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.

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TL;DR

5 crucial soft skills for game development leaders

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

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.

We try to be very humane because we believe that we work with humans, not professionals, even though those humans are professionals. That's something that is at the core of our values. So we always take this human approach to understanding people's problems as well - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
Being personable with people, understanding what’s going on in their personal lives, how it has an impact on their work — It's about having them feel safe and comfortable. The more comfortable they are with you, the more they share and the more you can help.  In my experience, there’s typically a correlation that can be made between people feeling comfortable sharing with coworkers and their overall work life satisfaction. It's typically a good indicator - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA

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.

My conclusion is that the directive approach doesn't really work if you want self-managing teams. For example, here at Tactile, we have 280 people and only two producers. If you try to apply authority or direction to everything being done, you’ll find it impossible. You would need an army of producers to keep it moving. So for me, when I started production I used Agile and SCRUM. Then I started looking into Lean and Lean methodologies, and how it works. Now, this is what interests me, and my philosophy as a Head of Production is that I need to help people to remove all non-value-adding activities - Ruben Ramirez, Head of Game Production at Tactile Games

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 I look at the process internally and notice that, okay, our QA pipeline is not working. Then I get the QA lead, and we sit together, and we talk, and analyze, and we see what's not working. We investigate what creates impediments for people. What's creating the friction? Why is it not working? And then we talk extensively about this. Then we talk to the team leaders and producers about this and come up with a solution that works for everyone - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
When I join a team, I typically like to chat with a good amount of devs to gain an understanding of the current situation. I want to know why things are the way they are, so I either ask about their past experiences or just ask leading questions. Why does it take that long? Or why is it so quick? Is this something that has always been the case? Just to give you an example, there are some studios that I’ve worked at, where almost every asset needs to go through a very rigorous concepting phase, while others might not need that kind of workflow. Some might own their own IP, so they might not need to concept everything, while others need to go through some more rigid approvals processes. There’s always a reason for why things are the way they are, I just like to figure out if that reason is still valid or if we need to change things up - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA

Curiosity

Curiosity for the team members, their responsibilities, and processes they’ve worked out is key in being a great leader. It allows you to understand what’s going on and why does it look like this. It's absolutely crucial while joining a team. Asking the right questions with real interest helps to grasp the nuances, which, in turn, influences better decision making.

Your goal as a leader is to understand the team’s practices thoroughly, since they have evolved for an undoubtedly good reason. Qualities like curiosity and attentiveness to others also help you to make the first, solid step in building close relationships with your devs.

When it comes to character features I’m looking for, an interest in process for me personally is something that's really helpful. So that doesn't necessarily mean that the person has to be an expert at any process in particular. But a willingness to try to understand why another group does things a different way, I think is vital to being able to to join a team and integrate with the best practices that typically have evolved for good reason. It's rare that a process is in place just because. It's usually developed over time to solve some sort of problem. And it's it's really important that when you come into a space, you try to understand what those problems were and have they been solved or are they still present? Is the process something that is actively helping? Or is it something that maybe the team has moved past and it's time for a change? - Andrew Gomes, Project Manager at Paradox Interactive
It really helps to have a basic understanding of what's going on. I found that curiosity has helped me understand the processes, the workflows, and helped me make better decisions. It also helps me develop relationships with devs because they often enjoy the fact that you're interested in knowing more about what they do. They don't want a producer coming in and saying “just get it done on time”. There's nothing more insulting than that. One of the main things producers do is build relationships with devs, and curiosity really comes in handy. I've worked with almost every department in a game development team — from early narrative design and concept, all the way down to audio and localization, and everything in between. It's incredibly helpful to understand the dependencies both upstream and downstream. Otherwise you're just shooting in the dark and it can lead to a waste of time and resources. Curiosity really is one of the key things that makes a good producer. What I tell anyone who wants to get into production, is understand your dependency chain, and then strive to get better, and better, and better. You constantly have to relearn, pivot, and reevaluate - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA

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.

I think one of the challenges that does arise, though, from any sort of purely remote setup is that it is that much harder to build deeper emotional trust that you typically want to find in a team. I think a lot of folks take for granted just how important it is to having a happy and productive workspace, but you really do need to feel that you can rely on the people who are working with you, that they're not just a face on the other side of the internet who has no sense of consequence to you. So I think that's probably the biggest challenge. And so it's really important for remote teams to develop this sense of being on the same page, being in it together and having a shared sense of of ownership and contributions so that it minimizes this fear of this fear that someone is just going to bail and leave the project hanging - Andrew Gomes, Project Manager at Paradox Interactive

<blockquote>So, getting to the core of my "gamified approach": your team needs motivation and appreciation from the leader - you! To do so, you need to follow these 7 steps:</br></br>1. Talk to the team members to know their thoughts, concerns, and vision of the project. Take care of them.</br>2. Form the task in a clear and detailed way.</br>3. Explain why this task should be done and what makes this job important.</br>4. Describe how you want to see the result and leave the room for improvisation in terms of reaching it.</br>5. Set the deadlines with caution.</br>6. Make the reward clear.</br>7. Comment on the progress and give constructive feedback on the results.</br></br>The challenging task with a clear purpose motivates people to turn their brains on, approach the job in a creative way and improve the performance of the team - true story. This helps to engage employees and the engaged employee is a happy one - Murad Musakaev, Producer at Tactile Games</blockquote>

I’ve been working in Asia for a couple of years and then came to work in Europe, and I noticed the approach to hierarchy is very different. When I was in Indonesia you could see the hierarchy or if you are the boss, then you're right, by default. I remember having this discussion with five programmers and nobody told me that what I was saying was completely stupid. Even though I have a background and I can code, that's not what I’ve been doing, especially on that particular project. So I was suggesting something as more of an idea or an opinion, and they took it as an instruction, even though it was completely wrong. I later realized that there are a bunch of actual phrases used in Indonesian culture saying you should keep your boss happy. I wasn’t used to that, I mean, keeping your boss happy? Why would you do that? It's not about that, it's about being successful when it comes to the service, product, or whatever you're building - Ruben Ramirez, Head of Game Production at Tactile Games
I take my job very seriously, and I'm very driven for results. But I don't want things to feel like “you need to get me the TPS report for day 34, because otherwise the auditing data department blabla…” No. We're making games, we're supposed to be having at least SOME fun. Not everything has to be a formal template. There’s a time and a place for formality but there should always be some room to flex a little bit in terms of process rigidity. This is the games industry; we're not creating detailed Wall Street stock exchange portfolios or anything like that. We're making stuff that will make people smile and if we're not smiling at least some of the time, something's wrong. I get confused when I see people join meetings and are just always grumpy. I'm like, what's wrong with you? This is fun. Let's remind ourselves that we’re here to create fun - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA
Make sure people understand why we do what we do. Make sure it is meaningful for those who will execute on it. And if possible, make sure to share how users/customers/players react to it, to make sure the positive impact it brings is shown to the developers/teams. “What you’ve worked on is appreciated by so many people! Great work!” And then open the champagne and applaud if it was a tricky dev. cycle or falls under your celebration code of conduct - Kasper Mouritzen, Producer at CREY Games

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:

  • adjusting your work cycles and keeping them short enough so that everyone stays focused and fully informed,
  • talking your team through different goals to find out which of them they can fully commit to and find their own ways to achieve,
  • looking for ways to give people more authority throughout the production cycle,
  • allowing flexibility and maintaining open communication and bottom-up feedback,
  • creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

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.

Feedback

There’s a feedback method called sandwich feedback. It’s because the good news is the bum, the bad is the reason. I've read a lot about it and I don't like it as much, although I understand why it’s used because I see that sometimes the person might focus on the wrong thing. They're going to say, okay, so I received two good and only one bad. So it might mean that I'm doing well. But what you really wanted the person to focus and improve on was the bad one. So I don't like this approach as much because it could sometimes mask what we're really trying to convey. What we usually try to do is that we don't wait for the one-on-one to to give feedback. We like to do things as quickly as they happen. So if we notice some harsh comments going on Slack or some meeting that didn't go well for some reason, my responsibility as a producer is to talk to that person and understand what's going on and understand if there's something going on in their personal life, why they might have been rude to the other person and try to understand both points of view. Then I would get the other person that was offended and bring them together to the table and put them to talk. Because we truly believe that open communication and transparency are the way to deal with this - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
We conduct a ​​360 feedback session at least once a year. We stop the whole company for two days and we have this spreadsheet with quick questions like: What are the good aspects of working with that person? What are the aspects that this person can improve upon? And you have to answer this for all of the 40 people in the company. We usually prep people one week before and we send a spreadsheet with the name of everyone in the headline so they can start typing, and then, later on, we're going to release another spreadsheet with a link to an anonymous form for everyone. So only the person you're giving feedback to will see it. And then this person can decide whether or not to share it with the producer or someone else to work on their improvement - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
The way we organize the company, we don't really have people that supervise. Those supervisors will approve or disprove deliverables. So we use feedback as a constant thing. For instance, instead of this gate of having someone authorize your work before you proceed, we use a feedback loop where we present our work to people and see if they have any suggestions for improvement. There are always a few windows of feedback and we always try to do it proactively and enable people to understand how they can work more efficiently - Ruben Ramirez, Head of Game Production at Tactile Games
Losada ratio is a well-known concept of critical positivity ratio. I won't give you too many details, you can look it up yourself if you are interested. But the main idea is that you need not just any feedback but a precisely balanced amount of positive and negative emotions. And people with a balanced critical positivity ratio are more likely to have high mental and social health. I believe that this is an important thing when we talk about project management in IT because lots of "progressive" companies try to reduce any negative feedback to the minimum. That's fine in a short-time perspective but eventually, it will lead to a dead-end. Too much positivity can be dysfunctional because employees either get lazy or get bored. Lack of challenge leads to stagnation - that's one of the reasons why Dark Souls games are so popular - Murad Musakaev, Producer at Tactile Games

Keeping the right level of challenge

At Rogue, we really don't want people to do crunch. This is something that we despise. And despite it being quite common in the game industry, we have a virtual office where sometimes we walk to people's desks and say, okay, your time is done. Why don't you leave the office now? Because a person has already worked the number of hours they're supposed to and we really don't want people to get over-stressed or overworked - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
Mateusz Radomiński
github
Game Dev Partnerships Specialist
Jan Stulin
github
Editor

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