Sunday, April 12, 2015

Animators Hunter Grant (Lead @ Blizzard) and Tomáš Jech (Lead @ Riot) Visit CIA and Tell Us How to Poop

[Updated 4/15/2015: Factual errors corrected.]

Recently, the Cleveland Institute of Art invited professional artists to speak and workshop with the Animation and Game Design Departments. Hunter Grant, Lead Animator, of Blizzard Entertainment and Tomáš Jech, Lead Animator, of Riot Games spoke about their careers and how students can improve their creative processes. Tomas titled the talk “How to Poop.”  The following are my notes from that excellent talk. At times, I've inserted my own thoughts [in brackets] among their comments.

The talk began with each artist sharing his most current demo reel. You can get an idea of what we saw here:

Hunter’s reel was a showcase of dramatic and powerful character interaction. Each shot included lighting and VFX that interacted with the characters beautifully. Interestingly, Hunter later admitted to being a fan of the Transformers movies, and we all know how much they depend on rich VFX simulation to help sell action too!
Transformers 3 film still from

Hunter and I (Michael) have similar origin stories. If you read the bio on his site (, you’ll see that he started as an architecture student in the Midwest (Ohio), but was dissuaded from that discipline after a friend showed him 3D graphics on a SGI workstation. Me too. I was in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois studying architecture, when my roommate introduced me to the one and only computer animation class at the U of I, taught at the Beckman Institute by Donna Cox. We used IRIS SGI workstations (when 3D modeling and animation required machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars). Maya was called PowerAnimator back then. But, I digress.

I got my start as a 3D graphics professional at an ornamental metal shop in the Chicago suburbs, making fancy metal plaques with computer-guided machines. Meanwhile Hunter chose to pursue a series of animation gigs, starting at the now defunct 3DO, until landing a full-time position at Blizzard Entertainment, which he cultivated into his current position as a lead animator, within the cinematics department. The point is, nobody gets to the top level of a craft without taking an occasional risk or sub-optimal job. Even if one doesn't meet your long term aspirations, you can leverage each experience toward your goal.

Tomáš (pronounced “Tomash”) was a student when Hunter met him. In fact, Hunter knew of him before they met face-to-face, because Tomáš shared his work online. He too followed a series of jobs after school until he found a full-time position at Blizzard and then at Riot. There were setbacks and experiences that left him emotionally drained (a Pixar internship that did not turn into a full-time offer, and a Bungie contract job that ended the same way). Despite being hired at great studios, he questioned his qualifications, he feared being the worst animator in the room, and he was intimidated by the skill demonstrated by his peers, whom he saw as rivals. His negative reaction to thwarted goals, critical feedback, or the success of others, harmed his career and well-being. He learned to overcome this and dedicated his talk to helping us overcome the same problems.

As a sub-text to all this, I couldn't help but notice that Tomáš's opportunity to enter the field was greatly enhanced by his connect ion to Hunter. I may be biased, because I too entered the industry with the help of a guest-speaker at my school (Paul Zinnes, Lead Artist at LucasArts Entertainment). So during the Q&A that followed the talk, I asked, what happened to the other students that Hunter did not immediately notice? They elaborated that many of the students went on to very successful careers. The time it took varied; some graduates rocketed to success right out of school, some needed years of additional study and practice, but they all ended up in the same place – doing top-level work in a creatively rewarding environment. No matter your situation, put in the time you need to get there.

Tomáš’s demo reel clearly demonstrated his ability to bring non-traditional characters to life. Some looked like inanimate objects, but through motion, became living creatures with unique personalities. Many lacked features we normally need to empathize with a character – no face or no hands, for example. During subsequent portfolio reviews, he noted how important specificity and pose are to creating a character. What counts most is whether or not we understand the specific details that motivate a character – why it’s performing an action, what it is thinking or feeling. Also, each frame/pose should be considered important, as if you were going to make an 8 foot tall statue out of it. Don’t skimp on a pose just because it’s a transition between states.

At this point, my notes and recollection get a little muddy. The following is my attempt to sort every insight into a few categories. I may have misattributed a quote or mixed-up a fact or two, but the points should remain valid.

On Skill, Expertise, and Talent versus Work Ethic:
T: “Don't let being a generalist be an excuse for being bad at many things.” A generalist that doesn't excel in anything is not hirable.

H: Hunter personally looks for employees with a T personality – “someone with a broad working knowledge of many things, but are excellent in at least one area.” (Hunter later clarified that the notion of "T-Shaped" people appears in Valve's handbook for new employees. I looked it up and found it on Page 46. Link to the .pdf can be found here:

T: Eight hours of straight work is really, really hard; students don't actually work a full day while in school. You’re always taking breaks. Being a professional means focusing for extended periods. It’s a skill that must be recognized and honed.

H: Someone with good work ethic can out-perform someone with talent, but less discipline, in the long run, so strong work ethic is actually a very important characteristic to cultivate in oneself.

On Teamwork & Attitude:
T: It’s perfectly normal to be frustrated, but it’s important not to give into despair. Pull others out of it when you see them giving in to frustration.

T: If you are the new person, you have to make yourself part of the team’s “bubble” – it’s up to you, not them, to include you. Since you can’t be inside their heads, don’t assume they don’t want you there. If you’re stand-offish, they may avoid you because they think you want space, when the opposite is true. A room will reflect your energy back to you. For example, during a job interview, if you’re reserved and serious, the interviewers will be too. If you’re open and engaging, you’ll be treated similarly.

T: “Being rejected 20 times is no big deal, if you meet the love of your life.” So go ahead and play a fool, risk rejection for the chance to meet a kindred creative spirit. Remember, people will reflect your attitude.

Before: “Guy starts a Dance Party”
After: “Guy starts a Dance Party”

“You cannot learn this stuff and look cool.” Just make sure you’d dance anyway, even if nobody else came; a sense of success measured by external factors is fleeting -- it won't make you happy in the long run. [I’d like to add this quote from the movie Almost Famous: “The only true currency, in this bankrupt world, is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.”]

T: Even when you’re participating in an online art forum, you should remember that you are critiquing your peers, possibly future teammates (after all, there are only about 800 studio animation positions in the US); write and speak in the same voice as you would to your best friend. [This is great advice for any situation that warrants a difficult conversation.] 

“You cannot indiscriminately rag on someone’s work. You will be working with them some day.” They are real people, trying their best; your online comments matter.

T: Measure your success by the success of your peers. If a classmate finds a job at Pixar before you, great! You now have a contact there. Anyone who is part of a successful team believes that, “You are only as good as the best person in the room.”

H: [Sensitive readers, skip this point. Gone? OK.] This is very important – “Don’t be a dick.” Seriously, it’s one of the key things Hunter looks for in a potential teammate. It doesn't matter if you’re a creative genius if you’re toxic to a team dynamic. 

[Here's a quote from an article about team-building that makes the same point, “My definition of a dickhead is a person whose ambition for themselves or their own career is greater than their ambition for the project or team.” 

On Hierarchy:
T: Beware the danger of idolizing more experienced people, especially your mentors and leads. If you do, you won't bother to consider how you can help them.  If the communication between you and another person is one-sided, it’s not a genuine experience. A real working relationship is reciprocal. 

Another danger of idolizing others is that you’ll follow their input without following procedure and hurt the project or someone else by accident. For example, Tomáš spoke of the time he restarted an assignment at Pixar, because a full-time animator made a comment as he walked by. When his lead noticed that the work was behind and not what was assigned, Tomáš reflexively blamed the other animator for the misdirection, when that wasn't really the case. Tomáš simply put too much stock in what his peer thought.

T or H?: What is leadership? If people come to you with problems, you are a leader.

H: Junior artists only exist in title. Hunter expects the same quality from all his staff. They may not be as proactive or productive, or may require more input and time to create an asset, but the quality has to be consistent with the team's. So when people say that a junior staff member is someone whose mistakes can be tolerated, they are talking about their need for support and time, not a lower quality bar.

T: As a lead, we hire people better than ourselves. Tomáš admits when he is not solving a particular creative problem well, he will delegate that task to someone else – so having access to people better than you is critical. [If you’re trying to figure out what an art team is looking for, don’t compare yourself to existing work examples. Instead, strive to be better than the current standard. A team wants someone capable of making the next big thing.]

On Feedback and Criticism:
T: “All your ideas suck.” So stick with an idea and finish it. Don’t stop a project just because you think you've come up with a better one. They are all bad at some level, so maximize the educational benefit of the experience by finishing what you start. [This is the same advice Adrian Finol, senior programmer, Valve, gave to CIA GD420/320 students last semester.]

T: Know that you are wrong already. Don’t be defensive when others critique your work.

H: An example of good feedback is when someone offers an idea that helps you edit (cut down) your work; it saves effort, or simplifies your plans moving forward -- even if it means abandoning work you've already done. An example of bad feedback is a critique of your idea (rather than the work itself) after brainstorming is done. If you show an in-progress sketch of an orc warrior and someone says, “Orcs are dumb.” Finish anyway. On the other hand, if you say, “I'm thinking of drawing an orc, what do you think?” It’s perfectly fine to hear a suggestion for something else, because you haven’t started work yet.

On Adversity and Perseverance:
T: The crew members for the first mission to the moon were selected from a large pool of very talented pilots, by virtue of how well they survived disaster.

[Studios do this too – we need to see your failures. Do you fail elastically (you bend before you break) or catastrophically (you just snap)? In other words, do you communicate trouble in advance, and in proportion to your need, or do you keep a stiff-upper lip until you suddenly fail before anyone can help? Your teammates would rather support you before you miss a deadline, but they need you to give an appropriate warning. We are much more likely to forgive a failure if you do so gracefully.]
“Falling [Failing] with style” Toy Story, Pixar
T: “Learning isn't fun.” It's satisfying and worth it though.

T:  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” [Success is not the result of a single act. It requires you to repeat things over and over – learn from each attempt. Don’t stop once you’ve hit your mark, keep practicing until excellence is a habit.]

H: In a race, everyone is struggling. From first to last, finishing in any position is hard, but every participant ends up in the same spot. So don’t sweat where you are relative to everyone else.

T: Do whatever it takes to make good art; don’t just finish your homework, expand upon it, master the subject. [Bungie and Valve guys told the GD 420/320 class the same thing last semester – it’s not what classes you took, or what grades you got; it’s about what you did with what you learned afterward.]

On Creativity & Working within Limits:
T & H: Don’t blame your equipment or software for an inability to make the best work. Professional animators sitting down in your class/lab would do amazing work, even with all the problems students complain about. Real studios don’t have unlimited resources either and you’d be surprised how productive pros are with old equipment and software. 

[I had the pleasure of visiting WETA Workshop in New Zealand a few years ago and while their performance capture and model-making facilities were unsurpassed, the concept department worked with surprisingly modest resources – imagine an attic cramped with files and models, with artists working nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, yet each producing world-class concept art. The CIA labs are spacious in comparison.]

T: Here’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. If you tell them that they've been granted more time to do something, the amateur thinks, “Yes! I get time to add all that stuff I wanted!” On the other hand, the professional thinks, “Yes! This gives me time to get rid of stuff that I don’t need.” Cut your work in half. Be an executioner. It will be less effort and a better story. [This point is akin to Sid Meier’s game design rule: double it or cut it by half. This means you shouldn't waste your time on small changes. Be bold to really gain ground.

T: Make any idea work. Limit brainstorming time and set deadlines for sub-tasks.

H: Artists are innovators. Every engine has its limits, so cheat, take short cuts, and do unexpected things with technology to get your point across. As an example, how could you use a handheld camera to make a spaceship out of a pine cone? (For example, tilt and shake the camera so that pine cone, lying on its side, looks like it’s flying.)

T: “If you can only make art when you're inspired with a great idea, you won't make it.” Can you salvage or “execute out of” a bad idea? Having and implementing ideas through to completion is the only way to learn to build a good one. Professionals can make even the most challenging or uninspiring material work.

[I remember learning that Frank Lloyd Wright welcomed the most difficult building sites. Likewise, if your source material is extremely flat and boring, find a way to express it in an exciting way. If a site is chaotic and unmanageable, find a way to harmonize with it.]
The Robie House built on a flat, featureless piece of former prairie, by Frank Lloyd Wright
Fallingwater, built over a wooded waterfall, by Frank Lloyd Wright
T: An idea does not have to be original. Being specific is more important. In terms of character animation, think of the specifics of the character. For example, a completely unique depiction of anger would be un-relatable to your audience (they wouldn't know what they were looking at). Instead, ask questions that will help you understand the specific circumstances of your character. Is he is a leader of an Orc clan, or just a grunt soldier? Is he insecure by nature? What is this Orc mad about? What is he holding? Your depiction of anger may be typical (e.g. roar, scowling face), but the specifics of your character will make the animation unique and compelling. So don’t try to be original, be specific instead!

H: Also on the topic of originality: [Spoiler alert: comments about the plot of Iron Giant, Wreck It Ralph, and Big Hero 6 ahead.] Surprise, they are all the same movie, with different specifics! A giant lumbering character (often a robot) is befriended by a small child. In the end, the giant chooses to sacrifice himself for the sake of the child. If you complain about a movie being the same as something else, what you’re really complaining about is the lack of specificity, because so many films retell some basic story, but with new details.

Original film and promotional images: Iron Giant, Warner Brothers; Wreck It Ralph, Disney; Big Hero 6, Disney
T: (Elaborating on specificity, i.e. creating unique details) Dig down and ask all sorts of questions. To illustrate the point, we watched a relevant scene from the French film Molière. A man is asked to act like a horse. After some consideration, he begins to gesture wildly in a vaguely horse-like way. 
Clearly not a horse, but a man playing as a horse.

Moliere stops him, identifies details of specific breeds, and becomes each of them in turn. Even though he uses the same basic visual and aural vocabulary throughout his performance, each breed comes across as distinct and believable.
This is a horse. Specifically, a Selle Francais, haughty and noble:
T: Last, but not least – don't poop in isolation (don't create something alone). Struggle, make a mess, and share it. Likewise, if you see someone struggling to poop, don’t embarrass that person or otherwise react with disgust. Instead, squat next to your friend and share in the process. Create a mess together!

You're welcome and thank you for reading.

Hunter Grant site and blog: 

Tomáš Jech site and blog:

Link to the Bungie/Valve Q&A I referenced in a few points:

Send email questions to me at



Edited (4/15/2015): An error stating Hunter had initially taken a short contract at Blizzard was corrected, he was actually hired full time. I misheard him when he described being "loaned" to the cinematics department for a short time, but he ended up staying there. 

This post originally contained a section that compared work ethic to skill and expertise, when Hunter was actually talking about work ethic versus talent. I also conflated Hunter's personal philosophy toward hiring "T-shaped" people with Blizzard's policy. Blizzard has never stated that as their policy; instead Hunter pointed out that the idea exists in Valve's employee handbook. Link provided in the post.

Tom actually stated the differences between an amateur and a professional. The misattribution was corrected.

Image from the day added. 

Caption fonts fixed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Q&A between Game Design Students and Game Industry Pros

I recently visited Seattle to catch up with old friends at Bungie, during the launch of their latest game, Destiny. I was touched that they invited me to the midnight launch party, loaded me up with swag, and included me in the credits, even though I stopped working there in 2011. But perhaps best of all, some of my favorite artists and designers agreed to take an hour out of their launch day to meet with my CIA class via Skype. Jason Sussman organized the event prior to my arrival – he even invited his friend Adrian Finol of Valve to join. So in total, we had these fine fellows speaking (in no particular order):
  • Jason Sussman – Senior Environment Artist, Bungie
  • Chris Carney – Lead Mission Designer, Bungie
  • Steve Cotton – Staff Environment Artist, Bungie
  • Coolie Calihan – Environment Artist, Bungie
  • Adrian Finol -  (Senior) Programmer, Valve

Dummy that I am, I forgot to take photos of the event, nor did I record the excellent Q&A. So before this brilliant moment slips into distant memory, I’m going to share some of the thoughts from that afternoon. The following questions and answers are paraphrased from memory. They barely capture all the things that were asked or said, but hopefully you get the gist. I should also stress that the opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect that of any studio. In other words, they were strictly speaking from their own experience, not representing Bungie or Valve.

To get a job in the industry, how beneficial is it to work on a mod?
Working on a mod is very beneficial. Many of the professionals we talked to got their first or dream-job that way, even without college or prior professional experience. If done properly, it shows that you can work with a professional engine and it exposes you to the game-making community – visibility is key. In Adrian’s case, Valve contacted him the day after he submitted the final build of his mod, Front Line Force, to the community. Which brings us to the most important point about working on a mod: you must finish the project. Studios want to know that you can fully execute an idea; that you’ve dealt with all the problems that occur during the production of a game. Also, work submitted to an asset store (Steam, Unity, GameMaker: Studio) is another way to get noticed by an established studio.

What is the relevance of having a college degree in game design, then?
A degree simply gives you the tools to do noteworthy things. Just because you went through a college program doesn’t mean a studio can determine where you stack against everybody else who took the same courses. What will set you apart is what you did with that knowledge – the portfolio you create, the games or mods you make. In and of itself, the degree doesn’t matter that much.

Work ethic is more important than talent or experience?
This question was based on an answer Coolie gave to the question, “Work ethic, talent, or experience?” during his “Breaking In” interview on Students are always worried about the lack of entry-level positions, so can work ethic really trump experience? Yes. Worth ethic is what gives you the ability to develop your talent and build experience.  But, keep in mind you can’t easily demonstrate work ethic in a few portfolio images or during an interview. It’s a quality that you develop long term, and it has a positive impact on the scope and quality of your work.

What is the value (or danger) of spending extra-long hours on a project? On a related note, what is the work-life balance in the games industry like now, and when it is wise to burn the midnight oil?
There are several dangers. First, is the obvious risk that a prolonged period of “crunch” can harm your health and strain relationships. Second, the quality of your work will diminish. These circumstances have been understood (but not always respected) for a long time. But for students there is another risk of working that way: you misrepresent your ability.  If you can’t sustain a certain level of effort 5 days a week, all year long, year after year, then think twice about acquiring a job on that pretense.

When it comes to the benefit of extra effort, each of our guests talked about it as a personal matter. Everyone agreed, though, that having the freedom to choose when to put more hours into something you *want* to work on is rewarding. But as the industry grows up, everyone is invested in keeping the work environment professional and sustainable. It’s about passion for your work tempered with the desire to do it for the rest of your life.

When applying for a job or internship, which approach is more effective – shotgun or laser-focused?
There was consensus that one should start focused on the studios with games that you want to make. When in competition with a large pool of talent, it will be obvious who has greater interest in the company, who has more relevant ideas, and so on. Focus also allows you to prepare work that really applies to the job at hand. That said, Coolie mentioned that there is a time and place for a shotgun approach. If your preferred studios don’t have an immediate position for you, meeting a wider field of possible employers can benefit you in intangible ways. Plus, it’s important to work while you’re searching for your dream job. If taking a job keeps you healthy while you improve your portfolio and demos, then it’s a good one. Take it and keep applying.

Before I land my dream job, should I keep working on my portfolio or just get any job?
You have to eat and keep a roof on your head. So work. Everyone in the room agreed that they all held jobs while they put in the 1 or 2 years between deciding to work in the industry and landing their first gig. But even so, your portfolio should never stay static. Even while working, keep enhancing your demos, mods, and portfolio.

Advice you’d give your younger self?
Read a book. Meaning, learn from others. Trying to learn everything unassisted isn’t efficient. It may feel great to accomplish something on your own, but you grow more slowly when you don’t exploit the expertise that’s already out there.

Don’t let fears (of rejection or failure) keep you from trying the work you want to do, or applying to the job you want.

Finish something. Give yourself a limit and hit it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be seen.

So there you have it, my recollection of a pretty cool and unique interaction between game design students and seasoned professionals. To top it off, here's a picture of the class, wearing the exclusive Bungie shirts I brought back from the trip!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Does your studio have a future? Look at its business cycles to find out.

Risk and the Fate of AAA Game Studios
Recently, while speaking to game design students at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I was asked if I knew of any established AAA studios working on risky, new projects. I’ve been thinking about why my answer at the time was a firm no. Furthermore, the question has made me wonder whether or not studios, despite their current success, have a future if they are unable to change this. I came to the conclusion that weirdly interesting projects might not be necessary for AAA studios to survive, but the ability to risk the development of new businesses, at the very least, is a must. You’d be surprised how many studios cannot do this. Or perhaps not, given how many studios close every year.

First, some definitions
Business versus Company – There is a legal definition for each of these terms, but in this article, a business is activity that leads to a particular revenue stream. For example, a large business in AAA games is the creation and sale of packaged first-person-shooters. On the other hand, a company is an entity that conducts one or more businesses. For example, Microsoft owns businesses ranging from operating systems to video games.
AAA Game – Several definitions exist, some more formal than others. In this article, AAA is the label publishers and studios apply to a project they believe will be a critical success (high quality and polish), have technological innovation (graphics, gameplay features), and financial success (low-risk, high return). It must have all three qualities to qualify as AAA.  

Is traditional games development still relevant?
Html 5 and other cross-platform delivery systems are still several years away from producing games as reliable, performant, or rich as their native app counterparts. So it’s fair to say core game developers will continue to target native console and PC development for at least the first part of this hardware generation. According to the ESA’s 2014 Essential Facts report, physical retail video game sales represented 40% of 2013’s total US game software purchases; selling discs at retail is still a $6 billion dollar industry. However, the cost of doing AAA core games is reaching astronomical, perhaps unsustainable levels and developers need to know whether or not their studio is going to survive.

Still relevant, but healthy?
For dominant genres, such as shooters, we have already reached the top of their business curve. The numbers do not lie – take a look at these charts of known sales information for two popular shooter franchises. Even if there is debate regarding the precise numbers of units sold, the general trend is correct.

Call of Duty’s curve demonstrates that the business is mature and the publisher should be leveraging revenue from the business into a new one.

Halo’s trend is more concerning. Even after discounting Halo 3: ODST – due to its nature as an expansion, rather than a full release – the trend indicates that revenue has fallen since 2007. The business is in clear decline. While Microsoft has plenty of other businesses, it should have invested Halo’s revenue and IP in at least one new opportunity long ago – perhaps in the television programming business?

Sales are dropping, so if revenue is simply the number of sales multiplied by the average price per sale, then we know revenue is dropping. This will bring diminishing returns, if the price per sale did not increase or development costs did not fall enough to compensate for the revenue drop. In fact, I believe all three of these negative conditions exist – stagnant or dropping sales, unimproved base retail price, and increased production costs. Let’s look at some details.
  •        Shooters have reached all the easy-to-get customers. Aging core gamers, soccer moms and children under 6 are going to be tough audiences to acquire for the next Call of Duty. As a result, most big publishers now place a significant push on sales-per-customer (e.g. limited editions and DLC), rather than just increasing the number of customers.
  •        Declining product buzz. The industry has fallen a long way since Halo 2’s I-love-bees viral marketing campaign or the massive launch-day celebrations of CoD: MW 2 and Halo 3. Player fatigue has even reached mainstream media critics. Word-of-mouth and viral marketing has run its course.
  •        Price competition. To prevent losing players to Battlefield, Activision cut the price of CoD’s Elite Service to zero. Furthermore, no publisher has been able to raise the price of their regular retail SKUs, despite rising costs, because of competition from free-to-play games and a saturated AAA market, where customers do not perceive increased value in a game, unless it is accompanied by extra physical merchandise or scarcity (limited editions).
  •        The cost and complexity of development has gone up by an order of magnitude. Publishers have to fund multiple studios to keep up with their release schedule for a single game, Killzone 3 and CoD: MW III both required three or more studios to complete. Assasin’s Creed: Unity is going to require the work of ten to meet its schedule while controlling costs. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has said Halo 4 is the most expensive game they have ever produced. Not to be out-spent, in September 2014, Bungie’s $500 MM Destiny may become the most expensive game ever made, period. (Disclosure: I was a member of Bungie for over 11 years, until late 2011, and believe the number reported is accurate.)
  •         Required solutions for new or increasing technical challenges, just to stay afloat. Next-gen console owners demand more content on screen, requiring larger teams and more management expertise. Significant engineering effort must be devoted to increasingly complex graphics engines and online infrastructure. Despite being less profitable with each subsequent release, a popular game series may have a huge user base with enough toxic players to threaten the longevity of online play, which is crucial to keeping used games out of the marketplace. Developers therefore have to devote substantial resources on non-core systems, just to stay ahead of cheaters and misanthropes. But even honest, decent players are making the business harder, because they demand extensive metagame support – mobile apps, rich community tools, tournaments, daily challenges and other special events. These types of features have been around for a while, but now they have to satisfy a huge number of users, again with a certain percentage of toxic users to manage. All of this adds cost.

If these circumstances weren’t convincing enough, then also consider how much effort AAA companies spend to reduce the inflation of development costs. At the start of a technology or business curve, R&D losses are expected, as the company spends heavily to establish itself and pay the price of early failure. But, if a business is mature and is already in decline, then the business must cut costs to stay vital.

To know where a studio’s business lies, consider a few things regarding its current work. If a project defines a new genre or establishes an IP in untapped creative territory, then its development is part of a new business. On the other hand, if the developer is limiting risk – staying within familiar genres and themes, then it’s in a mature business. Does the production plan heavily rely on outsourced or contract workers? Or perhaps, the publisher has asked that a subsidiary in a less expensive location produce a lot of the content? (Disclosure: I was a Development Director II at EA Visceral; part of my job was to work with EA Shanghai’s art production team.) Are companies adopting middleware for major engine components or perhaps basing all their titles on just one or two engines? The answers to these questions indicate whether a company is trying to get a foothold in an accelerating new business or control costs in a mature one.

This is where publishers and development studios antagonize each other, despite being in business together. While a publisher is constantly leveraging the revenue, intellectual property, or technology from one business into another, developers often fail to do so for three reasons. First, if development goes long, a studio will often close or suspend their other business in order to keep a particular project on track. Second, the studio may have signed a contract that limits their ability to engage in other business. Or third, due to publisher or self-inflicted pressure, the studio stops pursuing a new business, or alters its plan until it is essentially in an old business. In such a circumstance, the studio is saddled with increasing R&D costs when it should have been cutting costs. Whichever of these circumstances may be, a studio in a mature business that is not creating their next game for less than their previous one is going to die. On the other hand, a studio that is aggressively cutting costs while investing in their next business has a chance of survival.

For the individual engineer, artist, or designer, the question is then: am I in a studio that has the freedom and resources to pursue new lines of business as soon as our existing ones bear fruit? Or, if you work within a large publisher, does the executive team give you a choice to join one or another team, should your current business go into decline? Conventional wisdom is often wrong on these issues – vaunted independent AAA developers may actually be doomed software factories, where developers are required to push content year-in-and-year-out until the publisher decides to take production elsewhere. Conversely, behemoth publishers lambasted for their heartless search for profit in a hard-pressed business may actually be a safer place to have a career in AAA games, due to their ceaseless creation of new businesses. You really have to know your company’s businesses in order to protect your career.

Every business goes through a life-cycle – even multi-billion platforms or franchises eventually fail; the question is whether or not you’re at a company that leverages the revenue from a healthy business into a new one that you can join when the time comes. If not, it may be time to start looking for a company that does.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Healthy Perspective on Compensation – Focus on the Future, Not the Past

Disclaimer: this post represents my personal philosophy toward pay and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or practices of my previous employers. Also, I am neither a lawyer nor an accountant; I'm just a former manager who has dealt with compensation issues (pay, stock, bonuses, and profit sharing) for teams comprised of artists at every skill level.

Why you should learn about compensation
There are plenty of tutorials about developing specific skills, but very few that help an artist become a happier, less distracted one. This is unfortunate, because being focused is crucial to improving every skill, and artists who misunderstand how they are compensated are unnecessarily distracted. Reducing your non-creative concerns, such as worries over compensation, will lead to better job satisfaction and faster career growth. 

Your income is a tool that allows you be creative; it shouldn't be a roadblock to happiness or career satisfaction. Despite this, I've known many artists who suffered simply because they expected to receive regular, sizable raises every year or immediately after shipping a title. They mistook their annual salary update as a kind of high score tally – a measure of the good work they performed – when it's really an incentive for future work, limited by the studio's financial position.

Pay for future work
A raise is not a direct measure of your previous achievements, regardless of the feedback received during an annual review (or whatever review period your team uses). Although your work history is very useful and important data, your compensation is actually based on a prediction of the value of what you will do, not the work you've done. This may be counter-intuitive, because a raise or bonus usually follows an achievement in the past review period. But the salary and bonus you’re offered is commensurate to the income your employer thinks you can bring into the business moving forward. Your past contributions are an indicator of your future performance and your raise represents that value.

Did you get a bonus after shipping the last game? Well again, the amount probably wasn't determined by how much crunch you endured. Instead, it was an incentive to encourage you to come back for the next project. It's offered because you're the kind of employee who would work hard to ship another great game and they want to keep you. That's also why you don't usually get payouts after you leave a company, even if the game continues to sell. Again, think of your salary and bonus as an incentive to keep you working tomorrow, not as payments for the work you did. 

If that still doesn't make sense, try this: recall when you were last hired and the incentives offered to you at that time. You negotiated a pay rate or salary. Perhaps your new studio also covered the cost of your move, offered a stock grant or options, and maybe even gave you a nice signing bonus? Was there an earn-out or vesting period associated with any of these things? If so, there can be no doubt that your pay and bonuses were negotiated in anticipation of your future work, not because you did awesome work in the past. The same goes for your annual review; you’re essentially being hired again for the next year.

When a big raise isn't a good thing
Even if it is not reasonable to expect a sizable raise every year, it is fair to expect incremental raises as your performance brings greater financial value to the studio. Be wary of companies that habitually give employees big raises upon promotion. An irony facing managers who consistently demonstrate the value of their team members to the company is that their direct reports (employees) are always paid what they are worth at any given time. In this scenario, when a company promotes an individual once she has demonstrated a consistent ability to perform at the next level, she is already paid appropriately. Most management groups will still find a way to grant a raise, even a small symbolic one. But expecting a 10% raise with each promotion is not realistic under these circumstances.

When a manager works with someone to develop her skills, resources are used to cover the inevitable learning curve. That investment will continue until the promoted team member is at the mid-point of her new role’s performance and salary range. Let’s say a senior artist is promoted to a lead position, because she consistently mentors new artists and helps her lead perform quality-control work. But as a new lead, she often takes on other people’s work, because it’s easier in the short-run to fix their problems, rather than coach them. Her manager will have to spend time and money managing her fatigue, diffusing team frustration, and supplementing her team’s training. She went from being a fantastic senior artist to an average lead. That’s perhaps why she may not get a giant raise the moment she’s promoted. This dip in productivity is a natural, well-documented phenomenon in business and technology cycles and it applies to individual careers as well. 

On the other hand, if her manager was not paying her what she was worth before her promotion, the company has room to reward her with a nice fat raise. But, she’s probably still going to earn fewer total dollars than if she were paid fairly throughout her career. Sometimes a big raise is like a big tax refund. It means the studio was using money that an individual could have had earlier. This doesn't change the fact that it’s nice to receive a windfall, but the truth is an artist benefits more from small-but-fair raises along the way, rather than a big one at the time of promotion. (Important exception: good employers who recognize they were under-compensating an employee will grant a raise and bonus to “true-up” the employee.)  

Growth yields personal satisfaction first, then maybe dollars
New responsibilities, skill   mastery, and personal sacrifices occur routinely during a project. But did you ever work hard on a game, only to receive a disappointing bonus or raise afterward? Before you let that affect your morale, ask yourself what your extra effort accomplished for the project above your core responsibilities, and how that indicated your ability to increase studio profits in the future. If you can't come up with a clear and substantial answer, then there is very little your manager can do either. If you want a bigger number, then you and the studio need to cut costs and bring in bigger numbers. This doesn't sit well with artists, because they rarely define project scope, budget, or audience. Nevertheless, they will often take things into their own hands by working even harder or by broadening their skill set. If that decision was made without working with the appropriate manager to align the effort with the team’s needs, it’s a mistake to expect additional income for such work. Maybe your new Mudbox expertise isn't what your studio needs.

In short, killing yourself over work or learning a new skill may lead to a false expectation that you'll get a monetary reward simply for doing so. This will only happen if the next project will require the same kind of work, you saved the team a meaningful amount of time and money (e.g. your manager didn't have to hire another artist), or your assets had positive sales effects (e.g. you set the industry high-bar, increasing media impressions, metacritic score, and player interest). Otherwise, it's not reasonable to expect an increase for taking extra steps that weren't necessary to ship the game and didn't bring in additional profit – unless you and your manager agreed to it in advance. 

Going above-and-beyond the requirements of your role brings pride, the admiration of your peers, the euphoria that comes with mastery, and perhaps most important, recognition from your manager that you might be ready for more responsibility. Just don't make the mistake of thinking those good vibes will be converted into dollars immediately; it takes time for your manager to work with every other discipline manager to ensure the company is assigning value to everyone’s work fairly.  And don’t forget your current earning potential is only part of the value you receive from work. You have compelling creative challenges, great tools and coworkers, travel and training opportunities, and other fringe benefits. Don't let your professional happiness depend on whether or not you're receiving ever-increasing dollar amounts. There are too many external financial and market factors that you can't control. Instead, if you seek creative satisfaction by fulfilling the needs of your team, fair compensation will follow.

Pools of money and industry competition
Hopefully by now, you understand that your compensation reflects the financial value you are expected to bring over the next review period. But it’s not possible to draw your salary from a pool of profits that doesn't exist yet. Instead, payroll is taken from what's currently available to the studio, minus amounts necessary to ensure smooth company operation over time. Your office, hardware, software, insurance, snacks, travel, training, holiday and ship parties – and especially a safety reserve to cover future salary and studio expenses – draw from the pool of currently usable money. 

Therefore, it would be a mistake to think you're guaranteed a big bonus or raise when your studio ships a successful project. Think of the aforementioned costs. Did your team grow significantly over the course of the project? What if this is the last time your studio will be shipping a title with that IP? What if the revenues from previous titles tapered off? How long until your studio is paid its share of the profit by the publisher? What if studios similar to yours closed recently? This last question is a tricky one, because it isn't directly related to your studio. But it’s important nonetheless. Not only do those studio closures indicate that games made by companies like yours are risky, it means there's excess talent available. Should your manager continue to pump up the cost of her team, while your remaining competitors exploit the supply of talent and lower their average cost per artist? Hopefully, your manager is going to ensure long term survival and prosperity for the team and not overspend during periods of industry contraction.  

Publishers are more interested in their portfolio needs rather than the unique abilities and culture of your studio. If a publisher can choose from a number of developers to fill a particular portfolio gap, they'll select a team the same way people buy a gallon of milk. Do I recognize the brand, is the store close to me, and is it cheaper here than elsewhere? Your studio needs to compete in that environment. More studios have closed over the years because of high overhead, rather than an inability to do good work.

The other guy
Angst regarding your compensation relative to everyone else is a common morale problem that stems from not knowing if peers and disciplines are evaluated against sensible common standards. If this is bothering you, ask your manager how the review process allows her to offer fair incentives for working on the next project. Don’t be nosy about your peers, but you should feel free to ask general questions. If a reasonable system exists and you trust your manager, there’s no reason to worry about the other guy.

During periods of transition or difficulty, misgivings may occur when someone is asked to leave the company and rumors of an overly generous severance package abound. Any such package is a private matter. Do yourself a favor and keep in mind that continuing salary payments, promises of future profit sharing, or stock vesting represents a smaller cost than keeping that individual on the team. Your manager is trying to free up resources – including your time and energy – by making it comfortable for someone else to leave.

When things are tough, it may be tempting to start slacking-off in hopes you’ll receive a sweet, sweet severance package too. But the drag on your morale in the meantime, awkwardness at your next job interview, and impaired friendships are not worth it. You’re better off continuing to work diligently, even if you eventually decide to take another position elsewhere. Leave them wanting more and better compensation will follow, no matter where you go.

Talk to your manager
Request a meeting if you still find yourself distracted from your work, because of compensation issues. Let your manager know in advance that you’d like to talk about it, just as you’d like to know in advance when you’re going to discuss your work with your art director. Compensation is a complex problem and managers are only human; they need to prepare their thoughts. Otherwise, you might put your manager in a defensive or adversarial position, when you’d rather approach your concerns as a team.

Prepare yourself too. Think about why compensation is bothering you. There are some insecurities or lifestyle choices that only you can address. Define those and set them apart from the conversation. Your manager can’t help you afford a new car or pay school loans. But she can show you which roles within her organization command higher salaries and how you might get there. 

I hope this blog post helps you understand compensation better, frees you to do your best creative work and achieve fair compensation for it. Nothing beats being able to spend every day making beautiful art and developing new skills without distraction. Good luck, and please let me know if you have any questions or comments.


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