Why do some companies succeed where others fail?

[This is the first of three articles based on a talk I gave at Game Connect Asia Pacific 2011, titled Working with Humans. You’ll have to imagine the emotive flailing and hilarious technical difficulties that are the standard with my presentations. EDIT: Part 2 is up!]

Why do so many projects in games and animation end in debt and tragedy?

And what’s different about the companies that are consistently producing  successful products, one after another?

Game Developers, Valve and Halfbrick; Animation studios, Pixar and Weta; these companies have survived and thrived through a decade of tumultuous industry change. They’re known for creating beloved and genre defining experiences, and they do it time and again without falling victim to the burnout and project bloat that seems so common in our industry.

What are they doing that’s so different?

 

I first started getting obsessed with this question back in 2008

There I was on another project crunching 7 day weeks, working till midnight. This was the third company in two years where I’d been hired to help crunch a project through to release.

Each time it was the same damn thing: one maybe two years lost at the beginning of the project due to abandoned tools, undeveloped pipelines and key staff turnover. Now we’d be at the end of the pipe with most of the project getting shoved through a “just-get-it-done!” funnel  by nervous new-hires and panicked production managers.

What was so intriguing about this cabaret of productivity was the blithe acceptance of everyone involved – just business as usual.

The negative implications were obvious to everyone. Most of us had lost friends and seen relationships fall apart over the course of those productions. The studios couldn’t afford to keep anyone on after project finish so we were all struggling under the specter of unemployment.

And gambling the project’s fortunes on public whimsy after taking such a huge financial loss? Well, that’s just how it’s done, you bet everything then pray for a win.

Where were the widespread revolts? Where were the credible advocates for change? Why was no one publicly fighting these assumptions and where was their alternative solution?

There’s the kicker. No one has one. When all your experience teaches you that this is just how things get done, that everyone does it this way, you don’t have a frame of reference for change – you can’t see how it could be any different.

But there must be something the Valve’s and the Pixar’s of our industry are doing that we can replicate? With each subsequent release they generate enough revenue to fund the next project, they’re not scrambling to pay off investors. They’re turning exceptional people away at the door, not struggling to find decent staff at the last-minute.

What is it about the way they approach production that results in such a rewarding experience for developers and customers alike?

And is it something we can learn how to do?

I started looking for as much information about those studios as I could get my hands on, reading articles and emailing staff. I bought up and chewed through Amazon’s top rated business books, signed up for classes on business development and eventually changed careers to get my head around how similar industries approach project management.

I expected to find streamlined development processes, marvels of modern entertainment construction. What I didn’t expect was for the answer to be so simple, so small that these consistently successful companies take it for granted. I was convinced that there must be some strategy, some formula to success that it took me three years to finally spot the keystone variable.

 

Hidden in Plain Sight

Look at the way a company operates, how it goes about the business of making content, and try to decide which element is the most likely contributor to success.

There is an awful lot to choose from:

Production Processes:

Could the key to lasting financial security be the variety of great IP generated through Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnights? Or does Valve’s cabal culture of shared leadership hold the secret to managing a winning project?

Systems and Tools:

Pixar’s rendering and animation tools created the blueprint for how shots are produced in the animation industry, is proprietary software that significant? But then compare that to Irrational’s triumphant return from 2k after establishing Bioshock as a new standard of experience, and they attribute much of the game’s visual quality to the use of Epic’s Unreal Engine.

Superstar Staff:

John Carmack is the genius behind id software and responsible for some of our industry’s greatest advances in graphics processing, is it the superhero developers that make a company successful? Then how do you explain the enormous success of Super Meat Boy and Bastion? Games produced by talented and passionate individuals without the notoriety of celebrity.

Pouring through postmortems, emails, and after many late night conversations with developers: I found myself constantly amazed at just how VARIABLE all these variables could be!

There is such variety in the way successful companies craft great content; and each of these digital alchemists seem to have generated their own recipe.

But to consistently deliver a delightful experience, there is one core ingredient required to fulfill the recipe, isn’t there? One ingredient without which you could create nothing at all.

People.

That’s the stunningly simple answer I found. People talking. Working together to make something wonderful for the enjoyment of others.

What each of these great companies have, what they prioritise so naturally, is people openly and honestly talking about new ideas; talking about solving problems; talking about better ways to make games.

Now, look carefully at the companies that struggle; the companies that folded; the games that failed. Projects crunched to death, budgets bloated beyond recognition. Look at the companies that are currently suffering that same slow wasting disease and you’ll find another commonality:

People aren’t talking.

They aren’t talking when bad ideas get implemented, resulting in enormously expensive commercial tragedies. They aren’t talking when they notice glaring inefficiencies that could push development back by months. They aren’t talking about better ways to work or manage their time.

They certainly aren’t talking when they have great ideas for new content.

If the culture of a company is built around the free exchange of ideas and information, then great work gets done quickly by impassioned individuals equally driven by a need to see that company succeed. And if this is the most common feature of great studios in our industry – then why don’t we see it more often?

Why do so many people find it so hard to talk, to speak up, precisely when it is most important that they do so?

[In the next article we’ll dig into the science behind why talking doesn’t happen at crucial moments; and share tools to patch social programming in an established studio.]

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8 Comments

  1. Awesome, I look forward to reading more. 🙂 

  2. Excellent. I have been barking up this tree for years. Communication on inter-personal, company and industry levels are all critical.

    • Ah so much! And most of us seem to know that and appreciate the importance of it. 

      It’s also really hard to do if the company culture hasn’t been built around it from the start! 

      David Edery gave an amazing talk last year at GCAP about developing a great company culture and how important it is to create a workplace where people feel safe to discuss difficult issues.

      Next week I’ll be posting the tools that have helped me manage projects and navigate extremely difficult conversations. 

  3. “People”. Same phrase was uttered last weekend in a conversation I had with a friend.
    Great article.  Communication, mutual respect, trust, etc. all those good things are so important to a successful business. Building good relationships with all the external stakeholders too.

    • Building relationships has to be one of the skills I’ve found myself most thankful for over the last decade.

      You never know who you can help or who can help you. And you never know who you’re going to find yourself doing your best work with!

      You’re absolutely right about mutual respect and trust. If a team has that it can overcome anything. Going to go into more detail on that in the third installment! 

  4. omnomnom, enjoying this content xD

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