It took some prompting to get me to write this post. Unlike my ever-prolific co-founder, Shawn, who seems to be able to write blogs in his sleep (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), sharing my thoughts with the internet at large isn’t second nature. As an introvert, my default is listening first and speaking second. I tend to lean on smaller group discussions vs broad thought leadership pieces. So sometimes… I just need a push. Or maybe a huge shove.
But it’s good to stretch outside my comfort zone. There’s a great deal I’ve observed and learned in my 30 years of game development that’s worth surfacing, particularly to those who are looking at joining us on the Fortis journey. We want you to get an authentic look into our company and get to know us as leaders and collaborators. So I’m committing to making a regular appearance in this space. And if we’re keeping score on blog count, I have some catching up to do with Shawn.
I suppose the first topic we could discuss is growing up in the games industry as an introvert.
I grew up in the uber-Midwestern town of Iowa City, Iowa. We were a middle-class family; I delivered newspapers from the second grade until I was old enough to wait tables. I was lucky enough to have a father who worked at the University of Iowa and bought an Apple II+ with 16K of RAM when I was a kid, and we would load games off of a cassette player like Breakout, Invaders, and Lemonade Stand. That computer and those games superseded all other interests of mine — so much so that I remember a very distinct day in High School when I was on my computer, and my father said to me, ‘this computer thing is not going anywhere; you should do something else with your time.’ Not to be too stereotypical and, to be fair, my parents are pretty progressive and were open to me exploring it, but like most traditional Asian families, I think mine would have preferred me to be a doctor, dentist or an engineer.
Despite my father’s hesitation, I couldn’t move away from the fact that there’s something I always found addictive about creating and building with a computer. I’m sure it’s the same feeling an artist has when looking at a block of clay or an empty canvas, you can create something out of nothing. I grew up in an era where there weren’t twenty games released every week. So a lack of games prompted me and Jason Andersen (who taught me to program) to want to build our own. The first significant project that we sold wasn’t a video game, but a paint program called DreamGrafix for the Apple ][ GS. We saw the opportunity, we saw the possibility of making money (in a non-traditional sense), and we saw the ability to create something out of nothing.
Growing up, I wouldn’t put myself out there for plays, music, even giving presentations. But give me Legos, remote control cars, board games, video games, I was all in. I was hyper-focused on the things I loved, and found friends with common interests I felt comfortable with and wanted to build with me. Being able to create and ultimately sell our creations was a big first step for my career in the games industry. Growing up and not always fitting in made me more self-aware. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 60’s and couldn’t teach me how to fit in, so I spent much time observing. I learned to understand the language and behavior of people, how that affected culture, and how that might help me “fit in”. What seemed like a survival technique growing up as a minority, would go on to affect the way I built teams and relationships throughout my career.
In college, I barely went to class, I was all in on building software. I considered dropping out after sophomore year, but my parents worked very hard to send me to college, and I didn’t want to let them down. I managed to write Dueltris, a double Tetris game released via Shareware. And, like I had as a kid with my Lego-building, Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing friends, I found a community. Again I discovered that I could be more relatable with people when I found common interests — and the more people there are, the more likely it is to find those common interests. I was able to come out of my shell a little bit, but that didn’t completely change who I was… an introvert about to go on a career-long journey in the games industry.
After getting my Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering at Columbia University, I spent my first two years out of school at Visual Concepts, where I was the lead programmer on WeaponLord for the Super NES. It was exciting to work on a fighting game in the era of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct. And even though WeaponLord isn’t around today with a 3D version of its sixth iteration, my time at Visual Concepts was exciting. I was reunited with Jason from High School and John Schappert, and we were getting paid to build video games full-time during a groundbreaking era where 16-bit games were pushing the limit. My parents didn’t think the “computer thing” was going to go anywhere, but already out of college, I was doing the thing that we dreamed about during High School.
So the “computer thing” was working out, leading me to my next big venture when I founded Tiburon alongside John and Jason. This was a natural progression for me, wanting to be a student of the business and willing to learn to take things to the next level. I went from being the solo coder on a project to building teams to creating bigger things out of nothing. We started with teams of three, fifteen, which grew to teams of forty, and then eighty. I used what I learned growing up to build and get the most out of our teams. I could listen first, watch how the teams worked, and motivate them in the ways that I would want to be motivated. Our edge at Tiburon was that we were willing to work harder than other companies and we were always looking for an edge (magazines, earnings calls, fan sites, usenet, community, etc). And the results were clear that this hard work was paying off because we’d soon join the ranks of EA thanks to our work on the Madden series.
Several months shy of Tiburon’s fourth anniversary, we were acquired by EA, and thus began my journey through the universe of public companies with cultures that aren’t exactly introvert-friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I was enormously excited to be part of EA, I learned so much about leadership and the game business and the opportunity was huge — Entertainment at Scale. But I quickly realized that being a publicly-traded company had engendered a culture focused on always trying to squeeze games into quarters to make earnings, and that pressure had also birthed a culture that rewarded over-promising and telling a good story. For me, speaking in front of executives was hard enough, let alone the idea of over-promising, on the verge of BS’ing. At the time, EA ran the independent studio model, everything was siloed, it was not an all-for-one-and-one-for-all environment; on the converse, it always felt like Internal competition, as all of the teams were competing for a fixed pool of development and marketing dollars.
Much of my time as a Producer there was spent learning how to adapt. This environment was one where the squeakiest wheel would get the grease, who you had lunch with was as important as what your team was delivering… and you can imagine how difficult this environment was for me. There were moments when I had to painfully watch other talented introverts fail to adapt, who didn’t invest enough into relationships or figure out how to promote your game internally. It was difficult to watch great people not fit the EA mold and eventually find more success walking another path.
You might ask, “If it was that bad, why did you stay for another 12 years?” That is a fair question. The first thing that comes to mind is the people and the teams we built. During an offsite session, we developed a goal, “Build the greatest team in sports”… all of sports, better than the Yankees and Patriots at the time. We were delivering $1+b in revenue every year with high-quality products while pushing innovation. How many people get a chance to do something like that? I was willing to put up with the aspects I disliked because the opportunity to build entertainment at scale, to grow, learn, and contribute as a team was so motivating. This was also a time period when there was so much growth in the industry. New hardware was coming out, new platforms were emerging, and being internet connected was starting to change what we could deliver to players. We were defining the future of sports games, part of the zeitgeist, pushing realism and online connectivity to consoles and we were literally “Building the greatest team in sports”.
In 2009 Free-to-Play (F2P) and Live Operations were signaling a bright future for the industry. The EA SPORTS business model was built around an annual $60 release of key franchises, but the F2P and Live Ops model meant you could keep a game running for years, the games were mini-businesses and the game teams controlled user acquisition, the player experience, content, monetization, etc. Zynga gave me the opportunity to explore this shift which also happened to cater to an introvert like me. Instead of being the loudest in the room or having a flashy presentation, F2P/Live Ops was largely driven by data. If you had the right data, leaders would listen… a massive change from the extrovert driven EA environments. This was incredibly liberating for me. It was no longer about the loudest person in the room, but instead it was about who was the most informed in the room (with data). I had a voice again and initially, this was a place where I felt like I really fit in. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last forever, a CEO change and the shift to mobile, changed the unique culture that attracted me to Zynga.
After more than four years at Zynga and working 20+ years, I decided to take some time off and do board/advisory work while I thought about my next chapter… I explored non-game roles and ultimately decided that I missed building teams and loved the art of game making. I reflected on my career and was reminded that I was at my best when I worked for John Schappert, my co-founder at Tiburon and somebody I worked for on and off throughout my EA tenure… somebody I built trust with over many years. That was a key reason why I joined Warner Bros in the fall of 2015 as EVP of Worldwide Production and Studios, I felt I had found a boss that trusted me and that I could count on. At WB Games, the experience was less about learning, and more about putting all of the pieces of my career together to once again create Entertainment at Scale. My time at WB Games was everything I thought it was going to be, and the introvert inside me was able to take my wins and losses throughout my career and apply them to the work I was doing at WB.
If I take both the best and worst parts of each step along my career path, the patterns that arise are clear — the worst parts of my career were spent working for leaders who were all about themselves, people who needed to be the center of attention, fighting for a team or a game to get a chance, and that sucks. I would ask myself all of the time, do I have to play the “game” to get results? And I’m 99.9% sure the answer is No. For me, it’s all about creating the best teams in the world, and I believe that means creating a workplace that unlocks everyone’s potential, not only those with the loudest voices, and the fastest moves, who place themselves above all others.
Enter Fortis Games.
My journey taught me a few key things about navigating companies led by dominating personalities, about my own values, and about the kind of work environment that I believe is not only the healthiest for diverse styles of people to succeed, but also produces the best work in the long run. Spoiler Alert: hire passionate people, focus on the teams, unlock the talent from around the world with a model that isn’t biased toward rewarding the loudest in the room. All that AND build a company that prioritizes talent over ego; thinking, data, and design over risk-aversion and market pressures. And ultimately create and support communities where people feel they can belong, at work and through their games. But more on this when I talk about Fortis in my next blog…
Authors: Steven Chiang