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Finding and Keeping Good People

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Ah, the biggest problem facing any business: finding and keeping good people; it certainly is a helluva task. Read any book about business, and it's probably in there, along with suggestions on how to deal with the issue. And yet, every business will struggle with the problem as long as it's in business - it's one of those cold, hard, facts of life.

My mother, who manages a small business, often commiserates with me about trying to find and keep people with a good, honest work ethic. (Her situation is infinitely more critical than mine: the business she manages depends on people to produce profit, whereas mine is just a hobby at this point.) Even with a rigorous hiring process, intense training program, and incentives up the wazoo, attracting hard working people is a tough job. Of course, the more you can offer, the better position you're in.

Enter the indie video game developer. What does this guy or gal have to offer? In most cases, almost nothing of the traditional forms of compensation can be offered, because the indie developer simply doesn't have access to the dough. Offers of future compensation based on any profit a finished game might make is about the only financial incentive an indie producer can offer, and on a project with a long timeline (like Fountaindale), that's normally not too terribly attractive.

So what's an indie to do? How does an indie attract good, hard-working game developers willing to commit to a big project? Well, in my experience, it's not too difficult to attract a glut of people who claim to be interested in the project. With just a bit of concept art, a website, and a catchy idea, the masses flock. But beware! Most of these are like moths attracted to a light that's just been switched on, and many may drop a project about as fast as they picked it up. Even for indies, a screening process for potential help is required. So far, I've had eight people leave at the drop of a hat, without a single word. (Others have left due to extenuating life circumstances and had the courtesy to tell me.)

As if attracting good people was hard enough, keeping them can be even more difficult. My mother refers to her office as a "revolving door," with secretaries and technicians passing in and out of employment so often she can hardly keep her head straight. Each new hire has to be brought up to speed (i.e. trained) and integrated into the office. The same goes for indie game development. Each person that leaves a project has the potential to leave a path of unfinished, possibly incomprehensible, and, in the worst case, unusable "stuff" behind (be it models, art, or code); each new person has to take the time to learn the entire project and integrate with the team. Ultimately, progress is severely slowed if turnover is too high. That certainly doesn't mean that you should just hold onto people that aren't performing, though.

For me, it seems the more interested in the project someone is, the more likely they are to stick with the project - through the good times and the bad. While it's nearly impossible for me to judge just how interested someone is (a situation exacerbated by the inability to talk face to face), the amount and frequency of communication is a good indicator. Someone that responds to emails or forum posts in a timely manner is probably more motivated and interested than someone that takes a week to respond. In the early stages, these are the people to keep - the people that can help generate cross-talk between a fledgling team. It's a big bonus if you get people with good heads and some experience - these guys can help answer questions other less experienced team members might have.

And thus, I've had to cut three members of the coding team for just this reason. Although they all seemed to be very interested in the project and motivated to work on it, they each disappeared without a word. Two months on, the coding team is looking to make great strides, but needs that extra, experienced help. Those who could have provided that help are no longer around, so we've welcomed Mark Johnston to the team to take over as lead programmer. Mark is already providing a much needed "push" to the project, and we look forward to working with him.

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