Leadership in game music


To be both productive and receptive as a music producer within game development, it can be argued that it requires some level of leadership from the music producer. It can further be argued that more ownership and responsibility from a leader will potentially increase the quality of the final product (Clinton Keith, 2010). Analysis and reflections surrounding the Integrated Model of Group Development, as described by Susan Wheelan (2017), combined with the ideas on leadership based on modern social network theory as researched by Balkundi & Kilduff (2006), shows the importance for aspiring music producers in game development to understand the structure they operate in and the potential of their already existing network.

Modes of leadership in game development

Traditionally, leadership is seen as a hierarchical contract within a group of people where one person is held responsible for the achievement of a complicated task which requires the mixed competence of two or more people. With the emergence of software development, however, came the need for a new style of project management that suited the unpredictable and complex nature of multi-disciplinary media which relies heavily on computed applications. Clinton Keith (2010) supplies the following points on why a top-down leadership structure is doomed to fail in a so-called AAA-game[1] company:

  • More than 100 people from various disciplines in one team.
  • Thousands of unpredictable problems that can introduce wasted time and effort.
  • Inflexible plans and tools to manage people who can’t predict and quickly react to these problems.
  • Hierarchies of management that can lead to further waste.

Instead, a bottom-up leadership style called “agile development” is usually promoted in game production, where the full company is broken up into smaller teams that behave in a self-organizing manner which, as Clinton Keith describes, will result in:

  • Creating better team structures that can solve more problems by reducing external dependencies and improving focus on problem solving.
  • By identifying risks early and addressing them before they become problems.
  • By identifying and growing leaders among themselves.

The last point shows a clear divergence from the more traditional leadership style which promotes preset structures and clearly defined communication lines to be effective.

Since agile organizations tends to be the norm within the game industry, it can be argued that the implications of such a structure should be understood by anyone who operates in such an environment.

Ownership and responsibility

One of the core values in agile development is the emphasis on having each team member reach a sense of ownership over the project. This is an idea that stems from Susan Wheelan’s (2017) model on team building, commonly referred to as IMGD. The complete model describes how a group of people who come together to achieve a goal, goes through a set of four behavioral phases before they reach a state where the group is effective, and successfully takes initiatives without the interference of faulty leadership.

Susan Wheelan shows that the ultimate goal of the leader is to guide the team through a transformation where they go from looking for directions and structures outside of the group, to internalizing the project’s goal and building a team structure that is suited for the needs of all members. After the transformation is complete and the team can operate and solve problems independently, it will subsequently become the primary role of the leader to facilitate the group’s needs and communicate requests between them and the company.

This type of group development leans on the individual’s ability to build trust within the team through intentionally surfacing problems and conflicts as soon as they are discovered. Therefore, it is important to know who the team members are. Not only personally, but also structurally within the network of the entire company.

Node-based leadership

As we can see with agile development, it diverges from hierarchical leadership in the way it has a self-organizing attribute. This promotes an emergence of leadership that is supposedly natural and pragmatic, but it may come with a critical challenge in large companies since several teams operate simultaneously, and sometimes needs to organize their projects together with several other multi-disciplinary teams, which all may have their own unique social structures.

This collection of people, both within the company and through external partners, creates a complex social network of individuals which will include several leaders and decision makers who are not always formally assigned.

The two sociologists Balkundi & Kilduff (2006) provides an outline to this issue which looks at leadership through the lens of social network theory. They claim that because every social institution is a social network, it can be argued that the influence of a leader is dependent of their social ties and social capital, both within and outside an organization.

“Leadership, from the network perspective we develop [in the research], involves building and using social capital.” – Balkundi & Kilduff (2006)

This perspective treats leadership as a mode of navigation and interaction within a network to achieve overarching goals for the organization. Balkundi & Kilduff lays out three types of processes that builds social ties and increases social capital which is later used to run and manage projects. A leader’s influence or clout can be distinguished by their level of:

  1. Popularity – a central figure who holds a unifying position in a larger network cluster, and thus can act on the attention from the members in that cluster.
  2. Brokering – a person who holds influence by being a key communicator between clusters and is thus valued by the network as an organizer.
  3. Association – someone who is regularly interacting with the above distinguished leaders, and whose social bonds with them further increases their influence throughout the network.

It can also be argued that any one person may inhibit several of these attributes at once, to a varying degree. As leader’s emerges with these attributes, it is by the accumulation and exchange of social capital within the network that leadership can be understood in a context of social network theory.

This shows how each leader within a network can observe themselves as a node in a network. Being aware of the current state of the relevant network and understanding the level of influence that different members have is crucial for organizing projects in a deliberate way. This awareness brings forth a style of leadership that handles problem solving through the mapping and exploitation of social ties and capital, stemming from the leader’s own node. A node-based leadership, if you will.


Since this article is meant to look at leadership in music, I will attempt to show how these texts can be used to understand what challenges a music producer will have as a leader when entering into a project of game development. For the sake of argument, I will speak in the context of large companies.

If a music producer enters into game development, they carry along with them the network of social ties and social capital that they already have. Most likely, one of the reasons they are invited to work on a project is because they show a potential to expand a project’s network and add to the company’s combined pool of social capital and ties, aside from their individual knowledge and skills of their craft.

While being assigned as a music producer, they will become responsible for a part of the project that requires specialized knowledge of the field of music. This could be seen as a soft boundary point between the music producer’s node to the rest of the company. Within this cluster we can find connected affiliates that can supply competence for the music to be successfully produced, with the central point being the producer. Composers, musicians, audio engineers, beat-makers, sound designers, audio programmers, etc. are some of the skills needed to create a successful production. Since the music producer can inhibit several of these roles within themselves, it would be favorable to delegate this type of work by leading through the network of connections if the company’s resources allows it. Favorable because designing, creating, and implementing music into a game environment is a complex and highly time-consuming project.

The needs of this cluster requires someone with communicative skills who understands the complete network with its separate teams. Who also have insights into the other teams’ needs and structures. Navigating through this landscape of social ties that are not directly connected to the “music group” requires a leadership through brokering, which does not have to be the same leader as the one who has the leader role within each separate cluster.

Trust and honesty are at the foundation of any growing community, as shown by the group development model presented earlier (Susan Wheelan, 2017). The music producer who wants to have a strong influence on a complete project has to build trust within the network they operate in. This could primarily be achieved by guiding the “music group” cluster using the IMGD model that Wheelan presents. But secondarily, this team has to also be integrated into the complete network and updated on new problems so that it doesn’t go rouge and start creating results that are counter-productive to the goals of the whole network. This requires of leaders to step in and guide groups of clusters through communication between key figures or brokers who can forward the information in a way that the cluster understands it.

Finally, to point on the last style of node-based leadership, a leader with high associative clout can prove useful in the sense that the relationships they have with key partners are not based on interacting with a high-maintenance group of people, but instead relies on the social bonds between two friends e.g., regardless of their context. This type of leadership are especially used when working with external partners.


Balkundi, P., & Kilduff, M. (2006). The Ties that Lead: A Social Network Approach to Leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, volume 17, issue 4, pages 419-439.

Keith, C. (2010). Agile Game Development with Scrum. Pearson Education.

Wheelan, S. (2017). Att Skapa Effektiva Team (3rd edition). Studentlitteratur.

[1] ”AAA” is an informal classification used for video games produced and distributed by a mid-sized or major publisher, typically having higher development and marketing budgets. Steinberg, Scott (2007). The definitive Guide: Videogame Marketing and PR (1st ed.). iUniverse.


I’m currently entering the second semester of the Master’s studies that all this research is taking place in. Next week I’m posting a summary of the takeaways from some of the reading I have done during this time.

Very exciting stuff coming this spring, as I’ve completed the ground work for how to create music from a game design perspective. Now I’m going at the same topic from the perspective of composition and music production, so expect a lot of cool music examples. 😉

Stay stronk everybody!

// Jacob

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