Building teams for the long term: Antifragile teams — Masterclass review
“An antifragile team grows stronger from outside problems, hurdles, and attacks.”
The reason to have an antifragile team is that making games is so hard.
You might end up spending years of developing games, killing games that didn’t have the right metrics, and you need to start again. You try again, and it didn’t work out. Like Sophie Vo says, “There’s a lot of passion but very little chance of success.”
Sophie Vo’s Masterclass, Building teams for the long term: Antifragile teams, talks about the systems that you should have in place to endure and become stronger so that you’ll have the endurance to punch through the times of hardship and to finally find that hit game.
Part 1: Setting up antifragility
Sophie’s Masterclass starts by focusing on the basics, which are very tangible and constitute the backbone of any successful game studio.
The course starts with the mission, where you define the why and purpose of the game studio. Sophie talks about alignment, ways of working, team values, and the team’s roles and responsibilities, including the team leader.
One of the most amazing tools for building the game studio setup is to create a detailed guide for your team, which defines how the team works. Sophie’s Masterclass shares this in the format of a team handbook.
Sophie says about the handbook in video 5: “The team handbook is where you list all the ways and culture of the studio, whatever behaviors you wish in the studio, what are the processes that you would like to happen in the studio to serve your mission and your values and your culture, you want to be in a studio.”
Here is the link to Sophie’s handbook that she shares.
Part one ends with defining the roles and responsibilities of the team. It’s critical for game teams to break down all the possible situations where you’d need to act quickly, with everyone knowing how things should be dealt with. Sophie brings up a great example: “There’s a critical life bug. What do we do? Who is responsible for what here?”
All these steps need to be taken so that the team has systems in place for unplanned events.
Part 2: Healthy studio culture
Leaders need to be proactive about the culture that they have in the team. If the culture is organically formed, behaviors that aren’t wished but still creep into everyday work.
I love this one quote from Brent Gleeson, a leadership coach, and Navy SEAL combat veteran. He writes, “Organizational culture comes about in one of two ways. It’s either decisively defined, nurtured, and protected from the inception of the organization, or—more typically—it comes about haphazardly as a collective sum of the beliefs, experiences, and behaviors of those on the team. Either way, you will have a culture. For better or worse.”
In video 7, Sophie talks about your studio values as the bedrock for building a culture. You could say that defining your values is the way to define your culture. Her studio values go as follows:
- Growth mindset. We are learning new things every day, except that we should unlearn things as new information surfaces.
- Intellectual humility. Understand and respect other people’s different viewpoints and ways of thinking.
- Team player. “We want to go for the win, but as a group, and not just as a single individual.”
- Player-centric. “I talk about the players. I show testimonials. And when we make design decisions, I often ask, ‘Why do you think it’s better? Is it because you think it’s better? Or do you think it’s better for a player?'”
In video 8, Sophie talks about how she uses Self Determination Theory for mapping out each team member’s motivations. “Money and other external rewards won’t feel you. We want to discover what are the intrinsic motivations that would drive the individuals. Think about these three pillars for self-determination theory for your team.”
The feeling of competence comes from learning and developing: hiring, development talks, mission card, and task assignment.
A feeling of autonomy comes from doing things you wish to do: clear areas of responsibilities, transparent processes, a clear mission, and context and transparency.
Feeling of relatedness: weekly retro, kudos, and praise, performance feedback, and impact on players.
To me (Joakim), this brings to the surface the thought of a well-organized polar expedition in the early 1900s. You are preparing well for your mission. There are deadlines, the funding will only last for 12 months, your team will eventually be disbanded, but you are on a mission to achieve something.
The Masterclass shares some valuable ops templates and tools for creating systems for your studio: Quarterly and Yearly Reviews, Studio reflections, Public or private praise on Lattice, and sharing the player feedback.
Part 3: Tactical guide for hard things
The final segment was the favorite part for me of this Masterclass. The topics that came up are the keys to becoming antifragile. These are trust, healthy conflict, showing vulnerability, and confronting fears.
Trust. Trust develops from working on projects together, you say that you’re going to do something, and then you do it. But trust also develops from sharing about yourself, having people’s backs, and having the team’s best interests in mind.
In the Masterclass, Sophie shares how she’d build trust in a game team. She says there are no quick wins; it needs to be built over the long term. You need to work on it every day.
In video 12, Sophie talks about the ways to build trust in gaming:
1. Ship and kill games together. A shared system, with shared goals, and you work in the team together.
2. Know each other, personally. People aren’t resources; they are humans with dreams and hopes. Bring that into the workplace. Do stuff outside of work. Remote work on Discord or Zoom.
Healthy conflict. We’ve all been in meetings where things were said, and we didn’t speak up. People always default to conflict avoidance. They don’t want to make enemies or harm the projects they are working on. It might not be safe to speak your mind in fear of being punished for your behavior.
Sophie nails it when she says, “Without trust, you can’t have healthy conflict inside the team.” So why is healthy conflict significant? It’s because you want to surface different viewpoints. Diverse teams can have several views and opinions, and that can lead to better solutions. As Sophie says, “There is no wrong way of thinking. There is no right or wrong.”
In Sophie’s team, she has incorporated lessons from the book Culture Map, and they’ve chosen to work with Direct Negative Feedback. And they have explicitly stated that they want to work this way.
Showing vulnerability. The quintessential leader is charismatic. They can rally the troops to take on challenging projects and puts the company’s mission into the forefront of people’s minds. But leaders should talk about the mistakes that they’ve made. Showing vulnerability with your people will let them know that it’s OK to fail and that talking about failure and the lessons you’ve learned OK.
In video 14, Sophie talks about her article What I wish I knew when building a new game studio, where she shared her mistakes in 2020. Doing this public sharing is an excellent example of what showing vulnerability could look like. As Sophie says, “it’s a very good exercise also for journaling, to sharing your top mistakes with your team, with your peers, with the industry, and very freeing exercise as well.”
Confronting fears. Your project hasn’t been progressing as you intended. The soft launch numbers have been quite bad, which was unexpected. You plan on taking Friday off and having some time to relax and think things through. Then you return on Monday after a long weekend, but the problems are waiting for you at work. You have fears that the project needs to be killed.
Sophie talks about fear setting as a process to work on your fears so that you are in control of your destiny and not the fears being in the driver’s seat. There’s a TED talk from Tim Ferriss, where he shares his exercise for Fear Setting. In this blog post, you can learn more about the technique, get the template for analyzing your fears, and eventually get over your fears.
I highly recommend this Masterclass from Sophie Vo. An antifragile team is a team where circumstances won’t control the team, but the team will control the circumstances.
Here’s the link to my review on Sophie’s previous Masterclass, Hiring for game studios.