How One Mobile Game Developer Automated Success, And You Can Too

These tips will help your team use structure to add more creativity without taking anything away.

It’s a fairly common misconception that unleashing creativity requires getting rid of processes and requirements. People often think that the more process you involve in a goal, the more holes you poke for creativity to leak out of it. In our experience at Pocket Gems, constraints can actually be beneficial in getting the most creative results from your team.

Most entertainment businesses are the kinds of hits-driven enterprises that only succeed when you have original and fun ideas that delight your players. Because games are also a software business, we need to balance that with operational rigor: We can’t have bugs, we have to hit our release schedules and budgets, and so on.

People can be creative and operational, but not at the same time. Early on, we had a big hit with our game, Tap Zoo, which immediately went to number one in the App Store. At that stage of the company, the same people were running Tap Zoo while simultaneously working on our next game. We soon learned that this process didn’t work. Running the game required paying close attention to players’ habits and finding bugs. It’s exceedingly difficult to do that and also whiteboard new concepts and think up something that’s never been done before. The tasks require totally opposite mindsets.

We still think it’s important for the people who created a game to run it after it launches, but there’s now a clear understanding that some of the people on the development team will move on to the next project. Also, we rotate people onto the development team at different points so that more people are exposed to the inner-workings of the game and someone is always bringing fresh ideas to the table through all phases of development. By the time the original leader of the game moves on, there’s a successor who is fully in charge and understands the business.

Automate as much process as possible.

We have really rigorous standards at Pocket Gems. Our developers have to follow hundreds of guidelines when creating a new product. This would become totally overwhelming and kill creativity if it was just a checklist that we gave people. To overcome this, we’ve automated our development process. The result of this automation is that developers are made aware of just the few constraints that they have to figure out how to meet.

These restraints are things like the frame rate, file size, and the amount of memory something uses. If some code doesn’t meet our standards it gets bounced back to the developer who then has to figure out a way around the problem. These kinds of focused constraints force people to be more creative while creating the best possible product.

With this process, no one has to worry about crashing the servers or breaking things—they just need to invent innovative ways to accomplish the task at hand.

Hire generalists.

Like a lot of startups, we want people who have a broad set of interests and are interested in and capable of doing more than one thing. Almost everyone we hire can do every job in his or her function and probably some others. This allows us to move people around from team-to-team pretty freely. It also helps eliminate the barriers between different functions and blurs the lines between jobs.

Often, great ideas come from just outside a discipline. Putting people in a position to see how things intersect by blurring the boundaries between what people do is one of the key aspects of fostering creativity.

Have a set lunchtime.

This may sound silly, but it turns out to make a big difference. Like a lot of startups, we provide daily lunch for our employees. It’s always a mixed menu and, as it happens, some things are always more sought after than others. The best food tends to go quickly, so each day when our office manager sends out an email saying that lunch is served, people descend on the break room. Now it’s part of our culture.

Getting everyone together like this really helps creativity as people talk to one another about what they’re working on and boundaries between functions and teams come down very quickly. The ship-to-ship battles in our game Tap Paradise Cove came about this way. A developer who wasn’t working on the game was talking to some who were and said he had a cool idea for a feature. He sketched it on a napkin. We built it and it has done really well for us.

Since the company’s founding in 2009, we’ve had plenty of time to explore what works and what doesn’t when creating fun mobile experiences. Just as great design is the right balance of function and art, great game design happens at the crossroads of creativity and process.

Ben Liu is the CEO of Pocket Gems, a Sequoia Capital-backed mobile entertainment company and one of the pioneers in free-to-play mobile games. Prior to Pocket Gems, Ben led Playdom's largest studio (acquired by The Walt Disney Company). Previously, Ben was a producer at Bioware/Pandemic leading up to acquisition by Electronic Arts as well an early iPhone product manager at EA Mobile.

[Image: Flickr user H. Michael Karshis]

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