How to Effectively Lead a AAA Game Development Team | Barry Hawkins | #5

Funsmith Fireside Chats Episode #5

Guest: Barry Hawkins

Barry Hawkins is a product development consultant with experience in orchestration at scale for lean, agile teams that practice iterative development.

He has done this with software product development companies ranging from 5-person start-ups to hundreds of team members practicing distributed development within loosely-coupled, cross-functional teams.

In this episode, we will discuss management styles with Barry and learn how to be the most effective leader you can be, whether your team is just a few people, or as big as Riot, Blizzard and Hulu!

He has great advice (counter to conventional managerial “best practices”) for anyone looking to take on a leadership role in their place of work on how to best support their colleagues.

Listen to The Full Episode


Podcast Platforms:

gds podcast listen apple podcasts min

gds podcast listen spotify min

gds podcast listen overcast min

Referenced Links & Resources

Connect with Barry Hawkins:

Twitter | LinkedIn | Website

Connect with Alex:


Connect with Ari:

Instagram | TikTok

Mentioned Resources:

League of Legends

Replay System

World of Warcraft

Free Game Design Learning Resources:

What is Video Game Mechanics (Beginner’s Guide)

How to Become a Video Game Designer

How to Write Game Design Document with Examples

Game Design Portfolio, with Examples (Guide)

Episode Chapters (with Timestamp)

0:00 – Introduction

2:01 – Barry’s leadership role in game production

2:55 – The importance of working with highly effective producers

3:19 – Barry’s work history on various features and games

5:37 – What happened to the Garrisons in WoW?

6:44 – Alex illustrates further all the issues with Garrisons.

8:16 – Keys to effective production – improvements, workload, deadlines.

10:56 – What are antipatterns in game production?

11:44 – Alex and Barry simulate the production process for Ariana’s game idea “Swamp Witch”.

18:30 – “T-shirt sizes” – S, M, L, and XL in terms of staff, resources, and schedule.

21:34 – Bad producer, good producer – defining goals, gameplay, and essential elements.

22:33 – Back to “Swamp Witch” – and how t-shirt sizes vary across disciplines.

23:48 – Building empathy, awareness, and respect for each other’s work

24:15 – 1 Artist vs. 7 Engineers – an example of healthy interaction in a game team

26:37 – Healthy team structures and how to build them

28:01 – The Gold Master fiasco: on the importance of good communication

33:01 – Sources of skepticism and conflict, especially in long-lived games.

36:58 – Bringing everyone to the table – the core of the production task.

39:55 – Resolving performance problems just before release.

43:06 – How to avoid misunderstandings and communication barriers in teams

44:40 – Common mistakes producers make, or: How many meetings are too many?

45:20 – How did the industry benefit from multiplayer online games?

47:27 – Difference to traditional project management

48:59 – History of the waterfall model in project management

53:08 – Learning strengths and skills from working with others

54:53 – To like them or not to like them: The true worth of good producers

56:20 – What is Replay? Barry’s work with the developing team at the time

59:00 – Building momentum and enthusiasm in teams to make them work better

01:05:37 – What are safe teams and how can you build them effectively?

01:19:11 – Barry describes his daily work routine as a producer

More Guest Quotes From This Episode

“Production is managing the work systems of the game development teams for both the engineering design and art. In another setting, it is managing the work of a number of teams and bringing everything together such that the schedule goals, all the things line up when they need to so that we can make the things and get the money.” Barry Hawkins

“When you’re making a fun game, the quality of what you can deliver is defined by both the budget and time you have for the product. Working with producers is incredibly important for making sure you can develop the game to the best of your abilities.” — Barry Hawkins

“The replay system was one thing, most of what happened with the player behavior initiative from 2012 to 2014. Starting with commendations and the rework and international launch of the tribunal, all the way into team builder, what we ended up calling it after much debate and rigmarole, the Howling Freljord.” — Barry Hawkins

“At the heart of what the stewardship that an effective game producer does is we have to make the work outcomes and the level of effort highly visible to the team, all of the creative and team members, so we can depict the outcome that we’re trying to achieve. This is the volume of what we’re pursuing. We need to have real dialogue around where our current course of action is likely to take us.” — Barry Hawkins

“The engineering side of things tends to align and see it more clearly because engineering is in service of the creative. They’re creating the capabilities to enable these creative expressions and experiences, and so there are production anti-patterns that are actually defaults that you would use.” — Barry Hawkins

“Anti-patterns have largely emerged in the software engineering product development spaces outside of games, but just as a pattern would be something that you would want to follow, that is a set of steps that you can execute to achieve an outcome. An anti-pattern would be a set of steps that you want to avoid taking because it achieves a less desirable version or a lack of an outcome.” — Barry Hawkins

“Begin to visualize the concept in a whiteboard or diagram. Just draw shapes with those names in them, and usually get an initial canvas of the set up of those ideas, then someone throws out systems that we could possibly leverage and the ones that we would have to create. There’s like an inner circle and outer circle (vital and extra features), which are at the heart of production, creating a framework and then stepping back, letting the creatives begin to dialogue.” Barry Hawkins

“Product development and production with video games take so many distinct crafts to do anything in a game that you have to get people from different avenues and perspectives, talking and interacting together, and that’s when the magic unlocks. To foster that and to avoid the fear or timeline pressures or premature decisions from creeping in, create good conversations about the ideas.” — Barry Hawkins

“A good producer will discuss what is essential, what is the order they need to figure out these things, and above all, what are the goals to make sure the team is focused on what they’re trying to achieve.” Barry Hawkins

“In production, when you can facilitate discussions where the different disciplines start to understand more about one another, you build empathy and awareness, and people actually respect what might be small for the two, the two others are large.” Barry Hawkins

“If trust and the comfort with speaking up was present, healthy interactions happen, and that was the start of a turn in the team’s holistic perspective. In production, when you get people interacting and feeling comfortable, being real with one another, healthy team structure and dynamics is there.” — Barry Hawkins

“The moment where someone is in their own power, is in their talent, and is growing and becoming amazing, and now this person runs their own game studio.” — Barry Hawkins

“The issue is that as you work with various teams over time, certain habits ingrain themselves in cultures, e.g. artists push forward and they don’t necessarily reach out to check in how fast they’re going, or even examine the detail level of the assets they’re producing.” Barry Hawkins

“Production is supposed to bring everyone together because if not, art and design, and engineering won’t come together. We will astound ourselves at the assumptions that will slip past us because it’s important in the view of game development for the skills to work together. Because when you have a given skill, when you have to work on something, there you have to make certain assumptions around what the other people have to do their part. We’re a few decades into proving as humans, making video games can impress ourselves with how far off we can get.” Barry Hawkins

“Never take too long to describe the problem, people might think you’re talking about the solution.Barry Hawkins

“If you want to be more effective, you have to empower the others around you, not just imagine a chessboard full of pawns.” Barry Hawkins

“Whether you’re a producer, an artist, or a programmer, work with other people, learn their strengths and their skills, and you’ll also appreciate more about what they do.” Barry Hawkins

“Producers help you facilitate, they know who to go to, know when to bring it up, and how to read the room more than any designers who need to communicate clearly. Producers need to listen clearly and observe with great sense of awareness, of the emotional states of the people around them.” Barry Hawkins

“Replays can be super helpful in being able to go back and look at how your match went, how you did, and if you play on a more fixed and regular team, how are you doing with one another. It’s that one match that you want to go back and be able to watch it over and over again.Barry Hawkins

“Starting with why we are asking people to come to work, to show up and pouring their all into this endeavor together is one critical thing. Another thing is who we put together and when to bring the right people together with the right skills at the right time.” Barry Hawkins

“We have a legion of people that we can throw at something, but doing it with the right beginning, with the right number of people, cultivating that, nurturing it, and then scaling it appropriately at the right time is way harder than it looks.” Barry Hawkins

“Building a structure for the team to communicate with each other, it’s about them get stupid ideas out and that’s okay. It’s about little people being themselves while not allowing them to infringe on others in an effective way.” Barry Hawkins

“Every member of this team needs to feel that expressing themselves and engaging in this team would not result in feeling psychologically unsafe or attacked, or undermined, or belittled, or made to feel less. Good facilitation of a conversation is placing yourself outside the conversation to hopefully steer and guide it for equal participation in psychological safety.” Barry Hawkins

“Building psychological safety in teams is helping conversations and people who have got usually pretty good reasons for either trying to dominate and drive a conversation. Every member can throw all their opinions and ideas before ending a meeting or session.” Barry Hawkins

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan