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‘Westworld’ Shows How Not to Run a Video Game Studio

Complete with non-player characters that “respawn” and the ability to roam an open world, “Westworld” takes the pillars of many of today’s most popular video games and gives them flesh. With the HBO original show back for a new season, the scars left by the titular video game-meets-amusement park’s founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) have been ripped open anew. Ford’s deeply broken version of leadership — filled with deception, misdirection, and manipulation — carries with it cautionary tales that video game studio leads and other creative visionaries can take to heart.

Ford is the embodiment of nearly everything an entrenched game director should avoid becoming. He suffers from what’s known as “Founder’s Syndrome,” even if his take is more murderous than most who share his affliction. Founders are typically both revered as geniuses central to the success of their organizations and feared for their capricious behavior. In some cases, they become gods of their domain, reshaping and pivoting without seeking guidance or counsel.

Whether intentionally manufactured or accidentally crafted, leaders suffering from Founder’s Syndrome tend to exhibit four behaviors that serve to solidify and extend their reign. “Westworld’s” Robert Ford is a textbook case of how inspired leadership can sour and rot.

(Beware! Spoilers for “Westworld” Season 1 ahead.)

Undermining confidence: The sad tale of Lee Sizemore

One of the biggest plot threads in “Westworld’s” first season is Ford’s sweeping and wildly expensive new narrative (think of it as DLC for a live-action video game). The theme park has a fully-staffed narrative design department, but Ford sends the park’s head of narrative, Lee Sizemore, off on a wild goose chase. He allows him to go through the entire process of writing new characters, crafting a new script, and syphoning off hosts from other storylines.

Sizemore’s big presentation of his latest storyline, “Odyssey on Red River,” ends abruptly. Ford steps in and utters a single sentence, “No, I don’t think so.” A single veto destroys weeks of work. As a result, Sizemore becomes angry and agrees to help further a plot to undermine Ford’s power.

The other side of some founders’ tendency toward undermining subordinates is that they tend to thrive on glory. Jealousy breeds when others in the organization are praised (or are in the position where they could steal the spotlight). The Verge recently reported that Telltale Games experienced these challenges under co-founder Kevin Bruner’s leadership.

Morale in organizations is based on a number of factors, both extrinsic (compensation and benefits) and intrinsic (the internal rewards one receives from their work). Creative leaders should have a clear vision, but also give subordinate experts the freedom to execute on it. Overprescribed direction can stifle creativity and destroy those crucial intrinsic rewards that help employees get out of bed in the morning.

It’s bad enough that Sizemore left that interaction wondering why he had been hired. But Ford also paired his dismissiveness with another hallmark of Founder’s Syndrome.

Wielding power like a weapon: Ford’s cutting remarks and aggressive actions

Founders often feel threatened when someone else in the organization begins to shine. One of the most potent ways they deal with that is by humiliating that individual (often in front of other employees).

Ford could have pulled Sizemore aside and offered constructive criticism. Instead, he shamed him in front of others. Sizemore wasn’t the only victim of a power play. Westworld’s head of quality assurance (and one of Ford’s senior subordinates) Theresa Cullen found herself in the crosshairs. A problem with some of the park’s robotic hosts due to Ford’s latest software update puts the two of them at odds.

During a lunch at a secluded and empty restaurant in the park, Ford goes out of his way to make Cullen feel uncomfortable. His choice of venue is the first attempt to unsettle her. Ford has them seated at the exact same table Cullen had been at during a childhood visit to Westworld.

The intent is twofold: to evoke a sense of child-like vulnerability and expose that Ford knows everything about Theresa, thus putting her at a distinct disadvantage. She doesn’t know anything about the narrative he’s working on, but Ford knows minute details of her life. He then silently commands every host in the area to freeze, including the waiter pouring wine into Cullen’s glass. As the two continue to talk, wine overflows and spills all over the table and the floor, threatening to cover her.

Additionally, Ford reveals that he knows that Cullen is sleeping with another park employee (though not how he knows just yet). The two attempted to keep their tryst quiet, and until this encounter thought they had been successful. Turning the conversation to Cullen’s personal relationship is meant to shame her.

As the conversation concludes, Ford has the hosts leave as construction equipment is about to demolish the palatial estate. Cullen believed she was summoned to a lunch with her boss. Instead, she was the victim of misdirection and manipulation.

Ignoring expertise: Ford’s new narrative

We get the sense early on, that Westworld owner Delos has massive resources at its disposal. We know from bits of dialog that the Man in Black spends a minimum of $40,000 per day. At one point, we’re told there are 1,400 guests in the park. Simple math suggests that if the visitor numbers are consistent, Westworld rakes in more than $20 billion in revenue each year.

It’s safe to assume that the expenses are hefty, thanks to employing hundreds of staff to maintain the park grounds and the state-of-the-art, proprietary hosts, pay for what must be monumental insurance premiums, and ensure that the intellectual property is well safeguarded. $20 billion might seem like a lot of money to offset expenses, but even Delos has limits.

Despite the realities of constrained resources and a growing sense that the park has outgrown Ford’s leadership, the board still retains a sense of reverence for his contributions to Westworld’s success. They approve his request to craft a new narrative attraction without placing boundaries on cost or timing.

Rather than consult with subordinates, Ford begins crafting his grand new story. He has a team of professionals at his disposal, yet he sets them on menial tasks rather than engaging them as collaborators and masters of their craft. Ford’s new narrative involves using massive earth movers to reshape the park, destroying beautifully appointed estates and other buildings inconveniently in the way.

George Lucas is reported to have had a similar effect on Star Wars video game projects at pre-Disney LucasArts. The most notable victim was the canceled “Star Wars 1313,” revealed at E3 2012. According to Kotaku, just weeks before the game’s planned reveal, Lucas swept in and changed the direction against the advice and protestations of development staff. He also barred the team from discussing the game’s new protagonist, Boba Fett, which would have further driven excitement for the title.

In “Westworld,” the board of directors is concerned, but unable to stop Ford, because he has enormous leverage.

Eliminating the threats: Ford’s murderous solution

Good leaders keep their teams informed. They welcome input and foster decentralization of institutional knowledge. The best founders put their organization’s legacy ahead of personal glory.

It’s not uncommon for founders and entrenched creative leaders to want to remain the experts of their organizations. Hoarding information might seem like a way to remain indispensable, but it’s a toxic behavior that undermines the mission. Allowing this kind of leadership to go unchecked can create massive problems down the line. Removing that kind of leader from the organization becomes a suicide pill, with the outcome ranging from loss of immense institutional knowledge all the way to active destruction of vital company information.

In “Westworld,” the board of directors realizes that Ford has become a problem of their own making. He is the only person left alive who truly understands how the hosts’ minds work. In order to diminish his power, they have to resort to stealing their own source code.

After a failed attempt to intimidate Theresa Cullen, Ford uses her relationship with Bernard to lure her to a remote section of the park. There, he reveals his greatest deception, shocking both of them: Bernard is a host tasked by Ford to seduce and spy on Cullen. Ordering Bernard to murder Theresa is a twofold act of brutality, as he created the conditions that necessitate her elimination before turning her lover against her.

Fixing Ford’s mistakes

Robert Ford gives us a template for what not to do when leading an organization, but being a better boss isn’t just about doing the opposite. (Not killing your subordinates is always a good first step, though.)

Good studio heads listen to the experts they’ve surrounded themselves with. By doing so, those individuals feel empowered to to do their best work, often for years to come due to a sense of loyalty to an employer who values them.

Supergiant (“Bastion,” “Transistor”) and other studios lean heavily on employee skills to make challenging decisions. Studio co-founder Gavin Simon explained the studio’s collaborative design process in a Reddit AMA.

“For us it’s an extremely iterative process. All those aspects of the game are developed simultaneously and they all feed off each other,” he wrote. “Sometimes the art or the story bends to a piece of design and sometimes a piece of design bends to the art or story. Every individual explores what is most interesting to them, it all gets thrown into our game prototype, we all play it and have a group discussion. The things that people are collectively excited about get expanded on and the things that aren’t working as well fall off. Sometimes everything comes together nicely right away and sometimes that marrying process just isn’t working and it takes many more iterations to get somewhere we’re happy with!”

The best bosses know the difference between constructive criticism and cutting someone down to make a point. The former is a sign of respect and mentorship. The latter is an expression of insecurity that is only sated by stepping on an underling’s neck.

Great studio heads keep their teams in the loop and welcome differing voices and dissenting opinions. An echo chamber might soothe the ego, but it can cause myopic game design or the collapse of empires at the hands of rampaging, sentient robots hellbent on taking over the world. And, really, no one wants that.

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