Chapter 1: Leading a Team – Key Principles

When it comes to creating an effective, cross-functional team, there are many principles you need to follow. Some of them apply to choosing your team members, others to your leadership style and day-to-day communication on a project.

Let’s try to break them down.

readtime
July 5, 2022

TL;DR

The three elements of an effective team

Personality mix

This is a foundation of a safe and friendly work environment. And while it can often be hard to create a team where everyone’s on friendly basis, mixing personalities is crucial to make every team member feel acknowledged and stop being afraid of asking questions, coming up with new ideas, and admitting mistakes.

The right personality mix is also essential in creating an effective BizDevOps team. See, not every developer feels comfortable talking to high-level stakeholders. Some are more open, others will need some time to get used to their role in a cross-functional team. That’s only natural, and balancing different personality types help with mitigating similar problems.

I do believe you need to mix personalities. You can't do a team of only introverts because the planning won't have a lot of discussions. And you can’t put a team of extroverts only because you're going to have the opposite, and then you're going to have very long meetings. So you need to try to mix and match - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
Ultimately a “typical” team doesn't really exist. You could possibly have a typical team format for similar games, but every studio is run differently. I think really the key here is diversity and variety. You need to not only have the proper amount of people but also different perspectives. Many conversations in more recent years in video games have been about inclusion and making sure that people are properly represented. If everyone that's working in the industry is the same and looks the same, it's not going to lead to a very compelling game as it's all going to come from one perspective. Let's get more women in the industry, let's get more diverse when it comes to race, ethnicity, and gender representations. We want to tell stories that are representative of society as a whole so that people from all over can connect with the game - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA
When we aim to develop new game features from scratch, we create more cross-functional teams and mix all disciplines. That’s when our teams consist of not only engineers but also artists, animators, 3D artists, UI/UX etc. They’re organized in SCRUM teams or squads and work on certain specialized epics based on the type of work they do - Alvaro Martin, Studio Technical Director at Wildlife Studio
We have two kinds of programmers that we always try to mix and match because we always have two programmers per team at least. So we have what we call the extreme Go Horse programmer — he's going to kill a bunch of cards in a day, and he's super into coding. And we have the architect guy — he’s all about the structure and how the things in the code are going to connect. We always try to put those two together because the card killer is going to improve the speed of the architect and the architect is going to improve the quality of the code of the card killer. Sometimes you get it wrong. Like during the interview we get a sense the coder is going to be one way and when the person starts to feel more comfortable in the company we figure out it’s the other way around. That’s when we move people around teams, so the teams get to work smoothly again - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
I suppose in principle, it's about either compensating for or reinforcing specific behaviours. You just have to be clear about what you want to achieve with a team. When the expected outcome is clear, as well as the characteristics of the potential team members, you can choose accordingly. Depending on the ambition, in the case of a technology project, for example, it may either be a good idea to put together two neophilic team members or to pair a progressive character with a more conservative one - Daniel Stein, Senior Associate Producer at Crytek

Supporting roles

Even in cross-functional teams, nobody has all the answers. That’s why supporting roles are crucial to make the team feel comfortable and guarantee each member’s psychological safety. Sometimes they’re here to mediate between developers, designers, writers, and key stakeholders on a project, other times they make sure the project is on track.

What’s also important is the fact that by being close to the core team, supporting members can better understand each team member’s biggest strengths as well as how they complement each other. This helps with composing teams for future projects.

I’m not an expert in design, nor programming, it’s not my job. My job is to educate myself enough to understand the baseline so that when we sometimes need to get clever with scheduling, I can then either work with the leads or challenge them to come up with creative ways to make things work. I look for ways to get teams unblocked, and strive to ensure that the team has a clear path to get to where we need to be - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA
Everybody knows that project managers or producers oversee the meetings, negotiations, and all those things. But what some people forget is that the manager needs to control and literally translate the replies of the sides. You have to feel the flow of the dialogue really good to notice when the interlocutors slip away from the point. You need to identify the miscommunications because often people seem to be talking about the same thing but understand it differently. You need to be the perfect mediator to make the communication as transparent as possible. But at the same time, it's nice to be friendly and open to suggestions. And that is the hard balance to maintain - Murad Musakaev, Producer at Tactile Games
In my experience, these roles also differ in detail from person to person in the companies themselves, depending on the profile, interests, and skills as well as the specific needs of the team. And according to the project phase. And on the project itself and its requirements. In other words, the field is hard to define. On Crysis 4, which is in an early stage, I have a bouquet of responsibilities, from supervising individual employees to roadmapping or providing a communication hub, and so on.
You could compare the role in some ways with the first commander on a Star Trek ship. The captain tells the team where they want to go. The first officer empowers the team to do their job. Neither I nor the captain, that is, the Game Director, tells the team HOW to actually get there - Daniel Stein, Senior Associate Producer at Crytek

Culture fit

First, there’s a company culture fit. When an individual’s values, attitude and work ethic align with those of the game studio, they have a greater chance of becoming a happy, productive and satisfied team member.

Then there’s a matter of engineer-stakeholder cultural fit. It’s especially important for companies like us, that work with other businesses. BizDevOps is a culture of collaborative delivery and open communication, so a mismatch between your team and the stakeholder’s team can become very disruptive and weaken the strategic alignment you’ve spent so much time working out.

When composing a project team, it’s good to work closely with your HR department. They will help you assess your potential team member’s behavior, skills, and ethics, and find people with the right attitude and work ethic.

I think probably one of the biggest things to have an effective team is making sure that you have informed buy in from everyone who's participating in that structure. Processes don't work very well when they are being forced on people, when that just creates an environment where people view a process as something that is in the way of their own creativity and their own freedom and autonomy to complete their work. What's really helpful is when people are educated on why the process is there, what it's meant to help facilitate and are given the opportunity to see it actually fulfilling those needs as part of onboarding to the team or onboarding to the processes - Andrew Gomes, Project Manager at Paradox Interactive
I really appreciate experience and competence - of course. It is great when a department, a whole team, or ideally the whole company can learn from a new hire. There are roles where you definitely rely on this. But often, I am with Simon Sinek: We do not hire competence, we hire personality. Competence is something you can often optimize on the job. They say, “Diligence cannot replace talent." I think that is also right in principle, but that essentially only applies to two phases of personal development: At the very beginning, you have different starting conditions and at the very end, there is the actual mastery of a subject that probably not everyone can achieve. In between, I'd rather have a hard-working but affable person than an unpleasant master at any time - Daniel Stein, Senior Associate Producer at Crytek

Game producer - the great enabler

When it comes to game development projects, one of the key roles is that of a producer. What they do is drastically different from producers in other entertainment industries such as cinema, television or music.

Sure, they still have an impact on the overall vision of the game, but above all, they support other experts – designers, animators, writers, UX/UIs – who are the real driving force behind any game development project.

The crucial concept to understand here is the philosophy of servant leadership. Producers are the leaders who serve their teams, not the other way around. A servant leader is the great enabler: they focus on the needs of other team members, prioritize their well-being, and commit to their growth and development.

As a game producer, you need to focus on:

  • Listening to your team
  • Finding out what they need to get the work done
  • Making sure they get the help they need
  • Dealing with problems, roadblocks, and frustrations



It’s important to stay open and keep your ego at bay. Game producers don’t necessarily drive all the decisions on a project, but instead, they try to get the right people in the room so they could make them together.

On a more practical level, this means that the producers’ job is very interactive. Their key tasks are to:

  • Mediate between programmers, designers, animators, writers, UI/UX designers, developers, project managers, and project coordinators;
  • Break down the work into a sequence of deliverables, activities, and tasks;
  • Help their team achieve timelines and meet deadlines;
  • Connect their team to the right people in other teams and streamline day-to-day communication;
  • Resolve conflicts and issues.

All this requires a good amount of soft skills. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in the next chapter. There’s still one more foundation of team collaboration we need to talk about.


My role requires focus on three P’s: People, Production, Planning. Through the role as producer, I try to collect various sources and funnel to the according setups, and make sure the road is clear and understood by the very experts who will help deliver great things. I help with setting team structures, personal development, delivery, setting deadlines, making sure tickets and development is rolling, explaining why we do what we do for specific feature development deliveries (gives good time for questions to bring to decision stakeholders etc.) - Kasper Mouritzen, Producer at CREY Games
One of my main responsibilities as a producer is to have one-on-one meetings with everyone on my team because one of our core principles is that the people in the company are our focus. So we want everyone to feel well mentally. So those one-on-ones are about work, but they are also about the person's life for as long as they are willing to share the details. We truly believe in helping people out with their personal lives, because when they're feeling better, they're working without concerns on their minds. There are some people that I touch bases every 15 days, there are people with whom I touch bases monthly, but never longer than that. I also leave my inbox open to everyone who might need help, I'm here to solve their problems. Our CEO sometimes calls us the Secretaries of the team because we're there to support everyone. 
Even though  I’m at a c-level position I still like to get my hands dirty and see how the production is going, because when I'm too away, I’m not seeing how the team is working. How is the mood of the company? How is everyone feeling, how's the product going? It's harder to relate. It's not like I can’t join meetings and see what's going on and listen to the reports, but when you are there, touching bases daily, you get a better experience and understanding of things. So a big part of my job is keeping track of multiple threads and keeping everyone in the loop of everything that's going on - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
In my opinion, as a project manager (or whatever the title is) you are not only in a leading position but also a serving position. It is your duty to take care of your team’s health, morale and efficiency. You got to stay in close contact with the team. You have to make sure that they have great equipment to work with. Listen to their advice and opinion: They’ve been hired because they are pros and know their field. Treat everyone as an individual and understand their different characters, talents, attributes, and needs: Some may be working toward a promotion, but for others it may not be a reward but a burden. Also, sometimes you gotta say “no” or make a call. Best short answer I can imagine for this question is “it depends.” - Daniel Stein, Senior Associate Producer at Crytek

Team communication

When it comes to communication in game development, it’s often hard to strike the right balance. This is especially challenging in larger teams, where there are more people you need to get the message across.

Sure, your game design document helps with establishing a vision for the project and laying out its foundations, but there’s much more to creating a game than just sticking to or updating the GDD.

Iterating is a complex process and nothing is set in stone. You need to make sure that when things change (and when it comes to game development, they usually do), everyone is on the same page with new concepts, ideas, and guidelines that come up along the way.

Remember: you all want the same thing and that is for the project to succeed.



That said, here are some practical tips:

  • Always assume good intent. This may sound easy, but there’s always a good amount of frustration along the way. Trust your team and give people the benefit of the doubt and you’ll be able to listen to them more carefully.

    Hastily jumping to conclusions when facing issues is just adding insult to injury, especially when deadlines are tight and the workload is heavy.
  • Stay open and transparent. Do your best to funnel a lot of communication between producers and leads to your team to make sure they’re on the same page with current progress on the project and any potential changes.

    Weekly team meetings as well as regular AMA and Q&A sessions are always a good idea to involve your team in making crucial decisions together. You’ll also learn a lot about their problems and things that make their work harder than it should be.
  • Adjust the frequency of communication. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to planning team communication. Sometimes you’ll be talking a lot (e.g. when you discuss gameplay concepts or dwell on creative decisions), other times things will need to tone down a little.

Try to keep the right balance and avoid making the day-to-day communication too noisy so it doesn’t get in the way of actual work.

Every time I start a project I want to make a very simple communication channel, so you don't need to talk to too many teams to do your work. I think that is very important even in a small team. For that, one needs to define the roles in a very clear way. Like, who is doing what and how to announce that. I really love to adopt systems that I believe they can help and make better communication in the team to support all the progress of the work. 
The good ingredients can make good food, but I believe the tool is also important for efficiency and productivity. So in my case, building the team structure starts with focusing on the role and the scope of the project and then building up the team, making simple communication, and adapting the tools to support the team - Chris Sungmin (홍성민) Hong, Tech Lead, Backend & Tech service at Metacore
I think it is a big old bonus if someone in the team can translate tech. talk into something digestible for non-tech people. Sometimes the input and discussions benefit greatly from a shared understanding of different corners of development. It is for a good producer to identify the people within the team, to make sure there is a structure where people feel comfortable communicating with each other. Example: you don’t want a setup where a team doesn't feel safe talking with each other unless it’s at the weekly meeting or daily stand-up. A self-driven team with people who trust each other is an incredible force - Kasper Mouritzen, Producer at CREY Games
We have a very unusual thing at Rogue that we call coerced friendship. It's a friendship that you don't necessarily want to do, but you're being forced into it. So we look at each person individually and we see who is needing to talk to who and who hasn't spoken in the past and we matchmake people. We put people to talk either because they're going to be working together in the future or because they had a beef on Slack in the past. And we want them to feel good about each other because since it's all about transparency and open communication, we want people to be talking to each other. And we know that in a studio of 40 people, this is not going to happen a lot outside of their teams that are five to six people each. We believe that those bonds help with communication because once you get to understand a little bit better the person that you're working with, you can have more empathy towards them - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail
Mateusz Radomiński
github
Game Dev Partnerships Specialist
Jan Stulin
github
Editor

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