Video Game Management and Radically Rethinking Compensation

The incentives video game companies dangle to make us productive - options and bonuses - are an insult to creative people. 

Every video game company wants to motivate their game developers to get the maximum creative juice and effort out of them. It's in everybody's interest to incentive game developers to great work. But the funny thing is that incentives don't work.

Let me repeat that for the dimmer light bulbs in the back of the room.

When lab coat science types study motivations and incentives for creative people, they are proven to simply not work. I know, it's hard to swallow. You want your creative game designers to produce measurably poorer work? Offer them a bonus.

Maybe the only reason the game industry succeeds at all is our "bonus schemes" are so haphazard, they are the next best thing to non-existent.

Don't get me wrong - I like money. I use it quite frequently in day-to-day life. I want you to fairly compensate me. I would like to enjoy the fruits of my labor when a game is successful. But money doesn't mean anything on its own - I just want it to buy happiness. I could make twice as much money outside the game industry if I'd gone into finance or insurance or law. But I'm a creative person - I choose to work in the game industry. So why don't you reward me in ways that I would actually appreciate?

As a company, we want to incentivize game developers. And we use the thing a company values most - money - to do it. But there are many different ways to "spend money". Like they say, "time is money". We could 'incentivize' creative game designers in numerous ways - but we won't. We won't because as companies we are conservative. We are lazy. We refuse to innovative. We will only do what's comfortable and familiar - as opposed to doing what will actually produce results.

Fundamentally, despite the fact that we produce game products, most companies are run with exactly the same mentality as a widget assembly line - except for maybe having a dusty Xbox in the break area.

What do creative people desire?

Autonomy and Purpose.

What could we possibly do to stimulate our employee's sense of individual liberty and aspirations to some far-reaching goal or ideal? How about we start treating them like creative game developers.

Every video game company I've worked for forces its employees to sign highly restrictive Intellectual Property clauses. In other words, every company is saying my mind is their slave. My very ideas are their property. But what would happen if a company pursued the exact opposite strategy? If a company actively encouraged its employees to pursue their ideas and develop new IP? What, are we worried that I'm going to suddenly secure $15 million in funding and go make my dream game, Dangerous Badger Encounter? Even if I managed to come up with an idea so radical that the very whisper of it was worth millions, do you think I might be slightly more inclined to work with you as a company if you didn't treat me as a thief about to steal your property?

Imagine if the workplace was transformed into an incubator for IP. Sure, the company has projects and you are expected to contribute to it as an employee. What if all the resources of the company - people, knowledge, equipment, software - were at your disposal and you were actively encouraged to use your time to bring your Next Big Thing to fruition?

Google has it's well know 20% free time. You will always hear the objections to implementing such a system at game companies - "we can't afford that hit to productivity". But you can afford scheduling an endless series of pointless status meetings? You can have a dozen highly paid professionals sitting around waiting for a meeting to start? You can derail the entire development process and bring a halt to production because of management bottlenecks? That you can afford? So then, you don't mind wasting time - you just want to be the one to decide to waste it.

One of the attractive ideas of the much-hyped Results-Only Work Environment is that you suddenly make people's time precious. You incentivize them to get work done quickly. This is something every freelancer learns when they get paid for projects and not their time. So imagine if you said "once you complete your Company Project work objectives, employees are free to use the remainder of their time to pursue any other project they care about".

What about growth and learning? A lot of companies have libraries and classes - but let's be honest, they are half-assed at best. Compare your company to Pixar University or EA HQ's library and see if you truly measure up. And what if a company's executives considered it their mission to foster the growth of their people? If it was their job to mentor, teach, guide and encourage the next generation to fulfil their dream of releasing a triple-A console version of Dangerous Badger Encounter?

In other words, what would happen if we radically re-thought what the work environment was. What's if it wasn't a goddamn digital factory with creative game designers churning out games on an assembly line? What if instead, the workplace was a university and incubator that supported and fostered the dreams of it's creative people and partnered with them to realize those dreams?

If as a manager, you're reading this and your reaction is "whoa, that's too far" or "its impossible, it could never work with our employees" - then guess what:

You are the problem.

Until managers recognize that we are destroying the motivations of creative people and start fostering a culture of encouraging people's intrinsic motivations, all the talk of "empowering employees" and "encouraging a creative workplace" is one great big sugar coated lie.

- Sean Dugan is The Boss Monster’s founding editor and all-too-frequent contributor.

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  1. Aah, there is one major problem with the Results-Only Work Environment: we still haven't figured out how to schedule game development reliably. Crunch time is, unfortunately, still a given in our industry (although the better teams can avoid it until the end of a game dev cycle). If a company were to institute the 20% rule that Google has, and so many of us dream of, that time would quickly be swallowed up as production got more intense.


  2. ROWE is so attractive in theory - but I have yet to figure out how to implement in in a game company. If I crack that nut, I'll let you know! ;)

    Yeah, to really adopt the 20% time idea, I think you need to radically shift your entire development model. Toss waterfall and feature cramming and big crunchy milestones and get something closer to agile and continuous deployment/release early, release often. It's a huge commitment - and without out, the "luxury" of free time goes out the window at the first sign of trouble.

  3. This would be the anti-matter equivalent of Bobby Kotick's apparent management strategy. I'm curious to see how Kotick's strategy works out. He does seem to think that the video game industry is the same as a widget assembly line. Incentives that "really rewards profit and nothing else," bringing "packaged goods folks" into the management, and his oft-repeated decision "to take all the fun out of making video games" seem to point to an approach that is radically at odds with what is detailed above. Not having spoken to anyone who works at Activision, it's hard to know how much of an impact he's had on the work culture of the studios, or how much of what he says is purely for the benefit of shareholders. If the implosion of Infinity Ward is a result of his tenure as CEO, then that would be a strong indicator against his approach. (However, I'm not sure his approach allows for recognizing the value of employee talent...)

    One thing that struck me in the RSA talk was that money did matter, but not beyond a reasonable salary. This reminded me of many colleagues who talked about experiences working at companies that paid lower-than-average salaries but promised to make it up with various bonuses or profit sharing which they usually never saw. Either they were laid off towards the end of the project, or the bonuses only went to management (as there "wasn't enough money coming in"). Management always tried to use these bonuses to motivate people to work extra hours, much to the developers' triple annoyance. "Triple" because they knew they were unlike to ever see the bonuses, that management was using the (fictional) bonuses to try to motivate them, and the mistaken belief that having people work significant extra hours/weekends would somehow be more productive than normal working hours (it actually isn't).

    The other thing that struck me in the RSA talk was that even the company that was mentioned, that recognized (and quantified) how much benefit it received from letting people work on what they wanted occasionally, didn't do it more often. The inertia of "traditional business practices" seems hard to overcome, even in the face of hard facts to the contrary.

  4. Clearly game development scheduling needs to be seriously reconsidered. The presence of crunch time alone indicates a failure of management (that is, to some degree, unavoidable), but the state of the industry indicates there is a need for some radical reconsideration of practices.

    Speaking of crunch time, has anyone ever seriously studied it? I wonder how much of it is a myth. Not the *presence* of crunch time, as it is obviously rife, but the idea that more work gets done during these marathon development periods. Everything I've read indicates that the more hours worked in a day, the less productive one is during each of those hours; that the most work that can be done in a day can be done in eight hours. Why should crunch time be an exception? Given the absurd number of hours many developers work during crunch periods, I can't believe much of that time is productive.
    My own crunch experience is very limited, but in those cases I don't think the extra hours actually shortened the development time... at all.

  5. ...and I've answered my own question; crunch time doesn't work: It's another one of those out-dated labor practices every other industry gave up on decades ago when they realized it didn't work.
    The only question is why the industry thinks it does? I'm guessing it's because normal operation in the industry is so inefficient that no one notices the difference.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this. I definitely have issues with my career not offering me enough time to experiment, or enough autonomy. My creative mind starves when I don't get these opportunities. I always find it interesting how certain types of managers seem to project their own money-driven mindsets onto their employees. It's like they can't understand why someone would be motivated by anything other than money/power.