By Dave Pottinger  

Today is a big day. We’ve just released our latest game, Stranger Things: The Game. Yes, it’s a game about Stranger Things by Netflix. Holy $#@%, right? Sometimes, I’m lucky and my job is just flat-out cool. I hope everyone enjoys playing STTG as much as we enjoyed making it.

sttg_cakeWe don’t release games that often, so introspection is a release-day inevitability. Plus, cake, lots of cake. And beer.

Right now, BonusXP is as big as it’s ever been. 31 total folks. We always said we’d never grow beyond 30, so I guess we’re now a big group of liars. It’s not the number of folks that’s really the concern, though. It’s what the size of the studio does to how we operate. Our culture shifts dramatically with each new employee. We like it that way.

Smaller studios have an opportunity to be tighter and communicate more effectively. But, over the years, I’ve found it’s still really all about the people. 10 rock stars who don’t work well together won’t produce anything I’m interested in playing. I would always bet on a well-oiled team that genuinely enjoys working together. Put another way, we value team work over individual skills.

To be clear, we do require prospective candidates to be individually great at something. If a candidate can’t immediately raise our technical skillset in some way, we’ll keep looking. But, that’s not enough. We’ve got to have someone who understands and values how we run the studio.

We are fortunate to have a very senior team at BonusXP. Our average industry experience is somewhere between 14 and 15 years. That affords us advantages and opportunities because our team has “seen it all before”. As we continue to grow, we know that we will need to change how we execute things, but our core values are not up for debate.

We have three directors: Game, Programming, and Art. These folks set the tone and visions for what we are doing. They’re available for reference. They do also drive frequent feature reviews to help ensure that the games are coalescing. Unsurprisingly, these roles map 1:1 to our founders.

We don’t have leads. Beyond the directors, we are extremely flat. Programmers own features from spec to implementation (client and server-side) to bug fixing and polish. Artists have a more traditional pipeline structure, but every artist has crossover skills in more than one discipline. Our designers are incredibly technical and all share a similar skillset. If that sounds very plug and play, it is. We like generalist skillsets. They give us flexibility and allow individuals to really own whole sections of the game because they don’t need someone else to help them.

We promise involvement. Beside salary and contract numbers, we talk about everything with the studio. If we’re shopping an idea to potential partners, we’re sharing every single pitch with the studio. Everyone playtests each game (regardless of which team they are on). Everyone gets a design credit. When it’s time for us to work on a new game, we start by asking the studio what they’d like to do. This is not easy. It’s time consuming and involves a lot of talking. It’s important to note that we do not promise consensus. We guarantee that we’ll listen to your thoughts. If you try to get your way all the time, you’re just an ass. Don’t do that.

Apart from our office manager, everyone works on the games every day. This is important to us. It keeps everyone grounded. If you’re facing deadlines and deliverables yourself, you’re inherently more understanding of what you can ask of someone else.

Our most important decision remains who we hire. We have a long interview process with many steps. By the end, a successful candidate has had a chance to talk with everyone in the studio. That’s critical for two reasons. One, we want our folks to be excited about new hires. Involvement in hiring creates that excitement a way that nothing else can match. Two, it’s vital that the candidate really understand how our studio works. Providing access to our whole team is a great way for a recruit to decide if Bonus is a good fit. Oh, and we must play a board game. If you don’t want to play a board game, then we will politely bid you adieu.

I think the last thing important piece about Bonus is that we actively work against cynicism. I make the same joke in every first interview: “If you ever say, ‘I told you so’, I’ll help you pack your box.” That sounds callous, but we’ve seen how much damage cynicism can do. It’s easy to be cool and hate everything. That seems fine for a while. Some folks would even argue that games are improved when someone can always find the flaws. I used to agree with that, but I don’t any longer. At the end of the day, we need a team that’s going in the same direction. I want to watch the team motivated by someone’s overflowing excitement, not paralyzed by a naysayer’s negativity.

Now, it’s not perfect at Bonus. We make a ton of mistakes. We argue. Even though we don’t ever crunch, we still get stressed out. We’re in an industry where we’re trying to pull off creative miracles on schedule and on budget. We’ve had to cancel a game because we just couldn’t make the business case work any longer. That’s hard. Some days suck. It’s not going to be perfect.

But, we have a terrific team. I love coming to work every day because there’s a really good chance something will be awesome. And, on days like today, we get to show off what one of our teams can do. Plus, cake!