Trust and leading a creative team ...

This week sees the fourth anniversary of the launch of Age of Conan. Now while I don't usually 'talk work' here on the blog, I can't let the opportunity pass without a little comment on what has made the last four years so special. Now, the game stuff itself you can find out there on the magical interwebs, we've done interviews with both MMORPG and Massively, if you want to read up on our thoughts for the future of the game and such, and check out the details of the anniversary gifts for the players ... after all, who doesn't like a good old fashioned birthday present! 

I have had the pleasure of leading this team for quite a while now! So the anniversary did inspire some thoughts on what it means to lead a creative team like this.

Working on this game, and this license, was one of the most unexpected pleasures I have in a professional capacity. As most of you know, I wasn't involved in the creation of the original game, and was brought in when the game launched to help fix some of the problems that the title had at launch, and have been here ever since. I never thought I would run a team as large, or as high profile, as this one. Life sometimes throws you the most absurd curveballs, that take you so far out of your comfort zone that it is not always amusing.

You have to take those opportunities, even when they scare the crap out of you! 

I was very comfortable doing what I was doing before that day. I was running two small teams, making great games we all believed in, one with an awesomely dedicated community in Anarchy Online, and one that was starting out back then as a mere notion of what it would later be, in the shape of what would become Pets Versus Monsters. I never hide the fact that I like small team set-ups, they are inherently more involving, easier to manage, and to plot a course for. Of course they do have their own challenges and  headaches, but by and large I was comfortable. I had great teams on those games, and I trusted them and thus knew what we was doing. I had a degree of confidence in myself and my teams through familiarity and knowledge. 

Age of Conan was a different beast altogether. 

Suddenly I had two hundred plus people to organize, massive expectations, a game I only knew from the outside, some already irate players due to the launch issues, and a lot of people depending on us turning it around. It can be a very overwhelming experience. It was certainly intimidating, and I think if I had approached it as thinking that I personally could fix things, I think I'd have failed spectacularly. 

Thankfully I also had a lot of amazing people around me. Too many to call out individually, for fear of offending someone by forgetting them! The teams we have had on the project down the years are really the ones who deserve all the credit.

The main piece of advice I would give to anyone who finds themselves in that situation, is to quickly learn (or teach yourself!) how to trust the key people on a project of that size. You can't possibly micro-manage everything, it would kill you with stress. However the issue is it is also often counter intuitive. In those early days your gut often tries to tell you that someone has picked you to make these decisions, and has faith in you, so if you want to delegate you have to fight that instinct that you always know best. The fear of course is that someone else will make poor choices, and it will be on your behalf!

I simply can't imagine running a team of any significant size if you don't conquer that fear. 

...because at the end of the day it's a trust thing. Trusting someone else, someone who isn't you, in particular when it is most definitely your rear end on the line, is one of the hardest things in the world to do. 

However it is also possibly the most important thing you can do.

I can't stress that enough.

Leadership is often mistakenly believed to be the ability to personally make good decisions. I can almost guarantee you, that if you make all the decisions on a project on that scale yourself, or even try to, you are cursing yourself with a burden that will most likely swallow you whole. You will run the risk of becoming your very own internalized Captain Ahab.

To me leadership is more about trusting other people to make good decisions, and creating the atmosphere and situation which is conducive to them doing so. Of course you are going to steer and suggest, but at a fundamental level, I genuinely believe that creative teams function better when they are trusted and empowered. Then they feel a sense of ownership, and are bought into the game, and will care far more about the results. A leaders role is to inspire that ownership, and belief in what the team are doing. 

That in itself is often a huge challenge because on a large team you won't just have one clear voice coming up the chain. Just as with players and customers, there will be dozens of suggestions, ideas, and designs coming across your desk, not all of them will agree. You will have the outside pressures from other departments, like management and marketing to balance and keep in the loop as well. That is where your leadership comes in. You will have to choose who to support, and which ideas to support and move forward, and explain to all those involved why a particular path was chosen. That is where leadership comes in. At the end of the day the team do have to trust you, so sharing the thought process is often vital, as there is rarely a clear cut 'right' and 'wrong' choice when plotting the course for any ongoing project. You will have to say 'No' far more often than you will get to say 'yes', and still have to motivate people!

That is where you, as a lead, manager, director, or producer, earn your paycheck. 

That is where you demonstrate your skills to maintain the environment where the staff trust that decisions are being made carefully and thoughtfully. It is often more important that your team understand why a decision was made, rather than necessarily agreeing with it. They often simply need to be comfortable with the fact that all the opinions have been listened to, and that you can explain to them the 'why' of any course, and that you don't believe yourself to be infallible. Then in turn those above you trust that the best available course of action is being taken, and will hopefully give your team the space to get it done.

That is where you create consensus and understanding. 

That all hinges on your ability to generate those bonds of trust.

That trust is the key.

It is the scariest and the most rewarding lesson to learn when leading any team. While I derive a lot of pride from what we make here at the studio, I get a lot more pleasure from seeing the people involved, grow, develop and mature into the next generation of good designers, producers and directors ...

... because I want to be able to play the games they will make in the years to come!


Mark Fronstin said…
This has really inspired me for leading my guild.
Craig Morrison said…
Indeed! hadn't thought of it in that way, but it probably holds very true. Many guilds are even larger (and have more varied player preferences) that your average production team! I would definitely recommend taking a similar approach with the management of any large group of people, or organisation.
Anonymous said…
I imagine that running a major guild is even more demanding as technically, no-one HAS to listen to you :p It's not like work where you can just fire them if they get too far out of line.

Guild leaders have a really thankless task!

Good read, encouraging to hear seniors in any industry take that approach to their teams. Want to come and lecture to my bosses??
Loki Lyesmyth said…
Intresting to read, and indeed very similar to what i have encountered running the guild. Also i would like to congratulate you Craig, i was one who escaped after the first month, and returned half year later, to see all the good job you and your team did.
Pity thou that latly lack of PvP addition makes my curse you ;)