A Rare gift: managing creative people in games development

An excellent article by Simon Parkin has been playing on my mind recently. The article (which really must be read, if you haven’t read it already) examines the impact of Microsoft’s acquisition on the creative output at Rare. The British studio, which produced classic titles during its Nintendo-partnered heyday, is shown by Parkin to be in a state of terminal decline, with a combination of changes in industry structure, management treatment of creatives and organisational structure bringing about its decay.

Parkin’s Rare is an interesting case. The company is acquired at a pivotal moment in the industry’s development, and the resulting organisational shake-up at a time of industry shake-up proves decisive. The company simply stops making the games that made it great. Sure, the company still makes games. But not those great games.

My interest is with the creatives at Rare. Before the takeover, they were motivated and productive, a state which quickly waned after the takeover. What lessons can be learned from Rare (and other cases) about how creative people work within the games industry? What makes them productive? What makes them ambivalent?

Clearly, Taylorist views of management make little sense of the place of creative people within an organisation like a games company. It is unhelpful to think of the top-down allocation of work “units” to creatives, in that the creative outcome to a process may come at hour-3 or hour-30. Dedicating hours to creative processes may be helpful, but no hour-based productivity benchmark alone guarantees a creative outcome. The “unit” of work for a creative is an idea, not an hour.

Google has long been the example that drew respectful envy (and countless case-studies) in management circles – an environment where organisational bureaucracy was very consciously set aside, to give creatives a free hand in creating. Engineers had “20% time” to investigate pet projects (ideas were more valuable than hours). Teams would organically grow around the best ideas, and “market forces” models would ensure that the very best ideas received the most internal funding. Great products (like Google Earth) grew out of this organisational structure, and Google became “the place to work” in the industry (with associated talent retention benefit).

Do slides make creatives more productive?

But as Parkin’s Rare case study shows, simply adopting the “Google-esque” modern management techniques isn’t a guarantee that creatives will be creative, or will even want to stay. Microsoft’s lack of developer-specific knowledge results in a team which is given creative freedom (Microsoft relax conditions in the office, a la Google), but little creative direction.  The “guiding hand” provided by Nintendo is taken away, and the company’s creatives are less motivated to produce as a result.

So, how can modern management techniques improve creative productivity at a games developer? An example of these techniques employed to better effect within a games developer is Valve: the subject of a recent PA Report and photoshoot. The wheeled desks and “cabals” (project team that form organically), the avoidance of a top-down management hierarchy, and the empty project areas just waiting to be filled, are increasingly common, modern situations set-up to motivate creatives. These are the modern management techniques of a company like Google, being redeployed in games development.

But Valve go further, and fabricate the modern, creative-friendly organisational structure from very “Valve” pieces. Each room feels Valve, from the gallery of TF2 character portraits in the hallway down to the employees’ coathooks (which are chunky, metallic valves). The lobby, the work areas, the testing zones are all a testament to what made Valve games great in the past (and therefore, a creative reminder of how to make them great in the future). Is it important to “brand” your organisational environment? I’m not sure – but in Valve’s case, I can imagine it giving the atmosphere of creative freedom that they nurture a constant focus on developing great titles.

Company coat hooks at Valve (Picture: PA Report)

Valve’s heavy involvement of gaming imagery in their environment picks up on an important thought about creatives – particularly those within games companies. Creatives enjoy creating. Unlike the Taylorist pig-iron mover, who doesn’t care a huge amount for pig-iron or where it ends up, the games developer (probably) loves games. And what’s more, they probably love creating their own games, or parts of games. Which is why it makes so much sense that Valve’s office is a world of games and gaming imagery, lending it a real “by gamers, for gamers” feel.

This “by gamers, for gamers” thought is one which Bethesda recently adopted, when they called their Skyrim Developer GameJam. In letting their creatively-minded developers loose on Skyrim (the developers were given total freedom to create whatever game features they wanted to see), they were actually gamers with the deepest knowledge of their product to improve it. The results are really substantial, and I imagine will be the basis for some really exciting DLC in the future.

So what do we really know about working with creatives in the games industry (both in terms of productivity and retention)? Clearly modern management environments can be beneficial, providing developers with real freedom to develop, but also destructive – when implemented without direction. This seems to be a deep mine of industry experience, which I have yet to enter, and will likely return to in the future.

Until then, it would be insightful to hear from developers or creatives with positive or negative experiences of particular environments. What makes them work? What makes them fail?

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