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EGD News #134 — "Braintrust" greenlight

EGD News #134 — "Braintrust" greenlight

Sent on May 13th, 2022.

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Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen said in an interview in 2021,” We don’t greenlight games. We greenlight teams.”

In another podcast, Paananen elaborated on how he’s seen teams get formed and game concepts being born out of settings that allow for serendipity.

“The usual story was: we didn’t have anything else for these guys to do. They’re sitting somewhere in the corner of the office, and they’re just doing whatever they wanted to do. They were flying under the radar, so to speak, and then the next thing, you know, this amazing game comes out. And then I start to think that ‘Wow, these amazing games come out, not because of me, or the processes that I put together. They come out, despite all the things that we’ve done here.'”

This model has become known as the independent teams. These teams get full autonomy in proving that their game can be successful. They get all the resources, they get all the time, and they get to make all the decisions. Nothing stands in their way.

This model has been proven: after Supercell hit it big with their games Clash of Clans and Hay Day in 2012, generating billions in revenues, they kept going. They put out three more hit games (Clash Royale, Boom Beach, Brawl Stars) in the following years. Each is built by an independent team; games with very different ones on game mechanics or IP. These games were not sequels, and they were not “ordered” by the management team but originated and came to fruition from the game teams themselves.

One aspect that I am curious about in the independent team approach is how teams receive support in finding a successful game.

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Pixar’s Braintrust function, as I’ve written about Braintrust previously. In Creativity, Inc., Pixar’s co-founder Ed Catmull writes:

“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticism. Lack of honesty, if unchecked, leads to dysfunctional environments.”

Every few months, Pixar organizes meetings where people openly discuss the progress of their movies. The goal is to put intelligent and passionate people into a room, evaluate the film and where its problems are, and then to encourage them to be honest and open with each other. The Braintrust doesn’t have any authority, and everyone is equal in the meeting. There’s trust, respect, and honesty in these meetings.

The Braintrust team comprises people who have a deep understanding of the subject and usually people who have been through this process themselves. The meeting creates feedback that can be immensely helpful for the team.

After a Braintrust meeting, the directors and producers of a movie can go back to their work to address issues in the meetings.

Note: Braintrust doesn’t have any authority, but because of the trust and respect that everyone has towards each other at Pixar, the team can never ignore the feedback. They will need to address it one way or another.

The Braintrust is why Pixar has continuously created successful movies for thirty years.

King’s “Braintrust” greenlight process

Many companies have been experimenting with the Braintrust model. King seems to have been working on their procedure for years. In this GDC talk from a few years ago, they talk about the struggles of getting it right.

I asked around from ex-King people what things were like when it came to the Braintrust. Many said that King had no difficulty setting up Braintrusts for art and code. But when it came to Braintrust sessions on game design and product, they always got turned into product reviews and presented their project to a panel of experts that would greenlight the project. You could have unwanted repercussions from a failed presentation. As a result, teams had less independence and a minor say in continuing their project.

Comparing the Supercell model, Pixar’s Braintrust, and King’s braintrust, a spectrum of decision-making appears.

For Pixar, the format is straightforward. They know what kind of products they want to make, which helps run a well-functioning braintrust. When it comes to games, many questions can’t be answered through discussion, especially when things are early and the team needs to commit months of development on a playable version of the game.

There’s another way.

I want to share some criticism regarding the independent teams model. If there are no clear guardrails on pulling the plug, allowing an unsuccessful project to run indefinitely becomes costly financially and from the creative perspective. Valuable resources are not allocated elsewhere where they could contribute to achieving success.Another priority was to make Apple more entrepreneurial and startup-like. So we immediately reorganized, drastically narrowed the product line, and changed compensation for senior managers, so they get a lot of stock but no cash bonuses.Steve Jobs, 2000

When it comes to the aspects of what works, I’m a firm believer in giving independence and ownership. I’d also make things more explicit.

All game developers should embrace early validation. They should set goals and prove that they can reach these goals. In a way, teams have to operate like small startups; Studio heads could consider educating staff in “The Lean Startup” and tackle the strain on shared resources.

Because we know so much more about making successful games than ever before, I think there’s an excellent opportunity to remove top-down greenlighting. Instead, game studios could rely on company culture. Stating values explicitly like:

1) We listen to feedback, ask for feedback, and provide feedback. Examples: Braintrust feedback sessions, continuous playtests, encouragement of sharing ideas, work time allocated for prototyping, and game jams.

2) We are all capable of making decisions for the greater good. If we don’t know what to do, we ask for help. Example: Teams do their own greenlight based on what is best for the company, and they are provided assistance to do that well.

What does management do? They safeguard this culture and keep evolving it as the company moves through time. Making games is hard, and we need to allow the work to happen without interference, but not without support.

(Photo by Luis Quintero)

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Neil McFarland and Matthew Ryan — Pivoting from F2P to Web3

In this week’s episode, I’m talking with Neil McFarland and Matthew Ryan from First Light Games, a game studio based in London, UK. The founders started the company a few years ago, to work on free-to-play games for mobile, but last year, decided to pivot to web3 gaming, and are now about to launch their first game, Blast Royale.

In this episode, we talk about the funding models that the founders have used in web3, what the challenges our in getting the tokenomics right, and how to build a core team in web3 gaming.

Listen to the full episode by going here.

Some useful templates from EGD

Articles worth reading

How to validate your startup idea — “Christina started out on a couch with her co-founders, tossing around ideas for several months. Her advice? “Don’t do this.” She elaborates that when you’re at the idea stage, it’s easy to poke holes in everything if you ideate in a bubble: all the ideas are flawed, you’re limited by what you already know (which might be a lot, but it’s still a small subset of what the market knows), and it’s hard to get real feedback from anyone when you’re just talking through hypotheticals. Instead, she recommends getting out into the market, having conversations, and testing early models.”

Which Blockchain to Build Your Game Upon — “You may want to really understand the difference between a Layer 1 and Layer 2 chain. Layer 2s are usually more experimental and unproven and work at the behest of the Layer 1 — thus a bit riskier of a foundation. But they also are usually more modern, efficient, and tailored for gamers.”

Releasing mobile F2P hits over and over — “Supercell taught us all that to get hits you need to kill games, and most likely any new game development will end up being canned or failing. But if a failed project doesn’t generate valuable knowledge for the next one, then it hasn’t improved your chances of success. It’s just wasted money.”

Quote that I’ve been thinking about

“A rational person can find peace by cultivating indifference to things outside of their control.”

— Naval Ravikant

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