...heart and soul...

Whatever you might think about his theories on gaming, Richard Bartle usually has something interesting to say, and this is a good write up on some of the observations he presented at GDC in Austin recently. At the risk of spoiling the read, the best quote is the last...and got me thinking of a post...but first, the quote...

Designers working on games "must want to say something... if you're a game designer, you have to have some of your soul in the game design. Because otherwise it's just superficial, there's no vision to it, no substance to it. And that's the biggest lesson I'd like to give you from here," he concluded.

...and that is something I can only echo, and it isn't to say that you have to be an independent developer either for it to be relevant, it applies to pretty much all of us working in games...it is also a little bit relevant, given the rants emerging elsewhere today, and it got me thinking...

To me, it isn't about striving against 'the system' (being creative and making profitable projects are not inherently mutually exclusive, they can just become so, due to poor management), and applies just as much to someone is a small part in a big team, or a single person working on an indie title, a small team or a medium sized team.

Working in this industry, you won't always get to work on 'your' game. Very, very few of us ever do, there can only be so many leads and there will always be far more people working on games than being responsible for the creative vision. So more often than not you will end up helping implementing someone else's vision, or implementing a direction set by a management team somewhere, or a client. That might mean that you might not have any real influence upon that direction, but that doesn't mean that you can't still be putting a little of your proverbial soul into your part of the project.

This is especially true in medium to large sized teams. You simply can't have 'too many cooks' as it were, and there will be many junior people in the process. That doesn't mean those people don't have creative ideas, it just means that not all of those ideas will have any influence whatsoever on a project. The wrong outlook on things like that can make for some very annoying, demotivating and ultimately frustrating feelings. Some people get 'stuck' on that point, the lack of input, and really struggle to focus on what they do have input and influence on. What they often forget is that, all the roles on a team, no matter how minor, can all be done badly or can be done well...and if you aren't putting a little bit of your soul into the process, you won't get as good a result out of the other end.

The above is probably taking his quote a little out of context, and I am about to go off on a, not so slight, tangent. I just think the same logic applies to your attitude to working in games, as it does to the creative process itself. If we only ever design by 'formula', the results will invariably be bland and potentially uninteresting. Likewise if designers aren't putting a little bit of their creative soul into what they do, regardless of the size of their role on a team, then they will also struggle.

That is why, as part of a projects leadership I always consider it vital to build ownership of the game amongst the team. They might not get to decide the ultimate direction, but you can ensure that your team has a healthy amount of responsibility for the various parts of the process. Alas, unfortunately it isn't necessarily an easy thing to do.

Many fall into the trap of wanting to control everything. It is easy to do so, and takes some willpower to avoid (in particular if you used to do a certain part of the process before). Micro-managing is, in many ways, the 'easy' option...you involve yourself in everything...easy to do, hard to make work...and very difficult to succeed with, and even harder to encourage your team to buy into if you are too controlling...harder to motivate them to put that soul into their creation...

Even when you know it makes sense, it is still harder to give some of the responsibility away than it is to keep it (in particular when you are still ultimately responsible, trust me!). However I always feel it is an important part of the process. Personally I try to empower as much of the team as possible. The game never belongs to one person, it is a team effort. You have to encourage and foster input, show where people can influence things and where they can't, and try and focus on building an environment where people can put a little soul into it. Unless you are an indie team of one, there will be conflict, opposing ideas, multiple opinions (devs are just like players really in that regard :p) and when you lead a project, you have to try and create the environment where that works for you, not against you.

I try to never tell my teams how to achieve something. I do try to tell them clearly what needs to be achieved, it is important to give a clear and concise direction, so everyone knows the target. Then I want the team to take ownership. That doesn't mean everyone runs off and gets full control, it means that the seniors in each area get to create the all important how with their teams. Some involve their juniors more than others, and some areas allow for more collaboration than others, but hopefully everyone feels part of a team working towards a goal, and not just part of a production line over which they have no input at all. There will be elements they can't change, always will be, so the important part is making sure people understand that, understand why, and understand how that came to be. In my experience as long as people on the team understand the thought process that lead to a direction or a decision, then they can get on board with it, even when they might not personally think it the best course.

Think of it this way. Visualize a game project as a lego building. The kind of direction you want to be able to give is - The building has to be red, and has to have thirty rooms, and we have 10,000 bricks. Then the rest, how it looks, how many floors it has, how big it is, what shape it is, all of the details in effect, can be suggested, molded and ultimately decided by the team because the direction (red), scope (thirty rooms) and resources available (10,000 bricks) are all clearly defined. I don't need to be the one deciding where each brick goes. If people have more control over where the bricks go in the context of their goal, they will enjoy the task much more...and be able to put their soul into it!

It is important you never have a vacuum of that communication. That is where the difference between good and bad management teams can really show. Hell, even when you know, and you are trying to avoid it, it can still happen. I have fallen foul of it myself, and constantly have to remind myself that while I might know the reason behind x,y or z, I have to remember to explain the logic to the team.

Usually when you see rants like those publicized this week, they are ultimately born out of a lack of that kind of communication (or they are just the result of an unreasonable person who simply didn't 'get it', and those do exist too)

However, alas, it also isn't easy to balance that kind of direction.

It is very easy to be too distant, in trying to give people the space they need to flourish and take ownership, you do have to remember that your are there for a reason in the first place. It is probably the most challenging aspect of the job I do, trying to find the right balance in that respect, and I am sure I don't always get it right ;) I am also there to provide the experience that will help people avoid some of the common pitfalls. I try to do that by asking questions, not giving people the answers (because that rarely sticks) but by posing questions like 'have you thought about...' and not immediately give answers, but encourage people to start thinking of those things for themselves.

Likewise there will also be people who don't react well to that environment, and while they can be quick to dislike set directions, they can be equally ill at ease with being asked to find the solution, or more importantly - to be responsible for it. The beauty of working for a more micro-manager type for example, is that you can always blame them, and not yourself, for failure, even when it isn't warranted...so when you take that crutch away from people, some actually struggle with that too!

Perhaps it is just a personal thing, and you can take all of the above with a grain of salt...as I am probably a pretty annoyingly pragmatic person. (I have never asked anyone how annoying that element of my personality is, but I'll presume that on occasion it can at least provoke mild irritation, and probably worse. I am the stereotypical, 'life gives you lemons, make lemonade' type of person, and that doesn't always sit well with everyone!).

Anyone, and I do mean virtually anyone, could walk into any game design team (at least every team I have met or experienced) and identify a dozen things that are some degree of lousy and could be improved upon...probably on the first day. I also think that goes for pretty much any industry and any workplace too, I have seen exactly the same thing in the other environments I have worked in too. Some people just get fixated on those frustrations, and lose the focus on that heart and soul that made them want to do this job in the first place.

Like pretty much everyone else out there (I am sure many of you reading this could list me a dozen things that are lousy about your workplace without even hesitating), we don't work in a perfect world either. We have many creative people working in a process where only a small percentage of them can have 'big picture' influence. We are a relatively young genre, with tool and delivery platforms that often struggle to keep up with the technology. Let alone all the usual frustrations and challenges that life usually pitches in at any given time.

..and like everyone else, you can either get on shake it off and get on with it or let it dictate how you feel and bring you down...and that does not mean accepting all the flaws, far from it, it just means accepting you can't fix all of them at once, and not let them get you down! Too many people get caught up in it being a binary state of mind. Accepting some imperfections is just acknowledging they exist, nothing more, it isn't condoning them, or refusing to work on them, it just means that you have to find the right ways to work with them and improve as you go along.

We do though have pretty cool jobs, and I appreciate that, and personally, even on the crap days (and we all have them) I try and remember that, and always remember that a little of my heart and soul has to go into what I do!


Dean said…
The most important thing you said there is that you don't always get it right. Nit every person in authority has the balls to admit they aren't always in the right. Sounds like you are the 'consensus' type of manager. I used to work fir someone like that, you could do far worse :p As you say it is not perfect, but what is these days?
AmandaP said…
I am not in game development, but I think that sounds like a reasonable approach regardless of your industry. Even non-creative types respond better to having a clearer picture of goals and objectives.
Anonymous said…
The problem is that you can't make someone take ownership. That's something they have to do themselves. The best you can do as a manager is to create an atmosphere where taking ownership is encouraged and rewarded.

Also, one of the challenges I've had when leading teams is that not everyone responds the same way to the same motivation. I had one guy who was really insecure. When I asked him to take a part of the project and own the solution he was very tentative. I had to keep encouraging him that I believed he could do it and that he had my full support.

Another member of the team felt like that sort of encouragement was condescending. He wanted to be challenged. He did his best work when he was showing me that I was wrong when I said he couldn't do something.

The differences in people is one of the things that it seems like many managers never fully understand.

Honestly, some of my career highlights have been when I was working with a junior member of the team and managed to motivate them to accomplish something they hadn't done before. I tend to get a lot of joy out of seeing them overcome obstacles and grow personally and professionally through the process.

When it comes to the soul of the game, I think it's one thing that I have an issue with in regards to the so called "social games" like Zynga's titles. I can't imagine working there and basically creating the same game with a different skin over and over again. While the games are obviously successful (several of my family members are "addicted" to them), I just can't imagine getting excited enough about a project like that to be able to put my heart and soul into my work.