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The Story of NExT Studios (Pt.2) ——Recovering from a Crisis

2019-01-09

NExT Story (5)—Launch 

 

Start a regular development process through a collection of innovation and filtered projects.

In this chapter, we'll discuss the things we did which helped during the process of launching our product.

 

Time Nodes

For a project with a solid idea, we're willing to invest more resources, and push it into a node called "preliminary projects" where staff is expanded, budget is allocated, and outsourcing work is done.

A preliminary project is a commitment made by the management team. It means we are willing to invest real money in it, and transform a good idea into a product.
A preliminary project is also a commitment made by the project team. They carry heavier responsibility on their shoulders. The promises they made, everything they bragged about, and the holes they dug will all come to light. 

For preliminary projects, we try to maintain monthly reviews for the projects. The project team must remain clear-headed at every moment and dispel the external pressure of doubts from the committee. The project team also faces internal pressure, but under this high pressure, we're always driven forward. Even though the management team has given their word to see it through, commitments can never be trusted. The project team cannot rest easy because any stagnant project will someday be cast aside, throwing them back into the chaos of creation. This is a warm, but ruthless team. We show kindness to team members in the moment, but we are always conscientious of our duty.

In the past, there were 3-4 projects that were kicked back to the incubation stage. Some teams fought their way back from the loser’s bracket and reclaimed victory, others unfortunately were never heard of again.

After the preliminary stage, goals change and the team needs to deliver a vertical-sliced, which is a small representation of the final product. At this point, it has conquered most of the difficulties and established its design pillar. After that, the project will be ready for set-up.

After passing another review of similar procedures and policies, the project will be officially set up. We give every official product a three-digit number, e.g. NExT 001 (Death Coming), NExT 002 (Iris Fall).

Investment increases as projects goes from incubation, to preliminary stage, and to the final stage, and their priority in resource allocation gets higher and higher. Meanwhile, these projects have a price to pay—they become less flexible, make more commitments, and carry heavier burden.

 

Resources

After a project's incubation period, since each project grows from nothing, manpower cannot be guaranteed. But when it enters a new stage, we need to prioritize our allocation, giving it as many resources as possible to make sure it will be finished on time.

That being said, resources are actually fairly limited. Every project is usually comprised of 10+ members with at most 20. Unlike other immensely profitable commercial projects, ours plans are on a long-term basis in terms of capacity and revenue.

Allocating resources is a tough job, because everyone has their own work to do. We need to take into count work priority when taking from and adding to other projects. This causes competition among other projects and breaking the chain of interests.

It worked well at first, because even when we couldn't transfer staff members, we had the option of recruiting new ones to solve the problem.

However, once the recruitment quota was reached, the competition began to escalate as everyone realized there would be no outside resources. It became a zero-sum game and we had to be sure to utilize everyone.

However difficult it was, we had to move on.

In any organization, resources are always limited. It's impossible to make every team happy. Those in the weaker position hold the grudge of, "I'll kill whoever tries to steals what's mine." However, those in a better position still aren't getting necessary resources and complain, "No resources, no progress."

On top of that, information is usually not symmetrical, which further initiates internal contradictions. Everyone feels insecure; who's the one that is spreading rumors? Trust is lost; who's the one breaking the rules? We were tightly caught up in a web of suspicion, which hurt each other. 

To ensure fair allocation, we drew an assortment of regulations. We established a relatively neutral guild system to manage and transfer members across similar types of work. We also set priorities for all projects so that the weaker ones had the time to prepare for or accept the harsh reality. For the resources that were really hard to allocate, we used outsourcing and brought in consultants to defuse tensions.

However, humanity's hunger is like a bottomless pit. There will always be some project teams who, despite facing hardship, still march in the right direction—they deserve support. Unfortunately, no one has any grain to spare.

All the problems that can't be solved realistically, find their answers at the philosophical level. Li put forward the ultimate solution: be patient when you're lacking resources. For a small team, take your time, you'll work it out eventually. This strategy is similar to the "flexible implementation" TiMi Studio Group used to say. If we can get whatever resources we want, why do we need your talent?

 

Master review

 

I'm pissed off! Bladed Fury

 

The aforementioned product went through countless tweaks during development and we still encounter new problems from time to time.

NEXT Studio's products have a long product cycle, so issues inevitably occur. Many of them have unique selling points, as well as obvious shortcomings. It is a big challenge to control quality in the development process. 

The management team wishs to give developers enough freedom to express their ideas and not to intervene in the daily development of the projects. However, freedom is not mindless selfish indulgence. For the projects with obvious defects, we will give our suggestions in some way in order to improve their quality.

Daily review is a good channel for feedback, but that's far from enough.

We find some products have an inappropriate difficulty setting. After fixing this,  their quality suffered and its reputation was at risk. These problems have one thing in common: they're only exposed in the later stage of development. In early versions, due to a limited degree of completion, they're usually well hidden. 

The development of modern games is too assembly-lined, with every step carefully divided. Art designers focus on drawing and painting; programmers write code; game designers focus on gameplay and mechanics; testers look for bugs… Yet in this development process, you don't find players. In many cases, if you test a game from a player's perspective, you'll find a great deal of issues, which won’t be noticed by anyone in a regular process.

So we have brought in professional reviews in every segment to give us earlier and more comprehensive feedback. We have even brought in Master Reviews. Before a game is released, we invite professional reviewers to experience our game from a player's perspective to check its pacing, look for problems, and give constructive feedback to the developers. By that time, the game is almost complete, and the reviewers can target issues in gameplay more easily. 

 

Rivalry

As development goes on, we gradually have a few products that require operation and maintenance. The life cycle of products is getting more and more complex, and we need to bring in more divisions.

The thing is, our work time is always limited. A busier work flow may give management a new perspective, but it will cost more resources as well. We're doing our best to adjust the procedure by add new steps and cutting redundant ones. There is no perfect work flow, so we have to take extra care in finding the sweet spot. 

Thus far, I have given a brief introduction of our development process, which seems pretty unreliable. You might have a lot of questions that come to mind: "Really? You can make games in these conditions?"

Indeed, you're not the only one who has doubts. 

Success will not come easy. We're simply holding our tears during setbacks, exhausted, waiting for the morning light.

 

NExT Story (6)—Death Strikes

 

After discussing our work flow for several chapters, let's get back to our timeline and continue with our story. 

 

Crisis

 

The Raging Fist—Bladed Fury

 

Every time we changed our direction, great unrest followed. Li's ideas didn't always speak for everyone and his thinking wasn't always accepted.

After we regrouped, panic was in the air, and resignations were submitted in succession. Quite a number of staff members didn't agree with our new policy, so they looked for a brighter future.

We were like a wounded animal surrounded by enemies, but the true enemy was the fear in our minds.

There were two types of people who didn't like the new direction in which we were headed. One of those types of people were those who were ambitious and used to top products. They didn't want to get stuck with small cute games which, in their opinion, hindered the development of their skills. The other was those who don't have many ideas or desire for expression. They're not used to uncertainty and wish for a clearer goal. By comparison, it's the fresh young graduates and the experienced veterans who give the newly born organization a warm welcome.

To conquer the fear of uncertainty, we first had to set up an elite group that would prove to everyone that creative games can be amazing. 

 

The Offering

 

Halt, king crab, give us a few legs for hotpot—Bladed Fury

 

The team who made Death Coming, the Idea++ Award winner, was dispatched to the frontline.

Creative games are usually made by small teams who need a long period of development, because there are lots of ideas to ruminate over and possibilities to be tested. Roman was not built in a day. To make a good creative game, you need patience. 

It's like stewing pork, which takes time for the flavor to sink in.

But Li was impatient, urging them into action. Not because he didn't know the objective law, but time waits for no man.

The Death Coming team stepped in and were given only 6 months. They claimed they feared nothing, but that's nonsense. Nobody was sure of anything.

A good demo doesn't mean a good product. To learn about the gap between a demo and the final product, check out the following:

Why Highly-Anticipated Projects Are Hard to Run series

Specifically, here are the challenges the DC team faced.

 

Challenge

 

Barbequing a python. The leading character is hiding in the bottom-right corner, trembling—Bladed Fury

 

Problem 1: inadequate staffing. To do it fast, you need more resources. But there weren't many 2D artists at the time. Besides, inside the organization, there were invisible walls between departments, so resources couldn't be easily transferred.

Luckily, we had support from senior leaders who were capable of overturning any wall and wearing down opposition. After managing to persuade other teams, obtain manpower, and enlist support from outsourcing, Li eventually was able to scrape together a team.

Problem 2: hectic schedule. The DC team did their best to meet the deadline. It took around 7 months for the project to go from its inception to early access.

Tight schedules are common in this industry and the traditional solution is working overtime. (Other studios will laugh at any mentioning of overtime)

DC team's overtime frequency isn't as bad as other studios working on commercial games, but it's still a lot. After all, since we were a commercial team in the earlier days, we could grit our teeth and get on with it. 

But the biggest problem was, we hadn't figure out the game's core playstyle.

 

Flowerpot Coming

In the earliest video, it was simply pushing pots or opening manholes. Interesting it might be, but it was not enough for a game. Gameplay is more than individual points of interest, we needed to connect all the dots.  

As we went on, we found ourselves going in the wrong direction. We wanted to make a game called Death Coming, but it gradually became "Flowerpot Coming" or "Manhole Gone".

Our team needed to solve design problems in a more systematic way in order to bring novelty to players. A good idea, though acclaimed by everyone, still needs to prove its value. Based on an interesting core concept, the DC team created lots of variety, and systematically added difficulty, challenges, chain effects, puzzles, and playstyles. In addition, they showed fevered imagination, adding a wide range of featured levels and classic set pieces to raise its production value.

And yet, time is limited, so the release date was delayed again and again. The game's quality was not up to the requirement, and the team was still desperately adding new content and working on details. It seemed like an bottomless hole that could never be filled. On the surface, it was a small cute game, yet in terms of expense, it opened its greedy mouth, ravenously devouring all resources.

All the departments had their eyes on the DC team, and all the possible resources had been transferred—we could wait no longer. So, we slashed a few levels and began to work on Early Access. For the cut levels, we decided to take our time, and release them in the free follow-up updates over 2 months.

Prior to its release, we won a few domestic awards and received great support from players, which was a good start. Despite being an indie game, it's innovative gameplay and excellent quality showed our good faith. On top of that, it has quite a number of amusing punchlines. Those who get it usually give it a high rating.

We finally proved ourselves that we were capable of making good creative games.

Unfortunately, the internal crisis had not been tackled, what's more, it was getting worse. The key to the contradiction was beyond our imagination.

 

NExT Story (7)—Life and Death

An Easter Egg first.

The day of departure, NExT XXX?

 

For All's Hope, Bring Back the Dragon Ball

 

The Onset of Misfortune

In September, 2017, I embarked on my journey with NExT Studios.

My responsibility was kind of unclear. Part of my job was clearly assigned, but in most cases, I was left with nothing to do.

Luckily the relationship between me and most teams didn't create too much conflict of interest, so I was the one to do the dirty work.

My duties included: managing internal staff, bringing departments together, establishing horizontal management of talent, controlling staff turnover, running project reviews, assisting creative game development, alleviating disputes, and maintaining company harmony. These are all tough jobs, but showing sincerity helps make people willing to comply.

And soon, the real challenge came.

It is quite magical that the external glamor and internal degeneration didn't always contradict each other. We show our best side to the outer world, flaunting our spirit of innovation, while we were wounded on the inside, and didn't want anyone to touch us.

NExT's biggest challenge was the credibility gap.

Our department was struggling with staff retention, which is common in any organization. But continuous loss of staff was a bad omen.

Different kinds of problems were uncovered. In late 2017, the contradictions came in short, concentrated bursts.

 

Internal Cause

There was growing concern over some issues.

Firstly, are we able to make good creative games? The DC team tell us: Yes, we can.

Secondly, can creative games survive in the Tencent system? Li tells us: Yes, we can.

Thirdly, cute games have very limited help towards an employee's development. They might go well for game designers, because however small a game is, it has all the components for providing valuable training opportunities. As for programmers and art designers, they apparently do not.   

Lastly, due to the change of the organizational structure, interpersonal problems occur frequently. This is hard to avoid, but fortunately it's not the biggest issue.

Employees were suffering from anxiety, and there was nothing we could do about it.

It would have been simple if it was just the internal cause. But it wasn't.

 

External Cause

It's time to show your positioning skills—OWO 

 

Unlike the chilly winter of 2018, in late 2017, the game industry was hot and countless companies were bustling with activity. Our rival firms surely wouldn't let go of the opportunity to poach loads of senior employees. There were also quite a few to-be entrepreneurs who resigned without any hesitation. 

But when it came to recruitment, Tencent never lost. The inflow and outflow of our talent roughly breaks even. 

The deadliest bullet always comes from one's allies. The temptation from inside seduces everyone.

There is a "running water" system inside Tencent, which is loved and hated by everyone. All employees with qualified performance can move freely within the company, and departments cannot retain them. This was a good way to utilize human resources: individual employees are offered more options, while the company keeps staff in house.

If a department is like a lion, size isn't an issue. However, if it's like a pig or sheep, it doesn't bode well.


Lu Xun

NEXT is that poor piggy. Born at the wrong time, it's already unlucky enough. Matters are made even worse with everyone keeping a close eye on it.

That came in the midst of the regrouping of a couple of commercial studios. New projects were set up, talent was in short supply. And the employees from NExT were invited for personal meetings. On a side note, in a big company like Tencent, the recruitment process has always been unbelievably slow, and complaints are heard everywhere. Yet curiously enough, the interviews during that period turned out to be remarkably smooth. Within one day, most NExT employees were able to meet all the interviewers and even the GM. Then shortly after, they would inform us of their post transfer only to never be seen again.  

We chatted with them about ambitions, dreams, opportunities… All those empty talks, while the interviewers offered them annual bonuses, pay raises, promotions… less words, more hope.

This is how the system works and there's nothing we can do about it.

All the teams that stole our members tried to comfort us, and every former comrade of ours was reluctant to say goodbye. All we can do is forgive them and wish them a better future. We made a silent vow, we would build a better NExT Studio.

 

Stanch the Bleeding 

 

I dare you to defeat it—OWO 

 

Roman was not built in a day. The high resignation rate today finds its root in the past.

All changes have their lag effects. If staff don't like any new directions, they won't necessary leave at once. Most of the time, they will wait and watch as they accumulate their rage, much like charging in fighting games before casting their ultimate. The disputes among studios are merely catalysts. In actuality, no one likes new ideas.

Likewise, the bleeding can't be stopped in a day or two. We must first show our good faith, then demonstrate it with positive results. When people have confidence, crisis will turn the corner. But there will probably still be a long period of bleeding before the wound begins to heal.

We began making efforts to clear up employee confusion.

The DC team has proven that we're capable of making good creative games. So, we began focusing on the personal development of every employee.

It is true that a number of indie games cannot provide deep technical support, but their technical challenges are no less than most free-to-play mobile games. Besides, other teams offer attractive engines and AAA quality, which is an issue we must face head-on. Therefore, we opened up an entirely new direction.

It's not an easy decision because, since its inception, NEXT Studio's core idea has always been "total innovation." However, as Li collected more and more teams, the percentage of high-end talented increased, as did minor disagreements among team members. It's absolutely imperative to do more challenging work.

As for the details of the new direction, we'll talk about it later. We started a mid-scaled project which was indeed welcomed by our technically ambitious members.

In spite of all the efforts, when it came to the result, it was still a disaster.

 

Crisis

The engine team was completely broken up and regrouped into other teams. There were a few outside temptations, but that was mostly the fault of mismanagement. Members of the engine team found their posts in different places, which is enough to prove that not a single organization was targeting us, but the whole world.

They all shared a common reason for leaving: either they get paid better, felt tired of their current job, don't see a future in NExT, or thoroughly despised us for daring only to make small games.  

I was in an awkward position.

I knew more information about our studio's development plans and the fact that the senior officers put their trust in us.

However, from the perspective of our staff, every word uttered from my mouth sounded like empty promises trying to cater to their needs and instead trying to restrict their freedom.

For instance, when the engine team wanted to make an FPS game by themselves, we told them that they should first keep up with their development and we would find a reliable designer to help them figure out a clear plan. The engine team agreed on the surface, but latter stabbed us in the back by voting against us. They didn't believe in diversification and thought we didn't dare to do it because another studio was already working on a similar product.

Another example was when we said Tencent Entertainment highly valued our new project and was willing to make further investment in us. Rumor was spread among our staff that we didn't have enough money and couldn't make it to next year.

We needed more time to persuade them and more measures for self-defense. 

 

NExT Story (8)—Saturation Strike

 

Despair

The loss of the engine team and other programmers was not the only case.

What's worse, the art design team was hemorrhaging.

The art personnel have one thing in common: the independency of their work. Unlike programmers or game designers, many art designers don't need each other for their jobs. For example, large level production can be finished by multiple individual sub-teams, which makes it easy to form an art team.

It is both an advantage and disadvantage. When we're recruiting new members, it is an advantage, because they're mostly independent and plug-and-play. When other studios are recruiting, it becomes a disadvantage, because the more they want, the less we have. Whether or not they truly need them and are able to digest them is not of their concern.

Due to little technical overlap of an art designer's work, our art developers are perfectly qualified for jobs in other studios. When a studio is lacking in members, they simply go and find one in NEXT.

A few art designers who are used to big projects aren't satisfied with our small cute games. Compared with the enticing offer next door, many think our product doesn't seem cool enough and so they chose the former.

There was even a time when every project in our studio was in short supply of artists, and a bunch designers and programmers were left starring at each other, speechless.

The bad news was, tomorrow would be worse. But the good news was, at least it wouldn't be as bad as the day after.

 

Offense and Defense

The loss of employees lasted for months.

To solve the issue, we had to open up the source as well as regulate the flow.

A full-scale recruitment began, we needed fresh blood. It always works and so we were able to find high-end talent from all walks of life.

But to regulate the flow, we had to face internal rivalry and disagreement from employees.

As per internal human resources, we made a few adjustments in policy in order to control the flow speed. When other studios would attack, we would defend. The best strike is to instakill, and the best defense is to be like water in tai chi. Find your opponent's target in recruitment, disrupt their rhythm, slow down our progress, meanwhile attack them by surprise, poaching one or two senior members from them.

While we confronted them head-on, we were doing our best to retain our staff. It is more important to retain old employees than to recruit new ones. We had personal conversations with everyone who was planning to leave and slowly developed a pattern.  

First, survival. The leadership has faith in us and we achieved an unprecedentedly high score in this year's review.

Second, income. This year's earnings look great. Even if the annual bonus would be no surprise, it still wouldn't be too bad. Why abandon this and look for an unclear future?

Next, dream and ambition. It's never too late to make a commercial game, but a place to innovate freely is hard to come by. When you get older, do you want to tell your grandchildren that you upgraded your equipment your entire life only to eventually dismantled it into just a few hundred shards? 

"One more thing, we also have high-end products and space for you to hone your skills." I usually lowered my voice when I said this, because the truth was, we didn't have such products.

Real life is about daily necessities. When someone's leaving, I always chat with them about dreams and reality, big things and small things; there will always be something that could reach one's innermost feeling.

 

Growth

Everything that could have be done was done, only time would tell.

I always wonder, if I could travel back in time, would I have made better decisions to change everything? If we had stepped aside and looked from a different angle, perhaps, we would've had a deeper understanding of the situation.

All external causes could not be controlled and all the rivalries could not be forecast. We must look into the mirror and find the real reason. There were indeed many things we could have done better.

Firstly, we ignored the demands of some employees. Every organization has its own objective, but so does an individual, and sometimes, they're not in the same direction. When we found out that some of the staff were resolute in making high-end games, it was already too late. By the time a new project was set up, a lot of people had already made up their minds.

Secondly, we were not fair and transparent enough as far as our future plans were concerned, leading to a lack of confidence among the staff. But honestly, given another chance, we couldn't have done much more, because we had no choice but to continue onward. The success of Death Coming fueled our confidence, but before confidence could spread among the staff, the resignation trend had already begun.

Lastly, many people couldn't keep up with the significant adjustment in our management mode. A new culture, complex interpersonal relationship, and unclear procedures brought considerable uncertainty to NExT. Most people will do anything to avoid uncertainty. Security is a basic human need.

In conclusion, we could certainly have done better, but the price for innovation, more or less, had to be paid.

 

Saturation Strike

Months later, the enemies became less frequent in their attacks. Our intelligence told us that we defeated other studios using a self-destructive saturation strike. The great number of defected NExT employees eventually filled up their belly, making them unable to launch a new wave of attacks. It's like the dark jungle rule in the novel, The Three Body Problem, "You need men? I'll give you them! Eat yourself to death!"

From then on, we and other studios lived on in harmony.

 

Epilogue

The crisis was over, everything was perfectly calm. However, perhaps, another crisis was brewing.

During a chat months later, we were talking about Li's huge private collection of games and CDs, when suddenly someone asked me: "Do you collect anything, too?"

I hesitated for a second. What have I collected? What should I collect? I was absorbed in self-reflection.

Shouldn't collecting be the symbol of taste for the middle class? What kind of taste am I supposed to present to them?

No, I'd never admit that I lack a good taste for collecting. Even though I've got nothing in hand and unsureness in mind, I must not be defeated in this conversation. A real gentleman knows how to draw the long bow.

I sat square before WeChat, and typed in my great ambition:

"I collect the wonderful memories of working with you all."

In commemoration of the difficult times.

The End of Season 1.

 

Credits

My gratitude to the investors of NExT Studio. Without your support, there would be no NExT;

I want to thank all the studios that played as our competitors. Rivalry drives us forward.

To all the departments who supported us, who gave us green lights in the work flow, I greatly appreciate it.

And to the staff of NExT, your stories, as well as more projects and technology will be presented in season 2.

CONTACT.

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