A framework for building a great development team.

A must-read for all game producers, CTOs and other tech leaders.

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Actionable insights from tech leaders working for:

Overview

The process of composing a development team can look like starting a fighting game where you choose characters to fight your battles.

Sometimes it also resembles an RPG session: forming an effective task force can be a collaborative effort, where each person’s individual skills complement each other.

No matter the approach you prefer, here’s our ever-growing collection of actionable tips for game producers who want to make sure they build and lead their teams the right way.

Who are we to talk about it?

Throughout the years, we’ve worked with game studios on several different projects. We helped Paradox Interactive improve their game launcher and built a CMS system for Jackbox Games, among others.

In this guide, we share some of our own project management expertise along with insights from game development contributors. We really hope you’ll find it useful.

ABOUT AUTHORS
Chapter 1: Leading a Team – Key Principles

When it comes to creating an effective, cross-functional team, there are many principles you need to follow. Some of them apply to choosing your team members, others to your leadership style and day-to-day communication on a project.

Let’s try to break them down.

The three elements of an effective team

Personality mix

This is a foundation of a safe and friendly work environment. And while it can often be hard to create a team where everyone’s on friendly basis, mixing personalities is crucial to make every team member feel acknowledged and stop being afraid of asking questions, coming up with new ideas, and admitting mistakes.

The right personality mix is also essential in creating an effective BizDevOps team. See, not every developer feels comfortable talking to high-level stakeholders. Some are more open, others will need some time to get used to their role in a cross-functional team. That’s only natural, and balancing different personality types help with mitigating similar problems.

Supporting roles

Even in cross-functional teams, nobody has all the answers. That’s why supporting roles are crucial to make the team feel comfortable and guarantee each member’s psychological safety. Sometimes they’re here to mediate between developers, designers, writers, and key stakeholders on a project, other times they make sure the project is on track.

What’s also important is the fact that by being close to the core team, supporting members can better understand each team member’s biggest strengths as well as how they complement each other. This helps with composing teams for future projects.

Culture fit

First, there’s a company culture fit. When an individual’s values, attitude and work ethic align with those of the game studio, they have a greater chance of becoming a happy, productive and satisfied team member.

Then there’s a matter of engineer-stakeholder cultural fit. It’s especially important for companies like us, that work with other businesses. BizDevOps is a culture of collaborative delivery and open communication, so a mismatch between your team and the stakeholder’s team can become very disruptive and weaken the strategic alignment you’ve spent so much time working out.

When composing a project team, it’s good to work closely with your HR department. They will help you assess your potential team member’s behavior, skills, and ethics, and find people with the right attitude and work ethic.

When we aim to develop new game features from scratch, we create more cross-functional teams and mix all disciplines.

That’s when our teams consist of not only engineers but also artists, animators, 3D artists, UI/UX etc.

They’re organized in SCRUM teams or squads and work on certain specialized epics based on the type of work they do.

Alvaro Martin, Studio Technical Director at Wildlife Studios

What’s your approach to composing teams and planning game production?

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Game producer - the great enabler

When it comes to game development projects, one of the key roles is that of a producer. What they do is drastically different from producers in other entertainment industries such as cinema, television or music.

Sure, they still have an impact on the overall vision of the game, but above all, they support other experts – designers, animators, writers, UX/UIs – who are the real driving force behind any game development project.

The crucial concept to understand here is the philosophy of servant leadership. Producers are the leaders who serve their teams, not the other way around. A servant leader is the great enabler: they focus on the needs of other team members, prioritize their well-being, and commit to their growth and development.

As a game producer, you need to focus on:

1. Listening to your team.
2. Finding out what they need to get the work done.
3. Making sure they get the help they need.
4. Dealing with problems, roadblocks, and frustrations.

It’s important to stay open and keep your ego at bay. Game producers don’t necessarily drive all the decisions on a project, but instead, they try to get the right people in the room so they could make them together.

On a more practical level, this means that the producers’ job is very interactive. Their key tasks are to:


All this requires a good amount of soft skills. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in the next chapter. There’s still one more foundation of team collaboration we need to talk about.

Team communication

When it comes to communication in game development, it’s often hard to strike the right balance. This is especially challenging in larger teams, where there are more people you need to get the message across.

Sure, your game design document helps with establishing a vision for the project and laying out its foundations, but there’s much more to creating a game than just sticking to or updating the GDD.

Iterating is a complex process and nothing is set in stone. You need to make sure that when things change (and when it comes to game development, they usually do), everyone is on the same page with new concepts, ideas, and guidelines that come up along the way.

Remember: you all want the same thing and that is for the project to succeed.

That said, here are some practical tips:

Try to keep the right balance and avoid making the day-to-day communication too noisy so it doesn’t get in the way of actual work.

Chapter 2: The Importance of Soft Skills

Game development may feel like a technical skill-focused workplace, but it’s where multidisciplinary talents work side by side and where calculative minds meet creative ones. What glues them together are the soft skills.

Working on a game means dealing with tons of different personalities on a daily basis. To build and lead an effective team, you need to know how to adjust and fit into that diverse environment. It’s a challenge that grows more intense, especially in the age of remote work, and improving your soft skills can help you become a better leader.

4 crucial soft skills for game development leaders

Emotional intelligence – it’s your ability to understand, manage, and express feelings, but also to read and deal with other people’s emotions. This second part is essential since the team, especially if it’s a large one, will consist of a mix of characters: introverts and extroverts, creatives and rationals, thinkers and doers, etc.

Emotional intelligence helps you not only with dealing with problems or conflicts this personality mix may potentially inflict but also with picking the right traits when composing your team. This way you can shape your task force so that people can really compliment each other, both in creating and expanding the game’s vision, but also in day-to-day communication or solving problems.

Self-awareness
– it may sound like yet another management buzzword, but hear us out. As a leader, you should actively work not only towards seeing your strengths and weaknesses clearly but also towards getting an understanding of how other people perceive you.

It’s not all about introspection. Try to create a culture of bottom-up feedback and carefully draw conclusions from the opinions you gather. Once you do that, you’ll be able to build stronger relationships with your team and communicate more openly and effectively. In a dynamic environment of game development, it’s imperative that you’re able to build and maintain trust – we’ll get to that in a second.

Collaborative mindset
– it’s something we already mentioned: ego doesn’t really work in game development and it’s best to keep it at bay if you want to avoid conflicts and making bad decisions.
Servant leadership is all about humility and you’re going to need tons of it in order to empower the team and stimulate collaboration. You’ve gathered a group of talented people and now your mission is to encourage them to freely bounce off different ideas, cooperate, and use their talents in a synergic way.

Adaptability – creating a game is the art of taming the chaos. Timelines, visions, plans, sometimes even team composition – all that will constantly change and you need to stay flexible and ready to mitigate those changes effectively.
Different teams have different workflows, depending on their size and things they’re trying to accomplish. Adaptability helps you keep the wheels of production on track, even when they’re spinning at different speeds.

When it comes to balancing hard and soft skills, a good rule of thumb is: the higher the responsibility, the more soft skills you need.

This means that every Project Owner should have good communication and be able to talk to more technical people.

Striking the right balance here is crucial to avoid what we call the horse blinder effect: teams of only functional people who have no time to think or pivot priorities.

Alvaro Martin, Studio Technical Director at Wildlife Studios

Are there any other soft skills that game development leaders should focus on?

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Growing trust and motivation

All the soft skills we mentioned earlier will help you build a process that’s focused on outcomes rather than outputs. In order to do that, you need to give the team a good amount of freedom but also make sure they feel accountable for their work.
Every game is a team result. To make sure that everyone works together toward making the best game they possibly can, you need to build trust.

And how can you do that? Take a look at this graph by game development consultant Clinton Keith:


Leadership that builds trust relies heavily on bringing together your team and key stakeholders. Working in a cross-discipline environment helps you communicate every idea more effectively and explain the meaning behind numbers and estimates. Otherwise, relying on metrics will simply distance you from the team and that’s something you want to avoid.

Trust is hard to grow, but your best chance is building the process around ownership and collaboration. You can do that by:

The other major challenge is making sure that the team is fully engaged in the game production process and is not just mindlessly ticking off tasks from the list. That’s not very stimulating and we’re sure you want to encourage only the best of ideas.

Let’s refer to another graph, this time from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow:

Csikszentmihalyi argues that keeping the team engaged is all about maintaining the right level of challenge depending on your team’s skills.

Once the challenge level is too high (e.g. the tasks are too complex or the pace of work too intense), people will become stressed out and frustrated. Give them too low of a challenge for their skillset, and they will get bored.

The key here is not only to find the sweet spot between challenge and skill levels but also to give the team a little push from time to time. You don’t really want to test their stress levels, but rather encourage them to grow their skills, learn new things, and continuously improve. By doing that, you’ll be able to give your team more authority and keep them motivated.

Chapter 3: Matching methodologies to the needs

Let’s get it out of the way: most of the time, you can’t do everything perfectly. You can (and should) strive for excellence, but if you put too much focus into keeping the development process stellar, you’ll most likely end up inflating your timelines and budget. From there it’s not that far from canceling your game altogether.

And since there’s no cookbook that would give you all the answers you need right away, the key is learning to be OK with the unknowns and making sure your team stays on track with the vision for the game and the production process.

Different Agile methodologies can help you get there, but first, you need to understand the key elements and philosophy behind them. Only then you’ll be able to choose the right approach to both your team’s needs and the production phase.

Scrum - for when you need to iterate

Scrum is perfect for pre-production when you explore and test out many different possibilities to decide whether they’re actually good enough to end up in the final game.

To iterate in an effective way, it’s good to work in smaller teams. They’re not only easier to manage, but also encourage experimentation. Your team members will feel safer to speak their minds and contribute to creating the vision for the game along with its key gameplay features.

In order to streamline the roadmapping process, we need to prioritize.

This is kind of like assembling Lego blocks: we first build basic functionalities on top of base tech elements and then iterate on more complex ones.

We usually work in two-week sprints. This cycle is long enough to let us implement long stories and short enough to avoid being disconnected from the release schedule.

Alvaro Martin, Studio Technical Director at Wildlife Studios

To make sure you use Scrum effectively and adjust it to your team’s needs and style of work, take a good look at its key elements and get the full understanding of why they’re here in the first place:


When using Scrum in the pre-production phase, try not to spend too much time polishing your assets or features. This way you can eliminate waste.

What we mean by that is that, at this stage, you should focus on creating prototypes instead of final assets. Remember that the content you’re working on may very well fail to stick in line with the overall vision for the game. That’s the very nature of iterating.

Say goodbye to excessive GDDs

Scrum is perfect for pre-production when you explore and test out many different possibilities to decide whether they’re actually good enough to end up in the final game.

To iterate in an effective way, it’s good to work in smaller teams. They’re not only easier to manage, but also encourage experimentation. Your team members will feel safer to speak their minds and contribute to creating the vision for the game along with its key gameplay features.

How do you plan and improve the way you organize your work between different phases of game production?

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Kanban - when the production kicks off

Mapping the key features and planning the game production is one thing. Actually seeing the work in action once the project kicks off is a whole different story.

Few plans survive meeting with reality. They usually don’t account for production problems, improvements, and quality tradeoffs, which are required to meet the deadlines set by you or your publisher.

That’s when Kanban comes in. It makes the production flow transparent to everyone involved in creating the game and allows them to identify necessary improvements. After all, it’s people who are closest to the actual work that come up with the best ideas and know exactly what blocks them or makes their tasks harder than they need to be.

Kanban can have a very beneficial impact on your team:

Kanban needs the right metrics

Kanban as an optimization tool works only when it’s paired with metrics. Tracking simple things, like the time it takes for an idea to become a gameplay feature, helps with seeking improvements. Improvements that are, you guessed it, measurable. Otherwise, you won’t really know if you’re actually enhancing the production process or not.

According to Clinton Keith, one of the leading voices when it comes to applying different Agile methodologies to game development, what helps with capturing the right metrics is visualizing the value stream. To put it in simpler terms: look at every step of building your game before setting up a Kanban board.

In his GDC talk in 2013, Keith showed what it may look like:

Visualizing the value stream helps with capturing the cycle time. Keith also underlines the importance of taking into account parts of the process where the actual work isn’t done. In the example above, that’s the two “approval” blocks, where your team waits for an asset or a feature to be greenlit and doesn’t actually do much.

Suffice to say, it all adds up to the overall cycle time and can have a significant impact on the process

There's more on the way

We hope that this guide has given you a new perspective on building and leading an effective game development team. That said, we haven’t dealt with all the questions and uncertainties by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s worth repeating that in its essence, building games – just like any piece of innovative and original software – is all about dealing with the unknowns. Sure, the longer you do it, the more you know. But with time you also look for more opportunities to introduce tweaks, improvements, and boosts in order to make the whole process more efficient and less frustrating for everyone involved.

That’s exactly why we created this guide in the first place, and that’s why we don’t want it to end here. We’ll be updating it with new contributions as well as some of our own latest findings and insights.

Expect even more practical tips on:

If you think we’ve missed something important or want to share your experience with other game producers and leads, feel free to get in touch and help us grow this guide even further.

Until then – keep making great games with great teams and make sure you never stop enjoying it.

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