An interview with Svyatoslav Torik, head of game design at Nexters, about how to develop employees.
— How is your game design department organized?
We have seventy game designers at Nexters, but I don’t manage them vertically. They’re assigned to projects and report directly to the project producer or appropriate product owner within the scope of their project. As head of game design, it’s my job to make sure we only implement the best practices so our game designers stay happy. I want them to enjoy their work and focus on their own projects. A happy game designer is a good game designer.
— What exactly do you do to keep your game designers happy?
My main objective is to profile game designers and help them grow.
Let’s put it this way — imagine a game designer is working on a certain project and performing certain functions. Naturally, they’re going to have their own drives, their own dreams about where they see themselves in five years. So I go up to them, and we talk for a couple of hours, and during that time I find potential growth points. They might say to me, “I’m basically working on map design, but I’m really interested in monetization”. So I say, “Great, let’s talk about monetization”. If I see that they don’t just have an abstract interest, but really want to change their specialization, I help them draw up a kind of employee development road map for how they’re going to reach their goal. In the end, this person could end up being both a designer and a monetizer on a project. Or maybe they’ll transition to being a monetization game designer. We’ve already got people like that.
— Cool! So you’re basically the company’s game design mentor?
Yeah, in a manner of speaking. I mean, a mentor works one on one with people more closely than I do. I interact with a lot of game designers. Some of them have more potential than others, of course. But we really do have a lot of people who genuinely want to grow.
I’ve worked with most of the game designers at the company at this point. Forty percent of them are actively working on their own development. Some of them have moved to a specific specialization or are in the process of doing so, and others are still acquiring the knowledge and experience they need. The others are willing to train either intermittently or not at all. If you ask me, forty percent is a very good indicator.
— What do game designers’ individualized growth plans look like at your company?
Our first step after screening and goal-setting is usually studying theory. I try to recommend the employee a devtodev course, a useful general article, or a book. Then we start setting practical goals. These goals might be tied to their current project, or they might not. Sometimes these ideas go into production, but usually not right away.
This is basically our employee development program. It doesn’t have a set endpoint — in other words, there’s no point where the person says “I’m done”, and we say “yup, they’re done”.
For example, there’s a need for general training — some of our people are working as game designers, but they never trained for it, so, understandably, they feel a lack of confidence because they don’t really understand what a game designer does. I’ve got a really good book for this, Elements of Game Design, that provides theory and practical exercises. It’s like Jesse Schell, but without any of the “stand up and say ‘I am a game designer’ three times” stuff. The employee reads the book and asks questions. Their goal of broadening their perspective as a game designer has basically been achieved at that point, so we move on to another avenue of professional development.
— Okay, so let’s say the employee does everything you ask them to and says, “I get it now. I don’t want to be a game designer”. You mentioned earlier that the employees at your company can change specializations. Could you sketch out a few of the most popular career tracks?
The most popular tracks are training to become a manager and growing and deepening your expertise.
A lot of people choose the expertise route because they don’t want to have the responsibility, whether financially or to a team. Hey, I get it. Honing your skills and becoming an expert is awesome! When I say “expertise”, I’m talking about becoming an expert in a specific field. For example, we’ve got a position at our company called “external monetization producer”. This person evaluates the monetization solutions on all our projects and assists the monetization specialists on each game. And I want there to be more people like that at our company, in all sorts of different fields.
The other version of this track is getting promoted to lead or producer.
— Financially speaking, what’s more desirable, choosing a vertical growth path to management or training to become an expert?
That’s a tough question to answer. The thing is, there are almost no super-experts — leaders in the field with unique, exclusive experience — on the market. As the judge said, “I know it when I see it.” When I see that someone is a super-expert, I’ll be able to tell you what they make. I assume it would be at least as much as a lead, since they would have unique expertise. You can train people to become leads, but an expert is a person with talent, someone who’s invested and does things their own way. That’s my opinion.
— I usually ask people for recommendations for newcomers who want to get into game development. But instead, I’d like to know if you have any advice for mid-level employees who want to grow and develop.
First of all, don’t be afraid to keep telling your leads and producers you want to grow. Go up to them and say, “I want to become a monetizer. What do I need to do to get there?” Many game developers are shy about talking to their bosses for various reasons. First of all, it’s because of impostor syndrome, and second, they just have this baseless expectation that leads are supposed to walk up to them and tell them what to do. If you ask me, that’s really not the right approach. You can’t expect things to happen for you. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns. Your growth is, first and foremost, your responsibility.