Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kellee Santiago Speaks on Managing Creative Talent Within Indie Studios

Kellee Santiago, of thatgamecompany, hosted a lecture today emphasizing the importance of managing creative talent within Indie studios at the Independent Games Festival, part of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The core team of her studio started with 3 people and steadily grew to 7 over the last three years. But despite constantly dealing with contract workers during her studio's game projects, the important piece of her discussion today was aimed towards managing full-timecreatives of an Indie studio instead.

"The focus here will be on your full-time employees, who are probably slash some of your best friends right now," Santiago said, a nudge of sorts toward a key issue for Indie teams, as they transition from creative relationships based off of their early friendships to a more organized format required for business.

Santiago went into specifics by sharing the personal growth and experience at thatgamecompany, and pointed to the creative arguments that began occurring regularly within the group at a very critical moment for the studio last year.

Following the fantastic response from critics to the first showing of their last game, "Flower" at E3 2008, and an offer from Sony aimed at giving them more time and money towards the development of the game, the team was suffering from an all-time low morale within the company and some severe growing pains.

To help the attendees understand her company's situation, Santiago gave a pop quiz to the audience with questions that switched between topics of trust, to then conflict, commitment, and lack of accountability; a laundry list of problems that were contributing to issues at her studio. As one of the the co-founders of her company, Santiago admitted to struggling with knowing when to get involved in the arguments, knowing that on many times when she did it was from being over protective of her staff.

With the help of consultants, the collective of thatgamecompany were able to sort out their issues by identifying the key problems, and then enabling solid management techniques within the company to help address them. They found that there was a growing fear of conflict or the avoidance of conflict between team members, hidden under the guise of thinking that "the game just needed to get done", Santiago said.

For any Indie studio today, Santiago's lecture could hopefully be viewed as solid advice, and she touched on a very human part of the game development process that is never talked about in the daily public relations cycles or information that is passed on to the gaming press.

Santiago closed her lecture by comparing her company's situation to a bad early relationship. "It took (us) a while to learn that its not going to get any better, and that we had to change something here," Santiago said. "But now that we are more mature agency, we can see the signs much more clearer. You can see them a mile away."


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