Game industry veterans discuss how to motivate developers

At the Game Developers Conference this afternoon, a panel of producers, studio heads and creative directors discussed the idea of developer motivation, and how to avoid inter-office rumors and bad attitudes causing problems while making a game.

"Once you've found the amazing engineer, you need to make sure he's working at full capacity," said DeNA general manager Ben Cousins.

Most on the panel agreed that being transparent with employees is the most efficient way to head off problems. Cousins said one of the new ideas his team is trying is making all company email visible to everyone on staff, though he noted that might work better on a team of 15 than with a larger staff. Irrational Games' Rod Fergusson responded to an audience question about how to handle an employee disappointed by not getting a raise in an annual review. He said managers should set expectations well ahead of time to eliminate surprises.

LucasArts creative director Dominic Robilliard said his team working on Star Wars 1313 holds what it calls "Gong Meetings" whenever something important happens. He or another team member literally hits a gong in the office, then everyone stands up near their desk to address the issue then and there, rather than let it linger until a formal meeting can happen.

"Once you've found the amazing engineer, you need to make sure he's working at full capacity."

"I think you have to be careful not to partner bad news with uncertainty," said Fergusson, pointing out that it's important for teams to have a plan of action when they announce bad news, so it's clear that there is a way to fix the situation.

Former Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski asked a question of the panel from the audience, wondering whether it was harder to motivate a team working on an original game or an established franchise. "It can be demotivating to have this blank slate," said Cousins, who also thinks starting new can inspire employees to work harder. Media Molecule studio director Siobhan Reddy said that after finishing Little Big Planet 2, the team would have lost people if it didn't move on from the franchise, and instead Media Molecule started development on two original projects.

As another motivator, Fergusson said that when he worked at Epic on Gears of War 3 with Bleszinski, the team instituted a "Free Friday" idea where team members took Fridays to work on an aspect of the game personally important to them rather than what their boss told them to do.

While the panel joked about buying pizza for teams being a poor motivator, some on stage offered small suggestions of what their teams do to inspire employees. Reddy noted that Media Molecule provides yoga classes and occasionally invites staff to bring their kids together for play days, while Fergusson pointed out that the perception of buying someone a coffee and a muffin as a way to apologize to them for having to work late means a lot more than offering them the equivalent dollar amount.

Though ultimately, Cousins said, if the work itself is not inspiring to the team, then superficial treats like these don't make much of a difference.

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