Talking about it

“I’m very open minded, and I will not tolerate anybody thinking otherwise.” – Someone on the internet

I have to make a confession: I spend too much time talking about what goes wrong in the business of video games.

I’ve talked about Zynga’s demise. I’ve talked about the ecosystem of sharks and volunteers. I’ve mentioned the inability of some teams to apply lessons from game design to their own work environment. There’s probably something therapeutic about voicing one’s frustrations and shifting the discourse towards solutions but the real reason why I do this is to help others who go through a tough time in this industry. I would like them to understand that they are not alone and they are not stuck.

But what I want to talk about is something odd. In my experience, teams in different places and at different times fail for the same simple reason.

Of course, mistakes are a part of life and like it or not, we all have to accept their inevitability. Mistakes that happen over and over again, on the other hand, are a source of frustration that would make the Dalai Lama want strangle a red panda. For this reason, I’d like to share my thoughts on this common thread I’ve observed.

But first, a word about Julius Cesar.

The centurions’ table

I don’t think anyone doubts Julius Cesar’s expertise at leading large groups of men. He took immense risks in his career and died having become the most powerful man the roman republic had ever seen, and possibly the most powerful man the western world had ever witnessed. Of course, he is also considered one of the greatest military leaders ever.

When Cesar and his army went on a campaign, they built wooden forts in which they slept and ate. And when the time to eat would come, Cesar could sit and eat with members of the Roman nobility at his table and work on his political advancement. But instead, he would eat at the centurions’ table.

The centurions were the lowest officers in the Roman army. Each led roughly 100 legionaries (thus the name) in their training and on the battlefield. They were picked among the foot soldiers for their merit, not for their status in society. Why would Cesar spend most, if not all meals on the road with them? Together, they knew every single fighting man in the legions and during battles, they would actually stand on the front lines.  They understood the battle plans but they also witnessed how they translated into the reality of man-to-man combat. By spending time with them, of course Cesar would appear like a man of the people, furthering his political image, but more importantly, he also learned about the reality of the frontline, the morale of the troops, and the effectiveness of his fighting men.

Because after all, the best battle plan isn’t worth much if it’s performed by poorly trained, demoralized, poorly led soldiers trying something for the first time. On the other hand, a strategy that uses your army’s strengths effectively is likely to enjoy great success. Cesar understood this, so he arranged to be there when first line veterans were sharing stories, venting, bragging, and bonding.

Cesar, Pullo, Vorenus

Cesar, legionnaire Pullo and Centurion Vorenus, as depicted in the HBO series Rome

Back to 2013

On large video game productions, as with most of society, the roles of decision-making and decision-carrying are split in two and given to specialized individuals. The decision-makers – leads, directors and executives – need to understand what happens when their decisions hit the reality of production. They also need to make decisions that rely upon the strengths at their disposal, in the form of talented developers, existing technology and other assets.

Like the brain controlling the body based on the inputs received from the senses, the brain of a team needs inputs, both from within the system and from the outside world. Unfortunately, it is much too common for the people in charge to silence these inputs, usually preferring the comfort of mutual reassurance between higher-ups.

In my experience, what hurts projects the most is the absence of upwards communication within the team. The narrative of failed projects is exactly the opposite of Cesar sitting to eat with with his centurions.

One form of feedback comes from players. It’s called playtesting and it is now a well-documented and accepted practice in our industry. I can’t stress the importance of playtesting enough but I don’t feel like I need to explain its necessity in 2013.

However, I don’t feel like feedback that comes from the team itself is as widely accepted as playtesting. What Julius Cesar understood over 2000 years ago is still ignored by too many today.

Team feedback, where is it?

It’s almost impossible to overestimate the value of team feedback. This type of upwards communication serves two purposes: Avoiding unforeseen problems and identifying new opportunities.

Every team-wide decision will have ripple effects and there is always a small but real chance that one of these effects will be to render a feature impossible to ship as planned, maybe even impossible to ship at all. These mistakes are part of the process because a large-scale game is such a complex and ambitious endeavour that no one can be expected to understand everything at all times. But when a team provides clear and timely feedback, these situations get spotted and acted upon sooner than later, and everybody gradually gets better at avoiding them altogether.

The same is true for opportunities. Sometimes, a tiny change in the design can cause a feature to be delivered sooner and/or better than expected. Furthermore, some features may turn out to be surprisingly deep and fun. Shifting the focus towards these features is likely to result in a more enjoyable gaming experience in the end. But first, someone in charge has to accept to make this shift. How is this going to happen if the relevant information never reaches them, or if they chose to ignore it?

The reality is that no one can understand the navmesh better than the navmesh coder, or the mission scripting better than a mission scripter. The same goes for textures, animation tools, physics simulations, and every feature out there with at least one dedicated specialist. It’s your choice as a leader: Either you can rely upon the expertise of these people, or you can ignore it.

Donkey kong

The reasons why a person in a position of power would chose to ignore the information coming up from below are both pretty easy to understand and pretty damn demoralizing to think about.

cant_hear

First, a superior may refuse to acknowledge that a subordinate may understand anything better him or her. To the more insecure among us, doing so could imply that the superior could happen to be a lesser individual than the subordinate. This doesn’t make much sense if you think about it more than 10 seconds. It’s like a hospital administrator insisting that he would make a better neurosurgeon than his best neurosurgeon, same for physiotherapist, oncologist, proctologist. Yet, it happens in many professional and technical environments.

Then there is one word I used earlier: Mistake. Way too many people with responsibilities seem keen on maintaining the illusion that they can never make one. I could write another long-ass post detailing how mistakes are a part of creative work and an encouraging sign that you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. But instead, I just want to say what I think about those who try to deny or hide their mistakes: It’s time to grow up.

Whether they are refusing to acknowledge someone’s expertise or suppressing one’s own mistakes, we see people in a position of power who seem to worry more about their perceived merit – and maybe even their perceived glory – than the result of the team’s efforts. My opinion on this has something to do with the fact that we are social primates. When put inside a hierarchy, I believe that the part of our brain devoted to basic, competitive social instincts kicks into high gear, sometimes overpowering the part devoted to rational thought. If you want to see the gorilla that lurks inside every human, grab a bunch of insecure people and place them in positions of power. This is likely to turn them into versions of Donkey Kong, hurling barrels at plumbers.

Acquired vs innate

The defense against destructive instincts is learning. You can learn skills but you can also learn attitudes, something HR people call “soft skills” (a term I find ill-chosen but that’s another story). It’s a great thing that us humans can learn new behaviors that directly contradict our instincts. Otherwise, we’d still be too busy spearing each other in the gut to make video games about … spearing each other in the gut. You can learn how to debate, how to express disagreement, how to make suggestions in a friendly way. You can also learn to listen to these debates, disagreements, and suggestions with an open ear and an open mind. And leaders can learn to not feel threatened by other people’s smarts and skills.

However, we often limit the training of junior designers to “hard” skills. When they finally land their first job, their debating experience may be largely limited to accusing each other of homosexuality over the internet and making references to Hitler. And when they get good enough at their core skills, or when a lead position desperately needs to be filled, we sometimes put these people in charge of others just like them, again without much “soft skills” training.

Brains!

The most important resource at the disposal of a lead is not the rendering engine, the server farm, or the time left on the schedule. It’s not the license or the available tools either. It’s the brains of the people they work with. If you have 10 leads on a team of 100, these 1o leads have an important decision to make: Will they use the other 90 brains or will they silence them?

I’ll let you guess which pick I think is the best. I don’t mind if you disagree with me, just as long as you do so in a civilized manner.

Soon, on exLudis

A post on the best practices to gather this much needed feedback from the team.