How we work: Retrospectives

Why We Have Meetings Where We Look Back, Evaluate and Focus

We consider communication as a primary element in making us better at what we do. We focus on enabling communication flow inside and between teams with different kinds of habits and roles. One of the most important habits that our teams have for weekly and monthly communication, syncing up and reality checks are retrospectives.

Retrospectives are connected to our weekly sprints and the longer, 3-6 week stretches. It’s important that after each sprint and stretch we have an opportunity to look at what we set out to accomplish, if we were able to meet the goals we set, what was getting on our way, and if the product still looks like we imagined a week or a month before.

To understand the need for retrospectives, we first need to dig a little deeper into our production ideology, which has many things borrowed from the Scrum method, combined with our focus on KPI driven development. We understand that we are making our games for our players, not for ourselves. To make the games that our players want, we need to rely on market research, early feedback, testing and data to guide our game making process. To get early feedback and test results, we need to get our games out there as early as possible, and actively iterate and update them. We are also prepared to react quickly to the feedback and data that we collect to incorporate it in our products and keep the iteration process going.

These lean and quick iteration cycles need certain things to support them: We need to be objective towards and open to data and feedback we get about our products, have the skills to swiftly adapt our approach based on the input we get, have a plan that is not too rigid and can be changed easily, and have ways of clearing hindrances away. Great communication is the key to all of these things, and without it there is a real risk of losing focus while receiving loads of information from different sources.

The Structure of a Retro

Our teams have organised their work based on weekly sprints with the goal of making something that the team can test, and longer stretches that aim for releasing a build in the store or for internal playing for the whole company. After each sprint and stretch we have a retrospective where we ask ourselves how can we work better together. What was getting on our way? What things are slowing us down or hindering our progress? We focus on discussing the different ways we work and interact with each other, trying to reach even better co-operation in the upcoming new sprints. This means we dive honestly into the inter and intra personal topics as well. Anything that can hinder us from making amazing games together should be brought up and handled.

All retros start with the same basic assumption: That we are all on the same side, trying to make amazing games together. To remind ourselves of this common goal, we start every retro with the prime directive introduced by Norman Kerth in his book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. It goes like this:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
This is a great message that keeps us focused on finding solutions together.

There are two types or retros. The weekly retros give us immediate feedback on how things went this week. The weekly retros help us keep the ball rolling from one sprint to another and to keep the team in sync with each other. The focus is very much on present: What happens right now and what is hindering right now? Some of the topics discussed might relate to for example to how we had not taken the dependencies and synchrony of different tasks into account, thus making them harder to execute or follow through; Or that the flow of work got disrupted due to insufficient communication with team members or other stake holders in the face of unforeseen circumstances. The goal is to figure out how we can work better next week to avoid the challenges we faced this week and to direct the teams focus on things that they succeeded in, strengthening those emergent, beneficial habits and building on them for even better collaboration.

The second type of retro we hold after longer stretches, after we have finished our deliverables, wether they are a build, game vision, marketing materials or something else, and shared it for internal or external evaluation. These retros are for identifying things that happened over a longer period of time: defusing the stress that might have built up during the stretch and celebrating the successes we have experienced. Our aim is to improve our future processes, and to review what we have built. Did we achieve everything we aimed for in the beginning of the stretch? How does the product feel right now? Are we on track? What challenges did we overcome during the stretch? Did we fail to identify or tackle some challenges during sprints? How does the team feel right now? What are the successes that we want to carry on to the next stretch?

Benefits of Having Retros

In short, the retros are meetings where we have the chance to talk about things we have on our mind, and to keep ourselves and the whole team in sync with the reality. We think it’s important to have designated slots for discussion in addition to discussions that will happen organically throughout the development. Both forms of communication have a clear function in a well honed team. Daily discussions keep the team members on the pulse of what is happening. However, the team members want save the bigger issues for a dedicated discussion to keep the ball rolling during the weekdays, and to give room for the more quiet members of the team to speak up as well. This is exactly what retros are: A recurring meeting, where everyone is expected to pipe in; A habit of syncing and coordinating the team work in a transparent, non-intrusive and inclusive way.

In retros we stop and ask ourselves if we are focusing on the right things:

  • Are we achieving our Sprint and Stretch goals? Are our goals realistic

  • Are we doing the things that make our product better (according to data and feedback)?

  • Are we making a product that our players want?

  • Do we have a synchronised, coherent and realistic picture of the production and the situation at hand?

  • Are we adapting to data and feedback we get?

  • What are we succeeding in that we want to focus in the future as well?

Through retros we are able to synchronise our understanding of how we work right now, and together create ways to optimise our collaboration and communication both short and long term.

 

 

The games industry in Finland has been on a growth spurt for a while now, and even though the amount of new companies founded every year is slowly declining, the growth still causes a common headache for all companies: recruiting. The successful companies compete to hire the rare and elusive seniors, and try make their company the most tempting option for them. For developers with less resources it basically means they can’t afford to compete for senior staff, and even bigger studios usually find their senior hires through word-of-mouth and personal contacts rather than through official hiring routes.

Seniors are not just hard to acquire, but also hard to keep: they know their worth and are ready to move elsewhere if the company doesn’t feel right. Other option out there is international hiring, but it’s time-consuming and costly, and once again not a viable option for most companies out there. As more and more game companies find success in this business, the problem called recruiting seems to be not going away.

What do game companies usually offer to attract senior hires? They compete with the obvious salary and perks, but that’s not enough anymore. You also need to show you have truly interesting and ambitious projects, both tech and design-wise. Company culture, vision and structure are also important, as more and more developers now appreciate modern, flat organisations with independent teams, lots of freedom and room for creativity. People in the games industry are not in it just for the money, but having a place where you actually enjoy spending 8 hours a day is paramount. Senior staff with families also appreciate things like good local schools, safe environment, healthcare benefits and possible company daycare, so the location of your studio also matters a great deal.

Our solution to the situation is this: instead of trying to find the most talented and experienced seniors, we grow our own. How do we do this? First, we drop the Senior and Junior definitions in our job postings. We look for people that match the job description, not the number of years or projects worked on. Instead we focus on identifying the type of personalities that fit our honest and learning oriented company culture – Those that show potential in becoming seniors with 3-4 years of work and tutelage. Portfolios and interviews are our main tools for figuring this out. The portfolios of potential hires need to show determined learning in quick intervals. In interviews we focus a lot on teamwork and communication skills, and on leadership potential.

To make our company a place where this type of systematic professional development is possible, we create a safe environment for learning, asking questions and being honest. We onboard new hires straight into ongoing projects, and give them responsibility from the get go, gradually increasing the responsibility level depending on each individual. Teams demand high quality and team effort, but offer the newcomers guidance and help. Seniors take the role of mentors and coaches, who make themselves available for the juniors. The responsibility the new hires are given is countered with relaxed, safe and flexible environment where mistakes are part of learning. It’s crucial to minimize the stress, fear and friction in the equation to enable people to reach their full potential.

As we get new hires to jump straight into projects, we also need to be able to communicate project goals and requirements quickly and comprehensively. Keeping and interpreting huge, hard-to-update design bibles is an outdated approach that complicates onboarding to new projects. Instead we communicate the project’s vision, focus and design with short, easy-to-digest presentations that help new people to jump into a project at any point. Our weekly update meetings, Monday Breakfast and Friday Open Mic are wonderful tools to get new people up-to-date on other things we are working on, and our team days, retrospectives, workshops and one-on-ones help them get immersed in our company culture straight away.

Our approach brings with it a unique set of challenges, and home-growing your own seniors is not the fast and easy fix to all your recruitment problems. It takes time and effort to build a company that enables people to grow from junior skills and mindset into leadership, great communication and true talent. We are encouraged by our experiences so far, and have already seen a handful of people grow in 3-4 years into central senior positions in different areas in the company. We are definitely excited to continue on this path, and build together an even better environment for growth and learning here at Traplight.

At Traplight we value learning and sharing of information. We also believe that we have the best chance of making amazing games when everyone can give their input in our learning process. We organise company wide workshops several times a year to enhance our internal learning, and to update our collective understanding of how we make games.

The topics of the workshops are tight to F2P design, understanding of the current mobile game market and the vision for Traplight’s games. The goal of the workshops is not to teach or share ready-made information, but to ask questions and find solutions together. The outcome of a single workshop can be for example game concepts, theories, presentations about findings or riveting discussions about the topic at hand. Game concepts are typically the most common outcome, as they enable us to understand complex issues from a very practical point of view.

Our workshops involve all our employees regardless of job description. Putting our heads together to figure out how to best make games just makes sense: Collectively we can find ideas and solutions that would be hard for a single employee to find. The typical workshop starts with a creative brief that help us focus and get inspired about the topic at hand. After laying a common ground we divide into small teams. These teams decide independently how to tackle the topic, and what kind of tools and working methods to use. At the end of the day we will share what we have found.

After presenting and discussing about our findings we suggest how to continue. The next step might be for example:

  • To have another workshop about a new, important topic that stood out

  • To have a team look more closely at a game concept that was born during the workshop

  • To implement newly found information or good practice into our production processes

Another reason to organise these workshops beside learning together is to take a break from our routines. Little distance to our office environment and working together with people that are normally not in your team does wonders for your brain! We get to know each other better, tackle challenges head on with a tight schedule and jump into unknown without fear of being judged. And of course at the end we will have a very Finnish company party complete with sauna, hot tub and lake swimming.

Below you can find some pictures of our latest workshop which we held on 6th of June in a cabin complex near Tampere. This time we learned together about player empowerment, and the different progressions that enable that in F2P games. We’ll post more about the topic in our blog later, so stay tuned!

And finally, if you made it this far, enjoy this great .gif taken during the infamous hot tub malfunction incident at the workshop!

We asked our staff what makes Traplight a great place to work. The answers varied from breakfast perks to having great people around, but one thing stood out very clearly: We love working at Traplight because of our strong user-generated content vision.

According to the poll, it gives us ‘an exciting design challenge with extra difficulty’. We really enjoy creating games with the players, taking gaming to another level and seeing the things our players create.

A clear, unifying vision is essential for a great work environment. However, a clear vision on its own won’t make a company appealing, if all basic stuff is not in order. Based on our experience we’ve gathered a list of things we feel a game company should have to be a truly great workplace for all it’s employees.

 

Environment

Great office

This has already become sort of an inside joke: games companies need to have a great office, and there’s almost a competition on who has the coolest and most unique space.

It’s no wonder though: we spend at least a third of our day in the workplace so we should feel comfortable there. We have invested in a central location and a creative, cozy and spacious office that fills all our daily needs from teamwork, design and big meetings to napping, gaming and relaxing.

Home-like atmosphere

One of the things we gathered from our poll was that Traplight’s people love our office because ‘it feels like being at home’. In the morning we leave home, only to enter another. How cool is that! We included the whole company in the design process of our office and talked about what kind of an atmosphere we want to set. The end result is a place that everyone feels connected with and want to hang out in even after hours.

Perks

On top of having a great physical space it’s also important to invest in perks. We have masseuse and other fun benefits, but according to the poll, our most liked perks are actually our Monday breakfast and our parties.

Why? Because in these occasions we hang with each other and have great discussions. We start our week with a breakfast delivery every Monday, get everyone around the same table and have a relaxed meeting where we share our week’s goals.

 

People

The perfect fit

When asked what makes Traplight a great place to work, one of the most common answers relates to us as a group: ‘people’, ‘great colleagues’, ‘my co-workers’, ‘friendships’, ‘passionate peeps’ etcetera.

Hiring the right people is really important, as we all know. Being a perfect fit for our culture and having social skills and the right personality are the most important things we look for in a candidate. You can always learn new skills needed for a specific position, but learning an open mind, communication and trust in yourself and your team are way harder.

Growth and learning

In a workplace where trust is at the centre of all interaction, people can be themselves and they trust others to accept each other as they are. Being yourself takes a load off your back and releases resources for more important things, like making awesome games!

In a workplace like this you can also make mistakes. Through mistakes you learn, and learning makes you better at, guess what, making awesome games! We think that growing and learning are a part of work life as well, and they make coming to work every day more meaningful.

Friendships

People hanging out after work is not necessary, but it is a great sign. It means that the work community is knit together and it’s not just a group of people who work together.

Based on the poll, we here at Traplight put high value in having real friends and friendships at the workplace. We have lots of hobbies and free time activities we enjoy with each other: doing sports, hanging out at the office after hours, having parties and get-togethers as well as playing online or tabletop games.

 

Working habits

Independent and autonomous teams

Having the right environment and people are the basis of a good workplace, but the working habits are the thing that separate a well functioning company from a ragtag group of friends.

At Traplight the cornerstone of our work are our small and autonomous teams that design their own schedules and roadmaps. Having a lot of freedom doesn’t mean no responsibility; the teams answer to the whole company and show their progress every week in our Friday Open Mic meetings.

Through feedback, questions and help from others they make sure the project stays on target.

Mutual respect and trust

Trust and respect were things that came up as one of the key factors why people like working at Traplight. We trust everyone to be an expert at what they do, and that they are always doing their best.

In practice this means that ‘no one is watching over your shoulder as you deliver’. It also means ‘freedom’, ‘flexible rules’ and ‘mutual respect and appreciation of each others’ effort’. People taking leadership over their own and their team’s work is a result of building the company culture around trust.

Common vision and challenge

Out of all things that you need to build a great workplace, this is the hardest. It’s also the most important: A unifying vision that each and every person in the company can stand behind.

The vision of a company should excite, give promise of an amazing future, and most importantly give a challenge. If there is no challenge, it means whatever the company is aiming to do has been done a million times before.

At Traplight our goal is to crack the secret code of user-generated content gaming on mobile. It’s a great challenge that makes us all raise the bar for our effort. It is what gives Traplight it’s flavour, and what keeps us with the company through thick and thin.

The intrinsic motivations that a unifying vision bring are the final touch needed to get from a ‘good working place’ to an amazing one.

 

Season’s Greetings from Traplight!

 

We wish Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Amazing Holiday Season for all of our friends in Finland and abroad. Thank you for sharing the year 2017 with us. For us, 2018 will be full of exciting things, and we are ready! Please join us for the ride.

 

 

Traplight Xmas Party

 

We had a traditional Finnish “Little Christmas Party” (pikkujoulut in Finnish) on 15th of December. The program of the day included going to sauna, the Friday Open Mic meeting where the teams shared their current progress, Secret Santa gifts, gingerbread baking competition, Mexican bingo, Stiga Table Ice Hockey tournament, decorating the tree with our own UGC decorations and of course some delicious food and drinks!

Thanks to the whole Traplight team for an awesome party, and for the amazing year 2017. We worked hard to create new teams, new games and new ways of working, and we are excited now to see things move forward. Let’s make awesome things happen in 2018!

 

Here are some pictures from our party:

 

The UGC tree and Secret Santa gifts decorating our living room corner.

 

Finland vs. Sweden, the ultimate ice hockey match!

 

Checking out the current state of our games.

 

Getting ready for Secret Santa. Santa’s Little Helper on the right was too eager to stay still for the panorama photo.

 

The final moments of the first ever ‘Peter’s Peppars’ gingerbread competition. The judge has the difficult task of evaluating the submissions.

After the launch of our first User-Generated Content mobile game Big Bang Racing in the summer of 2016 our team went through massive changes. During 2016 and the beginning of 2017 Traplight grew from 13 to 25 people, and the tight group that once was just a single team working on one game was now separated into 3-4 small teams. This change brought us new challenges.


We noticed that it was harder and harder to maintain great communication between different teams. After moving to a new office in July 2017, the teams got their long-awaited working space and peace, but the downside was that we were quite separated now. In the old, small office we were literally right next to each other all the time. Communication flowed then, but soon after moving to a larger office we realised that our communication was based on physical proximity rather than practices that were scalable. We needed something new to help us in this situation.

 

We chat a lot with other game companies to share experiences and to learn. The idea of having weekly, casual and open-ended meetings came from our good friends at Space Ape. They have had a tradition of teams telling about their current progress during Friday afternoons. After hearing about this habit, we decided to make our own version of it. And so the Friday Open Mic meetings were born. Every Friday at 15.00 we gather in the living room for an hour of sharing.


The teams took on this habit quickly and started to show their current product progress in the Open Mic. This turned out to be an excellent tool for keeping everyone up to date on what the teams are working on, and how they are doing. It’s also the perfect place for teams to ask feedback for everything from different art style tests to early game play prototypes. The fact that no progress is too small to show to others has encouraged everyone, and each presentation or talk is met with applause as a thank you.

 

In addition to teams, everyone else can also step up and show things. More and more people have taken this opportunity to tell about their work outside the game teams (like marketing, support and analytics), or share things they have recently learned. All new game ideas are presented in Open Mic as well. The inquisitive and open atmosphere of the meeting has also encouraged us to bring up issues, worries and problems: It is a safe space where those kinds of things can be discussed.

 

The idea of the Open Mic is to keep everyone on the same page and excited: Hearing, seeing and learning new things every week. It’s an amazing tool that we are constantly developing. Based on a recent round of feedback we, for example, set more defined time slots for each topic to make sure the meeting stays condensed and started to share notes from the meetings on a dedicated channel. We also decided that if interesting discussions start during Open Mic, those would be continued later in another meeting or after Open Mic has ended. Issues, problems and worries that are brought up are also treated the same way: If the problem is not solved in 10-15 minutes, it is acknowledged together and appointed another time for the solving or deeper discussion.

 

All in all, the Friday Open Mic has been one of the best habits we have taken on recently. As simple as the idea is, it has done wonders for our communication, team spirit and collaborative effort to move towards the same goal. It has already caused other interesting habits to spin out of it and helped us to understand each other’s work and the company’s direction a lot better.