The gaming market is more crowded than ever. Blockbuster studios compete for attention with a new breed of indie studios backed by crowdfunding. For the average customer, this competition creates a more diverse array of games for them to enjoy, but it also makes it hard to keep track of what is new and noteworthy. Studios also feel this squeeze: With more games competing for the same mindshare, it’s harder to capture a player’s attention.
In this new, busy marketplace, creating an authentic studio identity is more important than ever. At Paradox Interactive, we build the quirky and unusual games that we think are fun, which makes our game portfolio unique. This identity has been widely accepted by gamers (we’re proud of the more than 1.75 million registered Paradox accounts our fans have made), but it’s not the result of a concerted effort by our senior management or a marketing ploy — our identity has been formed with input from the whole company.
Why is collaborative leadership so successful?
Games are a creative endeavor, and inspiration can come from anywhere. The more ideas developers brings to any game, the better it is likely to be (even if the final product looks nothing like the original plan). Creativity, however, must be matched by hard work to make great ideas into a reality, and balancing those forces is a delicate operation. The same rigid structure that keeps teams on task can also choke creativity in an organization.
We’ve tried to strike the balance between these two poles by welcoming multiple voices into our company’s leadership. Each employee has a hand in defining the company’s culture and creative direction. The impact an individual can have on our overall direction is significant, particularly for employees who have been with us for a long time. In the early days, lead developer Johan Andersson argued that we should support the grand strategy game Europa Universalis II long after the studio had moved on to other projects as a way of maintaining its avid fan community. That conviction turned into 18 content patches, and its success has influenced how we approach DLC content to this day.
On a project-to-project level, collaborative leadership gives every part of a development team a sense of ownership in the final outcome of the game. The more granular the item an individual is working on, the more important it is that that person understands the overall vision of the game and where there are creative opportunities. If team members have the opportunity to participate in the creation of a game from start to finish, they’re far more likely to understand where the game can take risks and what those risks should look like. Over time, this extensive participation creates a positive sense of ownership–Henrik Fåhreus and Thomas Johansson, respective leaders of the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis franchises, have become the faces of those titles during their time at Paradox, and their ideas help drive those projects forward.
Diversity in the gaming industry is a hot topic, and collaborative leadership goes hand-in-hand with building a more inclusive environment. Our chief operating officer, Susana Meza Graham, and has been instrumental in defining our fan communication strategy through our forums over the 10 years she’s worked at the company. Her contributions over time create a roadmap for other female leaders to rise within the company, and we’re excited about the direction we are heading to further diversify our leadership.
How to lead together
Given the success we’ve had with collaborative leadership, we’re surprised that more studios do not do the same. More specifically, it’s strange that they do not take the necessary steps to maintain that approach as they grow. When studios start small — a handful of people brought together by a good idea and a desire to make great games — it’s easy to lead by committee. As companies are successful and grow larger, the logistical demands of running a business necessitate there to be decision makers who can define a company’s direction, but creativity and collaboration that makes small studios so interesting frequently gets lost as companies grow up and sell out.
The fastest way to regain that balance between corporate leadership and collaborative innovation is to approach problem solving as creating the right framework, rather than making a decision. We try to avoid dictating the direction of a game or decision if possible. Instead, the leadership team may shop ideas around the company to get a sense of their general support, accepting feedback and leaping at new opportunities as they appear. Steven Wells, our trailer producer, single-handedly recorded and created the much-lauded “jazzy trailers” for the launch of Leviathan: Warships, and he championed the idea from inception through to final production.
Of course, it can be easy to be indecisive in a collaborative environment, so the ultimate decision maker of the group still needs to keep the group focused. Start small: Build a close circle of people with varied opinions who you trust. This circle can (and should) grow as leaders become more comfortable with the practice, or the group can shrink to fit the needs of any given situation. In general, any additional perspectives that can be added to the conversation will yield better results.
Finally, and most important, listen closely to your fans. Turning social media channels into two-way streets of communication and empowering multiple people to speak on your behalf make you more transparent and trustworthy to your players. If you’re honest with your fans, they’ll be honest with you, and you can very quickly identify what directions are worth pursuing and what ideas are better left on the drawing board.
This year, we celebrated our 10th anniversary. As we look back on how far we’ve come, we cannot help but see the influence of individual employees, both past and current, in shaping the company into what it is today. Everything that makes us unique as a company — from the charm and humor of our games to the transparency we show to our fans — is a result of taking a more collaborative approach to leadership, and the final results speak for themselves: we have a dedicated fan base who are vocal about the company, designers who love being a part of it all, and a clear vision for the next ten years of Paradox Interactive.
Fredrik Wester is the CEO and majority owner of Paradox Interactive, the Swedish-based game company best known for their PC strategy games like the Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series. Fredrik joined Paradox in 2003 as one of its first few employees and has helped grow the company to more than 150 people.