TGC 2009
TGC 2009 Keynote: Mike Capps: Epic Is(n't) About Pop-Tarts

John Funk | 29 Apr 2009 20:43
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Epic Is(n't) All About Pop-Tarts

When Epic President Dr. Mike Capps took the podium for the first keynote address of the inaugural Triangle Game Conference, he began by warning the audience that the presentation would be rated "M." After all, Epic - from its humble beginnings as ten people across six countries creating Unreal - is known today partly for the ultra-violent Gears of War and Unreal series. More than that, though, there wouldn't be any prettying-up of the language, Capps said, apologizing in advance to the legal staff in the audience.

It isn't just blockbuster games that put Epic on the metaphorical map. Epic's Unreal Engine is the most widely licensed engine in the world, powering everything from first-person shooters to MMORPGs to television shows aimed at children.

While Dr. Capps admitted that he would like to call Epic the top development house, that'd be a tall claim to make - still, they've received enough awards that he was confident about saying that Epic was "at least in the top 5," and that he believed people recognized that. The combination of the prestigious Epic name with the Unreal Engine's massive popularity, says Capps, means that Epic needs to treat its employees "like they're volunteers."

To clarify - most companies would kill to have a member of the Epic team working for them, says Capps, and both he and his employees know it. When your employees can virtually waltz into any games company on the planet and be automatically appointed as Director of Unreal Technology, they're staying where they are out of their own volition - They're volunteers. So, Capps posed the question: How do you manage volunteer staff, and ask them to be more productive than normal?

Not with Pop-Tarts, as it turns out. Capps used the delicious pastry to illustrate a point: You can't inspire excellence with rewards alone. Maybe you can coax someone to work late fixing a problem with the promise of dinner and tasty Pop-Tarts one time, but "you can't do it five times, and you certainly can't do it a hundred times," he said. Instead, you need people with genuine passion - but not to the point where they sacrifice things like family. "It isn't about working longer hours. Be more productive during the hours you have."

Which means things like not squabbling over what types of Pop-Tarts are in the break room (and there are lots and lots of varieties of Pop-Tarts). "In a triage room, when you have two patients with ruptured arteries, you aren't going to quibble about the Pop-Tarts, you're going to get started on work. Pop-Tarts aren't dire." Even if you screw up, you don't complain about it and work to assign blame, you move on to the next task. Developers can't afford to be possessive, Capps argued. A trauma surgeon isn't going to say "That's my patient, I saw him first," nor should people argue, "That's my code!" None of that helps a developer ship a product, said Capps. "That's bullsh*t. 'It doesn't help us ship-' That's where it should end."

The absolute best motivation, believes Capps, comes from "almost-impossible" tasks. "If you have talented people who really give a sh*t about what they're working on, then they will deliver."

Capps thinks that the numbers reflect this philosophy - they have a 1% voluntary turnover rate year-on-year: On average, only one person chooses to leave Epic every year. That's staggeringly low, compared to the 22% average turnover rate for US-based companies in the IT field. Epic's other employee survey numbers are impressive: over 95% of the company's employees believe that their pay reflects their work and that they are being paid on fair and objective criteria. These numbers - and others - have been steadily climbing since 2006, but Capps acknowledged that they weren't perfect, and could "still be better."

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