Creative Game Development – How We Do It At BioWare

by danhon

Creative Game Development – How We Do It At BioWare
Dr. Greg Zeschuk, General Manager, BioWare Austin and Co-Founder, BioWare

There were supposed to be two of us, Ray and I present together. I’m not sure wh there’s a picture of Willie Nelson behind him, but he’s playing poker right now at the WSOP and he’s just made it to day 5. We were assuming that if he would lose then he would come talk. Wishing his best, he’s sending his regrets. He’s happy his game’s going well.

I’ve always wanted to write this: making games is hard.

What this talk is about is ways to make games easier. The other thing was I saw Louis talk, he was talking about the environment for making games, it’s harder, but there’s lots of opportunities. How do you take advantage of that situation. What we’ve done at BioWare, we go back to the people, the teams, they’re the solution. This talk is about culture, good development culture, positive company culture, decisions consistent with your culture. It’s our secret and how we’re successful.

Culture, from wikipedia:
Shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterise an institution, organisation or group. It’s how you operate, function, culture drives your organisational group. It’s illusive, fragile, difficult to manage. When you do something wrong it can really devastate and damage it.

So I’ll talk about BioWAre, I’ll whip through that, talk about how we did it over the years, we’ve been in business technically 15 years, but operating 17 years, things we’ve learned, some of the decisions, the things we’ve learned along our life as a company, the testing we did aggainst our culture, some thoughts on the future. We’re at a brave new world right now and somet of the things we might consider going forward, the next big thing, the whole triple A console development business.

So, who are we? We started in Edmonton, Canada. INteresting about tax breaks. I know CAnada gets paitned with that, in Alberta, there aren’t any, there never were any, they just care about oil and cattle. It’s a regional thing in Canada. There are tax breaks across most of Canada now, it’s been interesting for us, we’ve watched from afar, the disturbing thoughts – why don’t we get anything, we do have a nice tax regime, but it doesn’t apply to us directly like breaks or credits. We’ve sold about 25m games since our inception in 1995, we’ve sold around the same number across most of our titles, that’s one Modern Warfare 2, but that’s scary and the reality of our business. We’ve launched successful franchises like Baldur’s Gsate, Neverwinter Nights, and later Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

So yesterday, Louis joked they sold three times. We’ve only done it twice. Ray’s SVP at EA, I’m running BioWare Austin. We’ve got 4 locations, there is one in Montreal, Austin, DC – we joined up with Mythic – and in Galway, Ireland a new studio. We still make products people are excitd and passionate baout.

This is a quick headcount ramp. I won’t go into too much detail. It goes linear. From 95 to 2007, the approximate timing of our titles, it’s flattened out now, but across all studios about 800 people across 4 locations. This mystery one turned into Dragon Age 2.

This is the metacritic slide, we pay a lot of attention, some say we’re obsessed with review scores, Mass Effect 2 is our highest game ever, 14th overall, we’ve got about 6 games in top 1%, everything in top 10%. We had to deliver quality. That’s one way to compete. From a personal perspective, all of us, we strive for that continually, we’ll see how that fits into values and culture later. We’re on a never ending mission for quality. So latest large-scale projects DA:O and Mass Effect 2, SWTOR, and BioWare Mythic has three ongoing online games – Ultima Online, DAC and WAR. They manage those on a worldwide basis. That’s reflective of a transition – online service oriented business rather than boxed product, so they educate the overall group.

So, secret to success. It’s not super complicated. This part is always interesting, it’s always very common-sense oriented. You get people together, you get something they feel is a worthy project, support them in collective goals – one of the things I joke about is we generate no revenue, I don’t do anything, I suck moeny out of the system, it turns a lot of orientation of management – management is a support role. The other one is don’t compromise the long term for short term gain. This is difficult, ahrd to manage. If you’re going out of business next month, you’ve got to do things you’ve got to do. Today’s business, that’s more poignant. I’ll talk about how we did that over the years.

We never started out thinking about how to build our culture, these steps ultimately formed our culture. We did it, didn’t worry about how or why, but then we started documenting it and talking about it with our employees. We used to talk about GDC a lot, we’d talk 10 years ago, we’d talk about structure, this isn’t really a secret. The challenge is living your values. SO really if you develop a strong culture, people and grow with it, you can be successful. There’s no best culture, you can have a whole bunch of different ones, but you have to find people who fit into it, who believe in it and support it. Develpoing a strong culture isn’t easy, there’s some simple steps that I’ll try and touch on.

So one thing we did which was interesting was because we were actively growing, we’d do a company orientation. Right now, it’s a slide deck and a talk. I went back to it over the course of this, you can see how it evolved. We started doing this in 99, then 04/05 we had this set deck, it was a blueprint, core values, practices, but it was interesting that it was a dialogue trying to explain to new people coming in largely drove how we define ourselves. Another thing was that we would talk about it openly. We’re like a broken record player, Ray and I, that started permeating, it made it happen. They actually did start hearing and sinking in.

In 2004, here’s a presentation that we would give our companies about how culture worked and how we could all affect it.

Some slides:

Goals, Values, Systems, Structures, People, Culture
We always debated goals and values. We debated what you’re striving for. Are you making money, making the best games, how do you do it, do you do it by being honest, working hard. We debated which came first. It’s immaterial, the key thing is knowing what they are.

So the triangle is the other aspects that you have to design. Structures are how you organise your teams – silo, matrix. People – who’s in the company, who makes up the essence. Systems are policies, rules. And finally, all those things create a sense of culture.

All these things have to exist in an environment. We really – we’re in this world where the business and development environment is changing, it will change all those other things. So how do you change it?

An example: we were largely matrix based and say we wanted to go to silos. Say let’s go entirely along Mass Effect and then Dragon Age. The company would suddenly change, things would be different. Structurally, that would start sending reverberations. And then boom your culture’s different. Any structural change you make changes your culture. So now it’s a yellow colour.

When you change culture, people change. You hear that people at companies are there because they like what they do, they’re passionate, they’re engaged, they leave when the company is incongruent. We saw this over time. We got to 60 people, it was hunky dory, we got to 100, there were a whole set of people, founders, original people, too big, too complicated, they all left. It wasn’t a bad thing, they weren’t consistent with the culture we were developing, and we’re both better off without each other, it didn’t make sense of being the company the way we were develpoing it.

And finally systems. As we grew, we’d have one-off processes for holiday time, project credits, we’d do it each time. Eventually you get to the place around 150 people you systematise and you write them down. THis was a – structurally – doing things differently.

When everything’s changed, you have to think about goals and values. You re-evaluate, is it the same company.

Just a general thought. This last slide. You think of it as a game designer. Openly discuss it with people, discuss what you want to be, create the exact structures.

So how we’ve done this is our core values. We would repeat these over and over again. It was pretty early, we wanted a good place to work and to create good games. We started putting language around that. In retrospect, that was the smartest thing we did. The how, but the what was clear. This was 10 years ago. They’ve evolved over time. I’ll talk about how we made changes, new people coming in, environmental changes. Something we focus on as a key tool.

Quality in our workplace
Quality in our products
All in a context of humility and integrity

Sometimes you see big pages of stuff. We went for simpler stuff. You can look at these and have a good idea.

Quality in our workplace. All the aspects you imagine. Work/life balance, growing and learning, people in the games business want to be exposed to new things, one of the dangerous things you can do as a business is to pigeonhole people, people want to be engaged. We imagined the concept of waking up on monday morning and you run to work or do you haul yourself out and you’re unhappy? Another thing was team-oriented talent, rather than individuals. Especially as games got larger. teams got more important. The primary benefit – this is for the employees.

Quality in our products – delivering the best story-driven games int he world. Event products, community and a trusted brand. We wanted to do the best, not rest on our laurels. Mass Effect 1 to 2 is a huge evolution, people knew we could’ve just done it with the same feature set, but we thought we could improve it. Back in the Elevation days, we’d talk abotu event products, community is something we’ve always done, it entails product and brand. The benefit is the fans.

Entrepreneurship – We didn’t have this for the first 10 years. Intuitively when we were small, we had this naturally. Did what you could do for every dollar, every success. A new senior guy came from the business software side, he was flabbergasted we didn’t have a way of expressing this. So we turned it into being part of a bigger studio. Achieving and exceeding metrics, financial success and profitability, being the best investment in our industry. This is the thing as part of EA you put a dollar in you get more than one out. So the primary benefit is our investors. So we made it a value. The key differentiator in our case is that at the time we were independent, all the employees held stock, it was to their benefit to be smart. The right financial decisions every day.

All in a context of humility and integrity – not a core value but an underpinning. The funny thing about it – integrity is pretty obvious, honesty, reasonableness. BUt we had this debate about what humility is. Some people think it’s a position of weakeness, it’s not that at all. It’s the realisation that you’re only as good as your next game. You always have to be striving, open, take feedback. We’ve made our games simply by press, fan feedback. They give you a blueprint, you have to weave through it, you can not get indignant about people criticising you and you can improve what you build. There are people within the company that have problems with us who have that. That’s something we believe really strongly.

Cultural consistency: one way to do this, it’s funny in retrospect. We designed the company using values as a guide. This one is the traditional quality, resources, time for project managers. The idea of scope was a problem. It wans’t quality and scope weren’t the same thing. So it was the QS=RT quality and scope = resource and time. If you ever felt it was out of balance with our products, then you have to raise your hand. If we’re trying to do the impossible, which largely happens in the games business, then we’ll try and deal with it. We try to teach people this is always making sense.

So Employees at top focussed on resource and time, customers foussed on quality and scope, investors focussed on everything. Then there’s a sweet spot where everyone’s happy. Arguably this should be a venn diagram where veerything’s small but you can’t fit all the text in there. This should be rational. If you’re really being reasonable, then you get to a place where everyone knows the score and it makes a lot of sense as a business.

Another one – the matrix. We are organised by matrix. Project and department. AProject director, exec producer. Lead in each discipline. We organise that against core values as well. Project core value is quality of product. Run by project director. Departmentally, it’s run by a department director, functional excellence, not by projcet work but overall scope, and quality in the workplace and taking others into consideration.

Everything affects culture. We moved to scrum in the last few years. Everything changes culture.

Interesting learnings – potentially culture changing events. Joining EA was interesting. EA is a large company, we’re a good sized developer, we’re quite mature, almost 15 years of tinking, when confronted with the giant behemoth of EA, we knew where to keep the interface points and how to keep BioWare culture and deal with EA culture and manage it. Over time we learn how the company works and how you interact with EA. Now we’re in the third year and we’ve got it kind of figured out. It’s any relationship, you put time and effort into it. `There’s times where we’re incongruent. If you’d ask me 10 years ago, I’d say no, impossible, but not we do seriously see ourselves as part of EA.

Next was greenfields. Austin was a studio we created about 3.5 years ago, and it was one of those situations – greenfielda nd you build something there. We created the studio from the ground up in the image we built up, an the right local partners. So culturally we had this new concept of this distant studio, we used this the next time, they’d say – hey, you’re giving out Edmonton T-Shirts, where are our t-shirts? It’s important for Austin to feel like they’re part of the company too. It’s fine having a different culture, thy’re in Texas vs Alberta, all these things are unique.

That’s where it became interesting with Mythic. We had to be very cogniscant to integrate them and work with the teams there, very relationship based. Bringing groups together, personal relationships in place and driving the success of getting together.

So, how do you do it?
Five steps on how to evaluate and change your culture.

1. Take an inventory of your culture, understand what you are, and be honest. Take an honest inventory. Be honest. It’s valuable.

2. Decide what kind of culture you want. There are a lot of options. You can start changing the structure. You can be flower children, sports team, military squad or American Office.

3. Think abotu your structures and proceses, are they consistent with your cultural goals? Do you want sharing teams, do you want policies in place to be open? A whole spectrum of things you can do – open book accounting through to super secretive. Decide where you are and express it.

4. Start adjusting processes, policies and structures so they align with your cultural goals. Be aware that you may need different people. When you get to 300+ people it’s hard for everyone to know everyone.

5. Be vigilant, re-check, ask the people – do something crazy. We’d sit down with a bunch of people sliced across the year they started, they’d have different perspectives. They needed different support. So ask people, talk to them.

Why bother?

Happy and engaged game developers make the best games. if the team’s hapy, they do better work, there isn’t a best culture, it’s all about fit, good developers are mobile and will select for teams that fit their disposition and this is one reason why consistency is important. People will pick one culture and stick with it.

Some specifics. Balanced needs of individuals and the group. You can get bigger and lose the individual, we’ve tried to not do that. Individuals are important in the games business, Long-term view raher than short term and never compromising. In the first few years, we were weeks away from no salary, we’d take risks. You have to stick with principles and make difficult decisions. as much as possible, taking risks and pushing hard. Being consistent, they don’t like you flipping things around and changing rapidly, we did it on a gradual basis, but also individual responsibility and autonomy. They got it, they learned the culture. True teamwork, scrum is interesting is that when teams got big, responsibility and autonomy fell away, doing standups, showing your work, wht you’re doing gave group responsibility and stronger bonds in the team. Shifting around leadership and ownership, giving people – changing hats of who’s in charge.

Decision making – using core values to drive out decision. Assing people based on project preference, picking projects based on team preference and passion and performance management with compassion and striving to always be the best investment. The team picked Star Wars, but they were involved in the process. Performance management with compassion – generally when we bring someone in, we do so for the right reasons and if they’re not succeeding it’s not just because they’re a bad person, we’d take flack for second chances, third chances, well documented and firm, but 50/50 half the time people would fail or would become the most valuable, we helped them out of a rough pathc. Always striving to be the best investment. Always doing big magnum opus games, but trying to do the best with it.

Doing the right thing – triple A console is now bad. The current development climate is simultaneously dangerous and full of opportunity. We build these gigantic games. The triple A market is changing and it’s a goal-setting exercise, if you can get the money, people, contracts, then it’s pretty good. But otherwise it’s a pretty bad goal. Striving to do AAA console development right now is the wrong goal for most developers. The opportuntiies there are narrower and narrower, it’s turning into Hollywood blockbuster, at some level, innovation and risk taking is disappearing on the publishing side. There are exceptions, but they cost a lot of money.

This si the interesting thing – the hit driven thing. The middle’s dropped out, the bottom’s dropped out. The top 10 are the only ones who’re making money. Count right at that top. There’s a huge opportunity there. ONe of the things I’ve enjoyed seeing is the elder developers retrenching into smaller teams to things they’re more passionate about, micro groups that are good and self-sustaining and quite successful.

So what’s working? Going direct to consumers rather than retail. Retail still works but it’s going – it’s always down every year, you can’t just blame the economy. Really it’s about online. Yeah, we do Star Wars, all over the space. Teams and different talents. Figure out what you can build. Ask them what they want to build, what they’re passionate about. Online games of all shapes and sizes. I used to be Group Creative Officer and all this stuff was amazing. Browser based games, flash games. Not with hundred person teams, but there’s money there.

What have we done? We’ve done some FaceBook stuff, we did an iPhone game, it wasn’t the best one, you ahve to iterate. The team did some games that were never released that were way better. You never have success with first or second, but your fourth? Yeah. Large-scale MMO, small scale MMO, that’s the future. Triple A console will be continued, but we’re going to explore. That’s passed. The future is new businesses that are starting up.

Different teams, different cultures. Intimate teams have a stronger team passion. Very scaleable. If you want to team up with other groups you can do that. It’s still competitive. These smaller teams can be more fun. It’s a stronger group. That’s what we’re trying to do inside BioWare. even inside our giant teams. Stuff you’ll see in the next yrear that shows what we’re doing there.

That’s it. It’s been a whirlwind. Culture’s important. Goals, values, it’s an open thing. Make sure it doesn’t evolve by itself. Once you’ve got something you like, protect it.