Starting small, growing your business – and sustaining it
Ian Baverstock: You tend to just want to grow as you’re taking in more money and making more money. But what happens is that you realise running one project is very risky. A key growth point for any developer is to go from one project to more than one. But it’s an entirely different ball game.
For Kuju, having multi-site studios has come about because the key driver to grow the business is to find the right senior people. Talent is the key driver for the business. We’ve found ourselves endlessly trying to interview who wouldn’t want to come to our office in Guildford even though they wanted to work with us. The natural step was to therefore set up a new studio – it was entirely opportunistic. I think there s a strong site for one site, as there is more you can do in one place and its cheaper I guess. But our new model of specialisation actually empowers each studio to be separately managed.
Chris Mottes: Teams on a single project have grown, from when we started with 10 to 15 people on a project to now when a single next-gen team is closer to 50 at its peak. Everyone has to be really skilled in development from all sides now – you can’t have a programmer employed that doesn’t know what the animator is doing, but you could get away with that in the old days. That itself has driven growth.
The fact of the matter is that we are a very immature industry with no constants – publishers constantly change their strategies. The deal you do is often with a single person in a publisher and if that person leaves you can lose your deal. You can be in the middle of a huge project – you’ve just hired a lot of staff – and then the publisher cuts the project, leaving you with lots of employees and no income. If you don’t have that second project to put people on, even if you have to fund it for a few months yourself, it’s too risky. Like Kuju, we were on a path to creating a second site, but in a lower wage country. Denmark is in no way a cheap place to make games. We were just about to start that at the beginning of this year with a really big publishing contract that was pulled at the last minute.
So a lot of growth is opportunistic. When you’re running a games company You have to be dynamic, and not be too scared off by the fact you don’t know what’s going to happen next month.
Offsetting the inherent risk of independence with other skills
Guillaume de Fondaumiere: It would be easy and flattering to say that we are balancing the risk of our studio with our motion capture operation. But it’s not – we have a motion capture studio that is closed to third parties two thirds of the time as we’re often working on our own games and doing R&D. We acquired a mocap company purely because we need them for our own games. We are servicing it out to others because it of course helps.
Quantic Dream is probably a step behind Kuju and Deadline Games. We have just one game team. We probably could have moved to two projects; previously we were pitching two next-gen games, and fortunately and unfortunately we only signed one.
Fortunately because each project carries a lot of risk, and talent is scarce. Quantic Dream’s philosophy has been to hire predominantly senior staff as it’s hard to develop a game and train people at the same time. So our strategy was to raise the profile of the game by working on one big game – so it’s only recently that we have started moving towards two projects.
When you’re a studio, it’s sometimes hard to decide if you want to do more of the same or if you want to multiply your skills into separate entities.
From day one we are developing technology from the off – in some respects that’s stupid, as for Fahrenheit we made a multiformat engine that was only used once. But it helps give us choice for the future.
The pitfalls of growth
IB: There is no question in my mind for Kuju that we have been through the phases of having teams that we were trying to make antonymous without letting them go. One of the things we did wrong early on was not letting those senior people be in charge. It’s very hard for anyone to manage anything without authority and responsibility. Everyone in games development is very passionate, but they don’t get detached – it’s hard to detach yourself from something you’ve built. I think the senior people at Kuju, myself included, had to learn to let the people below us get on with things without our interference.
CM: The most challenging things for us has been the burning desire to be independent and not give up our IP rights. A lot of people employed at Deadline came to us wanting to be a developer of original, independent entertainment. Coming from TV I had absolutely no respect for the idea that in games the IP is owned by a publisher just because they fund it.
[As Deadline grew] we were betting on the market changing towards the developer because the games are getting more expensive to make. But it hasn’t happened yet. That’s been a very challenging situation as it makes your staff hard to motivate in the right way.
Fostering growth from within but without breaking what works
GDF: We’ve all had this experience that some people in the staff had the potential to grow in the structure, but you also want to be very careful with that because you often have people who are skilled and show strength, but the minute you put them in a management position it somehow dissolves. A good artist isn’t necessarily a good manager. I’ve had on a number of occasions offered people the chance to grow, but in six months had to turn back or lost them because it didn’t work.
On the other hand before looking to grow your business and hire new managers you should look at your own team and se if the people you do have are good for the job. But there is risk in doing that as I say.
IB: It isn’t necessarily true that everyone on a team has to be a manager to feel empowered. But if you can involve people in the process of acknowledging what might be needed to help that team those people will admit where help is needed. People who are skilled technically are hugely important – but I would hope they also acknowledge that a range of people, perhaps for business skills or people skills, are needed alongside them to help. And it works both ways. It’s just as much of a danger that you make sure your business people don’t think they understand artist, or you have a technical officer that thinks he understands or could manage a business.
How publisher attitudes change towards studios as they grow (prompted by an audience question by Rebellion’s Chris Kingsley asking if publishers treat bigger companies ‘more like grownups’.)
IB: One of the reasons we are specialist is because you can’t be a jack of all trades these days. Another is to empower the staff at those studios. But the other key reason is that now publishers talk to our individual studios; previously when we were all called Kuju publishers only wanted to speak to one person. That has changed now. It’s a lot to do with how you present yourselves. We say a lot of things about publishers not taking things seriously, but sometimes developers are guilty of the same mistakes.
Keeping in tune with staff morale
CM: If you don’t have that radar built in you shouldn’t be CEO. It’s just something you do. You walk through a room and should know straight away how people feel. Of course you have employee reviews, but your HR people should be telling you things you already know or have learnt by sitting with them at lunch. It’s the different between a good and bad CEO.
GDF: When you’re up to around 40 or 50 people that’s around the time you start hiring people to address issues like HR management directly. You can manage it yourself up to around that number. This is something any company plans on growing should do early as possible as the time involved and what it costs to grow is important. The first thing I would do if I was to grow a company would be to early enough hire someone to monitor that growth from a HR perspective.
IB: To keep track of all that we have staff surveys, anonymous surveys and also do exit interviews if someone leaves – people leaving your company tend to be remarkably honest.
Tips for growing your company
GDF: Don’t rush. I had a discussion with David [Cage, Quantic Dream’s founder] recently about this very fact - are we growing fast enough? You have to be carefully because it is all about vision and the capacity of your team. I had a manager that said you are never faster than the slowest man in your team. I think you have to grow your structure and the people at the same time and not overstepping.
IB: My experience is that this industry grows quickly and doesn’t tend to stand still. So it’s a sensible strategy to constantly reassess what you are doing.
CM: The other point I am aware of is to never underestimate the intelligence of your employees. Because of the work we do they are incredibly clever. You can’t hide anything form them – they will work it out anyway. Don’t pull the wool over their eyes or you will lose them. Involve them in those changes and they will stick with you.