Shaping Your Personal Brand in #GameDev
At some point in my career as a game developer, I realized that I have a ‘work brand’ or identity, and that people I work with have an image of who I am and what I represent as a coworker, leader, or competitor.
Your brand (ideally) is you on your best day. You want your brand to be the strengths and merits of your skillset and personality as a leader, represented by your name.
Maintaining a positive brand on the studio floor is vital for career success, but often even leads and directors aren’t aware of their brand, and don’t think about how others perceive them.
What follows started as a transcript of my CGX Ottawa presentation “cheerleading from the front”, and has a bunch of updated notes jammed into it; I apologize if it seems less coherent than usual. :)
KNOW YOUR BRAND ON THE FLOOR AND WORK IT
I place a lot of value value in understanding what I call “my brand on the floor”, which loosely translates to “how my team and my studio sees me”.
It took me literally years to realize what was “my brand” and to start to curate my brand.
I love stories, so I’m going to tell you how I formed what I understand today to be the brand I want.
I joined the games industry in 2007. Prior to getting my first games job I had made a bunch of LAN party maps for Quake 2 and Quake 4, and curiosity led me to quit a perfectly sane and grownup job in IT, to become a level designer for a Vancouver company called Threewave, who at that time were making multiplayer for a Wolfenstein title.
I think I crunched like 70+ hours a week for my whole first year. I loved my new job, and while I learned eventually that crunch sucks, I established one of what I will call my game dev Brand Pillars: I work hard. I realized that one of the things I was considered reliable for, and that my team respected, was that I put in a lot of effort. I resolved to keep this as part of my professional rep.
To clarify: “I work hard” is a super important part of my brand. I do not give up, I don’t waste time when I’m in the studio, and I try with maximum effort to do a good job. I’m talking about effort, commitment, and getting stuff done… NOT the number of hours I work. Crunch sucks.
I don’t think anyone should do regular prolonged overtime. It’s bad for your health, your relationships, and every part of your life. So, to the newbies: I urge you to do overtime when it’s really worth it because you need an extra three hours of time to make something awesome. Go for it. I do overtime pretty often when I’m excited about something. But real, frequent crunch will mess you up and make you a less effective human being.
I worked on two games while at Threewave, and I can say honestly that while the 2009 Wolfenstein was sadly not the best Wolfenstein game ever … Ghostbusters Multiplayer is still a game I’m fiercely proud of. I’m forever grateful to the Threewave guys for how much they let me do what I wanted on this game. I assume it was actually because I was willing to work hard and reliably deliver, and so I was able to generate trust.
In 2009 I found myself working at Ubisoft Montreal. It was overwhelming at first because a) I didn’t speak any French and b) there were so many people. There were thousands of game dev nerds and it was the biggest thing I’ve ever been part of and it was exhilarating and really hard to stand out.
But I continued to work hard (remember: Geoff-brand pillar) and I somehow convinced a great producer (Sebastien Ebacher) to give me a shot at being a Level Design Director on a really great project: Spies vs Mercs multiplayer for Splinter Cell Blacklist.
The people on that project really really put up with a lot of my shit while I was learning to be a director. It was my first games-leadership job and I was not a good LD Director right away. I took every soft skills leadership class I could find. I got some great mentors. I read a lot about communicating. Slowly I learned how to be a director, and I learned a few things about the importance of politics in AAA, and I learned a bit about getting the best from a team of designers and artists.
By the end of Spies vs Mercs, I had identified my second and third “Geoff-brand” pillars: I treat my subordinates well, and I push for quality.
It’s so important as a leader that you treat the people who work for you well. Forgive me for telling you all something that you probably know, but: a leader’s job is NOT to tell people what to do. It’s to ensure that work gets done well.
We work in a competitive creative industry and people who are not motivated are not helping you compete. You NEED that passion and commitment from your team, so you need to know how to protect it.
On Pushing for Quality: When you’re creating things you love, with people you care about, it’s so easy to lose sight of whether or not the work is legit good. But if you take a top job in games, it’s part of your responsibilities to ensure quality. I push for excellence, because I want to make really great games, and I want my team to have really great games on their resume. So I try as hard as I can to help them achieve high quality, and it’s part of my brand.
In 2017 I shipped For Honor. I’m also super proud of this game, by the way. Working on For Honor really solidified for me my understanding of my brand on the floor, and also taught me that I needed to do a better job of sharing my brand outside of my immediate team. It’s important to make time to build great relationships throughout your studio, and with your publisher. People who like you agree with you a whole lot more often.
I also learned how quickly your brand can go sideways. I was seen as “the angry level design director” on For Honor way too often. I allowed other leads and directors to see me when frustrated and I was critical when I should have focused on building useful relationships.
So: it only took me about a DECADE, but I finally feel like I understand in an honest way what my desired brand is on the floor:
- I work hard and you can count on me
- I treat my teammates well
- I push for quality and I know how to get there
Knowing my brand well enough to be able to write it down, means I can act in accordance with my brand. I can catch myself when I’m NOT, too, and scramble to get back to the brand I want.
My coworkers are only going to buy in to my “brand on the floor” if they think these things are true.
My brand continues to evolve this year. I’m focusing more on “creative weirdo” because I come across too practical and reasonable and technical, sometimes. I’m still struggling to never let the dev floor see me angry or frustrated, because what my face does when I’m even slightly annoyed looks like white-hot rage.
But I’m confident that my paying attention to my brand, I’m helping to shape my career, and serve my team.
CELEBRATE SUCCESS AND SHARING EXCITEMENT
This one sounds so easy, but this is the hardest thing for me to do. My brand has a bit of “guy who never looks excited” in it, and I don’t love that. (I have a touch of Asperger's.) Making my face excited without alcohol is difficult for me… But it’s super-important to celebrate wins, and your brand will suffer if you do not.
It’s so important that your coworkers get positive feedback from you. It’s huge. People need praise. Game devs need to know that the thing you just played was fun. We’re in the fun business! Your people should feel good when they do good work.
Also as a games lead, you want to keep the fun focused on the thing you’re building together. Play the game together, and build hype whenever the thing you’re playing is feeling good. Devs need this shared fun so that they can iterate effectively. You want them talking about the game, pushing each other, coming up with ideas that came out of shared play-sessions.
The best iterations are the ones that the team comes up with together, and the higher the number of iterations you reach, the better the game generally is.
Feed this energy, and it will pay you back in delicious, savory game quality.
I try to make people visualize how much fun their audience will have when the game comes out, and be excited about players getting into their game.
BE POSITIVE ALWAYS ESPECIALLY WHEN IT’S HARD
… because let’s be real: it IS hard!
I make AAA games, which means I fail unless millions of people love my games. I’m competing against every video game that comes out the same year, but I’m also competing for player attention against movies, tv, Netflix, and their cell phones. I have every sane reason to feel like the challenge in front of me, and my team, is daunting.
But we’re game developers, right? We’re better than most people at channeling our inner crazy.
If you’re a leader, or even a senior team member: people are emotionally counting on you to be the voice that says “we can do this” even when the challenge is difficult.
Your brand needs to have a “we can do this” component.
I’m excited every day to go work really hard on an awesome game, and I want all of the people in my studio to feel the same way. (This is cliche of me, I know, but it’s also literally exactly how I feel.)
Leading from the front can be tiring. In the last year I designed some stuff that technically somebody else should have done. I had to organize stuff that was not at all my job. I had to show up every day willing to outwork anybody, and be available to anyone, so long as it advanced the project.
And luckily for me : so did a lot of other, hardworking, smart people. I’m lucky to work with some really kickass devs.
Being a good leader is hard work but it’s worth it, because you can get the work culture that you want. I’m excited to go to work everyday and my team is making kickass gameplay that I can’t wait to show the world.
I’m passionate about leading from the front. It’s the most important part of my brand.
The work culture YOU want will be slightly different than mine, and your brand will be different than mine…. but shaping your brand will help you get the career, and the work culture you want.