Leadership means helping your team fail better
Updated: Jun 22
It can be tricky to find your feet at a big studio as a games professional just starting out. The departments and managers you interact with will only be part of a wider operation delivering vastly different functions. Recognizing the systems and hierarchies that make the studio function can be challenging. And how, exactly, do you fit in?
As a newcomer in a long-established company like DICE, one of Sweden’s oldest studios, you’ll be introduced to deeply refined protocols. You’ll know your players because DICE defined community management when growing its globally successful franchises. And you’ll be managed by experienced leadership that knows how to get the best from its teams.
Junior designers depend on a solid structure that actively promotes their success in a complex network of operations. Who creates that structure? To understand that, you have to go right to the top.
Before his appearance at Friday Stories of April 23rd, we spoke to Fawzi Mesmar about his experience as DICE’s Head of Design and owner of two major franchises, Battlefield and Battlefront, and how the Studio manages to stay at the head of the pack.
Trust in your team, and they’ll deliver
After almost two years, Fawzi Mesmar is still amazed that he’s responsible for the creative outputs of a world-leading studio. He’s been in the industry for eighteen years and has led accomplished design teams around the world, so the role isn't a shock. It’s sitting at the helm of his favorite game. ‘When I started making games, the team would finish up work and go play Battlefield,’ Fawzi remembers, ‘but I’d never have imagined that this kid from Jordan would be a part of the franchise’.
Fawzi oversees the Studio’s creative directors and ‘anyone with “designer” in their job title’. As part of DICE’s leadership team, his decisions affect the direction of the Studio as a whole. Basically, he’s got a finger in every pie. ‘Well, no, I’m aware of the pies,’ he clarifies, ‘but I point people to different pies and ask them how was that pie, and can we make it a better pie'.
This hints at the ways he manages a large team with wide-ranging creative and technical roles. ‘I don’t believe in micromanaging people at all,’ he confirms, ‘I believe in shackling people with freedom’. He continues:
‘I’ve been managing people for the past twelve years of my career and I find the more I trust people, the more they feel a sense of responsibility toward delivering their work. A lot of my role is to say: this is where we need to be, these are the general constraints, and this is the problem that we want fixed - go nuts!’
The importance of defining limitations is something Fawzi returns to again and again. By making clear that there are constraints and what those constraints are, he feels people are better able to unleash their creativity:
‘If I spend enough time clarifying what the problem is and the limits they have to work within, they will always come up with a solution within the range of what I want. Most of the time, they produce something much better. They’ll solve the problem that needs solving, and everyone is happy. ’
The result is a win-win situation:
‘They have ownership of their area and get to exercise their creativity, and I keep focused on empowering the team… Instead of having a finger in every pie, I put down the processes and structures that let us make the best damn pies we can!’
Let learning be messy
Confident leadership that affords a large, cross-functional team autonomy was something Fawzi learned by observing management styles in different parts of the world. Sweden is country number seven for him, having managed teams at studios in the Middle East, Far East, and the West.
One of the lessons he observed everywhere was that people need to experience some things for themselves to understand how to do things and how not to do things. In other words, they need to try and fail to get it:
‘I can sit here for hours and tell you that I’ve gone through this, so don’t do this. But you’ll say, but I’m different, my situation is different, and I’m going to do it differently. Yes, sometimes a person’s unique qualities will mean that they fix a problem in a way that you’ve never seen before. But most of the time they end up making the same mistake.’
Recounting his early experiences managing designers, Fawzi found this incredibly frustrating. Now he understands why and how he can use it to his advantage:
‘I know this is absolutely going to happen, so I create the processes that allow me to support the team as they go through the experience, learn what needs to be learned, and move on. This is actually a very important part of their learning.’
It’s also the key to a productive creative process. Fawzi explains that when you develop a raw creative concept, you’re assuming two things. First, that your idea is cool. Second, that it solves a problem or satisfies a demand. The creative process involves finding out if either is true. In the context of a games studio, the team will develop a way to communicate this concept, for example, as a prototype or a document, and share it with the relevant users. Sometimes they love the first iteration, but this is rare, he cautions. ‘Usually,’ Fawzi says, ‘they’ll ask what is this, what’s going on, and who asked for this! It’s all useful feedback that helps you see that your hypothesis is incorrect and you need to make adjustments’.
Iteration is the secret to sustained success
Fawzi is keen to emphasize that success in games, like all design disciplines, relies on your commitment to iteration. Designers must never stop at the first idea, the first sketch, the first draft because there is always room for improvement.
Although he laughs when he asks it, Fawzi is making a serious point: ‘How many FINAL files do you have? When you save the FINAL version, how many times is it the FINAL version? Five times? Twelve? Final-17? You know you have that filename! Now, what does that say about iteration?’
Holding his hands up, he admits that this was his attitude when he made his first games. It fell well short of expectations. In fact, he never finished it. ‘I completely overestimated my abilities and underestimated the amount of work that needed to be done,’ he concedes, ‘but I had to make mistakes to learn’.
At DICE, learning through trial and error still has a place in the creative process, especially as the Studio is constantly innovating. And it’s this open and humble attitude that sustains the company’s status as an industry leader.
There is still time to sign up to Fawzi's talk on Friday, you can find more information here.