If you’re Steve Jobs, and you possess an uncanny insight into consumer preferences and latent unanticipated customer needs you can rely on your instincts to direct teams to dramatically change products or add features which make products much better. The big question however is: “Are you Steve Jobs?” or are you just some executive schmuck sticking your nose in where you’re going to damage a team and a product.
Kevin Smith, the movie director, gave a really great talk in 2002 on his DVD “An Evening with Kevin Smith”. In the talk he describes how he worked on writing the script for Superman Returns and the interactions he had with the executive producer Jon Peters. I particularly like this talk because it describes a major problem I’ve seen more generally: senior executives who jump into product design and force ridiculous and extremely costly changes that often times don’t make sense and in some cases destroy projects and demoralize teams.
Before delving further into this topic, you REALLY SHOULD watch the original video I’m talking about which is embedded below:
Now, I’ve talked to enough folks from Zynga, Kabam, and GREE amongst many other folks to definitively say this is a common problem in the mobile gaming industry.
Here are some of the common “Giant Spider” demands I typically hear about:
Wanna-be Art Director:
Some executive who over-rules the AD and out of nowhere decides: “This game needs to look more like X!” Where X can be Clash of Clans, a super realistic art style, or something else which doesn’t fit the gameplay or the target audience. No explanation besides it will look better. No evaluation of the cost to the project or even the impact of an art change.
Chasing the Rabbit:
Senior execs really like to chase the newest, shiniest fad. You can bet that with every new hit game, some exec will come visit the game team and announce: “Game X which just launched has feature Y, you guys need to add feature Y.” Currently, I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of talk about Clash Royale for example.
Agile or “Tool X” Nazi:
“Your team needs to be agile! I’m not going to explain why just do it.” You need to use X because we did that somewhere else! If an executive is going to recommend a process or tool, I would caution taking the situational condition of the team and project in mind and being careful about how to integrate.
Some execs like to take their limited experience from another game project and draw dramatic general conclusions: “Team X did Y why aren’t you guys doing Y?” As another example, if an executive tries to push adding or removing more engineers because that’s how they did it on their last project without even knowing anything about your game’s tech infrastructure, you’re in this kind of trouble.
As an executive at a mobile gaming publisher, I’m tasked with trying to help our studios improve the quality of our products. In working with our teams a big question I need to ask myself: “Am I Steve Jobs or am I Jon Peters?”
In reality most executives are neither and I know I personally am no Steve Jobs although I like to think I am generally helpful and not as crazy as Jon Peters.
In past experiences, I have often seen team leads bulldozed by loud, argumentative executives who in many cases don’t know what the fuck they are talking about but push through really major and destructive changes.
So what does this mean for you?
As a team/design lead:
Are you going to lay down and let an executive who doesn’t have the right vision for your product bulldoze you or will you fight for your vision of the product? Now, this doesn’t mean you undermine the “decision maker” but ahead of a decision being made you need to not lay the fuck down and fight for your product.
Also make sure that there is a clear decision maker. Is it you? If it’s not then state your piece, but after the decision is made just shut the fuck up and support the decision maker. Also, if the decision maker is not clear or the wrong person is making the calls, then you have more of a structural problem. You need to avoid “two in the box’ problems when it comes to product decisions and there should be a clear owner for calls on different aspects of products. Here are some links explaining more if you don’t know what I’m talking about:
- Two in the box problem: http://www.bhorowitz.com/management_debt
- Areas of Responsibility: https://blog.asana.com/2014/12/workstyle-aors/
As an executive:
If you’re making big calls on product maybe the bigger question you should be asking is whether you have the right structure/process for decision making in place (see 2 principles above) or whether you have the right lead making the calls on the product. Is this a structural problem or not? Is this a staffing issue or not? Or is this just a misguided, ego issue where you are trying to put a big fucking giant spider into a product. Look in the mirror and think about it.
“Are you Steve Jobs or are you Jon Peters?”