The Molasses Flood's Forrest Dowling spoke about work organization at the company, explained the recruiting process, and talked about the company's approach to education and managing burnout.
The Molasses Flood
Hi, my name is Forrest Dowling, and I’m one of the co-founders of The Molasses Flood. We're a Boston-based game developer who formed after the closure of Irrational Games. In the years since we've shipped a couple of games, shrunk and grown, and were eventually acquired by CD PROJEKT, where we're currently working on an unannounced title within one of their universes.
In the long-forgotten past, I studied art at a small school in upstate New York called Alfred University.
Work Organization at The Molasses Flood
We’re always evaluating and updating our processes, but at the moment we organize the team into multi-discipline strike teams that are assigned to large subject areas. These teams may include artists, designers, and engineers all working together to solve a specific set of problems. We take on chunks of work in sprints, that are part of larger milestones. Strike teams talk daily and have their own channels. At the end of each sprint, all the strike teams show off what they did so everyone can see what’s happening across the project.
The strike teams themselves cover pretty big areas, like ‘combat’ for example. We try to keep them small enough that they can remain nimble and efficient. We’re all also in shared channels, so if cross-team communication needs to happen, it can happen in shared channels, or via normal conversations and meetings.
In terms of what I’m most proud of, it’s difficult to say! I’m proud of everything we’ve done for different reasons but will always have a special place in my heart for The Flame in the Flood, our first title.
Hiring New Specialists
In terms of skills, it really depends on the role and expected seniority. We’re OK with bringing in more junior folks and fostering their development, but of course everyone needs the raw skills to do their particular job from the start. In terms of soft skills, we look for empathy, kindness, and professionalism. Maintaining a mature and respectful environment for our team is really important to us, and weighs heavily in our hiring decisions.
Working with Beginners
I think in many ways, making more junior folks feel comfortable and safe is the result of everyone feeling that way, from upper management on down. In my experience, negative workplaces are usually the result of fear or anxiety at the leadership level creating a cloud of toxicity around the whole team.
With that in mind, we focus heavily on leadership training and mentoring, to help leaders identify and resolve situations that could lead to an unsupportive or unsafe environment. Specifically, for anyone who manages people on our team, we have a leadership coach who we work with closely who helps monitor areas of stress or friction and advises us on how to resolve those situations in a positive way.
In the past, the approach we've taken is to try and practice as much transparency with the team about the situation as possible. We've never instituted a period of crunch, but we have had points where we really need to focus and minimize distractions. In those situations, it’s important for the team to understand why, and what the stakes are, so they at least feel some amount of control or agency in the situation. Compared to places I've worked in the past, we've never had situations anywhere near what I’ve seen, though. We're pretty chill overall and have never found ourselves in a situation where we really need to worry about burnout.
We certainly consider freedom an important part of our environment. We hire people who are good at their jobs, and part of being great at game dev is always looking for better ways to do things. Technology changes our targets, which changes how we need to achieve them. Part of that is changing processes and workflows. This also means that artists can make proposals that affect the nature of what we’re making, and that’s great. One of our core values is that every idea deserves to be heard. What that means is that it’s important to create the space necessary for people to have a chance to share their thoughts and ideas about the project, no matter their role or level of seniority.
The Molasses Flood's Approach to Education
In the last 6 months we’ve entered a new chapter in our history in which we’re no longer a tiny self-sustaining indie, but rather are part of CD PROJEKT. It’s meant staffing up quite a bit and not every process has scaled to our new needs yet. We’ve initially focused on management training, and reimbursed relevant independent course work, but don’t currently have more formal processes in place for education outside of the challenges of taking on new styles and aesthetics as we continue to refine and develop our own titles.
Team Dynamics During the COVID-19 Situation
COVID has definitely changed things in our industry in some permanent ways. Remote work is a reality that isn’t going away. For most of the pandemic it just shut down office time, but we’d always worked hybrid before so while it was a bummer to lose our in-office days together we were already equipped for work from home.
The team also remained consistent throughout the pandemic. We didn’t really have any new hires or departures, so we already had a strong bond and shared knowledge of one another. It’s certainly been a new challenge as we’ve been staffing up. There are a ton of folks on the team that I’ve never met in person at this point and learning how to build rapport and trust in a fully remote environment is a new challenge. We’re constantly looking at how to improve our processes and communication, which is a natural part of and now just has a little difficulty modifier on it.
Regarding productivity, for sure you can’t get the ambient brainstorming and problem-solving dynamics that emerge in office settings, and I think this makes it harder for younger folks to learn and develop their skills. On the other hand, remote work allows for much more extensive focused work, which is great for productivity, and people can remove things like a soul-crushing commute from their lives, so on balance, I think it evens out.
Advice for Beginners
First off, I’d say "willing to work" at our studio sounds like it’s a chore to be completed, I hope those folks who join our team are excited about the opportunity. I think there are three main things to focus on: your specific craft or specialization, your conduct as a collaborator, and your excitement and curiosity about the world outside of your job.
Obviously, you need to be great at what you do, be it character art or VFX, so I think that can be assumed. The other two are also super important to us, though. Great collaborators are great co-workers, they make the work more fun and people lifting one another up is the greatest source of innovation and quality work. Curiosity about the world is where great ideas come from.
The best games aren’t made by people who only play games, think about games, and look to games for inspiration. They come from people with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences who bring these points of view to the creative process. Creation is an invention, and invention needs inspiration. Games that come from games lack the sort of spark that we look for when we’re trying to solve creative problems.