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What it’s like to work as the head of a games development studio

29 Sep 2020

What does a typical day look like for the head of a gaming studio? Coconut Lizard’s Robert Troughton shares his experiences.

Robert Troughton is the studio head at Coconut Lizard, a games developer based in the UK that was acquired by Keywords Studios earlier this year. His team specialises in finding ways to optimise video games and improve their performance with real-time technology, such as Unreal Engine.

Before Coconut Lizard, Troughton was UK general manager for Epic Games, and worked at Pitbull Syndicate and Scavenger among other roles.

“The majority of our team are very technically minded, so I’ll often chat with them about the latest techniques and advancements in game development and how we can leverage them to offer our clients an advantage over their competitors,” he says, describing a typical day in his role.

“We keep the management of the studio slim so that we can better reward those who do the core work. That means I’m also involved with finance, HR, recruitment, purchasing, IT and so on. I have to wear many hats!”

Currently, the team is working with Microsoft on its massive multiplayer pirate game, Sea of Thieves, which is available on PC and Xbox One. But this is just one of the projects ongoing for Troughton. He’s “not allowed to talk openly” about the rest.

In the past, one of the studio’s most notable projects was Battalion 1944: Eastern Front. Working with Bulkhead Interactive, Coconut Lizard provided advice, support and content analysis for the game.

The skills and tools a studio head needs

So what are the most important skills Troughton uses as studio head? For the most part, his job requires him to ensure that both the team and its clients are happy. As a result, people skills and communication are key, he says.

“This has been particularly true through the pandemic; utilising multiple platforms for reaching out to individuals,” he adds, such as video calls through Microsoft Teams and online chats through Slack. “Each have their advantages and disadvantages.”

Time management is also crucial, he says. To help deal with so many varied tasks and a crowded to-do list, he employs visual organisation tool Trello.

“It’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much there is to do. I find that tracking everything helps keep me sane. At the end of the day, I can look at what I’ve managed to complete rather than the backlog of things remaining to do.”

Another of his productivity tips is to get away from the computer screen every so often. “Regardless of how busy you think you are, make sure you take breaks. Go for a walk. It often helps de-cloud your mind. When you return to your desk, you’ll feel more focused for the task ahead.

“I often like to head out, walk around the block a couple of times, disconnected from the grid. I’ll often realise the solution to a problem better in this way than if I sat at my computer staring at it in desperation.”

What challenges crop up in a games development studio?

Indeed, one of the big challenges in such a busy role is knowing when to stop, according to Troughton.

“It’s very tempting to push on and keep reducing the to-do list, particularly when you’re doing something that you really enjoy,” he says. “It’s important to make that break, though, to know when it’s time for work and when it’s time for family. This is still something that I need to improve on.”

When he first started out in the job, he was also surprised to find that keeping an eye on team members played such a critical role. “Communication with the team was much more important than I’d initially realised. It’s not something that, on paper, brings in the money or work for the studio.

“But ensuring that everyone is happy is very, very important, or finding out when people aren’t happy with a task that they’re working on or where there are problems with a client or project. Sometimes it’s good just to find out how someone’s doing at home, if they have any personal worries. We can’t always help – but it’s important to try.”

And as the games industry continues to soar, the competition for talent is another element to contend with. “It’s a highly competitive market now when recruiting for open positions. We’ve done well with this at Coconut Lizard. Keeping our management structure slim allows us to be competitive on salaries and benefits,” Troughton says.

“We try to hire the very best talent in the industry and find that this pays dividends as those tend to be trustworthy and can manage their workload without much interference.

“Working with such a talented team is amazing. I’ve loved seeing the studio grow and mature over the years and am very excited to see where we go next.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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