“GSD and single malt makes for a long haul in game dev.”
Thank you, first off! I’m so glad you are here!
“Oh you are welcome, of course!”
Can you tell me what your current title is and where you work?
“My name is Melissa Bachman-Wood. I’m currently the General Manager of SGN’s San Francisco studio.”
Great. What are some of the shipped titles that you have worked on?
“At my latest adventure or just overall?”
Overall. I know that it might be a long list.
“It is a long list; I’ve been at this for a little while, a little over 18 years. I think at this point I couldn’t list off all the games I’ve worked on in some capacity.”
It doesn’t need to be all of them.
“Well, some of them I would like to forget. [Laughs] I got very spoiled early on in my career and the two big games I worked on the first couple years I was in game development, were Sim City 3000 for the PC, and the very first team for The Sims for PC. If you want to talk about some pretty intense formative years in the games industry then those are some examples.”
“I spent a lot of time in the PC games space, more than 10 years, and then moved on to consoles and downloadables. I did things on handheld and regular consoles, then later moved into the free-to-play space in web and mobile. I don’t know, it’s more than 40 games overall.”
So where did you grow up?
“I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”
That’s right! Steelers fan.
“Oh die-hard, YES! Die hard Steelers fan! Bleeding black and gold. [Laughs] It’s great living and working in Raiders and Niners country, let me tell you!”
Right. So, from Pittsburgh, which is much farther from the west coast.
“Yes, I moved out here to go to Cal. I came out here to go to university and then realized wow, I don’t have to shovel snow to get out of the house in the morning anymore? The weather is not hideous 9 months of the year? I should maybe stay here.”
So you went to Berkeley?
What did you major in?
“Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. How is that for a glamorous sounding major right there?”
What is that major?
“[Laughs] Think of it as a subset or specialization of mechanical engineering. Some of it is how things work – processes and business all combined in one – and figuring out how to streamline things and make them more efficient.”
“But, the extra nerdy part of me that translated from that into the games space was most apparent when I was a Development Director; to this day I will nerd out on things that cause us a 4% improvement in build times. ‘Ooh and we eked out another 3% on our memory savings work, and we’ve shrunk the bundle size by X, Y, or Z.’ Which is really stupid, not glamorous, and a little bit nerdy… and that’s part of who I am, and a really important part of what we do.”
How did you make the leap into video games?
“So, that leap was made by accident. I was doing other stuff entirely. I had done sales management, and helping out with compliance at a major corporation that was highly regulated. That was decidedly not fulfilling. Then there were some personal changes in my life like arrival of kid number 2 and a change in jobs for my husband at the time. I was like, no, no, it’s time for me to make sure I’m doing this full time, but I don’t want to be in management anymore, because my children were less than 2 years apart.”
“I ended up starting in the industry (this is also a story I was way too insecure to tell for too many years, because of how horrid people were to me when they learned it), as an assistant, to the VP of Product Development at Maxis. People would ask me ‘Why are you doing this? You seem over-qualified.’ And I would say, ‘yeah I know, I need something for which I’m over qualified, because I’m not working management hours anymore. You see these pictures of my small children?’ Little did I know… Pretty soon I’m helping out with budgets and financial planning and project management, and then I move into a production role.”
You were too good at your job.
“Well, one, let me move over and make room for my ego, and agree with you here. I was good at what I did and saw… I could get better and learn more if I did this, and I could help more if I do that over all of these game teams, and this is interesting to me. There were amazing people that I got to meet over the course of those early years at Maxis who I hope to know, or have the chance to work with, pretty much forever. Part of the reason that we all bonded so closely is because then we proceeded to go through hell together. That’s one of the things that happens in game dev, right?”
“The key is to ensure you are building a healthy environment, so that all of those people feel like it is ok to argue, and that it’s a safe place to screw up, as long as we learn from it.”
It’s war bond.
“Right! Exactly, somebody told us to go take that hill and we got really bloodied up on the way. Now we are all friends for life. We lost a few, we are all damaged, there’s shrapnel everywhere and here we are.”
But this is not an unheard of story. Someone who is in a role who obviously shows some sort of skill beyond what they are doing and a bit of a go-getter attitude because they don’t feel they are completely utilized in where they are. In fact this is how most people excel in the industry. They do something a little bit beyond what their current role is.
“Because that’s the only way in this industry that you are actually going to get a chance to work on something else: start actually doing it before somebody assigns it to you. We talk a lot about, and there are a whole line of products for (not to advertise for them), GSD (Get Shit Done). There is the mug and the mouse pad and sticker to go on your laptop. But having the GSD gene is a big part of being successful in the games industry. A lot of what we have to do is incredibly entertaining, thought provoking, and even intellectually exhausting sometimes. A whole lot of what it takes to get a game done is also really boring, monotonous, and necessary. So you have to be willing to take on the stuff that is not glamorous if you want to make it happen. Being able to look around and see what needs to get done, and being sort of relentless about making things happen, gets noticed and appreciated if you are in an environment that’s trying to get things done. I was in an environment that valued excelling. Everybody talked about going for a 95 metacritic or higher. Nobody was trying to ship a ‘C’ game. Everybody was always talking about Triple-A and building franchises, and doing this better than anyone else could do it. How we do it has to be better, and our end results have to be better, and the people we hire have to be better. That’s a little bit of pressure. The positive part of that is that it will actually cause people to push themselves. It will cause teams to push each other, too hard in some instances.”
Iron sharpens iron.
Ambition is core to the industry.
“It is. It is also a weakness that is exploited in many companies. That they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get away with, so I’ve seen my share of that too.”
Yes. Let’s step back, you are a general manager at SGN. What does a general manager do?
“Well I’ve been told I get to run a sports team if I’m the GM. That’s really what I keep waiting to get the chance to do. I was never going to get to be a Division 1 football coach, but I’ve been hoping something else comes around.“There’s a little bit of everything; what I have figured out is that some of the same titles mean different things at different companies, even at the executive level. CFOs are CFOs, that’s pretty well understood. CEOs are often external facing. Everything else at an executive level, even in the ‘C’ suite, has a lot of room for interpretation at a lot of companies. General Managers, as a whole, run multiple game teams, are responsible for their P&Ls, responsible for game quality, and for holding the line. You are the leader of leaders: it’s your job to grow games, businesses, and people. You spend a lot of time growing ‘stuff and things’ and teaching people.”
“Some things that I’m responsible for: building teams, hiring, growing, and retaining talent. My general philosophy is to find people who are better and smarter than I am, which is good business in a lot of ways. It’s also a wonderful reflection of my laziness. My world gets easier if I have a great team. My games get better if I have a great team. My great teams and my great games get better if I nurture them and offer people pointers on how to do things better, or remind people what’s coming 6 months down the line because I’ve been there enough times before. So that I can help them solve problems before they become insurmountable. I spend a lot of time doing a little bit of all of that, every day.”
One of the things that dawned on me working with you is that, I think this is typical of most management, in addition to the larger, overarching goal of managing the team and making sure that the company is profitable and is firing on all cylinders; it seems to also be managing personalities.
“Oh Lord yes. This is game development. That’s never going to be the easiest part of what we do. “
Right, but I think that is the one thing that I think in management roles or what people don’t necessarily see is that, managing personalities is half of the battle of creating a product, implementing a vision. So how have you learned or what techniques have you learned to deal with multiple personalities and different agendas and different views on how things should be done?
“Including multiple personalities and agendas all contained in one individual sometimes. It gets interesting, right? So one of the things that’s great about the games industry is unlike most other endeavors in the world, when you are in a creative development situation and you are having to build code that’s going to go at run time on whatever device or platform you are talking about… you’ve got brilliant mathematicians, programmers, physicists, writers, sculptors, animators, illustrators, project management people, bean counters, and everybody else, and they’re not just in the same building or working for the same company. They are on the same floor on the same project on the same team interacting together everyday. That produces a level of electricity in the air from creative tension which I find really inspiring, when it’s in a healthy environment. If you have an environment that’s overloaded with politics and dysfunction, I find it exhausting. The key is to ensure you are building a healthy environment, so that all of those people feel like it is ok to argue, and that it’s a safe place to screw up, as long as we learn from it. I’m not a big fan of that ‘let’s celebrate failure’ mantra that you hear a lot of. I’m a big fan of ‘let’s celebrate the lessons we learn when we screw up so that we don’t screw up again’. We can screw up bigger and better next time [Laughs].”
And then learn bigger and better for the next time.
“Exactly. But part of what happens, or the other side of it, is what you reference when you get people from all sorts of backgrounds. All sorts of intellectual approaches, cultures, educations, upbringings, social styles; you do not have a bunch of cookie cutter kids. That’s part of what makes good games really, really good: making sure that everybody knows what mission they are on, and they all know the part they are trying to play in it, but they are not all bringing the exact same ideas to the table. That’s the only way you end up with innovative features that people will agonize over and want to work on until 2:00 in the morning.”
“Being more tolerant of ideas and approaches that are not your own, always makes you a better leader.”
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Which sounds very cliche, except I have a rather driven, intense personality which makes me prone to ‘get shit done’ and make a lot of mistakes along the way [Laughs]. I’m not always interested in waiting to figure out, perhaps, the way that has a little more finesse. That’s been one of the major things that I’ve learned over the years.”
“Being more tolerant of ideas and approaches that are not your own, always makes you a better leader. I care really passionately about being a good leader. That includes me going, ‘oh, if I’m not accepting this simply because I don’t like where it is coming from, gotta call bullshit on myself for just a moment here.’ If I screw up in front of my team, I need to not play old-school Donald Draper era tactics for leadership, I need to admit it. I need to apologize for a bunch of reasons. One, if you apologize and try to fix things, then everybody can move on. Two, it shows them they should do the same for their teams. If you pretend that you can never make an error, then your team will not trust you – nor should they, because you apparently have piss poor judgement, and can’t see when you screw up.”
Trust is key to being productive.
“Right, and having leaders that you feel willing to respond to. If you feel like you can’t trust the person who is supposed to be leading you, you’re not going to give it your all. Part of what we want to do, if we want to make great games: we need our teams to give it their all. If you want to make sub-par crap then you maybe don’t need that, but… I don’t put up with the hard parts of game development because I want to make sub-par crap. You want to do something great. That’s hard, and requires making a lot of mistakes.”
“Another thing that I’ve learned is figuring out how different people like to be interacted with. When you are in a group scenario you can’t always cater to the individual, but you can have one on one conversations with people. I will rephrase things and give completely different direction to people who are in different roles, or who have different social interactive styles. I don’t mean that just in a Myers-Briggs indicator type of way; it’s how people interact in the workplace. Some people will need to be encouraged to be more forceful and more opinionated. Some people need to be told flat out that they need to acquire some filters and back it down a few so that you can encourage collaboration, if you have a group process that you are trying to fix. There is everything in between. I don’t always get it right, I just always try. That’s sort of the difference there. I also, frankly, have learned the importance of not losing my temper until it is absolutely necessary to do so.”
We were talking about this the other day, it is important to be, on a scale of 1 to 10 to be at a 6 at most times.
“Most times, if you are always running at 9 or 10 on the temper scale, people will learn, it’s the boy who cried wolf. People will learn not to listen to you.”
It’s white noise.
“ ‘Bachman’s mouthing off again right?’ I went through some of that in my career. I had to dial it back, and change it up. Sometimes if you are in one place for too long, and you established a reputation and you are trying to change, you have to leave. Human beings will have a fixed impression of who you are and what you want to do, right? Much better to go, ‘I need to know when to move to the extremes of the spectrum because I’m trying to make something happen.’”
“What’s interesting though, is running at 6, 9, or 2 means different things in different organizations.”
“At a 9 or a 10?.”
Yes. And it’s like “Wait a minute, how did we get there?”
“Exactly, some organizations are going to be very even-keeled, and outbursts of any sort (whether verbal or written), or even a look of intensity on your face, is going to produce a profound reaction. Then other organizations always operate at the 9 or 10 level. There’s yelling; sometimes it’s happy yelling, sometimes it’s angry yelling. There is always lots of ‘RRRAHR’ going on in the space and taking it up beyond that, someone is going to yell themselves hoarse. If they come across somebody, God forbid, who is quiet, they won’t know what to do.”
Exactly, “Why are you not at a 9?”
“Exactly [Laughs]. ‘Why are you not passionate enough about what you are doing?’ I’m very passionate, I just don’t need to yell about it. So, it’s important to understand what being a 6 means for whatever organization you are a part of. If you are building an organization from scratch, you need to think about those things along the way.”
So, you may have touched on this already but I’ll ask it because you might answer it differently. You’ve been in leadership roles for a while, what do you think is a trait or skill that is most important in your area of expertise?
“Ok. It’s interesting. This is one of those topics… like some components of game development and scalability. My current teams hear me talk about making things scalable and sustainable, at least 3 times a day. When I first got there it was at least ten times a day. So, now it’s a joke. ‘Ok, fine, she’s going to ask if this is going to scale.’”
“But it’s another one of those topics that I can stay up and talk about over scotch and talk about until 2:00 in the morning, because I actually care about it a lot. I got lucky enough early on in my career to have people who cared about it, and were willing to put up with me long enough to share some of that wisdom. I think really great leaders need to understand that it isn’t about them anymore. If you want to transition to become a leader, and this is true outside of the games industry too, it can’t be all about making yourself look good. It’s about helping your people to grow and learn and succeed. Because that’s where things happen. It’s not a one man or one woman show anymore. If you are in the indie space, it might be. If you are in the indie space, you’ve got 1 or 2 people working on a game and it’s less a discussion of leadership on the people front, and more of a discussion about feature innovation, or how you might be prototyping something. So really caring about growing your people, and picking the right people to mentor, and being willing to spend time with them is a big part of it. That’s the place where you get to have the conversations about defining visual quality or audio quality, playability, replay ability. There is the visceral component of ‘how is this going to feel in game play?’ Or ‘How do we move things around in this level so the user has this surprise moment?’”
“All of that comes in the process of teaching people, growing people, and helping them learn to make better decisions. That’s how you grow and scale an organization, but also how you feed the need in really good game developers to grow. People don’t generally want to stagnate. Even if they do, they certainly wouldn’t describe it that way, that just sounds like the least sexy thing you could come up with. People are going to want to grow and expand things. We are a tech industry. If you want to rely on the exact same thing that you did in 1997, you are going to find yourself out of a job because you wouldn’t have evolved with the rest of the industry. You won’t have the chance to make things anymore.”
“Most people do this because they want to make cool stuff. Learning how to make better, cooler stuff everyday is a better way of doing that. Having someone who is willing to lead you down the path of doing that and making something that’s successful. An early mentor pointed something out to me shortly after EA bought Maxis. He said, ‘Success is the best cultural contribution you can make.’ He was right. Fundamentally, if you have commercial success it is going to allow you to fund more prototypes, build new franchises. All sorts of great stuff that comes from being successful.”
You talk about people making great things and you want to empower them. There are many new things happening in the industry now. Mobile is arguably one of the fastest growing, it’s not new, it’s growing much more than it has been. Right now some people might say VR (Virtual Reality) is big, it’s the next big thing. There are always trends, we are in the game industry, the tech industry, things are constantly changing. What do you think is the next big trend based on what’s happening now in the game space?
“Greater and greater mobile connectivity, has global appeal to me. Some of the connectivity across the universe has made some things harder, through some of the nastiness that some people can put out there in the world behind a cloak of anonymity. That would have been harder in the past. But for the most part, we are more aware and more connected to places that our parents could never have dreamed of knowing about in person. I’ve traveled a little bit, but I can stay connected to people who are 13 or 15 time zones away from me, which was relatively difficult until the last 20 or 25 years. The world gets smaller in that regard all of the time. I think that’s wonderful. Greater connectivity and interaction in real time, which is no longer just a niche MMO experience, is no longer only present in hard core games. You are seeing it in mid-core and very casual spaces.”
“That portion of being able to connect with people globally (in more than a way that is just going to clog your news feed), to allow people to build social connections and interactions with people in a safer environment that doesn’t say, ‘I can connect with you socially, and you then have to have access to every piece of information available on me, including all of the pictures of my children in their grade school and kindergarten graduations, and whatever else.’ I think as we’ve figured out ways to do that and collaborate in real time across the globe, gameplay possibilities, even if they slow down because latency is a real impact in twitch factor games, I think that’s really interesting. Frankly it’s going to bring gameplay to places all across the globe where it isn’t as entrenched in your mentality as it is in Northern California.”
“You and I have a really skewed perspective of what it is like to be in game development, because we are in one of the hubs of game development on the planet. You can’t get away from technology discussions here. Your barista at your local coffee shop may have a prototype they want you to look at. If you go elsewhere on the planet, people still think this (industry) is a waste of time. My family did for a long time. I think I had been a Development Director for many years before my father finally stopped nagging me to get a real career so that I could support my family. [Laughs]”
There are many parents who have trouble understanding that this is work, we get a salary and in some places, health benefits.
“[Laughs] When you get to work at the grown up game companies. I think our perspective is a little different there, too. When you watch people come into an online gaming environment for the first time in the last year or two, the impact is tremendous. It’s a really positive thing to watch.”
Last couple questions. Looking back, what do you think your biggest misconception around game development was?
“It’s interesting. I got into this industry by accident. I loved playing games as a kid. I think when I was 13, or 14, I made myself into a Centipede arcade cabinet for my Halloween costume. That should have been a sign of things to come. I never once considered that this was the sort of thing that I could do, and have as a career and maybe enjoy. So I didn’t really get into it with a lot of misconceptions, but I had them when transitioning out of a major publicly held company, that had done it old-school, and built a massive organization, like EA. I went elsewhere in the industry, and even before I left, I would talk to people in other parts of the industry. I made some assumptions about how people would want to do things, and the level of quality they would be looking to achieve in whatever they were building, and those assumptions didn’t hold up. Both good and bad.”
“I found people who were eager to not have folks working 100 hours a week and willing to schedule around it. I had a real challenge with some of that in parts of my prior career. I also found people who didn’t have a good work ethic, or an interest in doing something well, they just wanted to have fun with it. I really struggled with that, because there are a lot of people who want to make games just because of the fun part. You can blame it on me being from Pittsburgh, that’s probably appropriate, or blame it more on my parents, but I don’t know how to separate the working hard part from ‘working hard to make something fun.’”
So you do a lot of hiring, so what advice would you give to someone who is trying to get into the industry now or into games as a career and maybe more specifically if they wanted to become a general manager, what advice would you give to them?
“I think there is different advice for people at different stages of their career. If you are trying to get into the industry, be aware and be passionate about what you want to do. That is important, but that passion needs to translate into results. So if you have taken a bunch of game programming classes in college but you’ve never actually prototyped anything on your own, and you don’t care about design, applying for a game design job isn’t going to make a lot of sense. People aren’t going to connect those two things, they are going to go, ‘This is what I’m hearing you say, but this isn’t what I’ve seen you do.’”
Watching Twitch all day and playing Destiny for 40 hours a week is not a prerequisite or the only prerequisite for getting into the game industry.
“In fact, if that is your only approach, it’s going to be really hard for most places that are not Twitch to hire you, because you have to know how to do more than that. One of the really cool things about most game developers, regardless of what discipline they are in, you find that people are able to do a bunch of different things. They don’t only do one repeatable step over and over, because we aren’t on a manufacturing or assembly line. What we do constantly changes and needs to have your own individual stamp put on it in order for the beautiful whole to come together. We rely on everybody to bring their own brand of excellence into everything that they do everyday. So, keeping that in mind, and showing prototypes or games, even the bad ones, then talking about what you learned from the bad ones, that’s really important. Being willing to get the job done, in ways that prove that you can follow up on details. We can throw out that cliche that ‘the Devil is in the details’ all day long, except that in game development, it is. If you are in a tuning spreadsheet, I promise you if you are trying to model something out for how you are going to tune any component or any feature of a game, you are dealing with math. You are playing with numbers. Sometimes you feel like you want to claw your eyeballs out. I know you know what I’m talking about, Marcus, because I’ve watched you have fun with that.”
“Understand use of tools, go play with Flinto, go play with GameMaker and Unity, and more great tools that are out there. Go tinker with the them, because it’s all accessible now, it’s not going to cost you several thousand dollars worth of licenses to try things out.”
So I’m in the industry, I think I want to be a general manager, what advice would you give someone like me?
“A little bit of it depends on where you are starting from and where you are, in terms of what company, whether you have mentors around, who you have around that you can learn from. If you are in a place where you have somebody who is in a General Manager role, and you think they are good at it, and you would want to emulate some of their behaviors: Be worth mentoring. That’s the first step to finding a mentor. Be eager to seek out feedback, and accept it when you get it, even if it isn’t pleasant. That’s one of the signs that you are interested in learning. I’m really fussy about who I mentor. I will direct and manage and help grow anybody inside of my organization, and many people outside of my organization. If I am going to take on a special teaching relationship with someone in the industry, I’m going to be fussy about who it is. I only want to work with someone who is going to put my time to good use. My time is busy. So if you want to get that kind of mentoring, because that’s one of the best things to do, go and learn from people. Learn project management, learn the business side of things. Learn how you interact with marketing, learn why you do x, y, or z thing in marketing. If you have only learned the art side of things, learn the engineering side of things. If you have only learned the engineering side of things, go work with your designers. Branch out. As much as people joke about, ‘GMs need to understand a little bit of everything, which means they are not actually great at anything,’ it is my neck on the line for everything that ships outside the walls of the building.”
It’s important that you have some base understanding, you don’t need to be an expert in everything, but you need to have a general comprehension.
“Because you need to understand what it’s going to take to make something happen. And you need to cover your team. Sometimes, you need to protect your team from unreasonable requests. Half of the unreasonable requests that we have all received in the course of our careers came from someone with no idea what impact the request would have. They think they are asking for something that was going to take 3 days, when it was actually going to take 3 months and then need more QA time afterwards.”
So, I find, at least I believe this, that you excel or move up in the industry, and this is possible in most different industries. You just need to ask. Because if you don’t say ‘I want to become a general manager, no one is going to know and no one is going to try to help you. By just saying ‘This is my goal’, more often than not, you will find someone who is willing to help you.
“Absolutely, I talked about that a couple of studio meetings ago at my current place. We have some of the most outstanding junior level staff there. They are hungry, they are bright, and they have learned so fast in their first year or two in the industry. It is very rewarding, I like it. Understanding where people want to go is an important thing for a manager to know. Only you can own your own career development. Now you can’t own, necessarily, what opportunities are available to you in whatever studio you are in. That is not a thing that you usually have control over early on in your career. Telling your manager what you want to learn, going outside to get information, figuring out if there are classes you want to take, or people you want to learn from, or meet ups that you need to attend for any reason. That, you can control. How you communicate it and what you communicate, those are the things that make a big impact. I will say, the games industry is really clique-ish. We are not nearly as welcoming to outsiders as we like to say we are. We are also not nearly the rebels that we like to think we are. That’s just our roots. ‘Started my company in mom and dad’s garage’, isn’t really what most people’s experience is in the games industry. We aren’t nearly that rebellious. We all want paychecks and health care.”
“A little bit of process is not nearly going to be Armageddon for your game idea. It might help it come to life and be seen by other people. So I think making sure that the people around you and the people above you know what you are interested in learning is a major part of the process. Because no one is going to think that you want to be mentored if you are constantly being silent and not expressing an interest in learning something.”
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“GSD and single malt makes for a long haul in game dev.”
Melissa, thank you. This has been fantastic.
“Oh, you are so welcome. You didn’t ask me any embarrassing questions about the drunkest I’ve been at industry parties, or anything like that. [Laughs] And you’ve been to some parties with me.”