Free Lives on the Peculiarities of South African Gamedev Market

Free Lives Producer Ruan Rothmann told about the company's working culture and approach to burnout, spoke about their hiring practices, and shared some thoughts on the South African game development market.

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My name is Ruan Rothmann, I currently work as a Producer at Free Lives. Previously, I worked as a programmer on Broforce and GORN as well as the Team Lead on GORN. I got a computer science and mathematics degree at the University of Stellenbosch. I joined Free Lives about ten years ago as one of the first employees, making a transition from corporate software development. I wanted to take a chance to do something more creative and rewarding than corporate software! 

The Peculiarities of the South African Gamedev Market

There are a lot of hobbyists and a healthy gamejam community in South Africa, but currently, only a few larger successful studios doing original IP.  Alongside that, there are a few studios that do technical contracting work. There are also many freelance developers working remotely for overseas companies. They tend to keep to themselves, but occasionally their networks benefit other South African game devs. Last but not least there are a couple of very large online gambling companies that hire game developers.

As for the peculiarities of the gamedev market:

  1. For the size of the South African games industry, we have an impressive amount of talent, and that's resulted in successes that have punched far above our weight.
  2. Our game dev community is more inviting and friendly than other communities (possibly due to the fact that we have no government assistance, and we're geographically isolated, we have no one to help us but each other).
  3. There are just a couple of game companies in South Africa with over 20 employees, and zero AAA companies, so small studios struggle to hire junior game devs and train them.
  4. Like everywhere in the world, but more noticeable in South Africa, the gamedev industry is almost exclusively made up of people who grew up in affluent circumstances. This is garishly obvious in South Africa because affluence is so tragically divided along racial lines.

Free Lives' Work Organization

Currently, we are working on 3 different games (Stick it to the Stickman, Anger Foot, and Terra Nil) with entirely independent teams at Free Lives. We believe that the most enjoyable and rewarding creative work happens in small teams of 4-8 people. The small scale also allows us to take more risks and make weirder games without putting the company's future at risk.

The small teams mean that communication within each team is not a problem and that teams generally do not need a lot of management oversight and have the freedom to run themselves as they see fit. We do provide management and production oversight, but we try to tailor that to the needs of each project, and often do not need to interfere production-wise until nearer to the end of the project when deadlines start to come up. Teams share progress with each other by way of feedback and "show and tell" sessions, and we share in the joys of each other's success. We believe this setup allows us to enjoy the best of both worlds: the greater sense of community a large company provides, but with the better working conditions and creative expression that small teams allow.

Prioritized Skills

In general, we like to see a portfolio that demonstrates a love for game development and a variety of skills. Because we tend to work with small teams, it can be hard for a super-specialized person to fit in. We prefer so-called "T-shaped employees" – people who have their area of expertise, but also a wide base of general knowledge and adaptability.  Even as a junior, you should ideally have a small portfolio of jam games we can look at.

Above all else, keenness is the most prized attribute. A motivated person can overcome any obstacle.  A close second is personality – making a game can be a long and arduous journey, and getting along well with your teammates is paramount.

Beyond that, the ability to adapt to the needs of the project is very valuable. Sometimes ego needs to be set aside when a low-fidelity art style is appropriate for the project. Being able to give and receive constructive negative feedback is also extremely important.

Creating a Welcoming Atmosphere

I believe there is no shortcut to having someone feel welcome and productive, it simply takes time. We try to encourage a culture of experimentation and creative freedom in which it is OK to make mistakes in the process of learning. If senior members of the company are visibly OK with making mistakes in the name of progress, it hopefully lets junior members feel the same way. We try to compose teams that have a good mix of levels of experience so that there is someone to turn to and learn from. Oftentimes, a person will be hired to do a very specific job, and over time as they fit into the team and company, their responsibilities branch out.

Thoughts on Burnout

It is important to realize that overwork, in the long run, is unsustainable and will lead to unhappy people and a worse product. Many of us chose to do game development over other jobs because we were inspired to follow our passion, and a toxic, unhappy work environment is very counterproductive to that dream.

We try to have a culture where each individual has a high sense of personal ownership over the project they are working on. Sometimes, you have a limited amount of time before a deadline and it can be very tempting to try and use that time to cram in as much work to make the game as good as it can be. When this happens, and there is a period of crunch, it is essential that team members are given time off to recover. If the period of crunch is imposed by management, then people deserve time off doubly so. It is important, and an ongoing effort, to create an environment where people are motivated to do their best work but don't feel compelled to work long hours. We certainly go out of our way to try to never formally require overtime, though this does still happen in rare instances.

If a project is set up in such a way that there are continually hectic deadlines and a high-pressure environment, it should be considered a failure of management and production and something needs to be changed. At worst, the reward needs to be worth it for the team members involved. In the end, it's just a video game and not worth compromising your health and sanity over!

Artistic Freedoms

Freedom to experiment and an iterative process are core tenets of our game development philosophy at Free Lives. Due to our small team sizes, each member of a team just naturally holds a large sway over how the game is made. We try to have all members of a team involved in all decisions, as far as is reasonable, from workflow and pipelines to design and development strategy. Even major business decisions, such as publishing contracts, will typically have an open discussion involving the entire team before a decision is made. The project belongs to the people working on it more so than the company.

Approach to Education

We rarely do formal education efforts, instead, we believe in learning by doing, and encourage team members to participate in game jams as much as possible. The games we make tend to be very different from project to project, which naturally means that skillsets expand as we move from pixel art to low-fi 3D to painted art styles, etc. The people working here all have a love for what they do and tend to be inspired to learn by themselves.

Tips for Aspiring Artists

Focus on your portfolio! Try to show a variety of tech (i.e pixel art to drawing to 3D) and a sense of style. Any kind of completed game – especially jam games – goes a long way to convince us you are worth working with. If it looks like you have a cool sense of style, are nice to work with, and enjoy learning and experimenting, you are likely a good fit!

Ruan Rothmann, Producer at Free Lives

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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