Avoiding Conflict, Crisis and Disaster In Game Development

In this MBA paper I examine and compare the similarities between Dr. Mark Maier’s Leadership Insights From The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster to conflict that arises in game studios.


By Estelle Tigani

We can learn a lot from past historical events and use such knowledge and experience to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself, so to speak. This is true for any industry or profession. Such lessons cross over between industries, and certain situations which may be completely unrelated to another area of industry can still hold some truth and insight. In risk management, we often look to the phenomenal team effort conducted at NASA when disaster struck on the Apollo 13 mission, turning a near-tragic outcome into a successful ending, against all odds. In a similar example, Dr. Mark Maier outlines ten “leadership lessons” in his paper “Leadership Insights From The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster…and Columbia” which hold true for any professional in a management position (or not in a management position!) You don’t have to be practicing or even be interested in aeronautics to adapt this to your workplace. So, without further ado, I will attempt to adapt Maier’s list to game development, appropriately.

“1. Stay true to your organization’s mission and purpose.” This is possibly the most crucial lesson any developer needs to learn early in production. It is easy to concept the most ambitious project with a million different mechanics and all the bells and whistles attached, and it’s also easy to take a project in a completely different direction than what was initially imagined. With endless timeframes and budgets, this becomes all the more real. From past projects that have not stayed true to the essence of the game and its ‘purpose’, nearly all have become weaker titles or never even seen the light of day. Direction is everything. Purpose is everything. And if you feel yourself falling off the path you initially set, you need to pull yourself back in. If you think that a new game feature, or hiring a ton of new employees in one milestone, or stretching out the release date to implement one more environment is starting to get too far, then you need to cut back or learn to say no, for the good of the project.

“2. Allow values to direct your decision making, not outcomes.” One way I look at this statement is that you should always treat your employees with the respect and the appreciation they deserve, even at the expense of your game. You are not going to produce a high-quality game if your developers aren’t happy, and as a leader you need to learn what makes your developers happy. Provide that, and the outcomes will come naturally. Another way I look at this is that you should consider the values your game upholds. This is especially important for legacy companies that already have a loyal player base, a long-running IP, or a specific genre or quality of game. Valve and Blizzard do this very well. If it comes down to offering a solid, polished game that reflects your studio and what your developers stand for, and if it is relevant to the studio to serve the players consistently, then you need to keep that in mind at every level of production. If making money or producing a game in a specific timeframe is what is valuable to you, then that is going to influence you in different ways.

“3. The culture of your organization will trump its structure.” Structure doesn’t play as large a role as traditional organizations, in that chain of command and hierarchy often shift and move, and tend to start anew project to project depending on production requirements. Nevertheless, structure is still present in the way designers report to lead designers, artists report to creative directors, and assistant producers report to executive producers. What doesn’t change and adapt from project to project, however, is the company culture, which represents the studio since its inception, influences the type of developers that apply to work at that studio, and adds a unique flair to all the games that come out of that studio. With that in mind, culture should always be given importance over structure.

“4. Examine your contribution to creating an organizational system.” This may be practiced more by the leads of the studio and the production team, but in truth every single developer becomes the face of the studio, and every single developer plays a role in contributing to the way the studio operates, from development pipelines to task tracking and delegation. What motivates every individual to contribute to this system is crucial, and a motivated and enthusiastic developer will help this system become more efficient. You yourself can influence others to become more motivated by setting an example and passing on that motivation – if one employee interacts with another enthusiastically, the mood becomes infectious, the same is true for the opposite. Decide what motivates you in the workplace, remember why it is that you love making games, and bring that passion to every activity you perform at work.

“5. Act from a position of ethical courage, not cowardice and fear.” As dynamic and instable as the games industry is, we will find ourselves making uncomfortable decisions or being faced with uncomfortable challenges, that is without at doubt. Layoffs occur far too often than they should, but they occur. When these instances arise, being too scared to make a call, to speak up, or to respond when others look to you for leadership, only makes these situations more difficult and cringe-worthy. The best outcomes can only be reached when approached pragmatically and with all options and consequences considered. You need to treat your employees with respect, and you need to be ethical, regardless of how emotional or how uncertain the environment might be. Even if you are not in a leadership position, you need to be supportive and empathetic to everyone else, sometimes at the expense of whatever stance or belief you hold dear.

“6. Understand that organizational crises rarely develop overnight.” To get straight to the point here, a project that is doomed was probably doomed weeks or months before the project lead has to break the news to everyone that it has been cancelled. In being proactive, look for small situations or hitches in development and plan to rectify them or work around them towards success. Of course, don’t assume every minor problem will inevitably lead to project failure, but understand that a collection of small devils could end up becoming one larger beast to tame.

“7. Involve your stakeholders.” Another more business-y kind of jargon, but in terms of the games industry it is important to be as transparent as possible when discussing details in the project, especially when things are going awry. Ignorance will blow up in a producer’s face when a developer doesn’t know what to do, claims they weren’t given all the information, or chooses to play dumb in order to avoid an undesirable situation (see number 5 above). Conflict adds emotion to this mix, and you end up with some terrible consequences and upset employees, simply because they weren’t involved at the beginning. If you have to spell it out to them do so. Especially when a bad situation occurs, everyone needs to be told and everyone needs a chance to have their say.

“8. Understand that all knowledge is incomplete.” Learning on the job is a daily and eternal component of game development, and that is doubly true for learning about people and how to interact with others in your development pipeline. If you enter into a studio believing that you know how to manage or work with others even with 20 years under your belt, you’re doing it wrong. Every studio is different, and every individual in the studio is different. All executive producers strive to be experts in such a field, there is always something new to learn and some experience that decades of work hasn’t prepared you for. A humbled developer that is excited by this uncertainty and who enjoys every day being a completely different day will embrace that there is always something new to learn.

“9. Be open to the bad news…ESPECIALLY bad news!” This one builds upon my discussion in number 5 relating to confronting conflict or difficult situations without fear. Bad news is unfortunately a trade off in this badass career, and you need to be ready for that. When a bad days comes your way, assess how best to deal with the consequences and attempt to figure out a plan that is in your best interested and in the best interests of the studio and the project (if it still exists).

“10. Trust your experts.” Because of how often bad news occurs in development, odds are there are other that have already been in that ugly situation, and odds are your leaders have been in five. While it is true that knowledge is incomplete, and that everyone is learning together, know that there is always someone you can turn to, someone who will take the helm of the situation (unless that person is you, in which case, right on!), and someone who can offer you advice. I prefer to stray away from the term ‘expert’ myself, but in keeping with Dr. Maier’s list, trust in those that are as close to the situation as possible.



Maier, M. Leadership Insights From The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster…and Columbia. Chapman University.

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