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What we can learn from... successful game teams

Crunch and financial rewards don't work, says Department of Play's Will Luton, but there are strategies that can lead to more effective teams and projects

What We Can Learn From... is a regular series from the founder of management consultancy Department of Play, Will Luton. It examines what the games industry can learn from a single game, trend or topic.

A recent client asked about the structuring of games businesses: How should you name the departments? Who should sit with who? How often should they speak? We talked about this for an hour or so, getting into fractal levels of detail, before I asked the question I should have started with: Why do you want to know this?

What this client really wanted to understand was why some game businesses succeed and others fail. It had to be down to the way teams fitted together and reported to each other, they reasoned. And that is sound reasoning: Organisational structure certainly has an impact on business success. However, structure and strategy are the focus of so many in management because they're the easily measured, PowerPoint-able, surface level levers. But as Peter Drucker once said, "culture eats strategy for breakfast."

"Personal interactions between individuals -- not management structure, bonuses or ancillary elements -- are what create success"

As any wizened veteran game maker will tell you, even the best laid plans will run into problems. It is the culture of the team that dictates how well those problems are resolved. Personal interactions between individuals -- not the management structure, bonuses or ancillary elements -- are what create success.

And this notion is backed up by what I believe is the most important piece of research in games: The Game Outcomes Project from 2015. What this research team set out to do was simple: Ask questions of game development teams, correlating working practices with the financial and critical outcomes of their project. Using statistical analysis, the research team discovered several surprising correlations that can help us all make better games.

Crunch doesn't work

Crunch is one of the most divisive topics in our industry. The practice is well documented as decreasing productivity and leading to worse physical and mental health, as well as strained interpersonal relationships and substance abuse. Yet crunch is often cited as a "necessary evil" of great products. Warren Spector said of crunch: "A game development process with no crunch? I'm not sure that's possible unless you're working on a ripoff of another game or a low-ambition sequel."

But The Game Outcomes Project suggests the exact inverse of Spector's assertion: The most critically acclaimed titles featured the least amount of crunch. The study found a strong correlation between more reported crunch and worse financial and critical performance. It was found that teams that reported low levels of voluntary crunch had an Outcome Score -- an aggregate measure of critical and financial success -- of 65, while the teams reporting high levels of mandatory crunch saw an Outcome Score of 48.

While it's likely there are correlations between high mandatory crunch and games already in trouble, plus that these results are distorted by self reporting, it's clearly wrong to say that successful games cannot be made without crunch. Indeed, I believe it's a moral deficiency to know the personal impact of crunch and to continue calling for it. The data is rather clear.

You can't motivate with bonuses

"As anyone who's lost a lead engineer to a lesser paying startup will know, you can't motivate staff with money alone"

As anyone who's lost a lead engineer to a lesser paying startup will know, you can't motivate staff with money alone. Or perhaps you've known a dejected, coasting co-worker who's waiting for a seasonal bonus before they hand in their notice. Indeed, the Outcomes team found that there was no correlation between almost any specific financial incentive and better game success.

However, the study found there was a positive correlation with tailored, personal performance related bonuses, as also reported by the Harvard Business Review: "What works better than an annual bonus? A more strategic, thoughtful approach to conditional rewards, involving smaller payouts given year round and, critically, targeting the vast majority of the workforce -- not just a privileged few."

While the study found little correlation between extrinsic motivations and performance, it did find strong correlation in intrinsic motivations.

Trifecta of Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Business author Dan Pink spent several years researching motivation and came to an astounding conclusion: "There's a mismatch between what science knows and what business does."

Cover image for YouTube video

Within right-brain creative work, rather than manual work, Pink argues that the carrot (bonuses) and stick (firings) motivation model fails. Instead, team motivation is found in:

  • Autonomy: The freedom for one to do as they wish in the way they wish.
  • Mastery: The ability to gain and improve important skills.
  • Purpose: The feeling of working towards something more important than oneself.

And, of course, Pink's findings were reinforced by the The Game Outcomes Project. The research team asked participants many questions about the ability to establish their own workflows, how staff helped each other gain skills, and the clarity of the game's vision. Each of these cultural questions had a high correlation with success.

Practically, you can build each of these motivations within your teams:

  • Autonomy: Allow staff to choose how they work, including the software they use, the processes they believe are best, and perhaps even the hours or place of their work.
  • Mastery: While external expert training was found to be extremely low by the study, it was certainly high correlating. Peer-to-peer assistance was highly prevalent among the best performing teams. This in-team training should be encouraged and rewarded through leadership.
  • Purpose: Clear definition and communication of a project's vision and reason for existing, beyond monetary reward, is something sorely missing in many game teams. When well constructed, a vision will give purpose to the entire team and help reinforce autonomy.

Yet, as a leader, in order to setup and reinforce this trifecta of motivation, you'll need to hear honestly from your team about how they feel and what is really happening. And that will only occur if there is actual psychological safety.

You need psychological safety

As I wrote in my last What we can learn from..., "psychological safety is defined as the ability to express oneself without fear of negative repercussions." And the freedom of communication this safety brings is extremely important in a healthy team.

"There should be no room for behaviour that inadvertently or otherwise silences concerns or feedback within a team"

Within the Game Outcomes Project survey, questions such as "it was safe to take a risk on this team and say something that needed to be said" correlated positively, while questions such as "some important things went unsaid because the team fear conflict" correlated negatively. What these relationships show is that successful teams exhibit psychological safety: They're invested in a good outcome if, when they feel the team or a member of the team is off track, they can bring up their concern and discuss the problem.

Within leadership, this psychological safety can be instilled by actively exhibiting the attitude and responses that signal a safe environment for concerns -- be it by actively steering discussion, hiring for emotionally intelligent candidates, or ensuring HR has the understanding and authority to act in response to employee concerns. There should be no room for egotistical or political behaviour that inadvertently or otherwise silences concerns or feedback within a team. Because once this happens, rather than getting solved, problems grow.

This gives leaders a lot to actively manage. Luckily, the research also uncovered many non-correlated factors that we simply don't need to worry about.

Some things don't matter

Alongside financial incentives, the researchers also found no statistically significant correlations between various different communication methods: Email versus in-person discussion had no bearing on success. In the four years since the study, however, it would be interesting to see how the explosion of Slack and remote teams impacts success, if at all. But to add credence to the potential of distributed teams, there was also no correlation between the use of outsourcing, temps or contractors too.

However, likely the most surprising finding from the project was that no correlation between production methodologies and outcomes was found. Agile and Scrum performed no better than traditional waterfall management.

But teams reporting that they didn't know their production methodology saw rapid decline in success once they were over five people, and larger projects fared slightly better under a waterfall approach. What this tells us is that as long as work is managed, the system under which it is managed has little impact.

However, these project management findings, like many in the study, are potentially flawed.

We need more studies

The response to the Game Outcomes Project has been extremely positive, with many highlighting its importance. However, its academic credentials have been called, rightly, into question. The team has always been open, with a disclaimer: This is not an academic paper and has not been peer reviewed.

Additionally, all the surveying occurred post launch; the success of the project could colour the respondent's view, distorting the reality of the process. The team wasn't, for example, able to control conditions and vary inputs, like having a successful team repeat their project but with high levels of mandatory crunch.

But the findings of the original study do indicate many strong, statistically significant correlations between what teams do and the success they achieve. Plus, the findings are consistent with the consensus in Management Science, strengthening what that discipline already knows.

As we look towards data and scientific methodologies to understand the behaviour or our players and performance of our games, it surprises me that we aren't applying the same logic to our teams and our projects. Management Science holds incredible insight on team management and product success, and this knowledge is possibly the most powerful -- and yet under-leveraged -- available to any leader in games.

Will Luton is a veteran product manager and game designer who now runs management consultancy Department of Play, helping companies such as SEGA, Rovio and Jagex to grow their mobile, PC and console games. Will is also an avid retro games and pinball player.