C Blake Smith
Out of the Kettle and into the Fire: From Restaurant Management to Game Production
“Unless something is on fire, don’t bother me” is a phrase that has the opportunity to be quite true within a restaurant, and not as literally true in game development. Or at least, I hope there’s never been a circumstance where game development has actually caused something to actually catch fire. If such a moment ever does happen and I am around, I’ll know how to handle it quickly and efficiently because I’ve had to put out a lot of fires in my 10 years of restaurant work. Besides that though, running a restaurant has a lot of similarities to game production that has actually been more beneficial than I initially anticipated.
For starters, within a restaurant you frequently find yourself having to do the work of multiple people and still produce positive results in the same amount of time. Being able to keep several metaphorical plates spinning while also doing several other things, such as stopping your bored chef from actually spinning plates, has helped me develop spectacular time management traits. During the full-team work hours, it’s rare that I’m able to sit for more than an hour without needing to check in with a designer about a mechanic, or ask a programmer about the status of a tool, or have someone come to me to just bounce off ideas that could possibly fit into our production time frame. Being able to quickly jump between people who need me and being where I need to be has been invaluable in helping me stay on top of my own work while also being able to help out my team.
It’s expected that producers expect the unexpected, but expecting that which no one is supposed to expect can be incredibly difficult. While no one will ever be able to predict all of the possibilities that could potentially happen, knowing how to deal with these problems on the fly is an essential trait. In my experience as part of a team of restaurant managers, I’ve had to deal with all sorts of improbable situations. Between having to deal with a man attempting to rob the restaurant to having to evacuate a full building because a faulty wire set the ceiling on fire, I’ve been able to deal with all sorts of things with a completely calm face. While I’ve yet to have someone barge into my teamspace threatening to harm me if I don’t forfeit all of my money, I have had to deal with the build breaking 12 hours before submission, and have had major project-related emergencies. During these critical moments, losing my cool would be the last thing my team needs to see. One thing I always keep in mind during these situations is that anything can, but your reaction always has to be consistent.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from managing restaurants is picking up a team after there’s been a major shakeup. I’ve had supervisors walkout during shifts, bosses terminated during a work week, and managers who don’t do anything. When you remove people from the team, everything gets jumbled and production is no longer moving as fluidly as it should. When you remove a leader from the team, everything can pretty much stop. I’ve stepped in to replace other managers in restaurants when they are no longer supporting their team. With game production, I’ve only had to replace a leader once, and that was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. I was the audio lead on a project. The only thing I was really familiar with on the project was what we were headed towards. When our producer and art lead stopped leading the team, everything stopped. Had this only been for a brief amount of time, it would have been okay. However, our project was stalled for nearly two weeks. While that isn’t a long time in the non-academic world, for us when we only have 14 week long production cycles, two weeks as a very long time. All of the team was freaking out, so the team, minus the producer and art lead, met together to discuss what we were going to do about our situation. Ultimately, we decided to do a very controversial thing that often isn’t done at DigiPen. The team fired the producer and art lead, and I, the audio lead, was asked to step up to be the producer on the project. Within a few weeks, I worked with all of the team to rescope the project to make up for the lost time, familiarized myself with the tools the team would be using, and, perhaps the most difficult thing of all, re-establish a positive outlook on the project.
Another skill that is crucial in restaurant management that is frequently lacking in game development is people skills. Being able to handle people is one of those things that if you’re bad at, you’re really bad at it. I can’t even begin to recount how many times I’ve spoken with other game developers who have been oblivious to certain social interactions that left everyone else feeling really awkward. Within restaurants, when you interact with a guest, you have to treat them like they’re really important to you, but without losing yourself in the exchange. The phrase “the customer is always right” is almost never true, but you have to convey a false sense of truth to. When a customer becomes disgruntled and starts getting in your face, you learn to stand your ground, and be firm. If you’re in the wrong, you admit it, but you don’t instantly become subservient to whatever that person is demanding. In game production, you need to learn to be firm but also hear that person out. You absolutely could be in the wrong, but that’s something you have to admit aloud because that’s what that person needs to hear. Once admitting you’re wrong, you still stay firm because the last thing your team needs to see you as is either a pushover or as someone who lacks the ability to adapt and change.
While I’ve only listed a few examples of traits you find within restaurant management and game development, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot of things that carry over from the industries. Do I think everyone who wants to be a producer for a game studio should go through several years in a restaurant? Well, no, but those that do might find themselves with a leg up on other producers who haven’t had management experience before.