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The company behind Candy Crush on fostering creativity

Niklas Malmqvist, global art director at King Digital Entertainment, the company behind Candy Crush Saga, shares his insights into how to keep staff members’ creative juices running in an office environment.

He joined the company in 2007 to create an art style and rules for the global company, which began putting its most popular games on Facebook when it noticed people were leaving the games for the social media platform and did the same when the iPhone was first launched.

Malmqvist spoke about how King became the company it is today and creativity in the gaming world at the Business of Design Week conference yesterday.

Here are Malmqvist’s top tips on fostering creativity in a team of creatives.

Keep teams small

Smaller teams keep the mood between team members relaxed, where they feel the freedom to bring up even the craziest ideas.  At King, the size of the team depends on the stage of production which the game is at.

For example, a new game would start off being developed by a maximum of four people.  After this team tests the idea and develops a prototype, then a bigger team of up to 20 artists and developers.

That’s another reason why King opened up studios in Stockholm, London, Berlin, Malmo, Barcelona, Bucharest, Seoul, Singapore.

In 2007, the company employed 30 people globally.  Today, it has over 1,000 employees.

“Back then, we were a self-organising unit where everyone knew each other and it was easy to come up with new ideas and communicate them,” Malmqvist said.

“Now, we have to be more organised because of the sheer number of people but by keeping studios small, each studio is pretty much self-sustainable.  People can feel a sense of ownership, which allows them to feel passionate about the game and therefore produce a high quality product.  If you feel like you own the product, you wouldn’t release a bad one.”

The personal attachment to the team is important to him and allows the different experiences, cultures and ideas of studios in various countries to enrich the overall creative atmosphere for the company on a global scale.

Move away from top-down management to a coaching style of management

A coaching style of management is preferable for creatives.

“I don’t think top-down management works.  It’s the most destructive thing you can do to creativity,” Malmqvist said.

He points out that there is no point in hiring creative and talented people if someone else tells them what to do.  Instead, he provides a framework of rules and specifications which can be interpreted creatively by his team.

Malmqvist said, “I want people to challenge me and get to constantly reevaluate my ideas and to have that culture, where it doesn’t matter how senior your job title is, creates a very dynamic environment.  Meanwhile, I provide continuous feedback for the creatives.”

“I would ask them lots of questions such as how would people feel about their game and why, to help the team understand what players want.”

King also runs morning sessions every day where team members tell each other what they are working on and share ideas.

Keep them feeling challenged

This means giving them opportunities to learn new things, whether it is through workshops and guest lectures, or allowing staff to take time off to teach themselves something or do experiments.

Looking outside of what’s directly related to the profession is often a good way to stimulate people’s creativity and renew a sense of being challenged.

For example, the company brought in a sculptor to run a workshop even though sculpting does not relate directly to the games it produces. Another example is how Malmqvist looks outside of games for new ideas, preferring to draw inspiration from books, movies and real life.

“I don’t want to look at games because they reflect what is already done.  I want to create something new,” Malmqvist said.

Celebrate failure: the discarding of ideas

It takes many ideas and straying from the well worn path to innovate.  However, this may mean that many ideas are discarded in the process of looking for a creative idea that also works as a popular and commercially viable product.

So how do you discard your staff member’s ideas lightly without making them feel scared of voicing their creative ideas again?

Malmqvist suggests celebrating when you throw away an idea and counting on your staff members’ professionalism.

“All ideas are taken seriously whether they are kept or discarded.  If we throw away an idea, we would have a little party for it because that’s how you learn and it’s better to recognise early on in the production process that it doesn’t work,” he said.

“It also requires professionalism – it’s a job in the end and some projects get killed.  In the gaming industry, we’ve all worked on more failed games than successful ones.”

Malmqvist on advertising

Why King does not put ads in its games

“We believe ads break up the gaming experience.  It doesn’t add value to the experience and turns people off.  The game and the player is the focus,” Malmqvist said.

He said one of his favourite ads is this TVC by mobile operator TrueMove H, which he saw on Facebook:

“It tells story with something that surprises you.  I don’t like ads that tell me to ‘Buy this!’ Instead, similar to what I want our games to achieve, I want a story and the ad to provoke an emotional response from me,” Malmqvist said.

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