Tuesday, 9 June 2020

5 tips for reducing stress as a game company owner

Being a company owner can be a stressful occupation. Your decisions can make the company successful or run it into the ground. There's plenty one can worry about: the game market is constantly changing, so what's the best strategy to follow? How to handle when a co-owner wants something different than you? Mistakes can cost you both your livelihood and your dreams: after all, most people who start a game company do so because they have a passion for doing their own thing. Oh, and if you have employees, you're responsible for their fate as well!

While such topics can indeed cause a lot of stress, I have been relatively relaxed under all of that for the past 13 years. So I was wondering: do I have any mental tricks that help me cope with all of it? Turns out I do! Here are 5 things that I do that help me experience less stress. I hope sharing these can help make entrepreneurship a slightly more chill experience for others as well.

Before I continue I should mention that there are many other factors that determine how stressful it is to run a business. For example, I've always made sure to live slightly cheaper than I could afford so that I could build up savings for cases of economic hardship. This post is not about such financial choices. This post is also not about how a successful game launch or signing a good publishing deal will alleviate stress. Nor is it about raging communities review-bombing your game over a single removed feature or seeing company finances being only a few months from bankruptcy. At Ronimo we've experienced all of these things and much more over the past 13 years and while the things I'll discuss in this post have definitely reduced the stress a lot for me personally, it's been an emotional rollercoaster nevertheless! This post however is about coping with the day-to-day, constant pressure of running a business.

Also, one more side note: I wrote most of this post half a year ago and held back on posting it because one of my colleagues got a burn-out just before I got around to publishing this article. This post isn't about that colleague at all, but it seemed rather insensitive to post anything about stress right after that so I shelved this one. Now that that's a little bit less recent I feel I can post this. In a way it's even more reason to post this, since it shows just how stressful things can be!

1. Figure out why the worst-case is still nice


To me the most important element of being relaxed when I'm afraid things might go wrong, is to figure out why the worst case would actually still be pretty nice. This way regardless of whether something is a success or not, I can always be happy about it. One of the easiest examples for this is that if your game fails to sell well, at least you can be proud of finishing and releasing your own game. That's pretty amazing by itself!

The point where this made the biggest difference for me, was when we started Ronimo. Something I wondered about back then was: what if we would work on a game for a year or two but then can't find a publisher so it would end there? No game released, no income for two years, company gone. That's pretty bad, right? Well, actually, to me back then even that scenario wasn't a nightmare. Making games was (and is) my dream job and making my own games with my friends is one of the best things in the world. In the worst case I would still have done the coolest thing for a year or two. That's pretty neat even if it hadn't been a success!

Another example of this way of thinking is more recent. The owner of another studio told me they were really stressed out over the idea that if their company would go bankrupt, their employees would loose their jobs. That's a huge responsibility and indeed a horrible thing if it happens! However, even here I would argue that the worst case still has a silver lining. If you had never started your company, those people wouldn't have had that job in the first place. Even if it ends, you as the studio owner have provided them with an awesome job for years. You'll have given them a chance to gather a lot of experience that will go on their resume and with which they can get their next job. This may sound crude and even though it stinks if it ends, being able to have done that even for a few years is already an amazing thing to have achieved!

2. Better to make a wrong decision than no decision


An easy trap to fall into when being responsible for big decisions is to analyse them into infinity. "Maybe if we gather some more information, we can make a better choice." "Maybe if we discuss it a bit longer, we'll all agree on the next decision." While it's certainly true that important decisions need to be researched and discussed thoroughly, it's also important to act. Try things. Experiment. Don't get stuck in decision paralysis.

As Asimov wrote in his Foundation series (which just so happen to be among my favourite books):

"To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well."

Often it's better to try something and see whether it works, than to endlessly think about what the best choice is. In game design this is an obvious rule that most people know: prototype, experiment, test, iterate. What you may not realise is that this same mindset can be applied to business as well. The key here is to not just act, but also constantly evaluate whether what you're doing works. If it doesn't, then change it. Don't be afraid to make mistakes and don't be afraid to admit that you've made a mistake. It's far better to fix it afterwards, than to pretend it didn't happen.

For example, we released many updates to Awesomenauts and often we would debate how to communicate about them. What would be the best marketing strategy for an update? However, far better than that was to simply try things and if it didn't work, try something different with the next update.

Another example is a lot more mundane. At Ronimo our daily lunch with the entire team is a coveted tradition (pro-Corona, that is). However, now that we're growing it becomes impractical to let the entire team lunch at the exact same time. So it was suggested that we should spread the lunch period so that people don't all lunch at the exact same time anymore. Some of the owners of the company (including me) really disliked this idea since it seemed to go pretty strongly against Ronimo's very DNA. However, instead of debating this forever, it was decided to just give it a try and evaluate afterwards. Now that we've tried this, it turns out this not only solves the overcrowded lunch, but also solves the issue that the same cliques formed daily at the lunch table. Now that people are moving in and out of the lunch, where people sit is much less static. Even I now think the spread lunch period is an improvement! If we had tried to make a final decision on this topic before trying it, then I doubt it would have happened at all.

3. Ask lots of advice


Whatever you're doing, someone is bound to have tried something similar before, especially when it comes to the business side of running a game studio. Hearing their experiences is an invaluable source of information for making better decisions yourself.

You may think the games industry is pretty closed off, with all those NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements), press embargoes and secretiveness around new games. However, towards fellow devs many game studios are a lot more open. I've often emailed other studios, asking them how they approached something, and often I got really in-depth answers, sometimes even including offers for Skype calls. Of course this is easiest if you know someone at the studio or know someone who can introduce you, but in some cases I've even cold-emailed someone I didn't know at all and still got an insightful answer. And if you think that only goes for indie developers, think again: I know some people at AAA studios and even they were happy to give us advice on topics we struggled with ourselves.

Just keep in mind: be respectful of other people's time and don't go prying just out of curiosity. If you have a real question, ask it and learn from their experiences.

You may wonder how to do something back for people who share their knowledge. Often that's difficult because in many cases the person who gives advice is more experienced than you are or might just not be in need of your own knowledge. In my opinion that's fine. Instead of doing something for them, pay it forward: help someone else when you can and ask nothing in return.

4. Don't feel responsible for everything


A common pitfall when running your own company is that you feel responsible for everything. After all, it's your own company, or at least it partially is. While this may work at first, it's also a great way to get a burn-out, especially as the company grows. Once you employ a dozen people, it's impossible to check all the details of everything they do. Trying to do so costs too much time and distracts you from your own work. You'll simply have to trust them to do their work well and only check on some parts of it.

My own approach to this is that when a new programmer joins our team, during the initial period I review all their code. Then, as they get more experienced with our way of working and thus the amount of feedback I give decreases, there comes a point where I rarely check their code anymore at all. The key in my experience is that while that first period might be time-consuming and maybe even frustrating for both parties, it sets clear expectations as to what I expect in terms of code quality, working method and coding style.

Letting go can be really hard. The boss of another studio recently had a nice way of explaining why you need to do so anyway. He said something along these lines: "Previously I did everything myself. Now I employ dozens of people and don't have the time to code much myself anymore. This was frustrating, until I realised that all those people are working for me. Previously I could spent months making one thing. Now I tell all those people what to work on, and a few months later many things are done. Much more than I could ever do on my own. In a sense, while I don't do those things myself anymore, I've gotten more productive than ever."

5. Accept that things won't always go your way


Most people who start a game company do so with a few co-founders: often there are 2 to 4 founders. In our case we went a little over-the-top and started the company with no less than 7 founders, all with equal ownership rights over Ronimo Games. I've often been asked how we managed to make this work: seven captains on a ship is a whole lot and they're bound to all steer the boat in a different direction. That's bound to produce a lot of friction.

The reason this has worked for us for over a dozen years now, is that having such a big group of founders meant that we immediately ran into disagreements but needed to make decisions anyway. So we decided that if we don't agree on something, we'll just decide by voting. In practice that means that a lot of times we make decisions that I personally don't agree with. Realising this early on also made me accept this early on. Once you've accepted that many decisions will not be exactly what you want them to be, it becomes a lot easier to cope with this.

I expect smaller groups of founders will often have this problem to a lesser degree: it's easier for 3 people to share the same opinion than for 7. However, that also means that when you don't agree, a group of 3 founders might also be more likely to get into a fight over it, resulting in lots of frustration and stress. So I think that even for smaller groups of founders, it's crucial to accept early on that even though it's your own company, it will not always go according to your own plan.

Note that this mindset will also help when dealing with employees. To make talented people shine, you have to give them some room to express their own creativity and ingenuity. This also means occasionally letting something happen even though you disagree with it. As a boss you may technically have the right to force your own decisions on your employees, but sometimes it's better not to.

Regardless of your mindset, there's bound to be stress involved when starting and running your own (game) company. However, the things I've listed in this post have greatly helped me cope with it all and have made me relaxed most of the time. What are your tricks to reduce stress and stay chill?