What I wish I knew when building a new games studio
Sophie Vo, Studio & Game Lead at Voodoo, shares her key lessons from building up Voodoo’s new studio in Berlin
It goes without saying that building up a brand new games studio is a complex task. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing in the last year or so — building a new studio at Voodoo in Berlin. What went well according to the plan? What didn’t go well? What would I do differently now? I share my key learnings below, covering three themes: Product, Team, and Self-management.
I hope my learnings will resonate with you and help you avoid making the same mistakes as I did!
#1 There are no “quick wins” to make a hit
When you start a new studio with a new team, you don’t want to start with a big project from scratch. You want to reduce the amount of unknowns as much as possible. That’s why, as a new studio, we thought of going for a quick win by working with proven concepts, putting ideas together and releasing a game quickly.
It turns out mixing a proven match core gameplay with a metagame that’s proven in other genres presents unforeseen challenges and complexity to make the whole work together. In the end, we spent a lot of time iterating on the UX, UI, balancing, FTUE etc — like we would have done with a game we made from scratch. Looking back, we should have had more discipline during the development to track what we exactly innovated, borrowed or improved.
We originally aimed for a 20/80 innovation ratio in our game, but in reality it was more a 50/50 with all the parts we changed in our game, from the original references. As we realised the amount of unproven mixed features we had in our game, we had to recalibrate the amount of known features and remind each other each time we added a new feature: “Is it worth investing our time on improving this feature? What will be the ROI of this effort?”. This thinking process helped us focus our efforts on the big areas of impact for the game.
There is no such thing as a quick win when aiming to make a game that will provide long-term sustainable revenues — whether you’re reinventing the wheel or using proven concepts. Yes, it is probably faster to work with proven concepts to save time on iterating certain parts of the game, like the shop, common game features, UI, etc, but that will save you a few months at best. Like a good memorable wine, great things take time ;)
#2 If it takes more than a week to validate a critical assumption, drop it
Since time is the main constraint in this industry, we often find ourselves evaluating which assumptions we should prioritise testing for the best outcome when improving our KPIs.
We made the mistake of spending a month in one direction to fix our FTUE, to find out later that our assumption didn’t work out. We weren’t willing to take another month to try a new shot, to find ourselves again with a wrong assumption when we test. So we took a step back and looked into both our qualitative (i.e. in-game survey feedback, playtest feedback and user research insights from 12 traits) and quantitative data to get to the root of the issue. By analyzing our whole funnel and churning points, mapped with player insights, we quickly identified the reasons why players couldn’t go through our FTUE. The rules of the game were too complex to grasp — there were too many new features to learn at once. We had to simplify our FTUE, improve our overall UX and tutorials.
Though we were more confident about our assumptions this time, we still needed to validate it quickly. Learning from our first attempt, we decided to quickly prototype our assumptions in one week, test it out with a small group of players, and then roll it out to our live players to validate our KPIs. The move was right this time and we managed to dramatically improve our FTUE. It took us two weeks in total to test and validate our assumption.
#3 Testing your marketability early in development doesn’t always give you a guarantee of a good marketability later
These days, marketing can make or break your game, so it’s important to test and validate a concept’s marketability early. But what can you rely on at an early stage?
One practice we did was to test the concept early with creatives in our target market and check the CPI range. If CPI is low, it’s a good sign, and we can continue in this direction. If it’s not, even after a few unsuccessful iterations, we kill the idea and move on to something else.
However, for most genres, it takes time to develop a good game for long term engagement. What can guarantee that the low CPI you had (with a small budget and at a specific time in market) would still be at the same level when you want to release your game a year later? There is nothing that guarantees it… because all of it can be very much influenced by creatives performance, ad network performance, and current trends (i.e. Covid, IDFA deprecation).
By all means test for marketability early on, just keep an eye on how the initial CPI you saw grows as you scale, and have a good idea of your LTV to know what’s acceptable for you or not when you evaluate the launch of your game further down the line.
#4 Starting over doesn’t mean starting from scratch
When building a product, you build a whole system to support the game, iterate it, and tweak it. You also build a database of assets, from UI to VFX and characters. If you kill your project, while it’s tempting to start something completely new from scratch, this is not the most effective way to move forward.
As you become an expert on your genre, product, or audience, ask yourself how you can reuse this knowledge and skills for future developments.
With the game we’ve been working on for a year now, our team became experts on this product and market category. If we had to kill this game, we are comfortable to reuse the product knowledge into similar new products — and we should. We also built a UI library kit, modular character assets, a code base template, a config system that will help us save a huge amount of time for prototyping and pre-production. Beyond working on a game for a year, in reality we formed the infrastructure of the studio to be able produce multiple games quickly.
#5 Before evaluating someone’s performance, evaluate first their emotional state
You cannot evaluate people’s performance in a silo as people are not just “a worker”. There are several things at play that affect how people behave at work (personal life, mood, health, Covid isolation…). If you see someone is underperforming in your team, inquire first how they are, how they’ve been feeling over the past months. Have you been listening to their call for help? Sometimes we think of helping someone’s performance by pushing or challenging them and this backfires, because the person in the moment doesn’t need to be pushed, but they need space and safety. You cannot fix people’s personal situations, but you can create the environment for them to feel safe and regain positive energy in the workspace.
I personally made the mistake of judging too quickly the performance of people who were going through stressful times during Covid, until I realised their current state of mind. We cannot expect people to perform in their job when their primary human needs are not met.
#6 Your big value is in what you’re NOT doing
I thought for a long time as a Lead that my value is in the solutions and expertise I’m bringing to the team. It is valuable indeed, but only for the short term. When providing the team with ready-directions, I don’t give them the space to grow. It can become the limiting factor of their personal growth.
It is much more effective in the long term to support your team to come up with solutions together, as they will make much better decisions than you in the long run. The industry is so complex that no single individual has the ultimate truth. It requires a greater collective intelligence. Your value as a Team Lead is not in what you’re doing, but in the environment you’re creating for people to grow and find the best solutions together.
Let people think, give them space, safety and context. The rest will take care of itself.
#7 Finding the balance between sharing too much or not enough
In the era of transparency, we believe that sharing everything with the team will solve trust issues or help them make better decisions. This isn’t always true and there’s a difference between openness and transparency. Transparency is about sharing what’s relevant for the team to help support their work. Sharing too much can cause stress because suddenly the team feels responsible for the fate of the organization (without the title and salary that comes with it) while ultimately this is the Leadership’s responsibility. Not sharing enough can break trust, if people find out sensitive news through undesired channels (i.e. someone is dismissed, big strategy change, studios closing…). So when to share, and what?
Ask yourself before you share an important piece of information to the team:
- Is this information time-sensitive? Meaning, does it have to be shared as soon as possible before people hear about it through undesired channels?
- Who needs to know? Everyone or is it relevant to only a few people?
- How should it be shared? All-hands meeting or in 1:1 if it’s a sensitive topic and needs Q&A?
- What will that person do with the information you shared? Is it about creating more trust? Is it about giving more context to make a better decision? Or is it just informative at this point?
I decided to share with the team when I was highly stressed last year, and in the dark about the future of our game and studio. I was afraid to share this information, in case it would create fear and distrust in the studio. It created the opposite effect: more trust, closeness between team members and empathy towards me. It also helped the group realize that we’re in a challenging journey with ups and downs, but it doesn’t matter, because we’re in this journey together.
#8 Take care of yourself before others.
As a Leader, we think we have to take care of our people in top priority, be there for them, and support their needs before our own. The reality is that when you are yourself stressed or sleep deprived, your ability to make sound decisions becomes more and more narrow. Your empathic senses and patience are also affected. Your ability to create a great environment for your team becomes limited.
I found myself in a few stressful situations last year where I didn’t check on my own emotional state. I made mistakes in my communication and decisions. Ultimately, it caused stress to the team.
While it is counterintuitive, in moments of stress, your best way to help your team is to check first on yourself. Make time for yourself, get distance to see the big picture again.
#9 Make the stakeholders your partners
Because of the nature of the push-and-pull relationship with stakeholders, the discussions can go quite easily in conflictual directions: us vs them. The reality is: generally you have the same goals, but maybe different views on how to get there. It is important for you to own the space as the Leader and Expert to defend what you believe in and how to get there. Take the time to share your reasoning and data with the stakeholders. Present the menu of your options, and the risks for each scenario.
There is also a lot you can learn from them and you should empathize with their situation: what are their concerns? They also have some pressure from somewhere and want to succeed as much as you do. How can you help better each other?
It is much more effective to work with stakeholders when you see them as allies instead of roadblocks, for your team and for your game.
#10 Your main limit is your own vision
Isolated at home last year, I found myself dampening my ambition for what was possible for our studio, game and strategy. The distance with the stakeholders didn’t help as more doubts and uncertainty about the future started to appear. As a result, my thinking was taking place in a “small box” that was the Berlin Voodoo Casual studio. This view limited my proactiveness on an organizational level and my actions on the big picture.
As I made this realization, I shifted my mindset to think outside of the box that I imposed on myself: to think bigger, to offer impactful solutions and advocate for what I believe in inside the organization. For example, I launched social initiatives to better connect the casual studios internally as we’ve been quite isolated during the lockdown. I have given constructive candid feedback to the management for what I believe should be improved or questioned. These conversations led to important calibrations in internal communication to give more transparency to employees. I work closely with the People team to keep our culture in check, and develop our branding to attract a diverse pool of talents . These changes help make the company better and ultimately our studio better too.
Dare to ask for the big things, the worst thing that can happen is a no :)
To close my top learnings from 2021, this is my last piece of advice for all the passionate Game Leaders: if you really believe in your game, do what is necessary to bring it to success. Dare to make the hard decisions, because no one else will for you.
If you enjoyed this article, follow my other leadership learnings at Rise and Play.