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Riot's secret sauce: People

Brandon Beck says the industry's most valuable resource is great talent, and it needs to treat them better

Somewhere in the past few years, League of Legends went from being an upstart free-to-play disrupting the industry to being the establishment. It's coming up on four years now since Tencent bought a majority stake in developer Riot Games. Earlier this year, Riot Games co-founders Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck received the Game Developers Choice Pioneer Award for their contributions to the eSports scene. We've not only hit the point where deep pocketed publishers have rushed to copy League of Legends' success in the MOBA genre, we've hit the point where those imitators have been conceived, spent a year and a half in beta, and been canned because they just don't capture the "secret sauce" of the original.

That secret sauce was the subject of Beck's keynote address at the Montreal International Game Summit today. More specifically, Beck wanted to talk about the myth of the secret sauce.

"It's this idea that there's some proprietary thing that the best companies have that the rest of us don't. I don't believe in secret sauce. Not for game development, anyway," Beck said.

It might exist for the recipe for Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the primary value of a game company isn't locked up in a secret recipe, Beck said. The primary reason they thrive or don't thrive is people.

"Great games aren't commodity products that can be reliably manufactured from a recipe," Beck said.

Beck said to make great games, a studio needs to be innovative and creative. They take inspirations from life outside of games. He pointed to the inspirations for Team Fortress 2's art design, which took inspiration from artists as far afield as Norman Rockwell to Mike Mignola.

But those inspirations aren't part of a recipe for success, Beck said. There's a lot of chaos in game development, and trying new things is also prone to failure. Every day brings with it new problems, and problems that can't just be deferred to the boss, Beck said. In order to be really successful at game development, to innovate and do cool things that players have never seen before, requires a shift in the balance of power away from supervisors and into the individual craftspeople on the team. And if the individual developers are doing the problem solving, the role and challenge of a modern manager becomes akin to a bit coach and a bit cheerleader, Beck said.

"It's easy to allow someone else to make a decision when you trust that she shares your values and beliefs"

"People, and how well they team together, are by far the most important part of the recipe," Beck said. "And talent alone is not enough."

As evidence, he pointed to the 2004 US Olympic basketball team, which lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina, finishing with the bronze despite being massive favorites. Talent alone can win games, Beck said, but teamwork is what wins championships.

Unfortunately, people aren't really reflected on a balance sheet. As a result, valuation and stock price for game companies are a bit out of whack, Beck said. There's no line-item that ascribes any value for a company's ability to attract, retain, and inspire talent, despite it being the single most important predictor of a gaming business' success. If all the key creative people at any given gaming company walked out tomorrow, that company's value would be totally nerfed, Beck said, but the balance sheets would suggest the company was still every bit as healthy.

So how do you take great people and turn them into great teams? Beck said Riot's approach--and he noted this should vary company to company--is to start with passion and aptitude. They look for people who are curious and will teach themselves new skills. They look for resilience, people who get knocked down and come back. They look for "humbitiousness," people who acknowledge a need to improve but still desire and are driven to do great things. He referenced Moneyball, the book and movie about baseball that suggested some stats were overvalued. For video games, Beck said experience was far overvalued compared to qualities like passion and potential.

Last month, Riot hired Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, a person with no experience in the game industry as their HR VP. But he was always a hardcore gamer, and used to be a semi-pro Magic: The Gathering player who wrote a weekly column on deckbuilding for years. Despite his lack of professional game industry experience, he fit right in with the Riot culture and is the sort of hire Beck said Riot tries to make more frequently.

Riot doesn't always get it right, however. Beck talked about a Riot Games pro player contract it drafted that stated League of Legends pro players could not publicly play other eSports games. Beck said Riot screwed that up. Streaming is a significant source of income for pro players, and Riot's contract was hurting their ability to hold viewer interest or even entertain themselves. If a player-focused Riot dev had been asked to review the contract, they probably would have spotted that problematic clause. But since the contract was drafted by lawyers who were more familiar with EULA legalese than the intricacies of the game, Riot fell afoul of its player base and had to backtrack and apologize for it.

"Deep alignment on values and behaviors helps ensure we're all rowing in the same direction," Beck said, adding that they now very rarely hire non-gamers.

A weak culture can allow people to drift, Beck said. But a strong culture acts as a membrane that can keep large groups of people working in alignment. Trust is also a key component for teamwork, as it allows teams to focus on satisfying players instead of playing politics in the office. That also helps developers to be more autonomous with their decision-making, which makes for happier employees.

"It's easy to allow someone else to make a decision when you trust that she shares your values and beliefs," Beck said.

"As a culture, you don't want to be plain vanilla. You want to be uni or brussel sprouts. You want to be polarizing, and you'll be a magnet for cultural fits"

Beck said you don't want your culture to be vanilla, because it's plan and unobjectionable, which means it's acceptable to people who may not be good cultural fits. Instead, he said effective cultures have a sort of love-it-or-hate-it quality; people either fit right in, or they stick out.

"As a culture, you don't want to be plain vanilla," Beck said, adding, "You want to be uni or brussel sprouts. You want to be polarizing, and you'll be a magnet for cultural fits."

Rather than construct a glossy corporate façade, companies are forced to make sure things are right on the inside first, Beck said. He brought up Glassdoor, a site where employees can review their places of work. Beck said the company takes some hits and bad reviews on Glassdoor, and said it can be scary to read them sometimes. Still, it's "pretty magical," he said, because it gives everyone a voice to speak their truth, and there's a lot of value to be gleaned from that feedback. If you pay attention to it, you can learn a lot about what's going on in your company.

Beck wrapped up by stressing that he loves the industry, but there's plenty of work to do in talent management. The game industry underperforms the tech industry on compensation, as anyone who's fought over talent with Google and Amazon can attest to. Gaming can also do better about not burning out teams, and it struggles too much to provide job security.

To continue to be a creative industry, gaming has to be a magnet for talent, Beck said, and it can't be losing the best and brightest to other industries that treat them better. Companies that view their people through the simple metrics of a balance statement are losing the key ingredient to success.

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Latest comments (11)

I'd be interested to know what Riot considers a 'vanilla culture' as opposed to 'brussel sprouts culture'. From all I've read about them(and their Glassdoor reviews are certainly interesting reading) the love-it-or-hate-it quality is certainly true, and it's not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder what they feel their 'culture fits' are loving versus what others are hating.
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Joshua Temblett XO.TV, Editor-in-Chief 6 years ago
Great question Jessica. I don't know whether or not you've seen it yet, but there's an excellent reddit post from a producer at Riot where he talks about his experiences within the company (link to the piece).

I don't quite know how to sum up the post, but reading it I can definitely understand how the culture can be a love-it-or-hate-it.
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Yes, I had read that post! It's very illuminating, and it echoes a lot of the Glassdoor reviews. It sounds like a very intense working environment, which evidently works for some but not all(personally, I am fairly sure I'd hate it!) I guess I'm just curious whether such an apparently homogenous workforce - where new employees either 'drink the Kool-Aid' and conform to the Riot culture or quit as soon as possible - really promotes the kind of diverse and creative problem-solving approaches a studio needs. Or, maybe that's not what Riot needs.

They certainly seem refreshingly up-front about talking about their processes and how much they value this intense culture. Something more studios could benefit from doing I think, even if they don't share the same sort of cultural values as Riot.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jessica Hyland on 10th November 2014 6:43pm

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Show all comments (11)
Erik Reynolds Media relations executive, Riot Games6 years ago
It's definitely not for everyone, but it's one of the most professionally satisfying companies I've ever worked for in my 15 year career spanning companies like EA, Vivendi, Atari, THQ and agency life.

I feel like there's a unifying passion that resonates between Rioters that I never felt in my previous roles. Where many folks within my previous employers may have been passionate and really cared about quality/players experience, it was never as universally appreciated as it is at Riot. This means a lot to me.
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Well, I'm really glad for you then :3 Rioters seem to be very open about talking about their experiences at the studio, which is always nice to see.
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Iain Stanford Experienced Software Engineer, Tinderstone6 years ago
God. Reading that Reddit post especially, Riot sounds like its everything wrong with the sounds truly awful.

But hey, I must just not be "passionate". The magic P word. "Passion". No need to give perks, because you do it out of "Passion". No need to pay overtime, because you do it out of "Passion" (but hey, we're so generous, we'll buy you takeaway to make you stay even later!)

Workers should not be made to feel lucky to be in their job.
Workers should not be made to feel like they are instantly replaceable no matter how true (it isn't) that might be.

There are plenty companies out there far bigger than Riot, and even they know that good jobs bring good benefits. Because at the end of the day all that "passion" amounts to nothing...a a job. You can let your job define who you are sure, but then why the hell would you ever let a job that flat out takes advantage of you define who you are? If it truly is your "passion" to spend your whole life dedicated to this field...then you sure as hell deserve proper pay, not to be made...sorry encouraged..sorry no, just have an "unwritten rule"...that you have to work the weekend. Either that, or get 50/60hrs work done during the week. Its not that we're making you work the weekend, just that you need to get all this work done that isn't possible in a working you trot.

The fact that people are happy to frankly be taken advantage of by their own employer, and for it to be described as "not for everyone" just shows the state its gotten to.

EDIT - I've just reread the start of that reddit AMA....that guy was an intern from May to July 2013, and was then made Project Manager in Nov? No wonder people are having to "be passionate" and work weekends, having to pick up the mess made by managers who don't sound like they could possibly have enough experience to be running the projects and teams of the scale Riot must have.

Ha. All sounds very familiar.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Iain Stanford on 11th November 2014 12:14am

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Erik Reynolds Media relations executive, Riot Games6 years ago
Iain - before you go attacking someone for going from intern to project manager, please ask for more information or research their profile. This was an grad program intern. This person is a former US Army capt, MBA with tons of quality work experience too. Very qualified and great teammate. Also we are very well compensated and perked out for our jobs.

The MIGs conference speech speaks to your concerns and I think that if you had more information you would be more understanding of what our culture does to empower the individual. It's really a great place.
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Helen Merete Simm Senior UI Artist, Ubisoft Reflections6 years ago
Well they definitely have a great media relations exec! :D

Iain makes a good point. Some companies I've worked for hire people for their passion, but when that passion doesn't translate to being willing to sacrifice their life for a game (and Im not talking about Mass Effect here), they get angry.
Some companies (and Im not referring to Riot, because I haven't worked for them) tend to spout out a lot about the importance of passion, but what they want is people who are so desperate to be in the industry that they will sacrifice their personal health and wellbeing, all for the company.
And thats not cool.

Riot sounds like an interesting place to work, and its obvious that they produce loyal employees, so that's doing something right! I guess its the same as any other successful company, they know what kind of people they want, and they make sure those people are happy with them. If you fit in, awesome, if not, there are other companies out there!

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Helen Merete Simm on 11th November 2014 9:31am

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Iain Stanford Experienced Software Engineer, Tinderstone6 years ago
If he was so qualified, why was he taken on as an intern? Is that not itself an abuse of an intern policy.
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Seb Downie Producer, Guerrilla Games6 years ago
I for one find the cannibalism reference in the article headline quite tasteless.
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Erik Reynolds Media relations executive, Riot Games6 years ago
@Iain Most MBA are required by their programs to do internships and as undergrad.

I think the most interesting thing about Riot is that they hire folks who challenge the system despite title or years of experience, and that feedback leads to better player experiences. I had found that that was part of my personality prior to joining Riot, and its satisfying to have that character trait validated, as opposed to the political nature of raising concerns I've had in previous work places.

If your heart and head are in the right place you can make a difference no matter if you're an intern or CEO.
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