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Managing your stakeholders: A game developer's guide

Fundamentally Games' Ella Romanos offers advice on how to communicate better with publishers, investors and other partners

The majority of games projects have external partners involved in their development. This could be a publisher, a VC, an IP holder or a project financer. Often there are multiple partners involved.

Each stakeholder has a vested interest in the success of the game and all will want to understand how the project is progressing, but with differing requirements on what they want to know.

When there are multiple stakeholders, communication is often a time-consuming task. Some of your stakeholders may not have a strong grasp of the specific nuances of game development, or a project may face complications, and in situations like this good communication can be challenging yet crucial.

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Ella Romanos, Fundamentally Games

Every project I've worked on has dealt with the task of reporting to stakeholders differently. I've been on both sides of the fence: as a developer, and as a representative of financers and IP holders. Having been the 'middle person' in many projects as an executive producer, I have been able to witness first-hand how lack of clarity in communication often is the root cause of a project becoming derailed... or at the least makes issues much worse than they would otherwise have been. Once a relationship deteriorates and trust is lost, it is very difficult to get it back and the project suffers as a consequence.

Some projects have great relationships between all stakeholders, but in my experience these projects tend to be ones where communication and understanding is well-established from the outset. As a result, trying to find ways to improve communication between stakeholders has been a key focus of my work over the last few years.

It started with creating a good reporting format, which I and others used on many projects. Through this process I identified key challenges that I believe are important to address for happy relationships with stakeholders.

Milestone sign off process

Most projects are based on milestones. Most developers will have internal milestones, but there are also milestones for their stakeholders, where they need to submit various deliverables for approval. Every project is different in what is required for submission, but it usually involves at least a written report, a build of the game, and video/images showing features or content.

Then there are usually then a few steps that the submission needs to go through. For example, it may go to the studio head and then on to the investors via the executive producer managing the project, who then has to submit their own internal report for the investors to sign off and release the next stage of the money.

Having a clear process, where all parties understand and agree the steps required for sign-off, is a very basic but important foundation for building good stakeholder relationships.

Consistency and clarity

I wish I could say that all developer reports that I've reviewed (and written(!)) were perfectly clear and complete. However, it is often difficult for stakeholders, particularly those who don't necessarily understand games development, to understand fully what has been delivered for each milestone, and whether this matches up with what was promised.

This can be due to a developer forgetting to include some information, or not being consistent in reporting languages or formatting, or simply making assumptions about what the stakeholders do or don't know about the project or game development in general. Having consistent and clearly presented reports makes it easy to confirm that what was due to be delivered has actually been delivered, making the relationship between stakeholders much easier to keep positive.

Transparency

When a milestone submission is made, the submission has to go through various steps to achieve sign off. That process can take anything from a few days, to a few weeks. During that period, it is often difficult for the various stakeholders to know where in the sign-off process the project actually is at any one point in time.

This information is important and helpful to all parties; for developers waiting for payment, it is useful to know how long they need to wait until they get their money. For investors, it is useful to know that the submission is coming their way, so they can see evidence of their money at work. And for the executive producer, it's useful to know where the sign-off process is, so that they do not have to devote too much time to fielding questions from both investors and developers on the current status of the milestone all the time! Transparency in the sign-off process itself is therefore extremely useful to all parties involved.

Accountability

What happens when a project stumbles? The hope is that all stakeholders work together in a positive way to reach a solution and keep the project on track. However, this can often be challenging, as in my experience the cause of the issue is often difficult to identify.

Whilst it should not be about blame, stakeholders do need to understand why the project has not met expectations. For the studio, being able to look back and demonstrate to their stakeholders that they have done everything that was expected of them, and that the stumbling block was not something they could, or should, have avoided, is vital for keeping a constructive relationship going.

When reports and communication channels are in multiple locations, with some pieces of information communicated by email and others in discussions by phone and Slack and Skype, it is often difficult to demonstrate accountability. Having a process that ensures all reporting is done in a consistent, trackable way that can be reviewed as evidence is crucial when the going gets tough.

Efficiency

All of these challenges can make the sign-off process feel inefficient for developers, by diverting their time and focus away from the project itself. This can negatively impact the likelihood of success for the project, which will in turn frustrate stakeholders and can impact the relationship too. Finding a way to manage all these things through extending your existing project pipeline efficiently is therefore of utmost priority.

Security

On top of all of this, it is key to ensure stakeholders invested in a project feel secure in their understanding of where the project is, what the risks are, and are confident they will be kept apprised of any challenges that occur. Most stakeholders know that challenges will occur; it's how those challenges are handled that they want to feel reassured about.

All projects will deal with these challenges in different ways and to different levels of effectiveness, often through a cobbled-together combination of tools and methods. For our client projects at Fundamentally Games, we have evolved our reporting format into a cloud-based tool called Wigwam, which handles all of this for us. Currently an internal system, we will be looking to make it available for others to use as part of a BETA program in the near future.

Ella Romanos is a long-serving game developer and industry consultant. Her firm Altara Games assist studios with loans against the UK's video games tax relief. She also works at studio Rocket Lolly Games and executive production consultancy Fundamentally Games.

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