Destructive Executives and the “Giant Spider” Problem

Introduction

Steve Jobs was famous for creating some of the most successful products ever built. He made significant, positive impacts on the the product teams and with product decisions. However, with many executives we find the opposite phenomenon happening where high level executives make poor decisions that negatively impact products teams and product decisions.

Steve Jobs possessed an uncanny insight into consumer preferences and latent, unanticipated customer needs. He could rely on his instincts to direct teams to dramatically change products making them better.

The big question however is: “Are you Steve Jobs?” Or, are you just some executive schmuck sticking your nose in product decisions making them worse?

The Giant Spider Problem

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: senior executives who jump into product design and force ridiculous and extremely costly changes. These changes often don’t make any 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. The video is embedded below:

Now, I’ve talked to enough employees from within the gaming industry to definitively say this is a common problem in our industry. In particular, I have spoken to folks from companies such as Zynga, Kabam, and GREE.

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.

Comps Nazi:

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, an executive who tries to push adding or removing engineers from a team because that’s how they did it on their last project. This decision, naturally, comes without even knowing anything about the current game’s tech infrastructure,.

Practical Application

As an executive at a mobile gaming publisher, I’m tasked with helping 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 not Steve Jobs. Although I do 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. Often, these executives 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.” However, 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 a structural problem. You need to avoid “two in the box’ problems when it comes to product decisions. 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:

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?”

3 Comments

  • Vincent Richer

    Posted March 18, 2016 2:10 am

    Hey Joseph, nice to see you’re writing on your blog! As you have a lot of experience internationally, would you say this phenomenon is more common in China? I don’t have much experience in the gaming industry outside of China, so I’m curious.

    • Joseph Kim

      Posted March 18, 2016 7:37 pm

      Hi Vincent! This is very common in many SF based mobile gaming studios and I would assume more generally West as well.

      • Vincent Richer

        Posted March 19, 2016 8:51 am

        Thanks, I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t expecting this kind of answer, always a pleasure to hear from you.

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