Founded by two former Electronic Arts’ employees, BlueBat Games’ mission is to entertain through games that are fun and unique. As the brain child of Kenny Huang and Tim Harris, this studio works to build an atmosphere that allows passion to shine. Recently, we were able to talk to Kenny about his unusual studio and the factors which have led to such a rapid success.
Kenny and Tim enjoyed their work at EA, but they did not enjoy the stifling atmosphere of a large corporate business. Each of them dreamed of creating their own studio, and both were working independently on their own ideas. One day, it hit them that they didn’t need to create two studios; they could work together to build one. BlueBat Games was the result of this epiphany.
Fostering team culture, they completely reversed the typical big corporate culture with its main emphasis on the bottom line. Instead, they build a very close knit team that Kenny calls the “BlueBatties family.” The value of this company culture was proven last year when they were facing a serious financial shortfall. Rather than following the advice of their mentors to reduce the number of members in their team, Kenny and Tim determined that they would keep the team intact and sink or swim together. As Kenny said, “If we were going to die, we would die as a studio.” They managed to make it through that storm and he believes that enduring through the tough times together has allowed them to become stronger and closer as a team.
At first, BlueBat Games was just two guys creating a game. They were not involved in the legal, financial and marketing aspects of running a company. They quickly discovered they would need to develop these business aspects of the studio. “It was nothing like we thought it would be, and about 100 times harder than we expected,” he said. They had no idea how much support work was involved in the large corporation, allowing the production team to concentrate on game development. Their small team of seven had to rapidly learn how to handle all this support work. As the company developed, with investments and outside interests, they had to meet the challenge of working on the business side of the company.
Challenges, Challenges, Challenges!
Every studio faces their own set of challenges. Kenny says, “Our best strategies for handling challenges are openness, being willing to make mistakes and leveraging each other’s support.” There are challenges outside the experience Kenny and Tim brought to the company, including financing the company, and legal, marketing, HR and PR challenges. For these, they depend on their mentors and advisors to navigate their way through. According to Kenny, their leadership, vision and direction challenges are easier to solve because they can rely on each other.
In their first year, two of the biggest challenges were fund raising and project management. They had to learn how to pitch and negotiate and develop the EQ skills that come through networking and business development. Here they have been fortunate to get support from GrowLab Accelerator, a late stage accelerator. They were able to leverage mentors, knowledge and PR that the typical indie studio does not have.
In August, 2012, Tim and Kenny did a SWOT analysis while thinking through the areas they could improve operations. Delivery and cost predictability was one such area, and they concluded that better project management controls were the key to improving. Tim remembers, “Our culture, in a sense, was in direct opposition to such controls, and so it was going to take a really special person to be able to implement effective project management without fighting against a culture we felt was at the core of BlueBat’s success.” “We looked at a whole bunch of candidates, but remained resolute in finding just the right person to ‘fit’ into our family,” Kenny tells us, “I think really great collaborative project management is an under-appreciated talent in our industry, and we couldn’t be happier with finding a PM who rocks!” The results? BlueBat was able to breakdown, implement, and release in a predictable manner under the Agile methodology under the guidance of their new PM.
Although BlueBat has a reputation for being a very diverse team, they have never set out to specifically emphasize building diversity. Instead, their emphasis has been on hiring the best person for each role. The way they present themselves to candidates explains how they attract a more diverse workforce. Rather than describing their team culture as a fast-paced, challenge-driven environment, they describe it as a close-knit, family-style environment where passion and creative freedom shine through. Both portrayals are accurate, but they have chosen to emphasize the second because they believe success comes as a result of the team effort, not through one or two superstars.
Kenny sees Tim and himself as parents to a somewhat dysfunctional family. He feels great pride in how outstanding this team is and how talented everyone is, both individually and collectively. As with any family, there are often challenges, disagreements and arguments. Most of their disagreements are centered on ideas or implementation decisions. Generally, they simply allow the team members to argue out the problem, so long as they don’t become too heated. They see the arguments as a good thing, because their goal of making the best product is aligned with the process. As far as the personalities of the team are concerned, they feel fortunate to have a group where the whole team gets along and all of them are friends.
The Team Working Together
So how does a team-focused studio run? Each day at BlueBat includes an approximately 10 minute scrum. Depending on the situation, they may have more meetings, but usually they move on to what they do best: production. The physical office is small and open, with all team members able to see each other. There is also a separate war room with white boards, allowing them to work together. The emphasis is on open communication through osmosis. There is occasionally a problem with conversations interrupting someone’s work, but usually the challenge is to get engineers and creatives to communicate more, not less. So they emphasize increasing team communication, even if it does sometimes result in less individual productivity in the short term.
They also develop team cohesion through lunches, team events and office in-jokes. While they allow team members to set their own hours, there is still accountability through agile stickies on their white board, as well as supporting each other as team members. Kenny describes them as a mellow bunch with their own fun and culture.
Because BlueBat’s engine/platform Bluebox supports the studio, they can take chances on developing their own IP. So the next exciting development is the launch of a small social game inspired by the mechanics in Draw Something and SongPop.