Dan Bunting

Game Developer

Dan Bunting is a proven creative leader and game developer. During his nearly two decades of experience in AAA game development at the video game studio Treyarch, he was responsible for building out numerous successful software and entertainment offerings. In particular, he played an instrumental role in the development and growth of the popular Call of Duty franchise, leading its spinoff series Black Ops to the title of best-selling game ever for three years running.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

No two days look quite the same, but there are a few habits I’ve adapted to keep me going throughout the week. Most importantly, I value sleep, exercise, family time, continual learning opportunities, and quiet reflection as necessary foundations to a productive day.

I always try to get seven or eight hours of sleep. There was a time when I bought into the myth that high achievers only need five or so hours of sleep per night, but it is so unhealthy and counterproductive. I do something physical every day, whether it’s fitness training, walking around my neighborhood, or riding the Peloton. Several times a month, I get outdoors for more extended, rigorous activities like mountain biking, surfing, and skiing/snowboarding. I love those activities because you make an increased commitment that then rewards you with a thrill that breaks through your limit thresholds in a rejuvenating outdoor environment. I dedicate time to quiet reflection and learning. Even blocking out my calendar to pace around the house a couple of times a day is an effective way for me to process the sometimes-overwhelming flow of information. Listening to podcasts while on long walks has been a great routine for doubling up on productivity-boosting activities, as I always come out of those sessions inspired. Lastly and most importantly, I set boundaries around my schedule to spend time with my family in the morning and evening. My family is the true foundation supporting my drive to do what I do.

When it comes to work productivity, I always want to respect people’s time, so I try to keep meetings short and focused. I really value my one-on-one meetings with team leaders, because you can so efficiently dig deep into problem-solving with the most experienced people on the team, and those meetings provide constant growth and strengthened focus.

Also, coffee doesn’t hurt.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Wherever an idea comes from, I first try to find its “soul”: What makes it unique and exciting? What are the pieces that will supercharge the team’s inspiration as it journeys from imagination to reality? What fundamental components will serve as the springboard for every decision you need to make throughout development? I try to imagine the headlines that will be written when it is revealed, because that’s a way to think about marketability, how it will connect with people. What are the big beats that people will remember from the first 20 seconds of a commercial, or the message that will resonate most from a couple of seconds of glancing at an ad?

Thinking in that way helps me reverse-engineer the vision back to the start, where I can communicate it clearly to the team and get started building a development plan. The simpler and more concrete the vision is in the beginning, the better the team will be equipped to navigate the twists, turns and surprises (both good and bad) that will eventually come. Then, throughout the project, I’ll constantly return to those fundamentals to reinforce the mission. And I’m totally okay with sounding like a broken record if it helps maintain focus and shield against the distractions of a million fires and shiny things.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The growing convergence of gaming and adjacent industries really excites me. I believe that games can be used to make every kind of experience better and easier to learn. I’ve used this analogy before, but when you see two puppies playing tug of war, they are teaching themselves skills valuable to their survival. All living creatures use games to strengthen their ability to survive and prosper. Games are not just a niche entertainment activity; game principles can and should be integrated into most applications and platforms to onboard and retain customers. With new juggernaut entrants into the gaming space – like Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, etc. – competition will increase and lead to a greater variety of ideas explored. The future is an exciting place for those who have honed their craft at making games, and for those who use digital services and applications and would like everything to be a bit easier and a bit more rewarding.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I try to approach every problem from an unexpected direction. It’s a practice that lies at the heart of creativity and is useful in synthesizing the data around a problem into solutions that surprise and delight. And it’s a skill that can be learned. I don’t believe that people either have creativity or don’t; we can always train ourselves to be more creative. It starts with asking thoughtful questions, followed by intense and focused listening to a variety of points of view and a macro awareness of trends already occurring in an idea space. This helps to understand what ground has already been covered and what themes people are gravitating towards, so that you can look for angles that have not yet been explored. I’ve used this throughout my career to get teams “unstuck” when trying to solve creative problems, and I would say it’s one habit that has defined my leadership style.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t over-invest in your own beliefs. You have much to learn.

Don’t get so focused on moving forward that you forget to look back and appreciate what’s been accomplished.

Don’t overthink the first steps. It’s scary to start something new, but you will learn faster by doing than by overplanning or trying to figure everything out first.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

We’re never going back to the office, at least not in the way we used to do it. Global connectedness is only going to increase, and the ability for people everywhere to contribute to projects anywhere in the world is getting easier and easier. The gig economy is going to expand to encompass more fields, which will become a freeing factor for a huge portion of the workforce, where people can choose projects that resonate most with them or that help them grow new skills. The flourishing startup scene will need to build off growing workforce systems like this, because new young businesses often can’t absorb the high costs of relocation, full-time benefits, and expensive office space in high density areas.

Most executives that I’ve dealt with on this topic are in denial about it, largely because of fears around productivity, team cohesion, and significant costs already sunk into real estate investments. But these worries are also opportunities to rethink how companies adapt and approach their concerns with new ways of thinking about how people work and how to use those office spaces that they’ve already invested in. Leaders who fail to adapt to this new reality will find their resistance to it a liability.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Don’t be afraid to cut scope frequently, and in fact, build it into your process. This was hard for me in my early leadership roles because I would get attached to ideas that felt innovative or buzzworthy. But I learned that it’s far more important to prioritize correctly and always focus on the scope that your team can execute with excellence. You have to boil down the essence of your venture, connect its purpose to a marketable product or experience, and repeat the goals over and over, if for no other reason than to harden yourself against distractions that will get in the way of an amazing first release.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

The teams I’ve worked with have always placed a high value on not resting on our past successes. We worked hard to try to foresee where the trends were moving, adapt to the changing landscape of our industry, and not rely too heavily on what worked well the last time. I can’t say this is universally a good strategy, because in many cases, it’s better to keep building on what you’ve done before. But in a rapidly changing industry where consumers are extremely fickle, it did help us to cement a reputation for being fearless industry leaders.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The most memorable failure for me was when I first took on the role of Game Director in 2013. I had previously held a similar role with a much smaller portion of the team, maybe a 50-person development effort, and it was a huge leap in responsibility to oversee the full range of development of our studio with 350+ developers. There were a few other disruptive changes that were happening at the same time: We were moving from a development model of multiple siloed teams to one which would unify under a single leadership structure. We had been given an extra year of development time, extending our typical two-year cycle to three years. And the engineering department had undertaken a huge task in overhauling our core tech to future-proof it.

It was a lot of change at once, and I was not experienced enough to understand how critical that factor would be. I pitched a boldly ambitious vision for our next game, something that broke the mold of what we had done before and required us to flex new muscles in unproven domains. Almost immediately, I encountered resistance from all directions. Instead of spending my time focused on refining the direction, I found myself swimming in internal politics, constantly meeting with key people on the team to try to convince them that this concept was achievable and clarifying parts that were misunderstood or had not had the time to be developed. It snowballed. I was taking on too much because I felt I needed to work harder to prove it out and fill in gaps. Within a year, it had become untenable, and we abandoned the riskiest innovations of the concept, reverting to something closer to what we had done before, and changed the leadership structure to again distribute into more siloed development teams. It was devastating. But I value that experience, because it taught me important lessons that would define my future leadership:

– Don’t underestimate the effect that changing variables will have on an organization, and pay close attention to how many variables are changing at the same time.
– Be a good listener and work to build consensus on ideas before they get put to paper – and definitely before they get rolled out broadly.
– Healthy distribution of ownership is key. Don’t try to take everything on. If you feel that way, you’re not being an effective leader. And if you have healthy distribution but you’re still working insane hours, you’re trying to do too much and need to cut scope immediately.

When it came time for another shot at it, I took all those lessons to heart and fundamentally changed how I approached my leadership role. We were able to unify the team under a streamlined leadership structure. We were able to innovate in meaningful ways. We were even able to release our product with similar scope on shorter timelines.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Going back to my response in question 6, how about a business that broadens the gig economy to highly skilled workers globally? International outsourcing has exploded in recent years, yet somehow those expansive supply lines still get constrained, and they are aggregated into companies that struggle to recruit and retain quality talent. If you could build a platform that exposed a massive network of shorter-term opportunities to specifically skilled professionals who could crank up or down as demand required, you would open the spigot for talent and create new entrants into career paths that otherwise might have been closed to people in some parts of the world. Think about a doctor who can see patients remotely and doesn’t need to be tied to a single healthcare provider. Or an engineer who loves solving hard problems but doesn’t want to get tied down to one company or one type of project. Allowing people with specialized training to become owner-operators and maintain the flexibility to work their own hours or pick and choose their projects would be incredibly powerful.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently bought a proper, sturdy, portable folding desk (aka lap desk) that I use to work from anywhere. It may sound like the most boring possible answer to this question, but after working for the past two years in a static home office that I tried to make just like my static work office, this was a much-needed change for flexibility and peace of mind. If my wife or son need to use the space I am in, I can just grab it and move to another room. I can go outside to get some fresh air while relaxing on a lounge chair and still work without fumbling around with an unstable laptop. It’s been a quality-of-life game-changer!

What is your favorite quote?

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
-Sherlock Holmes in “A Case of Identity”

I loved pulp spy and mystery novels growing up, and I went through a Sherlock Holmes phase one summer in college. I loved the idea of an exceptional eccentric who transcends his own biases to see what others don’t, and that to get to something big, you have to start with something small. It speaks in so many ways to leadership in the modern era.

Key Learnings:

  • Do less, better. Ideas are exciting and ever flowing, but you can’t do everything well. Always keep the core of your endeavor front of mind and cut features that aren’t core your central idea.
  • Listen, learn, and follow your curiosity. No one has all the answers. Getting out of your own way and listening to the people around you will set you free. Curiosity is the foundation of creativity.
  • Don’t bear all the weight. The expectation that successful entrepreneurs are superheroes is a myth. Successful entrepreneurs know how to build teams of incredible talent, distribute ownership of success, and right-size scope to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  • Fail early and often. Maybe clichéd, but forever true. Don’t wait to start working. Embrace the attitude that failures are key to the learning process and will teach you far more than you could learn by overpreparing.
  • Know thyself. Commit the time and effort to genuinely understanding your strengths and struggles and embrace both! Your personality quirks make you unique, but key to this is understanding and minimizing the parts that get in the way of leading a healthy, productive organization.