Rock Stars vs Superstars at Work

I started reading the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott after several team leads in the games industry mentioned it being the best management book they’ve ever read. There’s a section in the book about understanding what motivates every member of your team, and working toward managing with that in mind.

She talks about knowing who your “rock stars” and your “superstars” are—this idea apparently came from another team lead at Apple with whom she worked. Rock stars are the people who enjoy their craft and are reliable and consistent in their work. They don’t necessarily want to “move up”. As she says in the book, “not all artists want to own a gallery; in fact, most don’t.” Superstars are ambitious and need to be constantly challenged and given opportunities to grow. A large part of the rest of this section in the book explains how one is not inherently better than the other, and how your bias—as a boss or simply as a person with a personality—can lead to thinking that one type of worker is superior.

Most importantly, how you reward these different personality types should be very different. The rock star type doesn’t necessarily want the promotion, and the superstar doesn’t necessarily want the stable, fixed-duration contract.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/Kiss-live-at-allphones-arena-070.jpg
Rockstars and superstars but not rock stars? I dunno.

It’s interesting to think of these people in the context of the games industry for a few reasons. First off, can you think of people on your team who are (paraphrased from the book): a force for stability, ambitious outside of work or simply content in life, and happy in their current role? Can you, on the other (and equally positive) hand, think of people who are: a change agent, ambitious at work, and wanting new opportunities?

Second, when you’ve hired in the past or if you’re planning to hire in the future, what level of ambition (if we want to call it that) are you looking for? How much is your personal bias a factor in this decision? Do you know what the other folks are thinking who are equally responsible for hiring? Maybe in the case of a work-for-hire studio, you know which projects you’re hiring for and you want more of a rock star to get the job done within budget, on time and without stress. Alternatively, maybe you’re just branching off to start a second project in your studio and you’re looking for a person who can start off as a programmer, move to team lead, and then run an entire project on their own within two years.

I thought this was an interesting reminder to check my biases. Hopefully this—and surely the rest of this book—will help make me a better manager. Either way, food for thought!

Two Problems with "Mark Unread"

If your job is anything like mine, you need to do deep concentrated work but you also have to be on top of things outside of your control, like responding to people and fielding tasks that pop up seemingly randomly.

In my quest to become more productive and less distracted, I’ve been doing my best to focus on one task at a time, and I try to get that concentration by ignoring additional things that come up. Ignoring, in this case, means seeing a notification for something business-related or seeing an email pop into my inbox and marking it as “unread” after reading it.

Two problems with this.

The first is that I probably never should have seen the notification in the first place. I shouldn’t have the email tab or Outlook client open on my computer at all when trying to focus, and I shouldn’t be getting Slack notifications for something that isn’t urgent.

The second problem lies in acknowledging the distraction. If I’ve opened an email, I’ve read it, and I’ve wasted time. I’ll have to re-read it before responding anyway, plus I’ll probably have to slot it into my email priority list (even if that list is only in my head).

Here’s a puppy to break up the text for ya. Pictures of email are boring.

Some ways I’ve been trying to improve this:

1. My “focused task” window is now the same one where my email is, meaning that while I’m doing my task, the email tab can’t be in focus. I have two monitors, and I used to have email open on one screen and whatever I was doing—manipulating an Excel doc, writing a blog post, whatever—on the other. I’ve switched it so that I have my task list on one screen with the current task or some reference open, and the screen where email once was is switched to my working task so I don’t see email pop up.

2. I clean up my inbox at certain times in the day. Usually this is first thing when I arrive, right after or before lunch, and at the end of the day. Anything that comes into my inbox can wait a few hours, if not a few days.

3. I use gmail filters to tag emails automatically when they come in, which gives me a head-start on prioritizing. “Bills to Pay” emails are tagged and red, “Bug Reports” are pink, “Learning Stuff” is blue, and “Received Payments” is orange (you’d think I would have made it green but oh well).

3.b I only clean up things with a certain tag at larger intervals than my usual inbox clean-up. “Payments”, for example, need to be noted in our accounting software, documents need to be renamed and saved, etc. Nobody is waiting on this with any amount of urgency, so I do these once a week or so. “Bug Reports” need a quicker response, so every few days or couple of days I clear these out.

Do you have any tips for improving focus at work or managing things that pop up unexpectedly? Feel free to share in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Work Hack of the Day

Mini work-hack! I guess some would call it a life hack, but I’m not sure it helps your life so much outside your work—and if your work is your life there are other problems to address. Anyway, I’ve been using this cool thing called AutoHotkey at work, which allows you to set hotkeys to type things for you. Essentially, I press ctrl+shft+X and it works its magic.

I have one for my email, one for the date (types the current date), which is super useful for naming files since we name them with 2020-01-09 [filename] to keep things in order. I’ve got one for our work address, which makes form-filling much faster, especially when you have to fill a form in 13 times because it keeps breaking. And finally—after over 4 years of typing “Ultimate Chicken Horse” 90,000,000 times—created a hotkey for it. I probably could have saved an entire 24h of work time and a sore pinky if I had done this years ago.

All of the credit goes to my co-founder Kyler for showing me this, and of course to the people who make this software. I’m sure there’s other software that do the same thing, but AutoHotkey has been very reliable for me for years and it’s a non-profit company making an open-source software. Download it here.

At this point you may have gotten what you need from this post, which is that you should use something like this to speed up your life. If you want to know how I set up the software at Clever Endeavour, read on.

I don’t think there’s a more basic way to use this software than the way I use it, which essentially follows the first steps of the beginner tutorial. My script looks like this:

^+u:: ;Send UCH
Send, Ultimate Chicken Horse

^+a:: ;Send address
Send, 123 Sesame Street, Montreal, QC, H2E 3R9 

^+x:: ;Send email
Send, rich@somewherecool.com

^+d::  ; This hotstring replaces "]d" with the current date and time via the commands below.
FormatTime, CurrentDateTime,, yyyy-MM-dd ; It will look like 2018-01-29
SendInput %CurrentDateTime%
return

There are a ton of things that you can do with this software. At one point, Kyler was using it to do something like: open a program, move the mouse some number of pixels down and to the left, click, type something in, move the cursor again, press a button, and close the program.

Hope you enjoy! If you have questions, I’m probably not the best person to ask but they have damn good forums and tons of documentation exists about the software.

My Experience on the IGF Design Jury

I was on the jury this year for the Independent Games Festival design award, an amazing experience that made me rethink what good game design is, and what game design is in general. None of the stuff I’ll be talking about will reference games in any way that will divulge what games were played and nominated, and the fact that I was on the jury was made public a while ago. This post will talk about questions that came up in my mind, and I’ve saved the best and most controversial one for last.

The first thing that came up in discussions between the judges was the question of what constitutes game design, and where the limit is on what falls under design vs. some other aspect of the game. Keeping in mind that there’s also a Grand Prize to vote for, we started discussing. On one side of the spectrum, people will say that everything is design. How the audio interacts with the setting and the movement of the player, how the story interacts with game mechanics, the difficulty progression, the art style serving the game’s purpose—all of this is design. On the other end of the spectrum, people will say that design is what is left when you remove everything else: the art, the story, the environment, the audio—if you removed all of those things, are the underlying systems, level design, skill progression, reward systems, etc. well designed?

In our group, it seemed that the majority ended up agreeing that we should be looking at design as specifically the elements that designers touch, and the Grand Prize discussion would take into account more broad design things like how it all comes together. For this case, I concluded from discussion with judges that game mechanics themselves need to be cleverly designed, well balanced, and tie in with the other elements of the game, and the design has to be innovative in some way. Doing something that’s already been done—but doing it really well—is definitely praise-worthy, but I don’t think it’s what I imagine for the Design award for the IGF. As someone who tends to skew more on the side of “everything is design”, I was okay with this mostly because I put my favourites for all-around design as votes for the Grand Prize.

Opus Magnum by Zachtronics was the winner for design last year. I haven’t played it, but I’ve heard great things.

This brings up the point that our definition of design depends on what we’ve read and learned, and how we came to be game designers. In my case, I consider myself a designer but not “the designer” on my team, as we all pitch in on overall design tasks. We’ve never hired a designer whose job title isn’t either artist, programmer, or something else along with designer. That surely plays a large role in my feeling that the game design includes everything about the experience and not only its systems. I’m sure someone who did a bachelor’s and master’s degree in game design would have differing views on this.

Another question was how innovative the design of a certain game actually was. For example, I played a game which had a very innovative storytelling mechanic, and I thought it was incredible. Then, in discussion with other judges, I learned that the mechanic had actually been done several times in other games that I hadn’t played. That changes things. I didn’t have time to play all of those other games—some of which were 10 years old and on PS3—and so I had to rely on gameplay videos and other judges for input.

How good did the overall game have to be for it to win an award in design (or anything else)? How much is your opinion about the design mired by something like bad writing, or an inconsistent art style? Two points here: first, I think it’s unlikely that a game that fails miserably in some important facet (other than design) will be nominated for design, simply because people will not have had a good time with it and that will influence their thoughts about its design. Second, I think I would have trouble voting for a game for design if it was truly awful in another respect. Some of the games I saw were decent in writing or art but had great design, and that was good enough. Anyway, all of these questions came up and needed to be addressed while looking at the nine gazillion games that were played.

The last, and most fun question, involves whether or not good design = commercially successful games. Games were sorted by votes per view, to avoid giving an advantage to games that were voted for simply because they were popular and judges had already played them. It seemed that the top voted games in votes/view in design also happened to be mostly commercially successful games. This doesn’t give anything away because there were plenty of top design contenders that weren’t as commercially successful, just for the record. The question is: were games nominated for design because they were already popular and more people knew them? Or are well-designed games generally commercially successful because good design leads to good game sales? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about and discuss.

Thanks for reading! It’s been very enlightening and hopefully I’ll be invited back again!

Catching Yourself

I’ve been rushing to get an American Dollar credit card by the end of the month in order to pay a US supplier on time, and finally I got a confirmation email today (the 29th of the month) saying that everything is approved, the card is ready. That is, the card will be ready after 5 days of processing and 5-10 days of something else, so actually it will come in 3 weeks or so.

In my email response about this, I started off by writing something along the lines of: “Thanks for the help on this. I was hoping this would be quicker so that I could get my bill paid on time but I guess it’ll wait until next month.”

I caught myself before sending this. Was that last sentence necessary? Who did it help? Maybe it helped me to get some frustration off my chest, but that’s not a reasonable excuse. Did it help the bank to do their job better next time? Did it help the person to feel good about trying to push for this as quickly as possible? No.

Instead I wrote: “Thanks for the help on this. I’ll pay next month’s bill with the CC then!” The meaning is exactly the same, but without showing useless frustration or implying blame.

Moments like this happen all the time. Moments where you can catch yourself and say something much more useful for yourself, the person you’re speaking to, and the relationship between the two of you. Ask yourself: is what I’m about to say actually helping? What is the outcome if I refrain from showing frustration and keep my emotional reaction in check? How much is ego a factor in my behaviour? To me, there are two important reasons to do this.

The first is that I see relationships being strained all the time from a simple lack of awareness that what people are saying is for themselves and not for the other person or the relationship. The second is that often, reacting in a way that is not showing frustration, anger, upsetness, etc. will actually cause you to feel less frustrated, angry or upset.

See if you can catch yourself sometime today, or this week, and try to reflect on how you feel about it. You might be surprised!

Wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living?

I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast recently, and at the end he promoted his “five bullet friday” newsletter where he shares his five favourite things that he’s discovered during the week. These can be life-hacks, books, new strange things to ingest (supplements and otherwise), or whatever he feels like.

That got me thinking: wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living? Wouldn’t it be nice to work in a place where we can learn new things all the time? Or as a leader or owner of a business, wouldn’t it be nice to create a work environment where our colleagues can learn and develop themselves professionally?

Back to Tim Ferriss for a second though: wouldn’t it be nice if your day job was to interview people and learn new things? Many of these famous podcaster types (Tim, Joe Rogan, Chase Jarvis) support themselves by doing research, asking the right questions, and taking in massive amounts of knowledge. I wouldn’t try to rob them of the ridiculous amount of work they put in to get to this point, where people like Elon Musk and Lebron James will happily be on their podcast, and I also realize that at this point it’s somewhat self-perpetuating. Famous people come on the show, more people listen, more famous people accept invites to the show, etc. But I can’t help but think of how nice it would be to be constantly learning, speaking to the best of the best in various fields, and making money doing so.

But wait a second, can’t we get paid to learn already?

Post-docs and researchers are essentially doing that, though there are a couple of differences between the academic path and what I’m talking about. First off, they don’t tend to get paid very much for it. Generally they have to sacrifice some pay to follow their passion and research the thing they love. Second, they’re often learning very specific things for a few years at a time, if not longer. This hyper-focused learning can be fun for some, and that’s great for them and for everyone their research serves, but it’s not the same as learning about anthropology one day, followed by a day of neuroscience, astrophysics next, and politics after that.

Then I realized that maybe there’s a middle ground. And actually, there are two ways to achieve that middle ground. First, the work itself can inspire me (and even force me) to learn a wide range of different things related to my trade. Second, that work can leave me enough time in my personal life to learn the rest.

Fortunately for me, I’m one of the owners of Clever Endeavour Games, our game development company, so I can try to help create this magical place in both of those ways. Maybe you can too, if you’re a leader or business owner.

We decided, as a company, that we were going to allocate and dedicate time to learning, in whatever way we (and our employees) deem appropriate for our development within the company. That could be by prototyping new ideas, by taking an online course, or by honing our pre-existing skills.

This promotion of learning time in the workplace serves a number of important purposes. First, it allows our team to improve their skills, which they will bring to the table for current and future projects. Second, it shows that we value our employees and care about their individual development regardless of whether or not it directly impacts the company. Third, it helps keep employee morale up by making sure that they’re working on fun things part of the time. Lastly, it gives us a better chance of finding innovative and creative ideas, as we’ll be constantly drawing inspiration from new sources of learning and experimenting.

For me, I can split my time between the work I need to be responsible for (keeping the company alive, finances, bank stuff, accounting, management) and learning. This week that was in the form of learning a visual scripting tool for Unity (a game engine), next week it may be making art for a prototype I’ll start working on with that tool, or something else.

Regardless of how you choose to integrate learning into your company culture, workflow, or daily routine, I think it’s important to make the space for it and foster that creativity, innovation and happiness in your company and work life.

Some People Just “Have It”

I was speaking to my father last week about public speaking, and about the talk I’m going to be giving at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this March. I mentioned how there are some people who just “have it”, they speak and it comes out perfectly and everyone simply needs to listen to them. Then he told me a story.

He was at a law event, a dinner I believe, and someone wanted to make a little speech. Off the cuff, he broke out this flawless, heart-warming narrative thanking the partners for their service and he was met with thunderous applause for this improvised speech. Afterwards, my father told someone how impressed he always is that this guy can just whip out these speeches and deliver them with such grace, and without any preparation either. The response, from a friend of the speaker, was surprising. “You didn’t see him practice that in the mirror 6 times before coming into the room then, did you?”

It takes hard work and practice to be good at something. Often, if not always, the people who we think are “blessed” with innate talent are really just people who have worked harder than everyone else to get to where they are today. That could be with regards to sports, public speaking, academia, singing, or fine arts. Sure, there is some amount of genetic influence and some people are able to learn certain things more easily than others, but let’s not take away the fact that the people who are really exceptional at what they do have also worked their asses off to get there.

Paying them the respect they deserve for their skills humanizes them, and makes us realize that we can get there too through hard work and dedication. It also increases our ability to be proud of them and grateful for what they bring to the table, as opposed to resenting them because they’re simply born with talents that we don’t have.