Friday, May 30, 2014

The quest for a legendary company structure!

3 years ago we formed a company, 8 months ago we got a success with our game FORCED and started structuring our company with the goal of achieving a creative momentum driven environment. Actually I think the best way to describe it is, that we want people to feel like they are partners and entrepreneurs rather than employees.



Based on that, our goals are to:

  • Make all information available to everyone internally.
  • Create an evaluation system that effectively estimates an individual’s value.
  • Create a transparent salary/bonus system, where everyone shares profits.
  • Establish a culture of agency and momentum, where people can take important decisions without needing vertical permission. So if someone wants to go to a conference, buy a new computer or purchase a marketing spot at a website etc. they should simply seek peer feedback from the most knowledgeable in that area.
There a more goals than these, but these should be enough to explain our vivid dreams for now.
So far we are iterating towards our goal and are basically on our second iteration since we started. We spend a lot of time and money on it, as we find it important to shape our culture as early as possible.


Let me jump right into our current iteration!

We’re 14 developers (2 founders, 7 employees, 3 interns and 2 contractors).
Everyone in the company including founders but excluding interns and contractors gets the same monthly salary of around $3k, but to make up for the low salary we have a very rewarding bonus structure.
The way it works is that every 3 months we have a financial status were potential profit is shared in the following way:
  • 50% is divided among the employees
  • 35% is saved for our company
  • 15% goes to founders
The 50% team profit bonus is divided based on evaluations conducted by a varying part of the team, who collects the whole team’s feedback on each individual as well as self evaluations.
So to be concrete, if we would have a $100k in profits in a given quarter, $50k would be divided among the current 7 employees and so forth. However, our definition of profit is revenue that goes above our “Goldmine capacity”. 
So when we started out on this approach we set that to around $500k, hence as soon as we obtain revenue that exceeds our capacity it will be divided in the aforementioned way.
Additionally almost any information in the company is available to any employee; hence if someone wanted to know how money is spent, he/she could go right ahead.

 

Now let me openly reflect on this approach


I constantly try to consider if our company would be a place I would be if I hadn’t founded it. If possible I would like to be at a place where I felt like I could make a difference and where I felt that I was a partner more than feeling employed. So I thought what can we do, so that everyone would feel like partners even if we grew to the size of 100+ devs?

Open Information

When you’re a partner, information is rarely hidden from you, and you have a feeling of shared responsibility and care. Hence transparency is important to create trust, similar to relationships between people.
I think we could make information in our company almost 100% transparent. I think that making visible how money is spend, who gets what in salaries, why a particular decision was made and so on, is possible and that it can create trust and motivation. 
I also recognize the challenge and frustrations however, it requires a huge amount of self-critique and a very mature view to openly compare or even rank yourself among others.
This is a massive challenge in itself, that I might want to dedicate a whole blog post to in the future. 
So far we have evaluated each other two times. Each evaluation was different and I think we’ll keep iterating on the process for quite some time before we formalize it. 
The most challenging aspect is probably that you see your evaluation/salary relative to others, which you rarely do in other companies. But if you are a partner you would want to know who gets what and how you spend your companies’ hard earned money.

Sharing profit

When we made Forced, we divided 20% of the revenue (not profit) among the team, so it’s not totally  new to us with rev-shares/bonuses like that. 
I strongly believe profit or rev share is an important team ingredient. In my perspective, teams should experience ups and downs as a whole and everybody should understand the broader perspective of things and have responsibility. 
Right now everybody gets the same salary and when profits occur we share that cake together based on how we have evaluated each other. When done with more than a few partners, that may sound like an impossible ideal to achieve, but Valve’s structure would probably have been perceived the same way when they started. 

Nevertheless I believe it worked out very well when we made Forced, except that we should have put more time into evaluations which we’re now doing.

Transparent salary

I like to compare a development team with a football team as the difference between success or failure is in both cases very depended on the team dynamic. 
With that in mind it is however interesting how football players to a higher degree must deal with transparent value. Not all football players are worth the same and their value is often spoken about openly, but everyone on the field has important roles, and that must lead to a lot of conflicts. 
Yet it’s a culture that has been there for a long time, consequently football players even though many of them might be big ego’s, must have learned to deal with it in some way. 

David Polfeldt (Managing director at Massive) used this analogy as well in a talk at the Nordic game conference 2014, he noted that the best football teams were those who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the team, i.e. not take a chance for a crowd/press pleasing stunt, but rather choose the action with highest probability of team success.
I assume that if you’re part of one of the best teams and respect it, then being perceived as the lowest ranking player on the team is still something you’re proud of – since you’re actually part of that awesome team. That would be what we aim for at BetaDwarf.


Evaluation

The idea behind creating a transparent company, is to form a culture where we understand each others value, it’s important that we pay our tributes to high performers – otherwise their opportunity cost might be too high for them to make their contribution meaningful. 

Additionally I believe that if such a culture is established, people feel much better paying great salaries to great problem solvers, as they were part of that very decision. 


With an entrepreneurial view it is easier to understand why you would pay person X double the salary of person Y. I.e. if you understand the need, you will better understand the cost. No two persons would ever contribute the same value, just as there are no two similar persons in the world.
Overall we want to improve how precise we can evaluate people by making it a team task rather than a “Founder/boss” thing. So instead of two founders evaluating with what little data or gut feeling we might have while wearing a thousand hats, we want the team to be the main evaluation. However evaluating and value estimation is an expertise on its own, which is why I see it as something people should train themselves to be good at. Like everything else one will never perfect it, but one can constantly improve it.

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If you’re are interested in this approach I would love comments i.e. suggestions, observations. Would this be interesting for you - why/why not? And is there anything you would like more info about?


Cheers!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Reminder - Intel level-up, yes you should!

I recently returned from GDC 2014, which was great in many ways. I gave a talk, we announced FORCED for Xbox One, showed off "our next project" and hung out with awesome people from Klei, DrinkBox etc. All in all a great and eventful week.

However, this post is actually a reminder on participating in the Intel Level-up 2014 contest, which has a deadline in aprox 2 months, see link. The main reason I mentioned GDC was that it reminded me my about this awesome contest, and how winning an award last year - made releasing FORCED less nerve wracking.

Basically being an inexperienced debut indie developer is like crossing a dessert with a pack of energy drinks. You're tripping around constantly looking for an Oasis (steam access) while avoiding dessert raiders (evil publishers) or scorpions (unless you can afford sandals...). But something magical happens once you win an Intel Award, glimpses of an Oasis appears in the horizon and a pack of camels suddenly join you - making it a bit easier to travel towards it. Additionally the camels are good company and even have advice and a few water bottles for you (who would have thought that?). After traveling a few miles like that, you're even joined by a few other small camel riding developer groups to keep you company towards the Oasis. As you get tired and desire to rest together at a campfire (remember desserts are cold at night), the camels even surprise you by revealing a bunch of oddly fresh pizzas. The trust, friends, refreshments and camel company has given you so much energy that you're now certain that you shall taste the refreshing water of the Oasis...


...This was basically the experience we had after winning a 2013 level-up award. Winning basically forms a relationship with Intel and the other winners, over the next year and probably for way longer than that. For instance at this GDC we had a dinner together and we showcased our games at the Intel booth even though it's been like 10 months since we won. Intel basically becomes your mum and dad in the big world, it's those guys you can visit for comfort, refreshments and guidance, but they will only help you with your homework - they won't make it for you, after all they have to be sure you can function as a proper adult.

At BetaDwarf we choose to focus everything we had on making the coolest demo ever, even though we were well aware that it would extend our release date. It was basically at this time a year we realized that it existed which gave us the same two months as you have now. So if you have a demo ready to be submitted, don't be like an ostrich hiding in a hole on morphine - afraid of judgement, instead make and submit an awesome demo! Afterall, you might suddenly be traveling on camels.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Baboon-do, the ultimate to-do approach

I have dealt with the daily management of a 14+ person indie team called BetaDwarf for more than 3 years now. So far we have released FORCED.
I set out like many others. I wanted to make a cool game, but steadily felt the responsibility of what “CEO” entails. The management tasks slowly outgrew the development tasks. I had never imagined that there would be so much stuff to take care of. It’s not that i’m complaining because many of the management tasks like planning a conference, having individual team meetings, business plans, planning the future, shaping up a company culture and a ton of other stuff are indeed interesting - it’s just not what I expected.
To effectively deal with my challenges, I have always found my to-do approach important, and it actually took me 2 years to find an approach I liked, so here it goes:

6 Excellent reasons why Baboon-do works  

I have tried to manage my to-do’ing in many different ways, e.g. google calendar, todoist, trello, pivotaltracker, post-its, podio and others.
But the only thing I have used consistently and by far the most, is a simple approach I call Baboon-do, and it’s based on the google doc. tech :) But don’t walk away, even though it sounds simple I have my 6 excellent reasons on how it has improved my life.
  
Beneath is an example of my to-do list:
The basic syntax I utilize:
Green = personal stuff
Red = an important deadline
-- = Stuff above these two dashes are completed (Only used on the current day)
>>> = Marks my current day, not also that this is made into a “Header 1” tag, so I can easily jump to it from my table of contents.


There’s a few reasons why this work so well for me.


1# Everything goes, whenever I have a thought, an idea or a concrete assignment, I add to my to-do. It's a relief to do so, and while adding it, I can basically determine when I have the time to think about it. I add everything, even personal stuff that might influence my working hours, so this is actually my calendar.

2# The constant reminder, if I don’t complete all assignments planned for a day, I add them to the next day or delete them. This tells me whether an assignment is actually important enough, because if I manually postpone it each day, it's usually not so important. Or the opposite happens, "Okay Steffen - please realize that you have postponed this one 3 times now, fix it!!!"


3# The backlog, through this system i get a backlog describing my doings on a daily basis. I can go back and check what I did the 23th of february if I want to. I Have used this system since 15th of january 2013, so I have pretty detailed recordings of my life, which is also a bit scarry.


4# Access from everywhere, I can easily access my to-do list via the drive app on my phone or through my web browser wherever I am, and it’s backed up in the cloud.


5# Link to mails, this is actually a general tip which work in most of the other tools as well. However it took me so many years to realize it, and it’s one of my favorite tricks. So here it goes, did you know every mail in your gmail has a unique url? If you open a mail the url in your browser is unique, and it’s insanely effective to utilize that especially in this to-do structure. It basically allows me to always keep my mail clean. I read everything and just add it to my to-do while keeping my mail clean - fuck yea!


6# Easy editing, this is actually the most important quality, and the one all it’s competitors fail. The editing is so simple and flexible that it allows my own structure. I can easily add, delete or rearrange my intuitive bullet point assignments in a few seconds.

That’s basically it, I hope it made sense, and please let me know what you think in the comments or at @baboonlord

Sunday, March 10, 2013

My talk on Kickstarter at Casual Connect Hamburg 2013

I recently gave a talk at Casual Connect in Hamburg, on the topic of how our Kickstarter process was.

It may be helpful for those of you who consider a Kickstarter campaign. It's a rough emotional ride, but we are obviously happy that we did it.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Game devs Vs Athletes

Why it's hard and why it'll get harder

The game industry is one of the most demanding industries to work in. There’s no education that truly prepares you for it. Production techniques are constantly updated, employments are bottlenecked as hell, working hours can be extreme, your efforts are constantly judged, you need to deliver all the time etc. and that's just to mention a few complications... 
(More on that: Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4) 

  Yet a lot of people target it as their career path. 

A couple of things annoy me regarding many game career pursuers, because they don’t realize what they are up against and more or less naively follow the path anyway. Thinking that if they just acquire a university degree, with some courses on game design and game prototyping, well then it's all gonna end happy. But it wont! It will end in frustration without a job. 
That's a waste in so many ways, so this is one of  my efforts to improve on that! I wan't people to realize what it is they are aiming for and what it takes, before they take that decision. I love being a game developer and it's been worth it so far for me. But not without consequences.

You better want it!

The future will only get harder, that’s what this one is about, later I’ll write some approaches I personally find relevant to increase your chances of getting a good career.