"The video game industry today is complicated, unfair and tough. As such, it's of paramount importance that we have fun with our work." This was the message from Enric Alvarez, game director of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and co-owner of its maker, Mercury Steam at a Gamasutra-attended session at GDC Europe today.
"Having fun and working hard are not mutually exclusive things," he said. "In fact, someone who is happy and contented with his work promotes an infectious positive attitude for the wider team, which in turn makes that team better at fulfilling its work."
"In my opinion, culture is more important than the skills of individuals. It's an essential quality, which very often comes across in the final product," he said.
Alvarez was speaking about his own experiences working on Konami's 2010 action title, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow in a postmortem of the game. "When developing Castlevania we worked to build a conducive environment in which it would be easy to execute our creative vision."
For Alavarez, the key to fostering a welcoming, fulfilling environment is clarity. "It was vital that the team clearly understood what they are about, and had absolute clarity for the vision," he said.
"In any project of this size it's important to reduce the amount of bureaucracy in the studio, promoting simplicity and transparency," Alvarez said. "The more complex the game is, the higher the importance that you have a simple and clear purpose and working environment."
Alvarez revealed that the studio was extremely nervous when first approached by Konami with the idea of working on a Castlevania title. "It was obvious that Castlevania had become entrenched in handhelds where, as a series, it had reached its maximum potential. As such we felt we needed to explore the 3D route."
"But with 20 years of development history behind the series, we thought working on a 3D Castlevania game could very easily become a nightmare project, in which we were pulled in all directions, creating something that appealed to neither fans nor newcomers," he said.
"When we first met with the team at Konami it became clear those fears were unfounded. The publisher was interested in our specific approach as a creative team and wanted to give us the freedom to shine. We felt that Konami's offer was an authentic one, and that they were interested in seeing what we could do. We were valued and perceived as a trusted partner. In discerning this, that's why we decided to agree to develop the game."
For Alvarez, managing this happy relationship between publisher and studio is the key to fostering a productive working environment for the team, and to delivering work efficiently. "With a game as complex as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, good relationships with the publisher are key. However, too often the publishers fears over game direction, and the way in which their money is being spent can prove problematic."
"It's entirely reasonable for publishers to want visibility (whereby they can see where their game is going) and control (whereby they can lead where it is heading)," he explained. "But in my opinion, no matter how reasonable these desires are, they can easily sink a project. Visibility and control can never be posed as prerequisites to a project. They have to be grown organically as a result of trust. The atmosphere between both parties must always be frank and honest. There is no substitute for the human touch."
That human touch is a key principle for the team at Mercury Steam. "We have worked hard to foster a studio environment where anyone can easily approach anyone else. My office door is always open, be it for an employee to share a problem or share a joke."
"A game of this size and complexity could not have been pulled off by a team of just 60 employees if that entire team wasn't completely behind the project," said Alvarez. "So of course, the success of the project is down to the team. But without a culture to enrich and motivate that team, I believe that you could not succeed and not die trying."