Jeff Skalski, COO and Executive Producer at Yellow Brick Games, talked about the experience of opening a new studio in a pandemic and building a small but powerful team.
80.lv: You’re known in the industry, but could you tell us a little about your team and what you’ve been up to lately?
Jeff Skalski: We have been very fortunate to have a team from a wide variety of backgrounds and work experiences who wanted to come together to form Yellow Brick Games. The most recent titles some of us have been lucky to be part of are Baldur’s Gate III, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Tribes of Midgard, Star Wars: Squadrons, and Borderlands 3.
The Decision to Open a New Studio
80.lv: What motivated you to open a new studio? How long have you been working on making this idea come true?
Many of us on the team have been making games for decades with many amazing companies and their franchises. You eventually come to a point when you realize you only live once and we decided it was time to bet on ourselves and our ability to make new worlds not constrained by the successes of the past. We are just beginning. While we announced the company in November it was only in September that most of the team started coming together. We have a clean slate in front of us. Sure, it can be terrifying, but it is incredibly motivating at the same time. We now have the means and passion to sculpt the dream work environment we always wanted and build the types of games we love.
80.lv: The whole world is in a pandemic right now, isn’t it tricky to open a new studio at such a moment? What were your thoughts on the possible risks and new opportunities here?
The studio was first founded by our CEO Thomas Giroux and Chief Creative Officer Mike Laidlaw in early 2020, just prior to the pandemic hitting us in Canada. While this has been a challenging year for everyone to adapt to, Thomas and Mike were able to build a compelling vision for Yellow Brick Games and its initial first project. As you know we’ve been fortunate that our gaming industry has continued to flourish this year given the circumstances. With the ushering in of the new generation of hardware, the continued evolution of tools and technology, the desire for new gaming experiences, there honestly couldn’t be a better time for game creators. It gave us the confidence to take that leap of faith.
Game Development in Studios of Different Size
80.lv: You’ve been in game development for at least 10 years now. Can you discuss how the way studios function has changed in these 10 years? What things were surprising to you when you started working in Yellow Brick Games? How did your experience in big studios help you solve certain issues?
One of the major changes I’ve seen over the last decade is the transition from a silo approach to game development to a more collaborative mindset that stretches across multiple teams and studios working together in synergy to build something incredible. This has been especially true in yesterday's AAA games and will continue to be in tomorrow's AAAA experiences. With these great resources and budgets come the challenges of keeping massive teams both focused and aligned on a core vision and motivated no matter how big or small the task. There is a lot on the line and one bad decision can be hard to course-correct when you are a heavy gigantic warship. On the other hand, when you are a smaller team with no overhead, you can make decisions on the instant and communicate that to the team in minutes and then be playing it in hours. Having this agility has been the most surprising change I have experienced at Yellow Brick Games since I joined two months ago. We have done incredible things in such a short amount of time which only gets me more excited for what the future will bring.
80.lv: How big is your team right now? What's your hiring process and how do you build teams? These days, it’s getting common to take into account personal traits as well. How do you feel about this novelty in hiring?
As of this moment, we are 15 strong. The talent I see coming together just makes me smile. The chemistry, the respect, the value, and the shared outlook on life is all there. This is very important because, in the end, we will succeed as a team, so personality is one of the key factors. No one person is better than the other. Everyone is bringing something to the table and everyone’s work is motivating one another. There is certain care to the craftsmanship in what we are building that I think all players will appreciate. Regarding our hiring process, we’ve honestly been flooded with people interested in joining us since our announcement which has been very humbling. Soon, we will be posting specific jobs we are looking for and while we don’t have many roles to fill in the coming year we do expect to grow more going into 2022, so keep an eye out!
80.lv: What management style do you plan to rely on? How do you see the delegation process? How do you want to form the departments?
It starts with building a culture of commitment. The people doing the work decide on how long it's going to take. I am just there to help them achieve their full potential, ask the hard questions, and remove any barriers along the way. Our Chief Creative Officer lays down the vision along with the objectives and we rely on the team’s experience to solve how to get there. We are a small team, so there is nowhere to hide in the numbers. Everyone has a big impact on what we are building and with that comes big responsibility. It can be daunting at times, but we are all supporting each other in order to succeed. Do we have departments? Not really, more like we have pods of multidisciplinary teams and some people are spread across multiple pods. The key for us is taking advantage of our size and keeping things fluid. Iterate, measure, repeat.
Current and Future Plans
80.lv: Are there any ideas/games right now that you can tell us about? Is there a plan for the general growth of the studio and its releases?
I would love to share what we are doing, but it is just too soon. Rest assured that day will come, and I know the team will be excited to share their passion around this new IP we are developing.
80.lv: What goals did you have this year and are you planning in 2021?
For this year, it was focused on getting the company up and running. That alone has been a huge undertaking our CEO spearheaded. Insurance, payroll, investigating potential office spaces post COVID-19, infrastructure, hardware, and software purchasing, and the list goes on. We have been busy, and this is before writing even one line of code. In parallel, it has been about establishing a team and a direction along with the identity of what it means to be a part of Yellow Brick Games. 2021 will be a big year for us as we double down on our conception, explore new technologies that align with our ambitions, and really see how far we can push this new era of next-gen that has arrived.