Path Of The Indie — How We Let People Go
CEO of Rummy Games creating Saturated Outer Space proceeds to share his experience with other independent developers
For newcomers here is the first post about me and reasons why these articles might interest you.
Disclaimer: I’m not going to tell you how to make video games but I will share my experience and learning process of managing an indie team while following the path.
I can’t imagine how we would have been without you. But we’ll try.
For most indie teams staff turnover is a painful and complicated process. Almost every person has a unique responsibility for a certain part of the game. That’s why when someone leaves it’s almost like a family divorce. It means a loss of something indispensable that had been playing a very important role.
There’s always a risk of someone leaving the team. How can we approach this risk from a management’s point of view?
- Back up. We have a folder named “Reserve” where we keep potentially useful contacts. That’s our insurance in case someone leaves. One to go, one to call.
- Minimize. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket — here this principle works perfectly. Take 2–3 people for one job and distribute the most difficult tasks between them. Help them to work together, encourage regular contact and information exchange. Here the role of Project Manager grows: I wrote about it in the 4th chapter and there will be more to it later. As an example, if there are two people working on level design, then the leave of one wouldn’t stop the entire process. The second one would pick up all the tasks and could continue the work up until a certain point. We had a similar situation when our 3D modeler working on units’ models left. His coworker Maxim took his place and as a 3D lead started to do systematizing and pipeline setting. That helped us to establish an adequate pipeline for 3D modeling. Pipelines serve to minimize the risks too, I will return to this topic in the 11th post
- Dismiss. Sometimes the risks exist only in our imagination. I could start worrying about a person who is working alone, that he or she would leave. In such cases, I usually try to keep in contact and communicate closely with that employee. Often that’s enough to dismiss the worries and stop being paranoid. I state for myself that everything is fine, no one is leaving.
- Accept. Or simply come to terms with it. If it’s not a key position (they shouldn’t exist by the way) or there are other more important things demanding your attention then you better just let it go. In such situations, I usually weigh the urgency of the question and if I don’t have any means to resolve it then I just stay cool. I let it go if I don’t feel that “my bike is already on fire”.
Those are my own techniques but there are many more and every leader has a different set of methods coming along with his or her own management style.
Thus we are approaching the idea that even if staff turnover is inevitable, it is manageable nonetheless. As for today, every second person in our project has been replaced by someone new but it didn’t become a catastrophe.
People leave for very different reasons: they get tired, find something more interesting, change their lifestyle or priorities, have a baby, etc. It’s often a shame to let them go but there are exceptions. We had a case when a certain job was “doomed” and employees kept changing for 1 year. And then finally we got two specialists in spring 2020 who are working till now and we’re all really glad to have them in our team. So don’t be afraid to let go, if you feel that it’s not working somehow. The signs are:
- There is zero profit from a person
- There’s discomfort within the team, which is really important for indies
- There are big lags in work progress, like when you don’t see any progress for weeks
And some other alarming things.
Of course, every situation is unique and should be considered with all accompanying circumstances. There are no strict rules here but you stay on guard with those signs if something goes wrong.
In the beginning, we all thought that together we would create the next X-COM 2 in a couple days. The reality proved to be different. However, if a candidate has strong motivation and you get along well, then it’s the right decision. Look for like-minded people for your team. Sometimes it’s even more important than finding a skillful specialist. When employees become like brothers-in-arms they don’t drop off by any chance, and you too would want to keep them no matter what.
More details about the nasty business
IMHO: terminations are the hardest thing in management, It’s an easy and often pleasant thing — to welcome newcomers to the team. Terminations carry potential scandal and stress for both sides.
The task here is not only to point to the exit door but also to do damage control by preventing risk of any harm. This should be a leader’s responsibility. A leader should explain plainly and genuinely why it’s time to separate ways. A leader has to orchestrate this process in a way that the employee wouldn’t hold a grudge by leaving the project. And if there are still hurt feelings, it has to be against the leader, not the whole project or the team. Think here of a leader as a lightning rod.
How exactly to do this, it’s more a personal choice. I don’t know a perfect formula but what does really help: writing down all the cases of poor performance or unacceptable behavior and, if needed, to present them openly. In most cases, though there is no such need. If you have been recruiting adequate people then they themselves would prefer to leave peacefully. But better be ready for the worst.
Let’s invoke here once again a Project Manager’s role, how it goes hand in hand with basic regulation of termination processes. If the decision to “fire” someone has been made then our PM picks up this task straight away by:
- Excluding this person from all communication channels
- Changing the passwords in-group/common resources
- Extracting all the materials that had been made by this person during our work together
And other things.
All this has to be done quickly and scrupulously. If there was tension then it’s better to “cut off” a leaving person as soon as possible to avoid any risk of harm to the project. PM needs a carefully designed system to perform all the steps with maximum efficiency. Nothing too complicated, but it has to be thought over in advance. However, this is a precaution, not our usual style of management.
This part covers the time from April 2019 to August 2020.
The moral of the story:
Don’t be afraid of letting people go. Staff turnover could be very useful bringing with it new enthusiasts with a refreshing vision
Managing the risks of losing team members and will save you from dire consequences.
For a year and a half, there were 61 people in total in our team, and 30 of them are working now. All 61 brought knowledge, experience, and helped us to focus our efforts.
Be prepared to make hard decisions and take responsibility. Especially in moments of terminations. It’s the leader’s burden.
Don’t put it on someone else, however disgusting it wasn’t for you.