"Hi. I'm Robin. I'm an extensionholic," Tiny Glitch Producer and former thatgamecompany employee Robin Hunicke admitted to her GDC Europe audience on Tuesday.
Aside from relating the rigorous three-year ordeal that led to the eventual publication of thatgamecompany's much-loved Journey, Hunicke also provided some relevant and almost startlingly frank takeaways from their experience building the game.
"We were addicted to 'just in time' extensions." Hunicke said. "The fact of the matter is we signed an unrealistic schedule believing, in our heart of hearts, it would probably be extended later, and we paid for that stress in the entire project."
"We were poor at extracting realistic individual estimations and people failed to confront the true costs of 'just in time' changes to the game. Managing a task list is a drag and if you're used to working on a team with 3 to 5 people, the amount of communication you need to do to keep designers and artists motivated and on the same page with you is really frustrating - it can feel like a straightjacket."
She went on to warn that, as teams grow in size, there is a clear and present danger of miscommunicating and getting off-course. "Always, always talk to each other. It doesn't matter if you're two hundred people or ten - the risk is always great."
Greed was another mistake. "We had eyes that were much bigger than our stomachs. While we were iterating, there were many ideas that we chucked. They just didn't seem right. Being attached to those features and ideas but being unwilling to expand the team or the process in ways that made them feasible in a realistic period of time was very costly to us."
"Not only did it wear down individual people on the team who felt the burden of being pressured to perform way more than they actually could, it eroded trust in the creative leadership of the game because it sounded crazy. The best way to avoid is to let some of your ideas, some of your best ideas, to not be implemented on THIS project."
According to Hunicke, another mistake had been the 'anxiety train'. "We were really hard on each other."
She explained that they had given in to internal, unexpressed anxieties. "When you work on high pressure projects, you're bound to get into situations where you are angry and frustrated at the people you work with and it's impossible to hide that but it's often really difficult to confront it and process it in a way that gets resolved."
Though hard to deal with, Hunicke observed that when such issues go unaddressed, they have a tendency to make appearances at inappropriate situations like design meetings where everyone is trying to be supportive of each other instead.
Lastly, Hunicke cited what she called the 'culture war' as their final hindrance. "There were definitely two distinct types of people on that project - people who really needed to work constantly to get a sense of progress, who felt the weight of each day, and people who needed ample time away from the stress and the pressures of the office so as to be able to relax and clear their mind to be able to feel creative about the work we're doing."
"You could argue that running this project to the extreme end, that the team was finally forced to deal with the misalignment in the culture, which eventually made it possible to have fresh starts for the people who founded the company.
"But it is hard for me not to imagine an alternate universe where, through improved communication, key contributors avoided or overcame personal grudges that slowed the production down and, instead, created an ample amount of trust and ownership among their peers."
Gamasutra is in Cologne, Germany this week covering GDC Europe. For more GDC Europe coverage, visit our official event page. (UBM TechWeb is parent to both Gamasutra and GDC events.)