Business, Management

8 Quick Tips to Manage Creative Teams and People

Creative Teamwork
credit: Creative Sustainability (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I manage creative teams at our game studio and work with many independent game and app developers, people who passionately and happily spend their free time turning their impulsive ideas into playable experiences. They are programmers that can’t stop tinkering, and artists that can’t stop drawing (or modelling, animating…etc.) — highly talented people that live for creating and crafting their art.

These tend to be the most motivated bunch, and they also tend to have deep domain expertise because they have spent not just their work hours on improving their skills but also their precious evenings and weekends. I am often amazed at how talented these people are, and if you spend even just seconds talking to them, you soon realise how addicted they are to their tools, their thoughts, and their creations.

They can also be some of the most difficult people you’ll manage.

Why? Let’s look at some of the overlapping traits of many highly creative people:

  • Non-comformative
  • High personal output
  • Dedicated
  • Opinionated
  • Confident in her craft
  • Higher ego
  • Free spirited
  • Gets bored easily
  • Multi-passionate
  • Jumps from idea to idea
  • Places less focus on finance
  • Frustration when others “don’t get it”
  • Disregards for structure and management

They amaze you with their incredible talent, but can frustrate you with their unique approach to work. This is especially obvious if your project has a corporate client on one side, and a creative-thinking team on the other. One is focusing on their corporate metrics, the other on the artistic expression.

So how do we deal with this conundrum? Here are some of the most effective ways I’ve found to help manage highly creative talents:

  1. Acknowledge their knowledge and know-how. Creative talents have huge pride in what they do. Acknowledge the importance and brilliance in what they proposed and produced. (And if you don’t find them to be impressive, it might be a good idea to part ways quickly.) You’ve found the best creative talents for your projects, don’t be cheap in giving props – many artists live for the applause.
  2. Align individual goals with the organisational goals. Find out the true motivation behind each talent. Some love the purity of a creative project — clean codebase, streamlined pipelines, while others may care the most about the tools they use or the protocols they follow. Some care about their reputation in a specific community, while others may care more about having a say in the design. I often find monetary motivations aren’t necessarily high on the list of priorities for creative workers. Communicating the bigger picture to artists can help keep everyone on the same page and work towards the same goal. It’s not always obvious for creatives who spend their time crafting and tweaking to understand or care about the why behind each project. Make sure it’s obvious and communicate this early on.
  3. Buffer for freedom to express. Build in buffers, both in terms of budgeting and time, to allow people to experiment and toy with new ideas related to the project. Most of these experiments will not be included in the final deliverable, but there is always great learnings to gain from them, and the boost to moral is a huge benefit to keep the team engaged. Creatives aren’t motivated by money but by self-expression, so show them you understand and appreciate what makes them creative in the first place.
  4. Listen, and let time take care of issues. Creatives will clash, either with other creatives in the team or with the client of the projects, internal or external. First, listen to what they want to express and spend time to understand the issues. But don’t act on a fix right away. I’ve found that often times people will calm down and the issues would go away after a night of sleep, especially if they understand the bigger picture (see point 2). Although the immediate response to a clash might make people hot-headed, if people feel they are listened to and their concerns considered, they are most likely be calm down and compromise.
  5. Be a leader, not a boss. Lead the direction of the project but don’t boss people around. Let the creatives have control over their areas of responsibilities. It’s tempting to get “hands-on” if you have a creative background as well, but the more micro-managing you do, the less interested highly creative talents become. Creative workers don’t work well with strict rules and guidelines. Define the overall direction, empower your team, and let them enjoy the work and the accomplishment.
  6. Be specific with critique. There will be times when you have to challenge the work produced. Be specific with your comments and avoid being personal. Listen to the team to know why things are done a certain way, then offer your advice on how it can be improved or how it can be done differently to suit the need of the project. There aren’t always rights or wrongs with creative projects, but certain things will fit better with them, and if you are specific about these items, the critiques will be better received.
  7. Get excited but keep your eyes on the ball. It’s hard not to get excited when a creative person is telling you about their latest exciting creation. After all, new art is the fuel to their drive. Enjoy the excitement with them. At the same time, you have to be the one keeping an eye on the schedule, objectives and resource constrains, and you also need to be keeping the team away from adding too many cool new things to the todo list if it’s going to take you off piste.
  8. Have fun – and be a rock. A creative team can be one of the most fun groups of people you’ll ever work with, with its high energy and constant stimulation. The highs and lows can also be fairly dramatic in a high-energy, free-spirited team. As well as riding the fun times with them, make sure you play the role of a rock solid support the team can count on to keep calm and carry on during the tougher times.

Working with creative people is one of the most rewarding parts of my job, and if you manage creative teams right, I bet you feel the same!

Thoughts? Experiences? Agree / Disagree? Let’s discuss!

Business, Games

Calculating the Game Engine Market Size – Determine the Market Size for Game Engine Software

U-Boat Diesel Engine

This question on Quora “How do I determine the consumer market size for game engine software?” peaked my interest. Here’s my reply:

Determine the game engine market size


Before we start estimating the market size for game engines, let’s decide exactly what we want to find out – is it the VALUE game engines generate, or the REVENUE?

REVENUE is the about of money spent on game engines, VALUE is how much value, in dollar-terms, game engines create. VALUE is the REVENUE potential for the game engine industry. (Note: it is possible for REVENUE to exceed VALUE if the value chain around the industry has the capacity for it.) REVENUE is determined by how much of that value is captured by game engine companies today.

For example, you hire a personal assistant to help you draft an email. You pay the assistant $25 for drafting the email, which would have taken you half an hour if you were to write it yourself during your work day. If you make $120 per hour during work hours, the personal assistant has saved you half an hour – which has the value of $120×0.5hr=$60 (VALUE generated by assistant). However you only paid the assistant $25 for the work (REVENUE).

So in this example, for the “email drafting market by this PA” is:

Continue reading


A Desire to Create

Crayola Lincoln Logs

A Desire to Create.

If you are like me, you spend your days with images of what can be in your head. You see things morphing into newer things. You find the possibilities of what can be created anew exhilarating. The missing imagination in mundane everyday things not only bores you, it infuriates you. You know it can be made better; they can all be, and you find it difficult to stop wanting to build, to shape, to create.

And you feel the most alive when you do, as if it’s the only thing that you are meant to do, and the only thing you are truly capable of doing.

When you see wonderful inspiring works, your mind wonders what else can be created from ideas, materials, and styles rooted in the work. You see the world in colors and sounds and movements, and thoughts and ideas and ideologies and meanings.

To create is not just to create but to express, to identify, to communicate, and to listen.

And to you, to create is not just to express, to identify, to communicate, or to listen. To create is to be.

Business, Life, Technology

Things I Learned in an English Village


Due to an unforeseen event, I am staying in a village in the heart of England for an extended period of time. For someone who has lived in big cities primarily, the village life is new to me. The buzzing streets and rush hour traffic jams are replaced by endless green fields, horses on the road, and farm/wild animals. A different way of life, and plenty of lessons for the technology-obsessed me: 

  • Location-based social network: everybody knows everybody, and there’s no secret in the village. News of the accident (see first link above) spread from the local pub to everyone in the village. Word-of-mouth in its truest form. The benefit of knowing everyone is that there’s a built-in reputation system as well – you know who to trust to be a genuine news source, and who are the gossipers. The close-knit hyper-personal network is one that’s hard to emulate – the more local it is, the more personal it gets, a challenge all location-based mobile social networks have to overcome.  
  • Farmville in the garden: real-life trees and flowers have a calming effect. I didn’t get to click on icons to pick up rewards or coins, but the benefits are immediate and obvious to my senses – something one day biometric devices will probably be able to measure, and eventually come to the same result that we are better off spending time close to nature (and we all enjoy gardening – a creative activity of putting in efforts, growing a product, and seeing the blossoming results.) The social game aspect is also in place. You invite neighbors to your garden, which gives you a spirit booster. When you leave home for a vacation, the neighbors come around and help you water the flowers – keep ing them from withering. The game session is a lot longer – months/years as opposed to seconds, but you get to play a lot longer without constantly inserting coins. Can social games be designed to strengthen friendship and player loyalty via longer play sessions? 
  • UX at charity shops: used goods are donated to charity shops, where they are cleaned up, categorized, and sold, with proceeds going to charity. The practice exists elsewhere, but the charity shops in the English countryside are nicely decorated and present themselves as boutique stores – which helps with the public’s perception of these shops, and there’s no taboo in buying used clothes and goods. Instead of feeling cheap when shopping at a used good store, you are proud to support local charities and the UX reenforces that with a nice decor and information about the charities you are supporting. A good UX can dramatically change consumer perception and behavior. 
  • To create and to gift: People make chutney, cordial, pies, cakes…etc. (and often give fruit and veg from each other’s gardens), to gift to each other. They don’t do it for money, they do it for fun – the joy is in the making and the learning. Give your users ways to express themselves creatively, to gift their work, and to learn to get better at making things. Additionally, the gifting culture contributes to building a strong local social network (see first point). User-generated-content systems can benefit from focusing on both creative tools and a positive gifting culture to encourage more creative activities.
  • Remember life: A baby pigeon fell out of a tree in the garden last week, and injured its wing. We tried feeding it food and water, but the inevitable still happened. On the day it died, an adult pigeon sat on the lawn near the body for an entire day, as if it were mourning. Seeing the adult pigeon sitting there made my heart sink. No amount of technical advancement should stop you from remembering life – friends, family, love. Treat users as humans and remember at the end of the day what matters most.

And it’s time to water the neighbor’s garden again. I might try picking some tomatoes while I’m there, and learn to make ketchup. 


Three Stages of Playing Zynga’s “Running with Friends”

Running of the bulls
Stage One: No, thank you.

My first thought when learning about the new iOS game “Running with Friends” from Zynga:

“Another endless running game, really?”

Running games on mobile are popular; Canabalt, Temple Run, Mirror’s Edge are great examples of the genre (we even prototyped one ourselves in 2011). The basic premise of an endless running game is simple. You run sideways or forward continuously, and avoid obstacles by tapping and swiping to jump and turn. The game is over when you run into an obstacle, and it gradually gets harder with increasing speed. The goal is to survive as long as possible and collect as many shiny objects as possible.

A lots of games have come out on mobile platforms to capture the value from this popular genre. Most add minor tweaks to the core gameplay with new skins on top. I rarely find them better than the originals.

Stage Two: Why can’t I stop playing?

But Running with Friends had been prominently featured on the App Store and I couldn’t resist giving it a try. (Yes, the marketing power of an App Store feature)

I was hooked. What it does really well is creating a sense of in-the-moment accomplishment. The narrow escapes. You’re still tapping to jump over various things and swiping to turn and move, but the arrangement and placement of obstacles (especially the moving ones) and collectibles allows you to FEEL more skillful at the game. You might think you were simply moving left to collect more stars, but you also just dodged an incoming motorcycle right before it hit you.

Avoiding obstacles is only the start. Once I discovered that destroying obstacles and jumping on bulls gives you more stars, the game got even more interesting. Now I’m no longer avoiding other runners and bulls, I’m looking for them to take them down! A crate is in my way? Now I have to decide if avoiding it and collecting stars in the lane to my left will give me more stars, or if I’d get more stars by sliding into it.

Then there are the combos where the clever arrangement of moving bulls allows me to jump from one to the other and create a combo. Again, a great sense of accomplishment when I pull one off. The items are where you spend your virtual coins (gems). Running with Friends is a Free-2-play game and the coin economy is key to monetization. Monetization discussion aside, the way items work in the game actually provides a huge incentive for players to try different strategies in the game – the items monetizes the game while keeping the game fresh.

Of course being a “with friends” game, there’s the social aspect of competing with others, too. The part I like the most is seeing other players’ “ghost avatars” when you are running – giving the game a real sense of competition in an otherwise pretty solitary experience.

Stage Three: Ok I am done with this.

After two weeks of daily Running with Friends, I lost interest. I opened up the game this morning, finished the remaining rounds that were waiting for me, and decided to uninstall the game, which was surprising to me (and my wife) since I had been playing it quite a bit.

It’s still a fun game to play, but it stopped offering anything new or interesting to me. I felt like I’d seen 90% of the game, and getting a higher score is never motivating enough for me to keep playing a game. Playing it started to feel repetitive, like jogging but without the physical and mental benefits.

Here lies a problem I find in current endless running games – sooner or later they all run out of steam. Could an endless running game, especially one that focuses on playing with others, be more like Chess, with simple rules but expansive moves? I’m sure someone will come up with one that does that. But until then, I am hanging up my sneakers.

Business, Life

Sometimes, All We Need is a Pair of Wooden Sticks

We work with technology.

We love our smartphones and tablets and thin light air-inspired laptops.

We love the shiny new app that makes everything faster, easier, cheaper, and more stable, more secure, more intuitive.

We love the new features with the upcoming version that promises to automate everything we don't want to do, to turn us effortlessly into amazing artists, photographers, programmers, designers, to create things magically with a click of a button.

We love technology – everything new and exciting and trendy and next-gen.

So we can't stop reading about technology. We can't stop wanting to know more about the next great tool that's gonna make our lives easier. We can't stop downloading and installing and toying with trials version of apps that do the same thing differently. We can't stop comparing and debating which feature from one app is better than the rest but lacks the time-saving features from that app and that other app. We can't stop signing up for new web services that connects to all our social networks and devices and APIs and clouds and storage space and computing power to help us product management better, business strategy better, brainstorming better, saving money better, presentation better, social media marketing web3.0 mobile smart competition user-friendliness wow factor better. We can't stop reading reviews, and we can't stop arguing with ourselves in the comments.

We can't stop. We can't stop shopping for tools. We can't stop shopping for tools to actually quiet down and use them.

Shopping for the sharpest sword doesn't make us great swordsmen. Reading about beautiful products we can create with new tools doesn't make us great craftsmen. Watching new announcements from tool makers doesn't make us better creators.

Tools are meant to be practiced, not browsed or toyed with. Great tools help tremendously. But if we want to be great at using tools instead of being great at finding them, sometimes we just need to pick one and get going with it.

Sometimes, all we need is a simple pair of wooden sticks to get the job done.

Black chopsticks