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The authority of team leader and the fail of democracy
by Arseniy Shved on 03/25/13 04:16:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Don’t design by committee. Do not treat the design work as a democratic process in which each person’s opinion has equal value (“design by committee”). One person must have the authority to make final decisions, and the others must acknowledge this person’s authority.”

Ernest Adams, “Fundamentals of Game Design

 “Programmers always try to change the task to an easier one. Do not let that happen. ”

My boss, on one of my first day at work.

Hello everyone!

Last time I was talking about the problems one could face, trying to assemble a team and start developing a game. This time I’m going to discuss one of the major difficulties I’ve encountered while actually developing a game.

But first I should provide some background to the events I’m about to describe.

I’m 26 right now. I have been playing games since 6 but for a long time I did not think that I would end up in gamedev. Not that I did not want to, it just did not occur to me. In late 2011 however I have finally came to understanding that it’s the only one thing I actually might enjoy doing.

I’ve started from extensive internet search (sloperama.com was especially helpful). I sent couple of resumes, received several test tasks and eventually got rejected. Totally predictable but a bit painful. Soon I’ve found a job in a large Russian gaming magazine Igromania.

3 months later I finally entered the game designer club as I got a job in a social gamedev company. I clearly stated that I had no prior game design experience, but I guess I was at least not as bad as others, who applied as well. I was the only one game designer in a 20+ person company (now there are more then 40).

Just knowing about this effect could benefit many people.
But most of us are incredibly ignorant about our ignorance.

I was assigned to 3 already released games. I was to suggest ways to improve them. I would pinpoint a problem and suggest several ways to solve it, usually trying to point out pros and cons of various solutions. Then I would discuss it with my boss and he would decide what to do. It was a dream come true, only better – maximum creativity and no responsibility whatsoever.

One month later I was assigned to write a concept for a new project. My boss came to me and said: “We want to make a new game. It must be a single-player side-scrolling beat’em up for social networks. You can do whatever you want, but we already have the interface. We need you to write a concept and a story. You will be working with an artist and a programmer. Oh, it has got to be about Japan and there has got to be a woman.

It was a strange task. Never in my life could I imagine that the interface could be developed for a game without a concept, based only on a vague “beat’em up” definition. But it was great as well – after all I got to start creating a new game from scratch. I still had only one, maybe two months of experience, so I ended up influenced by a programmer – we had sufficiently similar interests to easily communicate, but different enough not to agree on everything, which lead to very productive arguments. He was working like 1 year longer than me, so I listened carefully to his ideas and usually chose his ones over mine. Not blindly of course.

The original theme of the game was pseudo-historical steam-punk in
Japan. Looks a bit like Assassin's creed, though...

The working protocol almost stayed the same –the better part of the core mechanics I would write on my own (still usually suggesting several variants). Some things I would discuss with the programmer and usually changed some parts of the document. The story was totally my domain, and it was only guided by the interface style (weird, right?) and the thesis about Japan. And my boss would decide what to do.

It was the most fun I could have. And our small team of 3 was really productive. Until the artist decided to quit. Not long before that my bosses decided that they are uncomfortable with real names of places and historical characters so some changes were to be made about the story. A new artist joined the team as well. She was unable to maintain the dark pseudo-historical steam-punk style, so the whole visual part had to be redesigned. My vision totally differed from hers.  I was designing a dark and brutal game with blood and sticky feeling of bad things happening no matter what. She was the opposite. She was the one who was working on 3 other titles and her word had more weight.

Moriarty knows how to make smart decisions. He also knows how
to make people do as he wants. I might have had a crown but
had no authority and power.

Shortly after that I was made the leader of the project. So every single aspect of that game became my personal responsibility. But I still could not enforce my vision to be executed. Fuck. Every single letter in the script was contradicting to a gay cowboy dude she drew. Luckily she got help from a newly hired artist, who was like drawing straight from my mind. I asked him to draw one boss-character and animate him. This boss was so much cooler then the main cowboy-character, and only blind could not see that her style did not match the task at hand (which I tried to communicate to boss several times, but only this time did a make a stand and finally got what I wanted).

She left the project and only 3 of us remained. Unfortunately, along the way we appeared in a position where the visual style again dictated the concept, so I had to rewrite the whole goddamn story again and rethink the style. The carousel of artists turned into a 3 month-worth setback as we had to start work on visuals from scratch. Again. If I took a stand earlier the loss would be at least 1 month less. Staying true to what you believe is crucial. Unfortunately for me I rarely did so…

As I said – before I got promoted, boss was the one who was making decisions. Sometimes he liked my ideas better, sometimes he preferred programmer’s ones. At first it seemed like nothing have changed: I still discussed stuff with programmer and we still argued. But now it was my job to choose from several options. And, like my boss, I sometimes preferred my ideas and sometimes not.

It’s really hard to make an unbiased evaluation of ideas and to compare them.

First of all it’s natural for people to value something that belongs to them, over something that belongs to other people.  A good example of this concept is shown in a short YouTube clip by Dan Ariely. He discusses this quirk more extensively in his book “Predictably irrational”. It’s a good read.

So for example if my idea is in its outcome it absolutely identical to your idea, it’s hard for us to see it this way. Well theoretically. I’m not a psychologist.

The other feature of our brain is that we easier see other mistakes, then our own. “We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman).

So for example if my idea has a flaw, and my your idea has an identical flaw, I feel like your flaw is worse.

This situation is tough on itself but it actually gets worse.

So, I am aware if the biases which can affect my judgment. Now I can resist them. But my opponent does not give a shit about it. It goes like this:

My Idea is a “5” and his idea is a “5”. If I knew nothing about human brain I would evaluate my Idea as a “10” and his idea as a “1”. And that is what my opponent does. So we both theoretically push our idea with the force of a “10” and criticize other’s ideas as “1”. The more stubborn one wins.

But I am aware of the biases. So I try to be objective. I probably end up evaluating my “5” as a “7” and his “5” as a “3”. But he still thinks he has a “10” and I have a ”1”. Who will push harder, how do you think? I eventually tried to explain the biases, but it only made things worse. People do not like smart asses.

I wish I had the persuasive abilities of this brutal dude...

And it goes worse. So I sometimes think that his ideas are actually better than mine. Which in my book is great for me, him, team and project. But he thinks that I am weak and if applied enough pressure I will give up. So the arguments become less and less productive and a lot longer.

It’s bad on itself – the productivity of the arguments decreased as well as the actual time on writing code. But it made the chemistry of the team bad. I started to think of him as of a jerk, and I am pretty sure the feeling was mutual.

Now, you probably have heard of the halo effect (it has got nothing to do with the game. Well maybe it has, the title is so hyped…). The halo effect or halo error is a cognitive bias in which one's judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one's overall impression of him or her.

In short it means that if I like how the candidate looks and talks, I expect him to be a man of honor and I believe he will be a good president, even if I have no clue what his political or moral values are. Or if I’m pissed at my coworker I might end up thinking that all his ideas suck. Or he will think this way about me. And it cannot be good.

Our disagreements were getting out of hand.  There were 3 people in our team. So we started to vote. The most ridiculous thing is that I think of myself as a man of honor, so if we vote, I tend to obey the collective decision. But it was not the case with him (or, it’s just the availability bias talking). If he was outvoted he would continue to argue. At that point of time I would sometimes lose my temper and yell at him (not proud of it) stuff like “I’m in fucken charge here, shut the fuck up and do what I say for fuck’s sake”. Not a good idea. Well yes, he would sometimes do as I said, but not for long. And it was bad for my self-respect, and I’m sure the others began to think less of me. I know I did.

Knowing how brain works can sometimes be really helpful. But I still
have no idea what to do if someone refuses to listen to reason?
How to compare my ideas versus other's? Or how to be a person
you believe you are?

The basic idea behind the arguments, in theory, was simple – a bunch of people discuss several ideas, come to a consensus. They make decisions and they act accordingly. It was a serious surprise for me when I found out that several of the decisions we’ve made were executed not the way I’ve suggested (and we settled on this one), but the way he wanted to. Now I had to double check every detail to make sure that he did not do things which counteracted my decisions.

It was a norm for me to ask him to do A, and he would say that he will do B and we’ll see how it works. It was better than searching for stuff he’d do his way. At least I knew what was going on.

I began to fear every single feature that had to be implemented. I would spend hours trying to force myself to start working on a feature. I was second guessing every minor decision. It’s not that I have forgotten all the game design principles, it was the fear of the upcoming unavoidable at least 2-hour long arguments.

It had, of course, obvious counterproductive effects. Lengthy arguments tend to come down to tiniest irrelevant details and blow them out of proportion (you can read more about this in Dan Ariely’s “Predictably irrational” or Jamie Madigan’s “Psychology of games” blog) and it makes everyone involved to forget about the big picture, the general direction or even what for is this feature needed. It’s like you want to milk a cow but during an argument comes up a thesis that a horse is more user-friendly and you end up building a chariot.

But as bad as it was, it still could go worse and it did. He began to alter the story – the only one thing he did not care about before. I mean what the fuck? Folks from other projects would come to me so that I wrote them texts, because they knew I was the man to ask. I did not have to help them – I was not working on their project, and had enough on my plate, but I did help them. And everyone knew that I could write in different styles and I could write long or short, I could make the text funny, brutal, creepy or anything they needed ( my Russian is much better than English, but I hope to change it with practice). And the only person who found my texts bad was actually supposed to be subordinate to me.

If you're in the same room with Joker - you are in trouble. If he
points a gun at you - it's time to pray. But if i had a choice - put myself
into the situation I've experiensed or in front of that barrel, I'd
choose the latter. Joker is fun after all, and Batman might save me...

It kept going like this for 8 or 9 months. We actually released the game. Despite the fact that it was half ready (hey, only 3 people were working on it for 8 months, 3 of them (months, not people) were lost in the very beginning) I am really proud of the outcome, considering... We actually had much more mechanics, but we did not have enough visual content like main character’s animation, which is not a good thing for a brawler.

It was not received very well, but at least we tried to pull out something that no one in Russian social gaming space tried to – develop a real time beat’em up with a deep skill system and real-time player interaction. Could it be better? Of course. Could it be worse? Yes, it could.

Maybe I should have preferred more of my decisions from the beginning, or maybe we would be better off with his ideas. Or maybe the best outcome would be if we switched all his ideas for mine and vice versa. But most probably it’s something else. In the end it were my decisions, no matter who suggested the ideas behind them. And my bad decisions led to a not so good game.

I feel like in school again, when my mom thought me not to copy others, but to make my own decision. And I lived by that code until last year. The simple fact, which I knew from school, remains true. It sucks to make mistakes. But it sucks even more to make mistakes of other people.

I still think that the best features of the game were born out of our discussions. But when the discussion is over, the decision is made, the whole team has to commit to it. Is it too much to ask?

Broken pieces still can be put together.

2 weeks ago the project was closed till better times come. Our small team exists no more – but we all continue to work on other games, and I hope on ourselves. I do.

As I continue working in that company, I still am trying to make my own game. Since my last post (and frankly a bit earlier) I’ve had some major progress there, so I might soon dedicate a post to it.

The last 8 month thought me 2 very important things, which you probably already know:

  • stay true to your own vision
  • be careful with the people you choose to work with

I hope you will not have to experience what I’ve had to experience, and I hope this post, though very long for such a simple message, will be useful to someone. Do not do my mistakes. Better do your own ones.

And we’ll see what happens next.

PS: More on how people act during arguments read in Jamie Madigan’s blogpost “The Psycology of Game of the Year Debates.” 

PPS: This post originally appeared on my personal blog here


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Comments


Curtiss Murphy
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I have two jobs. In my day job, I'm a game designer. And, in my night job, I develop apps, with my wife. Which sometimes means that I write a bunch of material that she then rips to shreds. It's a brutal, brutal process that usually leaves my ego in bloody tatters on the floor.

Or at least that's how it used to be. But, all of that changed when my wife and I began using a technique called, 'Yes ... And.' Before, our conversations used to go like this:

Me: "Look. I did A,B,C. I think they're cool!'
My wife: "You should do X, Y, Z.'

This is the traditional, 'Yes ... But' style. And, as we all know, the 'but' cancels everything before it. When she said, 'You should do X, Y, Z' what I hear is 'I hate everything you just said. I want you to start over and do it like this!" So, let's try it again, and this time, we'll use the 'Yes ... And' style.

Me: "Look. I did A,B,C. I think they're cool!'
My wife: "You know, I like the effect of A, B, C. That B segment is particularly neat, especially how it leads away from A. And the C is a strong way to end. AND, it could make it even stronger if we shrunk A by a tad and maybe make a minor change to B, to balance it out."

The difference appears subtle, and yet, it's worlds apart. What's more, it's one of those life changing techniques, that works even when I know she's doing it. It works because, 'Yes ... And' forces a partial compliment or agreement first! And it's not just words - it requires the speaker to actively find the positive in A, B, C, before ripping it to shreds or disagreeing. The 'And' is NOT a total contradiction of everything that came before, it's an addition/tweak (X, Y, Z), to what came before.

'Yes ... And' helps, even when the X,Y,Z are completely contradictory to A,B,C.

Good luck.

Michael Joseph
profile image
great advice.

afterall, diplomatic language can be thought of as an extension of the golden rule.

Arseniy Shved
profile image
Thanks.
If I had not read your comment, I would have perceived it (I sense a conundrum here =) ) as "dude, u have written 6 pages of crap, now listen to me". Now, with this technique applied, I tend to think you did not mean that my post entirely sucks. =)

Seriously, I was not aware of this, and I'm sure your advice will be really helpful.

Also I'd like to point out that first several months of my collaboration with said programmer were extremely productive. It might be a hindsight talking, but it occurs to me we usually used your technique without knowing (we could call it a "reasonable conversation" ). Now we both are working on another title and again can collaborate productively.

I can see 2 factors that played a role in our inability to come to a consensus:
1) we were both really engaged in the game we were making.
2) there was no a third party judge us

Jesse Tucker
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When you share an idea, you can see it clearly and many of the details are worked out. From the perspective of the other person, they are only getting as much as you've been able to explain or perhaps even less than that. This often leads to a "My idea is better" situation, where really it's closer to "I'm more comfortable with my idea" or "Your idea is very incomplete compared to mine."

A technique that sometimes helps me in these situations is for both people to pause at a point of disagreement and pretend the other person is right. Then you both have to ask yourselves "Why is the other person right, or at least why does the other person think they're right?"

It helps to stop thinking about the other person's idea in comparison to your own, and try to adopt their idea fully even for a moment. It helps you to develop the other person's idea in your head as fully as possible. Doing this can lead to a number of outcomes including exposing flaws in the idea, coming up with other ideas that build on your partner's idea (co-ownership, yay!), realizing the other person is right, or some other constructive outcome.

Of course, this technique only really helps if you both share a mutual trust and respect. It's easy for one person to try to grab the limelight when the other person is willing to empathize.
The mutual trust and respect appears to have broken down in your experience, but perhaps early on it would have helped keep things a lot more cohesive in your team.

Arseniy Shved
profile image
A technique that sometimes helps me in these situations is for both people to pause at a point of disagreement and pretend the other person is right. Then you both have to ask yourselves "Why is the other person right, or at least why does the other person think they're right?"

Indeed it is a great technique. And it works for me, individually. The problem is it requires both parties to participate, which was not the case.

As I said, first several months were incredibly productive, but eventually he became blind to all reasons. The fun part is that now we both work on another project. And we are both a bit less involved in it emotionally. And we are once again able to have those productive conversations.

Chris Clogg
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Good read; I wonder if it is a product of just being around someone that close for long enough? Or maybe at the start, things are easier, but as time goes on, you're forced to implement the tough/tedious details and then more arguments tend to come up? Well, I guess everyone's personalities are different too.

I would also argue that “Programmers always try to change the task to an easier one. Do not let that happen” is not always true. Some great features on projects that I've worked on came out of discussions that centered around the initially conceived task being difficult programmatically, and in the end led to a solution that looked/felt better, AND was easier to code.

Arseniy Shved
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I would also argue that “Programmers always try to change the task to an easier one. Do not let that happen” is not always true.

It's not. I guess it was just my boss was talking about his previous experience with similar attitude.

Bart Stewart
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I'm pretty sure I have worked with that programmer.

Or his friend -- the one who not only will not stop arguing every point, but who will become loudly and violently emotional because you have dared to question his competence.

Unfortunately, my experience has been similar to Arseniy's: some people are just wired that way, and there is no technique they can be persuaded to use that will encourage them to be more objective, or to acknowledge that their choices can be wrong, or even to respect the reality that you're the project lead with the responsibility for the overall technical effort and not just their piece of it.

About all I've ever been able to do with these people is 1) never let them make you angry, 2) be ready when they go behind your back to try to get their way, 3) cultivate positive relationships with everyone else (including your boss) so that when they criticize you, the others will at least hesitate before believing it, and 4) have friends who appreciate you because you will need to be reminded that your worth as a human being is much greater than what an argumentative co-worker says about you.

Also, this is exactly why I say that if I could have any one job for making a project successful, it would be to get to pick the team....

Jennifer Canada
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That definitely sounds like a pretty toxic working situation. As someone who's been in the industry for a while, one of the most crucial lessons for any game developer to learn is how to handle it when your idea looses. It sounds like you've done a great job accepting that and still learning how to keep up positive momentum. When I discussed this with my students, I like to use the example, for every single idea present in a finished video game, 10 - 100 ideas were dismissed, scrapped, or ignored. And everyone still had to keep working.

Practical advice: you can only change yourself, even if we all want to change others! I read a book that was life-changing for me on the subject of navigating situations of conflict and reaching amicable resolutions: 'Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High'. Too much ground to cover here, and the book does it better than I would anyway, so highly recommended and very relevant for the world of game development! Good luck to you!

Jennifer Canada
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__ edit: deleting reposts

Jennifer Canada
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