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Develop 10: Zeschuk On How Bioware "Do It"

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The day’s first Keynote is from Bioware, with Dr Greg Zeschuk is flying solo, as Ray is up to day 5 in the world series poker. I’ve just arrived in Brighton to find myself staring at the title: “Creative Game Development: How We Do It At Bioware”. And I’m sniggering to myself like an nine-year old, because I’m wondering whether it’s going to be a guide of how they “do it” at Bioware. Tell me about the romance options, Dr Greg!

Alas, the reality is a little more prosaic.

It’s a solid-key note, based around a single key idea. It’s basically about how you create and maintain a corporate culture – with Greg arguing that a key part of Bioware’s success is how across their fifteen years they’ve managed to keep this culture. The key idea being, they’ve deliberately tried to maintain the culture by their own deliberate actions.

Company Culture is basically created by three areas – the structures (as in, how everything is organised, whether you’re on separate teams, all mixed together), the people (as in, whoever you’re working for) and the “systems” (as in, policies and rules). Then there’s the chicken-and-egg of Values and Goals, both which facilitate one another.

Their values were codified as early as 2004, and could be listed as follows.

  • Quality Workplace
  • Quality Products
  • Entrepreneurship
  • All in a context of Humility & Integrity

The last is arguably the most interesting, but also proves the most elusive. The key quote struck me was Greg noting, almost as an aside, “You are only as good as your next game”. Games are not a medium where you can rest on your laurels – which strikes me as incredibly true for the hardcore part of the medium.

Quality Workplace is about pole-dancers in the office. No, I’m sorry. Not that sexist. Pole-dancers of both sexes in the office. No, I’m sorry again. Not objectification at all. It’s actually about making sure there’s a proper work/life balance, engaging employees interests and helping teams more than individuals. Quality product is obvious – trying to make the best story-lead games in the world and making each one better than the last. The last is – put simply – to try and be the best investment in the industry. Putting a dollar into Bioware should always lead to more than a dollar out. Greg argues that while the particular rule appeared later that the others, it was because the attitude was always there when they were a fledgling developer – because if it wasn’t there, they’d have gone bust.

The rules basically appeal to the workers, the fans and the investors respectively (though it’s worth noting that the investors would include the actual staff who’d own a stake in the company). Much of the rest of the presentation resolves how you can actually keep all those different elements happy without compromising, and some of the things they do to achieve them.

Some of the things to keep the developers happy were striking. For example, by having multiple projects, they’re able to make sure that each employee is working on a project they actually like – and if the situation means they have to stay on a project they’re now burnt out on, they talk about an exit plan (We need you to do six more months and then we can move you, etc). They also try to let the teams pick the projects they work on to make sure they’re invested. The anecdote about the Bioware Austin studio considering what to work on is illuminating. There were a mass of ideas of what they’d be working on their board. Then they get a call from Lucasarts about the Star Wars licence. Erk. They put the idea on the board alongside the other ones, and there’s mass geek excitement about doing it.

This perhaps illustrates something else – that they try and hire for the personality to fit the culture. Greg talks about turning down brilliant candidates who just don’t really fit how Bioware do things. Culture is a delicate thing and they have to fight to preserve it – while also recognising change is necessary and inevitable. When Bioware grew, Greg expresses sadness to see people leave… but they realised it was simply because the company’s goals (growth) were no longer actually compatible with the staff’s needs. It was actually a good thing they left, and both would have been hurt if they stayed.

This is all very human, but the actual interesting thing comes near the end where Greg admits how awkward a space AAA-console development is. In that if you’re in there now, you’re sorted. If you’re not there… well, it’s not the route that’s most likely to succeed. He then talks about how Bioware’s values were designed to succeed in the route they’ve taken… and by implication, the culture you should choose to build if you’re working towards the future should be different.

That puts the spin on the title: this is how Bioware do it. But, if you’re in the audience, this isn’t necessarily how you should do it. If you’re trying to make a micro-team environment of small people – an area Greg particularly finds hopeful – it’s going to require different decisions (Bioware now have micro-teams of their own working inside Bioware on smaller projects). If you’re trying to make a facebook or flash game, you’re going to want to create a different culture to support that. Just think about what you’re doing, what you’re trying to build… and what company you have to build to achieve those goals.

I’ve also just been thrown by Greg recognising me in the Develop corridor, despite the fact I haven’t seen him for the best part of a decade. I wish I had that memory for faces. Man!

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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