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127 / How Holistic Leadership Builds Better Games – and Product Teams, with Ben Carcich and Aaron Smith

Hosted by Paul Gebel




Ben Carcich & Aaron Smith

Building Better Games

Over the last decade, Aaron Smith and Ben Carcich led 100+ person teams and helped build 20+ million dollar products for games with 100M+ monthly users with global reach in the video games industry. During that time they built leadership standards, team structures, strategy, and an S+ hiring approach for top-tier talent. Then, in 2019, they burned out on the limitations of their roles.

When they saw leaders across the industry struggling with minimal support, they wanted to share the secret sauce full-time. That’s what got them excited and energized. Now they run a boutique advisory firm, Valarin, Inc., for leaders and executives in games, and create content for line leaders to level up across the industry. When they’re not advising studios and building products, they mentor game producers, run a top games industry podcast — Building Better Games — and write a bi-weekly newsletter for industry leaders.

In this episode, Building Better Games co-founders Ben Carcich and Aaron Smith join Product Momentum, offering an inside look at the contributions the video game industry has brought to enterprise tech – and vice versa. Specifically, Ben and Aaron share a fresh take on how holistic leadership and product management help us build things that matter to the people who use our products.

Aaron shares his personal journey where games provided a safe space for him to reinvent himself, shaping him into the leader he is today. And Ben reflects on how his experiences in game development nurtured his thinking and approach to holistic leadership; he emphasizes the challenges and responsibilities of leading a team of gamers tied to the experience only by their ongoing desire to participate.

“Here I was,” Ben says, “bringing together a group of people with disparate interests, and disparate skill levels…. I wasn’t paying them to be there. They were there by choice. I was leading them, and they were following me by choice. There’s all this stuff that you accept as a responsibility, … but you don’t view it as a burden because you’re happy to be there with that group of people.”

Aaron uses the analogy of a 3-deck ship to explain holistic leadership, with the top deck representing process, the next level is product, and the lowest level – below the water line – is culture: how people are actually behaving.

“As leaders, we have to care about culture first, that lowest level,” Aaron adds. “That’s what holistic leadership means: start at the most foundational level and work your way up. Don’t start with challenges at the most surface level and work your way down. By the time you think about what’s truly important, your ship will have sunk. Leaders need to internalize responsibility for that to be a holistic leader.”

Catch the entire conversation with Ben Carcich and Aaron Smith , and how they talk about the value product managers contribute to their enterprise tech roles – but also how that same value might be realized in the video games world where the term is rarely used.

Paul Gebel [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX, along with my co-host Sean Flaherty and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

We are fortunate to be joined by Ben Carcich and Aaron Smith of Building Better Games today. We covered a lot of ground. There’s really no good way to introduce the range of topics that we got into, from holistic leadership to the state of the gaming industry, what product management can bring to gaming, and vice versa. And just a really fresh take on how to build things that matter to people. I can’t think of a more fun time that I’ve had recording this podcast, so let’s get after it.

Hello and welcome to the pod. Today I am really excited to introduce Ben Carcich and Aaron Smith of Building Better Games. Over the last decade, they’ve led 100-person teams to build multi-million dollar products with some of the largest audiences in the world. During that time, they built leadership standards, team structures, strategy, and S-Tier hiring approach for top-tier talent. And then in 2019, they moved over to see what they could do to help leaders across the industry struggling with minimal support. And they wanted to share that secret sauce full-time. That’s what got them excited and energized. And now they run a boutique advisory firm for leaders and executives in games and create content for line leaders to level up across the industry. When they’re not advising studios, they build products, mentor game producers, and run a top games industry podcast. They write a bi-weekly newsletter for industry leaders, and they’re here to join us today for a great conversation. I’m going to pass it to you to two introduce yourselves a little bit more, starting alphabetically with Aaron. Do you want to share a bit about where you come from and what’s inspiring you today?

Aaron Smith [00:02:19] Yeah. And without equal in the first name. Alphabetized. Yeah. So I went to film school and realized very quickly doing some production work in the film industry that I hated that that was not my tribe. So I fell back on the thing my parents told me was not a legitimate career path, which was joining the video games industry. And I joined this tiny little company called Riot Games as an intern, running sandwiches and things that at a time when all I knew was that they were making a game kind of like Dot-A with a really vibrant color scheme. And yeah, the rest is history. I was there for over ten years, started as an intern, left essentially a director, and then got into the consulting biz with Ben so we could take all the stuff we’ve learned and try to help other people who are struggling with it like we did.

Paul Gebel [00:03:03] Awesome. Ben, tell us a bit about yourself.

Ben Carcich [00:03:05] My background is technically, I got a computer systems engineering degree. I never used it. Then I went into the military, I became a combat arms officer and fortunately never used that either. Ended up doing mostly logistics and staff work, I spent a year overseas. Came back similar to Aaron, not my tribe. Plenty of things are awesome about the military, but it just wasn’t where I fit in. So I left, sent off some Hail Mary resumes, and somehow got a response from this game I was playing called League of Legends. That company was Riot, and I think a couple of months later started working there. I had no idea what I was doing. I went from that to trying to figure out what I was doing, but over time, actually figured out some of the things that I was supposed to do. And eventually realized that I enjoyed helping people level up as leaders and be better producers. The growth and improvement aspect meant a lot more to me even than making games, although I love that too. And so left to join up with Aaron and now we try to do that.

Paul Gebel [00:04:03] That’s awesome. In full disclosure, Ben, you and I have actually raided together in some video games and gone to opening nights of Star Wars. I’m appreciative to you to get a chance to get on the record professionally with you.

Ben Carcich [00:04:21] Only 25 minutes [for the podcast] don’t mention the word Star Wars again

Aaron Smith [00:04:26] We’ll blow out your whole podcast here.

Paul Gebel [00:04:28] Noted. Well, I do want to take a turn into where you were going just a minute ago and talk at a high level just about your experience with games and why games, and specifically inspired by a post that Aaron shared on LinkedIn pretty recently. Just from a personal perspective, what’s a unique impact that games have had on each of you? And I’d love to hear from you both on that question.

Aaron Smith [00:04:51] I’ll try to keep it short and sweet for me. I had a lot of trouble when I was in school. I didn’t have great social skills. I didn’t know how to connect with the other kids. I felt very isolated. Sometimes things were really tough at home, and so I felt like I just didn’t have the ability to connect. And it and it brought on a lot of really tough feelings growing up. In that kind of space.

Aaron Smith [00:05:17] And, you know, I got access to the internet, and I always found that in a positive way, the anonymity was an opportunity to start fresh. Like, no one knew me. No one knew that I wasn’t the cool kid at school. It was just a fresh conversation. And it allowed me to experiment and try on new faces and kind of have a conversation with myself about who I wanted to be. And that led to playing MMOs and meeting a bunch of people around the world and finding my stride as a human and as a leader, I think, in that space, not knowing that that was something I could be or that I would ever be.

Aaron Smith [00:05:51] And I think that that provided a sort of an incubator for me to completely change who I am and who I wanted to be. I look back on that opportunity and feel so grateful that video games provided me with that. I still hang out with those guys and girls to this day as well. They’ve played such an impactful role in my life. And I think that for me, video games are extremely personal because of that. I never bought into the whole, “They rot your brain out and you should not play more than two hours a week and you should focus on more, better pursuits like going outside and playing basketball!” or whatever it is. I’m like, this is really important stuff. And it’s really, really positive for so many people. I really believe that. And I feel like it’s important work. And I think that that’s, for me, the impact of it all.

Paul Gebel [00:06:46] I love that connection. Ben, what about you?

Ben Carcich [00:06:49] I’ve got nothing that matches that, but I’ll do my best. So for me, when I think about impact, one of them was I was a Boy Scout. Aaron was as well. And I then went into the military. But when I think of formative young leadership experiences, they came in games, in hosting rooms, in Rogue Spear or in raid leading.

Ben Carcich [00:07:13] You know, I was a main tank raid lead in early WoW [World of Warcraft] and Burning Crusade and some of that time period and bringing a group of people together with disparate interests, disparate skill levels and then, you know, trying to figure out how we can all collectively not stand in the fire for the ten minutes it’s going to take us to bring this down was a heck of an experience, a deep dive into leadership at a practical level with people who had I wasn’t paying them to be there. They didn’t have to do this. They were there by choice. And I was leading them, and they were following me by choice. At any time they could pitch a fit and leave and quit and that happened. And what do you do and how do you respond to that? And, you know, and there’s this, there’s all this stuff that you accept as a responsibility when you go into that, but you don’t view it as a burden because you’re happy to be there with that group of people.

Ben Carcich [00:08:02] So that’s one side of it. And I think there was this huge leadership piece that video games taught. And then another was up until recently, I would say one of the best things I was good at. You know, one of the things I was most good at in life was Halo 2. And I don’t know, you know, for me, I’m actually proud of that for many people, maybe not. But for me, I’m proud of that. It took a lot of work and a lot of effort. I wasn’t competitive, I didn’t, you know, go to MLGs or anything like that, but I, I played it at a pretty high level. You know, I played with my brother. We were we were both quite proficient and just learning it. How do you get better at something? How do you interact with a team and how do you stay focused on the goal of the group, not the individual goal? A lot of that stuff came up for me when I was playing FPS’s is and I still enjoy FPS’s to this day, even though not nearly as good at them. So. So yeah, it’s but it’s been I think those are two things that come to mind for me. There are so many others, that we could go into individual experiences, but I think those are the big two.

Paul Gebel [00:08:56] I love it, and I can personally attest the first time I cleared the Kings Fall raid in the Destiny game, you were my Sherpa. So you absolutely were a great leader in that experience. And that’s actually one of the times that I would look back on is that I had no idea what is gaming, what I was getting into. I think that might have been my first Destiny raid was with you.

Ben Carcich [00:09:14] Oh, that was a good one. That was a good one.

Paul Gebel [00:09:15] So I want to shift gears. I could talk about that all day. So I’m going to refrain from the temptation. Talk a bit about you now on the other side of the microphone being guests, where you’re usually spending time hosting a fantastic podcast called Building Better Games, you emphasize leadership in game development, and you’ve already alluded to several aspects that I want to get into. But unpacking a little bit more specifically, you use the phrase holistic leadership a lot in your speaking. And I’m curious, what does that mean for each of you? What is holistic leadership mean and why do you find it so crucial? This is really one of the core value propositions of your firm. What is leadership to you?

Aaron Smith [00:09:55] This is funny because when we first started using the term holistic the thought where my brain went was holistic doctors, those guys that half the population doesn’t trust and think are uneducated quacks. The idea of holistic is to treat the entire body. If you’re suffering physically, it might be really good for you to think about your diet. It might be really good for you to think about going to therapy. It might be really good for you to try maybe something off the beaten path when it comes to medicine. If you have a particularly unique circumstance, I think for us, when we think about holistic leadership, the idea of it going in that Ben and I were seeing was and we actually in the podcast where we break it down, we talked about the idea of a ship and a crew on a ship and a bunch of people running around on the top deck, just doing all the things, making sure the cannons are loaded, making sure the sails are being adjusted, steering wheel, all this stuff that we think about when we think about running projects and when we think about building products, and a lot of the times there’s a leak at the bottom deck and the ship is actually in the process of sinking. It’s just no one’s thinking about what’s going on down there until it’s too late. And you’re sitting here and you’re, loading up cannons while the ship is taking on water. The analogy was so valuable to us because we realize that in our careers, a lot of times, the teams and companies we worked for felt that, where it was the surface level was all anyone was talking about. “Are our spreadsheets filled out? And is the process good? And did the people go to the meetings at the right time and did this thing?” And we talked about it. And because we talked about it, obviously it’s good. Never mind that we didn’t make any decisions or we didn’t really change anything. You know, never mind that. Everybody knows that the four biggest risks that they’ve been raising flags about for the last six months, we’ve all ignored and are just pretending aren’t going to be there and blow up the project three months from now. These are the kinds of things that we go: “Leaders need to internalize responsibility for that and to be a holistic leader.” It’s like we’ve broken it down to the top deck, which is process, which we don’t talk about not because it’s not important, but because most people already know it all. And then the next level down, which is the product which we talk about a lot more but is still one of the more talked about things. And then the lowest level is the culture. It’s like, how are people actually behaving? So it’s if you have a meeting every day where no one makes any decisions based off of it, and all they do is just exchange information. That’s a cultural thing. There’s a there’s a behavior there, a standard of behavior that’s being set somewhere. Leaders, you have to care about that. There needs to be where you start the conversation. That’s what holistic leadership means. Start at the most foundational level and work your way up. Don’t start at the most surface level and work your way down, because by the time you think about it, your ship has sunk. So that’s the idea, and that’s what we’re trying to teach leaders to do.

Paul Gebel [00:12:50] Amazing metaphor. No holes below the waterline.

Ben Carcich [00:12:53] The thing I would add is the idea of leadership is something that we’ve defined as influencing others towards a goal. And it came out of looking at a ton of different definitions and going, what are the commonalities around? Because everybody’s got a different definition of leadership. And some of them I think someone said “A leader is a person with a non-anxious presence.” And I’m like, what? I see stuff like that. What actually is this? What are we talking about here? And it was influencing others towards a goal that was sort of this summation, a very simple summation of it. And that thing when we’re talking about culture…leaders, whether they know it or not, are influencing culture. The question is, do they know what they’re influencing it towards? And a huge part of our call towards what Aaron so eloquently described as holistic leadership is to say, you need to be thinking about how what you’re doing, the questions you’re asking, the the way you’re talking to people, collaborating, not collaborating, what meetings you show up to, what you don’t show up to, the decisions you choose to make and let others make. All of that is setting cultural norms across your ship, and your organization. And are you conscious of that? Or is that just happening? One of the things we say about culture is if you don’t think about culture, it’s not that you don’t have one, it’s just one you probably didn’t want. It’s highly unlikely? And so instead of thinking about how are you influencing culture? How are you influencing the product, the vision, how are you influencing the process? All of these things feed into each other, but that culture layer is the one that everybody tends to ignore, and it’s the key to the long-term success of your organization.

Paul Gebel [00:14:27] Yeah. Well, I think you’re teasing where I wanted to go next, which is we look around the gaming industry specifically, you know, as of the time of this recording this week, we heard another round of bad news and layoffs, squeeze more margins, profit rather than growth focus, shareholder fatigue. The bloom is off the rose in this era of growth at all costs. So as we’re looking around you know SAS companies digital companies have gone through digital transformations. The kind of feeling that we look around for is, you know, we hear a lot of talk of ROI and there’s just a lot that many people are, you know, generally gloomy about in the tech industry writ large. What are you optimistic about with so much keeping so many up at night?

Aaron Smith [00:15:12] I’m optimistic. There are two major trends. One of them is just raw growth, the industry is still growing in percentage terms by a significant amount. Ben and I were just talking last week about the fact that there’s always the perception, and then there’s the analytical reality, and the analytical reality, if you look at it by the numbers, is that, and I don’t want to trivialize how people feel about what’s happening now because it feels very traumatic. A lot of people are scared, a lot of people are losing their jobs. These are real people, has a real impact. But if you look at it in percentage terms, in raw, actual per capita terms, it’s very the impact is quite small actually, compared to the size of the industry and the very, I think, aggressively positive outlook of our industry. It wasn’t too long ago that we were talking about the idea of surpassing the film industry as the biggest entertainment industry on earth, and we are over double the size of it now in less than a decade. This is the hope of our industry and the promise of our industry in pure economic terms. So I think it’s it’s going great, honestly. There are going to be way more jobs for people doing what we do ten years from now than there are today. Now that’s again, that doesn’t take away from the pain that’s being felt today. And, you know, Ben and I were talking about this. We were worried about this when COVID first started. And it was like, “How many jobs can I get? And “I’m quiet quitting.” And, “My boss is an asshole!” All this stuff that was sort of popular on social media at the time, it was “The workers strike back!,”…”I get to work at home” and “You’re not the boss of me. I can do whatever I want, and you need me because I’m a decent engineer!” This is the world we lived in. And Ben and I are like, “Oh God, when the pendulum swings back, it’s going to be nasty.” And it has to swing back. Not because it was wrong or bad for that to happen. It was actually kind of nice to see the workers stick it to the man a little bit. How long has it been since that happened? But now it’s swinging back and you can tell, for example, that some of these game companies are laying off now. We can just sort of say that we’re doing some cost-cutting measures, when in reality we’re just getting rid of the 10% of people who annoyed us the most or whatever. I’m not. I think it’s horrible. But I’m sure some of them have been waiting for an opportunity to ‘cull the wheat ‘or ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ or whatever it is that they think that they’re doing to justify their behavior. And it’s just kind of the ebb and flow of economics. You have to sort of take it in stride to a degree. For us it’s been tough too. So I don’t want anyone to think that we’ve been immune to this. Being a consultant has been really difficult for the last 18 months. We’ve seen some of our close peers wash out and really struggle. So yeah, it is a tough environment now and I don’t blame anybody for feeling defeated at the moment.

Ben Carcich [00:18:03] So I’m going to take a weird, pessimistic/optimistic approach to answering this because I think, yeah, Aaron nailed it on the big stuff. I have always been back in the military and today in games, there are so many opportunities to do things better. And I think you can look at that through this frustrated, cynical, bitter –– there’s a bunch of problems and man, everything sucks. These are just the problems and it’s part of it. And I don’t… I get it. I’ve been there. And actually, a lot of times, when I was in less functional units in the military, that was the vibe, was just, “Oh man, okay, how long till I can get out of this role into a different role?” The reality, though, is that that down means that there’s opportunity. And I think in games especially and in game dev, we are creative individuals. I mean, tech generally. And we’re looking for ways to do this better. And yeah, there’s going to be bumps and it’s going to struggle. And we’re going to argue about what Agile means or what, you know, all this different stuff is and should we use this framework. And how many times do we meet in a day and all the details. But there’s a massive opportunity. There’s a massive opportunity to be far more efficient, far more focused on what matters, and far more effective at delivering things that our audiences, be they players or users of an app or whatever it is that they need. And so for me, that’s why I’m optimistic. And there’s also the controversial take from us AI is out there now, it’s going to change the world in ways we don’t understand, in ways we can’t foresee. And that’s kind of exciting actually. And again, you can look at that through the negative, oh no, who’s going to lose a job? But the historical tendency of new technology arriving is always more jobs later, not fewer. And so I view it as “Yeah, it’s going to be disruptive, but it’s good.” I think it’s going to be disruptive in a way that actually enables us to make more amazing things in the broad tech space, especially in game dev.

Paul Gebel [00:19:58] Great answers both. I really appreciate where you went with that, and you both spoke to pieces of my experiences that ring very true. And without adding too much color commentary live here, I’ll just say it. Thank you both for those responses. Absolutely. Gold. The next question that I have for you is taking me back. Shameless plug to the episode of Building Better Games where I was a guest, I learned in speaking and prepping for that with you that, if I recall correctly, most studios don’t have a person in a role called Product Manager, which was a surprise to me because yeah, I see games as software, very sophisticated software, but software and I think software and product managers are, you know, peanut butter and jelly. So, you know, the closest analog is this function called producers, which is not exactly the same thing. So in in a short maybe summary of some of the things that we chatted about over there. And we’ll link to the full episode in the show notes. What are some of the things that you think product management might be able to benefit the gaming industry and vice versa? For those product managers who are learning that software, like games can get built without a product manager, what does that say about us as product managers that these Triple-A games can be released with no one at the traditional product management helm? Where does where does your mind go? And when you think about that idea of this role of product management and what it might add to the gaming industry if it were taken on as a more, you know, chunk of the team in a role.

Aaron Smith [00:21:29] Gosh, there are so many ways, I feel like I’m going to take a speculative stance here. I’ve thought a lot about this, about why it is the way that it is. One of the things I feel that puts enterprise ahead of games is the sort of live nature of a lot of the most emergent technologies in the enterprise space over the last 20 years. So I think of a company like Amazon or Google where their premier technologies are very live and continuously evergreen environments in which technology exists and people interact with them every day, and the technology continues to evolve over years or even decades. That aspect of games is actually relatively new. And I think, though, that I think that transition actually stimulates a lot of conversation about, hey, wouldn’t it be great to have a person whose sole job it is to think about what’s the next most valuable thing we could do, keep in touch with our customers constantly, and then help the team understand that and contextualize that, and internalize responsibility for that. And then always make sure that we’re focusing on the most important thing. Like if I were to just drastically oversimplify what that role is, the product management role. That’s the way I think about it. And I it just that role to me just gushes with value in that environment. It’s like if that person’s really, really, really good at their job, your company can be good almost with that only. Ben and I are constantly saying that it’s better to have a team that works 20% as fast. If that person is picking all the right things, you’re still going to get there faster than the team who runs five times as fast. But they pick a lot of bad things. Yeah, or a lot of suboptimal things. And so when I think about games, we’ve been building boxed products for so many years. And so I think we’ve got in our own heads that the idea is that by the time you really start building the thing, you should pretty much already know what’s important, or you should pretty much already know what you’re building. And so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the studios that have dabbled more in product management are the ones that are running more like a live service or continuously evolving products. Like Riot, for example. It makes sense to me in that context. I also think we have a lot of entertainment industry tradition that binds us into the role of producer as a sort of logistician that makes sure the actors are in the right place and make sure the spreadsheets are there. And do we have all our contracts signed? And sadly, I still think that too much of what we do takes on that form and color. I think that there are a lot of people in our industry who are still dead set on that approach, and so they value the tactician leader, the one that is crossing all the t’s and dotting the i’s and making sure everything’s perfectly organized. Ben made this lovely LinkedIn post a couple of months back about why the hell do we still treat this like we’re building chairs in a factory. And I think that that just says everything. When you’re building chairs, you need a line manager on the floor making sure everybody’s showing up to work on time. And so if you don’t need somebody that’s going, “What’s the next most important thing to work on?” It’s building the damn chair, screw in the leg in the right place, you know?

Paul Gebel [00:24:46] And to add to the metaphor, you also don’t want creativity. You want everybody to do the same thing.

Aaron Smith [00:24:55] To your point, very counterintuitive. And I feel like a lot of people from outside the industry looking in, they’re saying “How do you guys manage this?” And I think the truth is that we actually don’t manage it super well.

Ben Carcich [00:25:07] I think there’s there’s immense waste in game dev. And it’s being called out more and more as costs go up as the scale of products go up. You could find one of those old things where it’s this is a six-polygon model. This is a 60 poly, this is a 600. And then you get to the point where we’re at and we say “Wait a minute. There’s not that much difference between 6000 and 60,000 or 60,000 and 6 million.”

Aaron Smith [00:25:32] Oh, there’s a difference – It’s called you loading shaders for the first ten minutes after you launch the game. And just sitting there.

Ben Carcich [00:25:36] Exactly.

Ben Carcich [00:25:38] But I will say, I think the reason that I think there are two things. One, Aaron pointed to the producer role got, I think, grafted in from other entertainment spaces, movies, and that sort of thing. And so there was an inheriting of that. The other one is we had people who were in charge of the gameplay and the player experience to some extent, and their designers and game designers are phenomenal. And Aaron and I have worked with amazing game designers. One of the things that’s fascinating is I’ve worked with game designers who can also be Product Managers, but it’s certainly made me realize these are not the same thing. A game designer is an implementer, and whether that’s at a systems level or a very tactical level they’re thinking about that as “Okay, what’s the player going to do? How is this going to relate? What’s going to be the compelling experience here?” But they’re thinking about that in a very nuts-and-bolts way. And I’m not saying they can’t go broader, but that tends to be where they almost have to live because they’re talking with engineers and they’re talking with QA and they’re figuring all that out. And Product Managers, they’re going “What if we went into a completely different space? What if we didn’t do this at all? What if we just didn’t have that whole system? How would we still meet this player experience?” Now again, some designers do that, and I think there is a lot of overlap between the design role and the product management role. And I think that’s why games for so long have survived in the absence of product managers really being a known thing and understood thing, and why when they’ve attempted to come in a lot of times devs went, “What in the world is your job? We’ve got designers, they tell us what to do. They tell us what’s important. They’re in charge of the experience of the player in the gameplay. Aren’t those the same thing?” No, they’re they’re not. There’s a distinction there.

Aaron Smith [00:27:13] And by the way, I would I agree, and I would say if you made a three-circle Venn diagram of Creative Director, which is the supreme designer in the traditional model, you had a Producer and then you had a Product Manager. I would say that the lion’s share of the role and the important parts of the role of what I would view as Product Manager is not generally covered by either of those other two roles. And to me, that’s actually the elephant in the room, because again, what I love about Ben, is I imagine the designer painting the world just being, this is the world we need to create. This is the world that’s compelling from a player’s standpoint. There’s something that the product owner does when they’re really good, which is they come in and they say, I see that you use eight colors on this canvas. If I said you could only use four, which four would you cut out? That kind of question – let’s say we broke this down into the first five things and the last five things. What are the first five things that if we could only do those would create a compelling experience? And these are the questions that we don’t ask. And that gap is a critical gap, I think, in our industry. And I think the more creative and the more complex the stuff gets, the more we need it.

Ben Carcich [00:28:24] Well, I think the more we, unfortunately, intuitively, because the counterintuitive answer is everything Aaron just said. The intuitive answers will bring in the producers and have them make everything more efficient. So we can just do it all. And it’s this misunderstanding of the producer as the logistician or like a Project Manager. Did we get it all done? Did we get it all done fast? Yeah but did you need to get it done? And I can’t tell you how many times Aaron and I have gone to work with a company on a consulting gig or even at Riot, and it was like, “What are we doing?” And they’re “We’re doing all this stuff. Look at all this stuff we’re doing.” And we’re like, “Why is it valuable?” And Aaron, and I are product guys, but we can ask that question and it’s “Well, because it’s in the backlog? Because it’s in on the plan. Because somebody at some point in the past said, this is what we need to do.” Okay, how does it relate to the experience we’re trying to create? And again, these are product management questions. And I’m not a Product Manager. But who’s going to ask them? And I think that’s the thing that would that is where games could learn a lot from tech. Now you asked the reverse question what could tech learn from games? Yeah. And that’s a really interesting one for me. I think that the games sit in this place. They’re distraction. They’re distraction in a world and I don’t I don’t want to oversimplify that. Sorry. Their hobby, their distraction. But it’s disposable time, disposable income that we’re putting towards these things. This is not for survival that we play games. It is for thriving, that sort of thing. And so you compete with Netflix, you compete with sports leagues, you compete with movies, you compete with music, you’re competing with all these things. And so you have this very tough thing where you’re trying to distract people away from all the other things they could engage with, and instead, you’re trying to get them to play your game and have a good time and engage with that experience. And enjoy that and want to keep doing that. And what that leads to with the best games is this unbelievable focus on the audience experience, not as any sort of utilitarian thing, but how do I really make this something that you love to engage with? And by the way, Aaron loves to point this out, you go into the MOD scene, people would run through molasses to get to battle royales before PUBG and h1z1 and all this stuff existed. We were just playing the buggiest garbage, you know, that you could play because the core experience was there. And I think that’s something where, “Okay, what does that look like for tech? Are you being too utilitarian?” When you think about that audience, you’re going “Well, I just need to make sure that everybody, it’s good enough they can find the button.” It’s good to go. What does it mean to have that be something where it’s no? And I’m not saying, you know if I’m making an app that delivers food to be “Oh, I just want them to spend all day in that app.” But it’s, how do I make this something that they love to engage with for the 10, 15, 30 seconds that they’re engaging with it, instead of it being like something where it’s kind of, okay, I have to pick between the seven apps that do this and they all kind of suck in their own way. How do you step up in that? Games have to answer that question or they don’t survive at all. And again, I say this as someone who hasn’t spent a ton of time in the tech space, just bits and pieces here and there. But I think that’s something that obsession with the experience, the audience, the player in the case of games.

Paul Gebel [00:31:41] You’re hitting on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because I feel like you, Aaron, when you’re introducing yourself at the very top, you alluded to the anonymity of sort of the old internet when there wasn’t literal over-indexing of everything. And I think a lot of the process that we see unfolding in tech development today, it’s so easy to be pixel perfect up front that there’s fat marker sketches and really low fidelity wireframes. It’s now just as easy to make something pixel-perfect as it is to make the rough sketch 10 or 15 years ago. So now everything being pixel perfect has taken away some of that endearing roughness of the early internet, where you see a calendar and it’s not fully functional with daylight savings and multi time zones. It’s just a list of time slots and it’s super low functionality. But it got the job done. And when we look at the internet today and an enterprise SaaS, whatever application you’re thinking of, everything is so fit and finished and polished that there’s no room for that exploratory, you know, it’s not quite perfect, but it’s adorable and you kind of love it because of the imperfection. And I feel like a lot of the products that we’re seeing are so perfect that there’s none of that endearing quality. And I think that a lot of this has to do with risk aversion. Obviously, if you’ve got huge large cap blue chip companies with tons of shareholders and earnings calls, you need to worry about, imperfection is not something that you’re going to brag about or even strive for. But I think there’s something lost in that aspect of saying no to a bunch of good ideas to focus on one great one and working on it, and not maybe getting it right the first time and seeing what happens and having a little bit risk embracing. And I think there’s something in what you’re talking about that strikes a chord in something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and just getting something out there and being okay, testing it live, and seeing what happens. And I feel like we’re afraid to do some of that anymore.

Aaron Smith [00:33:49] I think in a way it’s been satisfying for Ben and I to see that the people who are willing to do that and can do that very nimbly and cheaply, are starting to take a significant chunk of the pie in our industry. And I think that it’s funny. There are a lot of corporate types that are waxing philosophical, what does that mean? And can they ever do what we do? I’ve had discussions with people at conferences where I’ve heard things like, “Well, without the marketing genius that we’ve built over the last 20 years, they’ll never be able to be as successful.” And you just hear this crap and it’s no, the Roblox kids are making like $30 million a year now, I just read a story yesterday about, a new game. There’s a game mode that’s blowing up, which is this crazy tennis thing. I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. I have trouble keeping up and it’s like, who’s to say they won’t be making 100 million a year three years from now? Who’s to say there won’t be a new Roblox that has a better rev share model five years from now? Epic’s leaning into this. These companies are leaning into this because they’re realizing that, like a lot of other areas of media, the creator economy is actually generating a ton of value. And so I think that it’s interesting in our industry, we’re almost being forced to reckon with that because even though I am of the belief that I think most sorts of traditional corporate types in games are actually, “Well, no, we can’t show it until it’s ready.” It has to be polished, it has to have this. It has to have that. And Ben and I can argue with that, but there’s no better argument than, like I said, the PUBG that just emerges that no one expects the next billion dollars.

Ben Carcich [00:35:31] Baldur’s Gate 3 is sitting on early access for like 3 or 4 years? Like that. And then blowing up to be certainly one of the more successful games, if not the most successful game of the last several years. I’m gonna I’m going to try to put an analogy to what we just referenced because I think about this in what’s an example of what I’m talking about. And for me, a great one is you have Microsoft Teams, which you’re getting back more familiar with. You have Slack, and then you have Discord. And there’s something I don’t I couldn’t tell you what it is. Go talk to a UX designer, someone like that. But Discord just blew Slack out of my mind when it showed up. It was just, “Oh wow, this does everything I want it to do. It seems really smooth. I don’t seem like I have to fight with as much.” And by the way, I’m not knocking Slack, it’s a great tool. Tons of people use it. It works really well, but there’s something about Discord in the feel of it, in the way that the different servers work and all these different things where I’m just like, “What a refined experience that just slowly inserted itself into my life.” And I’m an old fogey, grumpy man who hates new things and it just became more and more of a part of how I communicate with first my friends, then my family, then communities of interest to me. How did this happen? And yet there it is?

Aaron Smith [00:36:55] And see, it’s funny. It’s funny because you’re “Well, I’m an old man. I should be the one that doesn’t get it.” The thing is, the gamer community was blazing trails in that department. Used TeamSpeak. Used Trello. Use Roger Wilco if you want to go back far enough. Those things are the predecessors to Discord. So that product was a niche at that time, but that product need existed. And I think now you’re seeing our guilds are now becoming that desire to commune is becoming a mainstream idea now in the way people interface with the internet. And I think it just like to me, Reddit is the God of all forums. But we were posting on forums for decades. I’m sure you guys were back in the old days again. That was. I loved being a forum troll. It was so much fun. And Reddit gives me a little taste of that if I want to go back from time to time.

Paul Gebel [00:37:46] But only in your Alt account.

Paul Gebel [00:37:52] I’m gonna wrap us up with just a couple of closing questions. I could talk to you guys all day long. I’ve loved this conversation, but a couple of questions that we ask all of our guests, and I want to make sure I make time to hear what you guys think about these last couple of super short and sweet questions. What does the word innovation mean to each of you?

Aaron Smith [00:38:09] To me, it might be oversimplified, but to me, innovation means trying new things and seeing if they can positively change people’s lives.

Ben Carcich [00:38:18] I think for me, the phrase that’s coming to mind is applied creativity or useful creativity. It’s like you have to look at the world and you have to go, okay, I’m going to look at this in a different way, in a creative way, not just because that’s fun in my own head, but because, I think there’s actually something here that will change how something works for the better.

Paul Gebel [00:38:40] I like that, I don’t think I’ve heard quite that take on it. It’s almost like the difference between art and innovation is that innovation is almost like applied art. Art is art for its own sake, and innovation is when it becomes something useful, something meaningful, and in a practical way, I really like that. So I’m going to close with a call to action to share with everybody where they can find you what’s inspiring to you. You’ve got your own podcast, which I’ve already mentioned. You just launched a course. How can folks get in touch with you and see other things that you’re talking about, and writing about.

Aaron Smith [00:39:16] The best way to get involved with Building BetterGames, which, by the way, if you’re not in games but you’re just interested in games in an ancillary way, we break down into useful bits, a lot of the global production process. We’re trying to compartmentalize into a digestible way, the whole way games are made. That’s kind of one of our goals. So if you’re interested in that, the quickest way to get involved is just to load up the podcast or to sign up for the newsletter, because that stuff’s just free and it’s just going to be coming to your inbox, every two weeks or whatever it is. And if and then I think the rest will work itself out. So sign up for the newsletter and listen to the podcast.

Ben Carcich [00:39:58] is where you can find us. There’s a newsletter tab, a podcast tab, and we just launched a course called Succeeding in Game Production: What You Weren’t Taught, for Product Managers. I did have two Product Managers who are not actively in games right now go through the course, and they actually got a heck of a lot out of it. So while it is designed for game dev and game producers, if you’re interested in some of that space, or if you want to learn more about how I view leadership and how Aaron and I kind of think about producers fitting in to organizations, a lot of it does apply. So you might get something out of it, too.

Paul Gebel [00:40:29] Well, as an avid reader of your content and listener of your show, I can personally attest that the content is always valuable whenever I see it. I really appreciate you both making time to join us today. It’s been a blast talking to you again. It’s been a privilege, so appreciate it. I look forward to what’s in store for you guys. I know big things are to come, so cheers.

Ben Carcich [00:40:50] Thank you. Great to be here. Appreciate it.

Paul Gebel [00:40:56] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.


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