How we work: Retrospectives

Why We Have Meetings Where We Look Back, Evaluate and Focus

We consider communication as a primary element in making us better at what we do. We focus on enabling communication flow inside and between teams with different kinds of habits and roles. One of the most important habits that our teams have for weekly and monthly communication, syncing up and reality checks are retrospectives.

Retrospectives are connected to our weekly sprints and the longer, 3-6 week stretches. It’s important that after each sprint and stretch we have an opportunity to look at what we set out to accomplish, if we were able to meet the goals we set, what was getting on our way, and if the product still looks like we imagined a week or a month before.

To understand the need for retrospectives, we first need to dig a little deeper into our production ideology, which has many things borrowed from the Scrum method, combined with our focus on KPI driven development. We understand that we are making our games for our players, not for ourselves. To make the games that our players want, we need to rely on market research, early feedback, testing and data to guide our game making process. To get early feedback and test results, we need to get our games out there as early as possible, and actively iterate and update them. We are also prepared to react quickly to the feedback and data that we collect to incorporate it in our products and keep the iteration process going.

These lean and quick iteration cycles need certain things to support them: We need to be objective towards and open to data and feedback we get about our products, have the skills to swiftly adapt our approach based on the input we get, have a plan that is not too rigid and can be changed easily, and have ways of clearing hindrances away. Great communication is the key to all of these things, and without it there is a real risk of losing focus while receiving loads of information from different sources.

The Structure of a Retro

Our teams have organised their work based on weekly sprints with the goal of making something that the team can test, and longer stretches that aim for releasing a build in the store or for internal playing for the whole company. After each sprint and stretch we have a retrospective where we ask ourselves how can we work better together. What was getting on our way? What things are slowing us down or hindering our progress? We focus on discussing the different ways we work and interact with each other, trying to reach even better co-operation in the upcoming new sprints. This means we dive honestly into the inter and intra personal topics as well. Anything that can hinder us from making amazing games together should be brought up and handled.

All retros start with the same basic assumption: That we are all on the same side, trying to make amazing games together. To remind ourselves of this common goal, we start every retro with the prime directive introduced by Norman Kerth in his book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. It goes like this:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
This is a great message that keeps us focused on finding solutions together.

There are two types or retros. The weekly retros give us immediate feedback on how things went this week. The weekly retros help us keep the ball rolling from one sprint to another and to keep the team in sync with each other. The focus is very much on present: What happens right now and what is hindering right now? Some of the topics discussed might relate to for example to how we had not taken the dependencies and synchrony of different tasks into account, thus making them harder to execute or follow through; Or that the flow of work got disrupted due to insufficient communication with team members or other stake holders in the face of unforeseen circumstances. The goal is to figure out how we can work better next week to avoid the challenges we faced this week and to direct the teams focus on things that they succeeded in, strengthening those emergent, beneficial habits and building on them for even better collaboration.

The second type of retro we hold after longer stretches, after we have finished our deliverables, wether they are a build, game vision, marketing materials or something else, and shared it for internal or external evaluation. These retros are for identifying things that happened over a longer period of time: defusing the stress that might have built up during the stretch and celebrating the successes we have experienced. Our aim is to improve our future processes, and to review what we have built. Did we achieve everything we aimed for in the beginning of the stretch? How does the product feel right now? Are we on track? What challenges did we overcome during the stretch? Did we fail to identify or tackle some challenges during sprints? How does the team feel right now? What are the successes that we want to carry on to the next stretch?

Benefits of Having Retros

In short, the retros are meetings where we have the chance to talk about things we have on our mind, and to keep ourselves and the whole team in sync with the reality. We think it’s important to have designated slots for discussion in addition to discussions that will happen organically throughout the development. Both forms of communication have a clear function in a well honed team. Daily discussions keep the team members on the pulse of what is happening. However, the team members want save the bigger issues for a dedicated discussion to keep the ball rolling during the weekdays, and to give room for the more quiet members of the team to speak up as well. This is exactly what retros are: A recurring meeting, where everyone is expected to pipe in; A habit of syncing and coordinating the team work in a transparent, non-intrusive and inclusive way.

In retros we stop and ask ourselves if we are focusing on the right things:

  • Are we achieving our Sprint and Stretch goals? Are our goals realistic?

  • Are we doing the things that make our product better (according to data and feedback)?

  • Are we making a product that our players want?

  • Do we have a synchronised, coherent and realistic picture of the production and the situation at hand?

  • Are we adapting to data and feedback we get?

  • What are we succeeding in that we want to focus in the future as well?

Through retros we are able to synchronise our understanding of how we work right now, and together create ways to optimise our collaboration and communication both short and long term.

 

 

The games industry in Finland has been on a growth spurt for a while now, and even though the amount of new companies founded every year is slowly declining, the growth still causes a common headache for all companies: recruiting. The successful companies compete to hire the rare and elusive seniors, and try make their company the most tempting option for them. For developers with less resources it basically means they can’t afford to compete for senior staff, and even bigger studios usually find their senior hires through word-of-mouth and personal contacts rather than through official hiring routes.

Seniors are not just hard to acquire, but also hard to keep: they know their worth and are ready to move elsewhere if the company doesn’t feel right. Other option out there is international hiring, but it’s time-consuming and costly, and once again not a viable option for most companies out there. As more and more game companies find success in this business, the problem called recruiting seems to be not going away.

What do game companies usually offer to attract senior hires? They compete with the obvious salary and perks, but that’s not enough anymore. You also need to show you have truly interesting and ambitious projects, both tech and design-wise. Company culture, vision and structure are also important, as more and more developers now appreciate modern, flat organisations with independent teams, lots of freedom and room for creativity. People in the games industry are not in it just for the money, but having a place where you actually enjoy spending 8 hours a day is paramount. Senior staff with families also appreciate things like good local schools, safe environment, healthcare benefits and possible company daycare, so the location of your studio also matters a great deal.

Our solution to the situation is this: instead of trying to find the most talented and experienced seniors, we grow our own. How do we do this? First, we drop the Senior and Junior definitions in our job postings. We look for people that match the job description, not the number of years or projects worked on. Instead we focus on identifying the type of personalities that fit our honest and learning oriented company culture – Those that show potential in becoming seniors with 3-4 years of work and tutelage. Portfolios and interviews are our main tools for figuring this out. The portfolios of potential hires need to show determined learning in quick intervals. In interviews we focus a lot on teamwork and communication skills, and on leadership potential.

To make our company a place where this type of systematic professional development is possible, we create a safe environment for learning, asking questions and being honest. We onboard new hires straight into ongoing projects, and give them responsibility from the get go, gradually increasing the responsibility level depending on each individual. Teams demand high quality and team effort, but offer the newcomers guidance and help. Seniors take the role of mentors and coaches, who make themselves available for the juniors. The responsibility the new hires are given is countered with relaxed, safe and flexible environment where mistakes are part of learning. It’s crucial to minimize the stress, fear and friction in the equation to enable people to reach their full potential.

As we get new hires to jump straight into projects, we also need to be able to communicate project goals and requirements quickly and comprehensively. Keeping and interpreting huge, hard-to-update design bibles is an outdated approach that complicates onboarding to new projects. Instead we communicate the project’s vision, focus and design with short, easy-to-digest presentations that help new people to jump into a project at any point. Our weekly update meetings, Monday Breakfast and Friday Open Mic are wonderful tools to get new people up-to-date on other things we are working on, and our team days, retrospectives, workshops and one-on-ones help them get immersed in our company culture straight away.

Our approach brings with it a unique set of challenges, and home-growing your own seniors is not the fast and easy fix to all your recruitment problems. It takes time and effort to build a company that enables people to grow from junior skills and mindset into leadership, great communication and true talent. We are encouraged by our experiences so far, and have already seen a handful of people grow in 3-4 years into central senior positions in different areas in the company. We are definitely excited to continue on this path, and build together an even better environment for growth and learning here at Traplight.

At Traplight we value learning and sharing of information. We also believe that we have the best chance of making amazing games when everyone can give their input in our learning process. We organise company wide workshops several times a year to enhance our internal learning, and to update our collective understanding of how we make games.

The topics of the workshops are tight to F2P design, understanding of the current mobile game market and the vision for Traplight’s games. The goal of the workshops is not to teach or share ready-made information, but to ask questions and find solutions together. The outcome of a single workshop can be for example game concepts, theories, presentations about findings or riveting discussions about the topic at hand. Game concepts are typically the most common outcome, as they enable us to understand complex issues from a very practical point of view.

Our workshops involve all our employees regardless of job description. Putting our heads together to figure out how to best make games just makes sense: Collectively we can find ideas and solutions that would be hard for a single employee to find. The typical workshop starts with a creative brief that help us focus and get inspired about the topic at hand. After laying a common ground we divide into small teams. These teams decide independently how to tackle the topic, and what kind of tools and working methods to use. At the end of the day we will share what we have found.

After presenting and discussing about our findings we suggest how to continue. The next step might be for example:

  • To have another workshop about a new, important topic that stood out

  • To have a team look more closely at a game concept that was born during the workshop

  • To implement newly found information or good practice into our production processes

Another reason to organise these workshops beside learning together is to take a break from our routines. Little distance to our office environment and working together with people that are normally not in your team does wonders for your brain! We get to know each other better, tackle challenges head on with a tight schedule and jump into unknown without fear of being judged. And of course at the end we will have a very Finnish company party complete with sauna, hot tub and lake swimming.

Below you can find some pictures of our latest workshop which we held on 6th of June in a cabin complex near Tampere. This time we learned together about player empowerment, and the different progressions that enable that in F2P games. We’ll post more about the topic in our blog later, so stay tuned!

And finally, if you made it this far, enjoy this great .gif taken during the infamous hot tub malfunction incident at the workshop!

All games are born differently, and all game companies have different approaches to creating games. At Traplight the process of getting new, exciting games out there relies on the creativity of the whole Traplight community, constant evaluation of the current market trends and our key development guidelines.

 

Idea

At Traplight everyone designs games. This means that anyone can develop a game idea, present it to the Traplight team in our Friday Open Mic meeting and get feedback from their colleagues. We ask the presented idea several questions:

  • Does the idea innovate something? Does it innovate too many things?

  • Which aspects of the idea are already proven by current, successful F2P games?

  • How much time would it take to test the new, innovative part of the concept?

  • What is the size of the core and meta game at their simplest?

  • What kind of social validation, community, creation or enhanced player autonomy features does the game have?

Traplight people presenting their ideas at Friday Open Mic

 

Pre-production

If the idea feels coherent and tightly packed with both proven and innovative aspects, and it has a solid take on our product vision, it might be green-lit to the next step: pre-production. During the 1 or 2 week process the pre-production team turns the idea into a game concept. The team answers questions about the core game, player progression, fantasy, target audience and other things that will help them achieve coherent game design. The design document has to also provide a plan for first playable, Alpha and Soft Launch versions. After the preproduction process the newly born concept is presented again to everyone. There is another round of feedback and if the plan seems solid and there are resources to start production, the game concept has a chance to be green-lit into production.

 

Production

The production team, which has usually changed a bit from the original pre-production team, sets their own targets based on the amount of work ahead and the deliverables for each production checkpoint. The checkpoints are:

  • First Playable. This is the first version of the game that works and is meant for internal testing only. Big key features can still be missing, but the fun factor should already be there.

  • Alpha builds. The first Alpha version is the first time the game is tested with external people. First alpha tests D1 and interest, and the later alpha versions focus on D1-D7 retention.

  • Soft Launch. Where as Alpha versions focus on retention, the Soft Launch version already has monetisation in, and during Soft Launch the team focuses on optimising long-term retention and player LTV.

 

During production the project needs to meet certain goals and targets that we have set for our games. If it fails to do so, it might be killed at any point. We have noticed that killing projects as soon as warning signs arise is a much better option than keeping teams honing something that doesn’t meet our expectations.

During 2017 and the beginning of 2018 we’ve presented and evaluated 20-30 game ideas, and of those 7 moved to pre-production, and 3 have moved to production. The funnel is improving all the time as we learn more about what kind of ideas have a seed for greatness and how to make each step of the funnel more efficient.

We already have had a couple of first playables in internal testing, and one game currently in Alpha launch. As of now, Big Bang Racing is our only global live game, but we are looking forward to seeing our new projects reach Soft and Global Launch soon in the future.