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I will survive: Resilience strategies for game studios

Fundamentally Games' Ella Romanos shares tips to increase your chances of surviving through the tough times as a newly established developer

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When we think about starting and running a game studio, we know it's tough. We know that games are a creative audience-driven process which means there are no guarantees of success. Experience, skills, iteration and determination go a long way, but no matter how well things go, or how good your team or game is, you will have highs and lows. Building a business – or a game – is not a straight line from A to B.

What can you do to soften some of those bumps in the road? What can you do to increase your chances of surviving the tough times, so that you can stay around long enough to make the most of the good times?

In this article I'm going to explore some of the key aspects of business resilience that I've learned through doing, across three businesses and 15 years in the games industry.

Making decisions with limited information

This is an inevitable challenge for anyone running a business. The impact of decisions that you make may not manifest for some time, and may in some cases be difficult to reverse. Yet the impact can be significant, and you may have had to make that decision without all the information, or there may simply not be an easy or obvious answer to your dilemma.

In these instances, there are several approaches you can take to help your business be more resilient, to help reduce the risk of mistakes, and reduce the impact if you got the decision wrong.

Think through the scenarios of what could happen following your decision, and prepare in advance for those – both success and failure

I follow the 'opinions firmly felt but loosely held' approach, which in practice means that you take responsibility for making the decision and you are decisive, drawing the best conclusion possible from the information available to you, while being willing to listen and change your view from information you gather and other people's arguments.

Key skills you need for this are debating, negotiating and listening. You also need to trust in yourself, but be willing to learn and admit when you're wrong, as well as a determination to not give up.

In addition, it's important that you think through the scenarios of what could happen following your decision, and prepare in advance for those – both success and failure. Consider what the actual impact could be, how you can keep track so you can spot issues as early as possible, and how you will mitigate the impact if it occurs. You want to be ready because it's much better to plan ahead, than have to make plans at moments of extreme stress.

It's all about the bigger picture

It's important not to lose sight of your goals and the reason you're on this journey. Yet when you're tired, busy, and there are so many decisions to make, fires to put out, and things to do, it's easy to focus on the immediate and forget the bigger picture.

When you face a challenge, it's important to step back and ask 'why'. It's possible that the solution you are acting on needs reconsidering, sometimes you've got so lost in the detail that you've forgotten why you started something in the first place. My team probably get sick of hearing me say 'let's take a step back', but recapping regularly can really help to find a better or more efficient approach to a challenge.

Another very simple technique that can be useful is to imagine that you're six months ahead, and think about a decision you're going to make, or a path that you're on, in the context of that. This can help ensure that you're not just focused on the immediate but also thinking about the future and where you will be when the possible impact of a decision or activity you're making today will occur. This can really help to plan mitigation, and can in some cases vary the decision or activity itself.

Sometimes just surviving is enough

Anyone who starts a business is driven and wants to succeed. This often means that we will want to be growing and pushing forward all the time – and this is a good thing, it's what drives the business.

However, sometimes things don't go as well as you planned, things take longer or don't materialise in the way you hoped. And sometimes things get really tough, and you don't know how you will get through it or get back on track.

At times like this, sometimes just surviving is enough. Just keeping going, and doing whatever you need to do to make that happen, is what you need to do. Survive and keep going through the tough times, so that you have the opportunity to get back on track and push forward with your business growth.

The trick here is accepting that this can happen, and not giving up, and focusing on the way forward, not on blaming yourself or focusing on the past (except to learn how to move forward).

Building a team who are on the journey with you

No successful business is due to a single person. It's always multiple people who have all contributed in different ways to the overall success.

There are multiple types of people involved in a business...

  • Your business partner(s). I can't imagine running a business on my own, because sharing the responsibility and accountability, as well as having a sounding board and ability to discuss the business's challenges completely openly is a really key part of being resilient.
  • Your team. Building a team who not only do their jobs, but are also on the journey with you is key. Having input from different points of view, having people who can help and support you and each other, and having different skills and experiences only increases your chance of success.
  • Mentors and advisors. Having people who are outside of the day to day, who can provide unbiased feedback and a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture, who also have skills and experience that can provide a different point of view, is incredibly valuable, particularly for big decisions or when things are tough.

A productive team doesn't happen simply by choosing the right people, it happens through you building a culture where the team buys into your vision and engage with the ambitions of the company, and where those team members are empowered to act.

Being a good leader, investing in things that support motivation, mental and physical health, mutual respect, work/life balance and training and support for the team member's roles and careers, means that the team contribute more and free you up to manage the business, rather than the detailed day to day. Then those team members then help you spot issues earlier, and address them.

Business is personal

Business resilience also relies on your personal resilience. If you can't sustain, then the business will suffer. You need to be hard to knock down, but you also need to know your limits and accept that business is personally stressful and find ways to deal with that.

You need to not burn out and not think that just working more is the answer. You also need to know your own triggers and biases and learn to let things go. And you need to accept responsibilities and own – and accept – your mistakes.

A productive team doesn't happen simply by choosing the right people, it happens through you building a culture where the team buys into your vision

Having supportive family and friends is really important – ideally ones who know when to support you, and when to tell you you're working too much! But your business partner(s) are key here too.

Having someone who fully understands the business, and what it's like to run a business, but also cares about what is going on for you, with whom you can share the stresses and responsibilities, who can listen when you need to rant or need support, and who can tell you when you're going down the wrong path, is so valuable not only for the business, but for you personally too.

You also need to know your strengths and weaknesses, and mitigate your weaknesses in whatever way works best – that could be getting training, hiring other people, or just accepting that you have to work harder at certain things. You don't have to be good at everything, and do everything yourself, but you do need to make sure you put plans in place for how those things will get done.

Business resilience is about accepting that disruptions will happen, adapting to them and keeping them running. It's about being able to absorb stress, knowing – and accepting – your vulnerabilities, and being prepared for anything.

It's also about being flexible and keep an eye on the bigger picture, and knowing the difference between your vision, strategy and tactics – you may have to pivot and change many times, particularly in such a hit-driven and fast-evolving market such as games, but business resilience techniques will help you keep going in the right direction through all of that, and reduce your chances of derailing completely.

Ella Romanos is chief operating officer at live games publisher Fundamentally Games

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