, in order to facilitate what that is. You don't just guess."

The last leg of the strategy, and the one that LaMer focuses on, is making sure employees enjoy working at Funomena. It's not enough that they're happy with their jobs; LaMer wants them to be so thrilled with the company that they would encourage talented friends and acquaintances to apply for work there.

"Each piece depends on the other and feeds into the other," LaMer explained, "and the responsibility for all of these areas is shared across the company, especially the managers."

When it comes to understanding what makes for happy employees, LaMer turns to self-determination theory. Essentially, people need three things to be happy workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They need control over their own work, they need to feel they're good at what they do, and they need to feel that what they're doing means something.

To find out whether people in the company are having those needs met, LaMer said the simplest thing for managers to do is have regular one-on-one meetings with everyone on their teams. It's not a ground-breaking idea, but it can help people understand the individual motivations their employees have.

"You need to understand yourself what motivates people, what they enjoy about their jobs, in order to facilitate what that is," LaMer said. "You don't just guess."

When you examine a developer's motivation, you can also gain insight into their weaknesses, LaMer said. She pointed to herself as an example, saying that what she finds most rewarding about her work is getting people on the same page and achieving a shared understanding. She likes it so much that she noticed it undermining her work when interviewing people to work at Funomena. If candidates were getting into a story about what went wrong at a previous job or some other delicate matter, LaMer said she was too eager to cut them off with an, "Oh, I've been there before."

"By jumping to this [point of] wanting to connect with them and feeling like we're coming from the same place, I'm missing this opportunity to do my job, which is to figure out more about the candidate and learn about the person," LaMer said.

She acknowledged some people aren't eager to be reflective or forthcoming in one-on-ones, but suggested a tactic an old boss of hers used. He would begin every one-on-one meeting with a problem or a mistake he had made that week, asking the employee for their input on the situation. It showed vulnerability, and encouraged developers not to avoid discussing mistakes but to treat them as learning opportunities.

"If optimism is so important that concerns and problems and worries get characterized as harshing on the awesome thing they've created, then it's not really safe to bring up problems."

However, that model of self-determination theory only covers motivation on an individual level. A truly successful studio will have what LaMer called "Special Team Magic," the mercurial quality at work when everything is clicking on a great team and people are feeding off each others' energy. For that, LaMer said there are also three key components, the first of which is emotional safety.

"[Emotional safety is] a sense of confidence that the team or the people you're with won't reject you, or embarrass or punish you for speaking up," LaMer said.

People need to be able to take risks and have dumb ideas, or concepts that don't fit, or maybe unusual behavior. It needs to be the opposite of high school, LaMer said, an environment without the cliques or conformity or judgmental peers.

A workplace without emotional safety can manifest itself in some counterintuitive ways, as LaMer demonstrated with an anecdote. When a friend of hers applied for a job with a team making an interesting new product, she was interviewed by a number of people. She asked each one what's wrong with the product or what they wish they'd done differently, and none of them offered a single harsh word about it. She knew the product as well as the competition, so she knew there were some very clear issues any one of them could have pointed to. Things made more sense when she finally was interviewed by the director in charge of the project, who described himself as a hopeless optimist.

"Optimism is great, right? But what if optimism is getting in the way of seeing problems," LaMer asked. "If optimism is so important that concerns and problems and worries get characterized as harshing on the awesome thing they've created, then it's not really safe to bring up problems. And how do you improve anything if you don't bring up the problems so you can fix them?"

When LaMer joined Funomena, the team working on Luna was going through a rough patch, and didn't yet have the trust to be direct with one another. People needed a way to voice their concerns indirectly, LaMer said, so she used a contingency exercise designed to get the problems out in the open without people feeling like they were being attacked. She got the team together and asked them to fill a whiteboard with endings to the sentence, "Luna will succeed if..."

"This shared definition of success, this shared vision, is so valuable, that it's worth changing [the project] in order to get that alignment."

It started with simple answers ("...if we can maintain a solid frame rate in VR" and "...if the VR field doesn't completely fail") but as the exercise went on, the issues more specific to the team began to surface.

"They didn't feel comfortable saying, 'We programmers are sick of you artists breaking the build all the time.' But they could say, 'We'll succeed if we can maintain vigilance about build stability. And maybe we could do a little bit of education for the team. And maybe we could make the tools a little [easier to understand] so you're not breaking stuff all the time.' So they managed to get through those feelings without accusing each other so much."

That exercise also feeds into the second ingredient of Special Team Magic, getting everyone aligned creatively and organizationally. It's more than getting everyone to buy into a schedule and scope for the game; it's creating a shared responsibility among the team. The team is exposed to the schedule every week, and everyone on the team keeps tabs on it, with the ability to question whether the time allotted for certain tasks is reasonable, or even whether or not those tasks are worth that time investment.

"This shared definition of success, this shared vision, is so valuable, that it's worth changing [the project] in order to get that alignment."

Achieving that alignment requires rigor and fearlessness, LaMer said. Team leaders need rigor to assess every new idea that comes in, and they need fearlessness to acknowledge that a new idea is better than the one they've already been working on, or to say no (and articulate why) when a popular idea doesn't fit.

The final component of Special Team Magic is a growth mindset. Considering Funomena is just 15 people and working on a strict budget, there's a somewhat limited amount of room for career advancement. That means they can't rely on external motivators like money and a hierarchy of impressive job titles to rise through, so they look for people driven by more internal motivations and a need to constantly improve on themselves.

"Continuous improvement is not just for your own personal satisfaction," LaMer said. "It does keep us creatively fulfilled, but it also spots problems before they happen. It allows organizations to adapt to new conditions, new consoles, and new business models. It pushes the sustainability cycle forward."

Disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and paid for our accommodation during the event.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.