Serving as a Leader

A selfless mindset in the world of Independent Game Development.

Being a leader is one of the toughest jobs in any industry. Video game development is no exception. The leader not only takes responsibility for him/herself, but for the entire team. The amount of responsibility exceeds the teams combined responsibility for the project. It’s the only job on the team where an individual can have all of the professional art and technical skills in the industry and still be absolutely worthless. And if that is not enough, a bad leader quickly becomes damaging to the team, possessing the power to push a project to its death. A leader can hammer a wedge between him/herself and the team with a single text message.

Why is it so difficult to find a great leader?
I believe that 99% of the problems in this world are caused by one simple flaw in the human race; self centeredness. We are self-centered beings that fight for domination over our fellow man. Our species naturally seeks control over every possible scenario we face. We are so controlling, we would have statistics to prove that. We are a race that requires democracy to preserve freedom. We must sacrifice control to save ourselves from it. The founders of the United States recognized this. They feared control and designed a system of laws to protect the freedom of their newfound land. Because of self-centeredness, eventually, inevitably, it will fail.

Now what?
So, how do we, as leaders of an Independent Game Development Team, behave in a manner that allows for maximum productivity without losing control of the project? If Occam’s razor is applied, I believe the simplest answer would be ‘with love for one another’. Cliche? Good. I have heard that word tossed around quite a bit during my short time in the game industry. I hear it so much, actually, that the word itself sounds ‘cliche’ to my ear. But the fact is that truth remains simple, lies create complication. This whole article, therefore, should be nice and ‘cliche’ for you.

The Mindset
So, to understand the mindset of a great leader, we must define “love”. Love is a feeling of care for another and with it comes a desire to put that feeling into action. “Action” is the keyword here. Because only when love is put into action, does it have a positive effect on mankind. Otherwise, love is wasted on oneself. This, I believe, is the heart to the mindset of a true leader. A true leader loves his project, his family, and is willing to sacrifice for it.

Furthermore, Love is a God given pay-it-forward system that is so powerful, just seeing it put into action is enough contact for it to be able to reach inside of a man and overturn his heart. It is strong, solid, and desires growth. Love is exactly what a team requires to be whole, and the team is looking for exactly that from the team leader. That is an incredible responsibility at which we all frequently fail before succeeding. It is not easy to love.

Recognize the Enemy
Love and selflessness are only rivaled by their opposing efforts of hate and selfishness, which cause destruction and division. This enemy corrupts from the inside. It is a cancer that attempts to hide until it is strong enough to consume its host. How do we beat something that is part of who we are? The answer is, we don’t. Instead, we struggle with it. We wrestle the beast to the ground, holding its throat until it stops breathing. Take your hand away and it involuntarily breathes again. Its toxic breathe fills the room. The best we can do is expose the enemy for what it is, and then confront it.

What is your major malfunction?
It’s time to analyze yourself. Before you can expect a change in any relationship, you first have to be willing to change yourself. So, what is your problem? What kind of involuntary issues should you be dealing with? If we take an honest and humble look at ourselves, we might see what we are really made of; selfishness and weakness. Now, make a list. Ask your spouse. Ask your parents. Acknowledge your human nature and then do something about it! Hold yourself accountable for your actions and desires. This will be one of the most difficult things you have ever done and the payoff will be remarkable. You will start to see improvements in every aspect of your life.

Pull up your pants.
When you feel brave enough to admit your faults, bring it up at the next meeting. Be open and sincere. Explain to them that you want to better your relationship with your team by serving them as their leader. Now, ask your team to make a list of their own flaws to present at the next meeting. By exposing and then discussing these weaknesses with purely positive intent, you will bring a level of acceptance to each individual on the team. As well, one man’s strength is another man’s weakness. You can use this knowledge to strengthen team weakness, and better utilize team strength. Keep tabs on each other. Care for them. Ask them how they are doing. Make this a routine part of meetings. It ends up being a weight off of everyone’s shoulders. The fear of being a lesser individual on the team is lifted and in its place is set a loving acceptance.

It’s alright that the animator has an anger problem. The fact that the lead programmer is an obsessive controller becomes less of a problem and more of a way to bring the team closer together. Besides, this controlling man is most likely having the same problems at home with his wife and kids. Now that the team has recognized the problem, they can now sympathize and help him improve his life, not just at work, but home as well. The team becomes something he relies on in his life in order to be a better man. He has a 2nd family to help him fight his weakness. It’s good.

Accepting Failure
Now that you have a family, be accepting of failure. We must accept failure. We do this with humility. Swallow your pride. Come to terms with the fact that we do not have control over anything but what we are given on a day-to-day basis. Period. We have a limited free will and a limited amount of time to use it. Achieving this understanding is key to having a stress… free… project.

Shedding the Fear
It is okay to fail. It is NOT okay to allow fear of failure to hinder your project or make decisions for you. Putting fear into your team is not productive. It will cause them to, wait for it… be afraid of failure! Failure should be accepted as part of the learning process. We try. We fail. We fall to our knees. We stand up, rehabilitate ourselves, and screw it up all over again. We are humans. Stop expecting perfection. I often tell my team, “Go ahead, screw it up. Enjoy doing it.” My team recognises my lightheartedness and they respond with the will to fail trying. Team acceptance of failure can build confidence, motivation, and brings your team together, positively.

Self Control
Dealing with an upset team member is difficult. I was once confronted by an outraged woman as I was cleaning my car at a gas station. She was completely overcome with anger and was screaming at me. I did not know this woman or why she was yelling. I asked her why she was so upset. “Why are you mad?”, I asked. She paused, as if this was the first time somebody actually ever cared to ask. She told me that her son has terrible allergies and the cleaner I was using might cause him to have an asthma attack, as it was apparently blowing in his direction.

I could have easily been screaming back at this woman. Instead, I expressed my concern for her son with an apology. This kind of response should be the only option for a game development family. We need to have understanding and exercise self-control. Failure to do so may produce an angry ex-girlfriend with intentions of sabotaging the project, rather than an actual game. As team leader, you are ultimately responsible for this.

Discouragement vs Determination.
A great leader has the ability to respond to a negative by always foreseeing the possible positive outcome. Energy can be bottled up discouragement, and then relabeled with determination. Think positively.

What makes a true leader?
In conclusion, the solution to the problem is not to look to ourselves for the answer, but to recognise our desires and to turn away from them, leaving the selfish life behind to be replaced with a loving person who is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. Now, serve your team as a leader. After that, the rest will fall into place.

Be good to each other. God bless. Enjoy making games.

Adam Spade
Uncaged Games LLC
“Release your inner game.”