Focus Entertainment's CCO Dessil Basmadjian told us how work is organized at the company, shared what approach Focus uses in making publishing decisions, and explained what the company does to make sure that teams have realistic goals.
Hi! I’m Dessil Basmadjian, Chief Creative Officer of Focus Entertainment, a game publisher and developer that tries to disrupt the conventions by supporting games that mix indie creative freedom and AAA know-how. My educational background is in film directing, visual communication, and 3D animation, with studies both in Paris and Los Angeles.
Before joining the talented teams at Focus in 2016, I worked for 10 years as a freelance film director and VFX supervisor in the music video and fashion fields. While it was a fantastic ride, I realized the moment I joined the video game industry that I had found my family. I’ve seen so much passion, cleverness, and forward-thinking. People tend to underestimate the amount of human collaboration needed to create a game!
Work Organization at Focus Entertainment
Focus as a group is now about 300 people, out of which 200 are dedicated to publishing, and 100 are part of the recently acquired development studios. Throughout our 20 years of existence, we have managed to internalize most of the publishing services, split into three main branches: Production, Marketing, and Business. From release management and QA to media advertising and trailer production, we cover all services, which allows our partner studios to focus on what’s the most important: the game.
While most of the teams are dedicated to specific titles, it’s in our culture to make everyone aware of ongoing projects. We share big open spaces, where it’s easy to exchange with colleagues or try out an exciting new build. We use common modern communication tools like Teams for conversations, but our company spirit depends on human interactions.
In-office culture is key, with various activities like miniature painting, team sports sessions, and friendly video game tournaments. Now that we are able to maintain a safe environment in a post-covid world, we encourage everyone to come to the office and keep the social interactions going.
The Decision-Making Process
We have a content-driven approach in all our publishing decisions. If the game concept is unique and exciting, we’ll proceed to production and business analysis. We see over a thousand game pitches every year and are looking for passionate creators who have a true vision, and the expertise to create that vision. If a pitch starts with pages explaining how business and audience analysis are the key drivers of the concept, it probably won’t make the cut.
How we get along in terms of company culture and personality is also crucial. Developing games is a complex process, full of problems to solve, compromises, and challenging decisions. It is mandatory that we share key company values with our partners so that we can have a transparent and honest relationship. I believe that success, both critical and commercial, can only be achieved through mutual trust and respect.
Helping Creative Teams Deal with Problems
Mistakes happen. We take them as opportunities to improve rather than flag them as something to be ashamed of. We are firm believers that a pedagogical, respectful approach to mistakes provides much quicker improvements and creates a win-win situation. Looking at other creative industries, we have a comparatively young pool of talent. We're constantly looking for ways to improve our management style, instead of relying on outdated methods.
Creative teams have a tendency to put their heart into their creation. That’s what makes them good at what they do! It also means that when something is rejected, it can be taken personally. That’s why it’s crucial to always appreciate the amount and value of the efforts put into an idea.
To show respect for the work done, even if it ends up not being used. It’s also important to stay positive. In France, we have a strong culture of critique, which can sometimes create ambient negativity. To counteract that, a great exercise is to say at least three honest positive things for one negative thing. It’s harder than it looks! But it really helps establish a positive work culture.
Managing the Scope of Games
Throughout the years, gamers have acquired a certain education in gaming, and some of them are looking for experiences that are less formal than traditional mainstream offers. While massive AAA titles still have a bright future, I believe that the appetite for alternative games with great production value is growing.
Games like A Plague Tale, Hellblade, Control, or Kenya bring something refreshing to genres traditionally reserved for gigantic productions while managing to maintain high production values. For such titles to exist, the scope is the determining factor.
Not all games need to have 100+ hours of gameplay, long-term live-ops, and in-game currencies. Sometimes a well-polished, 12-hour experience that focuses on quality can generate magnificent emotions. At Focus, we are lucky to work with budget ranges that allow us to take some creative risks while aiming for the highest possible quality.
Knowing that a game can be commercially successful with a million copies sold allows us to explore new frontiers and propose original content that you can’t find anywhere else, like SnowRunner or the Surge series.
Encouraging Creative Freedom
I see two approaches to encouraging creative freedom: one for our partner developers, and another for our internal creative teams.
For developer partners, our role in encouraging creative freedom is to advise, inform, and sometimes challenge, but never to impose our vision. Our teams of line producers are experts at advising studios facing production problems, and we have a dedicated content team that can help solve specific game design issues, organize playtests, and analyze some valuable data gathered by our freshly created data department.
They act as the developers' best friends, providing insight and helping create a better game. But the ownership of the creative vision must remain in the development studio. This is how you create gems with souls like A Plague Tale: Innocence or Hardspace: Shipbreaker. This philosophy is generally praised by developers, who feel recognized for their work, making this aspect relatively smooth to manage.
For our internal marketing creative teams (about 20 people), the most important thing is to set clear objectives that are shared with every team member. For each game, we put together creative guidelines, which define the communications pillars, the strengths and weaknesses of each pillar, and where they stand in a competitive landscape.
It provides a global vision, highlights the questions that will need to be answered during communication, and acts as a framework to be creative. As long as it fits the guidelines, every idea is welcome and encouraged, and it can come from any department. The only forbidden things are pre-made recipes! Every project is different and should be treated from its own perspective.
Focus Entertainment's Approach to Education
It’s key for us that every employee can learn and flourish at Focus. This is why we recently adopted an educational policy, part of our CSR strategy, which we plan to amplify in the coming years. Last year we provided a special course to all our managers, to help them better understand all the social interactions associated with a managing role and make sure that the well-being of everyone is a priority.
We also do various awareness campaigns conducted by specialized associations, the most recent one being against sexism at work. We are lucky in France to have a statewide system called CPF, which provides various courses to help with the continuous education of employees across the country, financed by employers. But we want to push it one step further with our own educational program which will cover everything from employee integration to personal development!
For performance evaluation, we put a new internal tool in place to help employees and managers set clear professional goals for the year while taking into account career evolution and personal objectives. The employee can share positive and negative highlights, propose ideas for improvement and set future goals.
The file is then reviewed between the manager and the employee, where they can exchange and adjust the next year’s objectives. It’s a collaborative approach that encourages communication and has the advantage of being accessible on our internal portal at any given time, making performance evaluation fairer for everyone.
Advice to Small Dev Teams
Start by speaking to the heart, with strong, clear statements, before speaking to the mind. An impactful sentence like "Payday meets Game of Thrones" can help settle the big idea behind your game, before you dive into core gameplay details.
Video game developers are creators. Like musicians and painters, they are driven by the will to create something that doesn’t exist, and that they want to see exist. That’s what we’re looking for at Focus, so make sure to highlight what is unique about your game. If you can’t put your finger on it, maybe go back to the drawing board and consider what makes your game unique!
It’s mandatory to have a clear, understandable slide about your core gameplay loop. If you can, a competition mapping is always interesting, much more than sales projections and marketing plans, which we can create on the publisher side.
Regarding production, we highly value developers who understand the development risks associated with a promise, are honest about it, and have a solid plan to address them. Also, you don’t have to spend time explaining in detail how your prototype is going. Focus on the final outcome.
Finally, enjoy the moment and smile! The vast majority of publishers are as passionate about games as you are. Watch Rami Ismail’s conferences too, they’re great!