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The Yin and Yang of Game Projects
by Samuel Rantaeskola on 09/11/13 09:18:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

(this post can also be found at http://www.hansoft.com/expertblog/the-yin-and-yang-of-game-projects/)

Yin and yang

There are countless stories about never ending projects, about games that started out with a great vision but failed to deliver. The end product is a rushed, pale shadow of the grandiose masterpiece it was meant to be.

The post mortems of these projects are always an interesting read; usually there are countless reasons for why the project never turned out as intended. One thing that often doesn’t surface is the power balance between fun and done. 

This will be my first post on a topic that are covered in numerous books within management literature, namely how to structure an organization. I have no intention to come out as an expert on the topic, but merely would like to share my experiences and views on how to organize a game studio.

“Fun and done” was a term we used a lot at my previous employer, when we were talking about a game project. For us, each aspect was equally important. Without fun, no one will appreciate the game. Without done, no one will experience it. Our project organization reflected this fact by putting the producer and game director at the same level and there was no one above them in the project. Any conflicts around production or creative direction had to be resolved between the both, and each one had equal power. They were the Yin and Yang of the project, two equal forces fighting for opposite purposes.

This kind of relationship between the producer and the game director requires a well-functioning chemistry. The pairing of these two individuals needs to be thought through and tested to ensure they can form a unit that can function and resolve internal conflicts without too much friction. On top of that, both needs to be of similar strength personality wise, if one is significantly stronger the project will topple over in their direction.

The power balance between these roles is not constant, simplified it looks like this through a project:

Power balance

At the beginning of the project, creativity should drive most of the decisions; you are still discovering what will make the game fun.

As the game hits the middle of production the producer’s decisions should have about equal power as the game director.

The final day before submission the producer calls almost all the shots, getting it done is all we care about.

 

One thought that might spring to mind is; “Why not just have one person that cares about both aspects and shifts focus from fun to done throughout the project?”  Personally I do not think it will work very well for several reasons:

  1. People that have both skill sets equally balanced are rare. You want to pair strong “get-it-done”-personalities with strong “make-it-fun”-types.
  2. The internal fight between fun and done will be too much to bear for one person, and it is also likely that one of the sides will win too many battles.
  3. The friction between the two can lead to solutions that are hard to figure out alone.

When structuring your studio organization you want to reflect this relationship as well. I do not think it is a very good idea to set up your organization so that either side reports to the other. An organization might think that they are signaling focus on creativity by having the producers reporting to the game directors. How will that affect the producer’s decisions? Vice versa, how will creativity be affected if the game director is reporting to the producer?

My background is the producer role at an independent developer that worked on publisher funded AAA console titles. I would love to hear your opinions on my thoughts, and also how it might work in other environments:

  • Would it work at a publisher-owned developer?
  • Would this kind of relationship make sense in a title with cyclic releases?
  • Does it make sense if you are self-financed?
  • When should a single person be at the top of a project?
  • Do you need an arbitrator in the relationship?

In the case discussed above, it is a good idea to reflect the project organization in the reporting structures. In my next post I will take a look at where this is not the case.


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Comments


Laura Bularca
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Samuel, thank you for starting such a topic. I agree with the idea of the producer and the game director having equally powerful roles and I also agree with the balance of decisional power across the project lifetime, when in the beginning it is full creative mode and in the end, the focus is on finishing features even if it means saying no to the creative side. I think that no one person can fill both roles, and that we need a producer and a game director who have a good working chemistry.

However, in my experience across three international game studios, I have never seen such a decisional power distribution or balance. Instead, the decisional power always shifts towards the creative heads, and the producer is seen as the whip that get things done, sometimes (and unfortunately oftentimes) regardless of the plan, deadline or of how much crunch the team needs to do to get everything, even the latest newest ideas, in. I still hold on to the hope that my experience is limited and that the truth is, in other studios this balance is accomplished to a bigger degree.

To respond to your questions:
Would it work at a publisher-owned developer?
Absolutely. I can see no difference between indie, publisher controlled or publisher owned studios, because the only thing that matters is the game itself and its delivery to its fans, the players. The balance between time, budget and quality should be carefully designed and decided in the beginning of the project, and during the pre-production phase we should be able to settle on core features and a good deadline when the game director and producer paths cross.


Would this kind of relationship make sense in a title with cyclic releases?
It depends on the kind of cyclic releases. If it is a content driven release then I would say that creativity has a lesser impact than planning (getting things done) so that crossroad would probably happen sometimes earlier in the cyclic release roadmap. If instead the focus of that cyclic release is on new or heavily extended functionality and gameplay, then I see no difference between a cyclic release and a stand alone project.


Does it make sense if you are self-financed?
Yes. I would say it actually makes much more sense in this case, because it means you are extremely limited and cannot just through money at a feature until you get the desired quality. But I noticed that self financed teams make the grave mistake of not associating time with money. And this is why we often see extremely nice indie game promises that are delivered extremely late or not at all, unfortunately. It is a pity because as a gamer, I think I am disadvantaged :) I want good games to play, and to have them, they kinda need to be finished sometime!


When should a single person be at the top of a project?
I think there should never be a single person at the top of a project if this is at all possible. In small teams and for small projects, the game director and producer responsibilities should be shared. So even if all members have primary roles of art or code, one should still have the responsibility of creative decisions and one should still be focused on planning and getting things done.


Do you need an arbitrator in the relationship?
Well, I personally believe that one should be extremely careful when recruiting or naming people in these roles, and make it very clear from the start to both persons and to the entire team what it is expected from the game director and producer. I never noticed a lot of attention given to chemistry when recruiting in general, because the attention is more focused on tech skills and demonstrable CV experience. But the chemistry is the show stopper for communication and I strongly believe that good communication is key to getting a project done in time and with very good quality. So in a perfect world, this relationship should not need an arbitrator. However we do not live in a perfect world, so the arbitrator of this relationship should be the person(s) whose money are actually spent on the project. Because nothing comes for free, especially new shiny creative ideas pushed in a game one month before launch.

I am looking forward for your next posts on this topic, and for the responses here!

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Laura,

I have seen instances where the power balance is equal and that seems like healthy environments. But commonly, as you point out, the balance is usually tilted to the creative side. It does make sense, since in the end a fun product is essential. However, I think it hasn't been properly thought through when building such structures as creativity is often at is best when it has boundaries.

Florian Garcia
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I'm experiencing the opposite scenario where the producers are at the top of the food chain ordering concept pitch like it's McDonald's and calling on and off on the features they judge worthy or not.
As you can expect, it rarely goes anywhere.

John Trauger
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...and then QA walks in and says "STOP!!!" When Producer and Director both want to ship. :)


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