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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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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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