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Keeping your team on the same page, the Insomniac way Exclusive
Keeping your team on the same page, the Insomniac way
September 6, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

September 6, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Design, Production, Exclusive

The larger your team is, the more opinions there are, and the more difficult it is to make sure that everyone is sharing a vision and heading in the same direction.

That's true in pretty much any creative endeavor, but according to Insomniac founder and CEO Ted Price, it is the most important role for someone leading a game development studio.

We sat down with Price to see how creative consensus is maintained at the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developer, and how being at the top and having everyone listen to you can sometimes be dangerous for your project.

You've been running Insomniac for over 18 years now. What have you learned about keeping a team on the same page?

We've learned that it's not about the process, but it's about the people. And each person on the team has different motivations and different pressure points. And what we try to do is make sure that whatever our approach is, it works for the individuals on the team.

As an example, I was asked today about what methodology we use. And I know that the person asking the question was asking if we use Agile or Scrum. I wanted to point out that I think we at Insomniac, the lesson we've learned over the years is to be "agile" in the most base form of the word, and not subscribe to any particular methodology. We need to evolve with our teams, and that in itself is a creative endeavor, in that it's as creative a challenge as building a game when it comes to building consensus among a team. It takes different approaches.

Most of the time, though, we can rely on a few core principles. One is to figure out that one thing which makes our games stand out, and make sure that the team understands that all of our ideas need to support that one idea. We've acknowledged this at Insomniac. We aren't consistently successful at applying it. But as long as everyone is reminded frequently that it's important to stay true to that one thing that the game does best, it's much easier to build consensus without people's feelings being hurt if their idea isn't used in the game.

How do you keep everyone reminded about that core goal?

We've learned to do that. We don't do that consistently, but we know that is the right answer. And it's not exclusive to Insomniac. I think most developers take that approach, and they use different vernacular to describe what it is that they're doing, whether it's using an X statement or a log line or a theming statement.

But it comes down to using one or two sentences to describe what is most important about that game from a gameplay perspective. And if you can build support on the team around that and ensure that your team buys into that particular vision, then you have a great chance of staying on track with what you're building.

How do you redirect people who have strayed away from that core?

One of the best ways to I think buy into an idea that might not be working out is to try it in-game. If the idea has some connection to that one core innovation that the game is focused on, then, sure. Give it a shot! And if it's fun, fantastic. Maybe it fits. If it isn't fun, then at least we tried it, and we move on.

Obviously if we're in the last part of the game's production and there's a very little amount of time left, adding features is a killer. You simply can't do it. But during preproduction, that's the time for prototyping. During production there will always be great ideas coming up, and as long as they adhere to that one thing that a game does better than any other game, then we try to make time.

We try to be efficient about getting that prototype up and working, and we try not to get distracted by adding lots of bells and whistles until we know that that core idea in its base form is actually fun.

Have you ever been guilty of trying to stick an idea in yourself, even if the rest of the team wasn't on board?

Hell yeah. Yeah, I have. And it was a hard lesson I learned along the way. I think a big failure on my part has been asking for features that I believe were important for the game near the end. And certainly on our earlier games, in the earlier Ratchets I would do that, and what we ended up with was a lot of additional stress thanks to me. Now I understand a lot better that's just a killer for all of us.

Is there more of a danger being on the top?

Yes there is. Because when you're at the top, if you're in charge of the team or the lead artist, the lead designer, if you say something, it's more likely that people will try it without questioning you. And what we try to build at Insomniac is the opportunity to ask why. "I agree with this idea," for example, "but I just want to ask why do you want to put it in now? Because here are the ramifications." That's the kind of discussion that I personally love to see happening. It means that we're being thoughtful, and not reactive to suggestions or great ideas.

Do you ever find that you express an idea of yours, and it's interpreted as "Well, Ted wants this"?

All the time. And that's something that I have to be particularly careful about, because if I walk by a group of people talking about weapons and I say "Oh, it would be really cool if we added one more upgrade to that weapon," then suddenly it's in the game. What I meant was that I think this is a good idea and maybe we should try it, but what people hear is, "Ted said do it, so do it." And that is a hard lesson I learned early on, when our department heads and leads were coming to me and saying, will you please shut up?

Is that a lesson you've actually learned now? That seems like a difficult thing to break away from, if you're enthusiastic about a project.

I stop myself now. Most of the time. It's hard for me not to be excited about an idea. I love being a creator, it's why I'm in games in the first place. So when I have something that I think needs to be shared, I will be vocal about it. Or, I used to be. Now, I'm much more careful about suggesting something.

And if I do suggest something, I make sure that the project manager understands that we have time to prototype it, I make sure that people are brought into it. And I try to build consensus. So it's not just me, the lone voice in the woods, saying "this is awesome" while everyone else thinks I'm an idiot. That's not the place I want to be. I want to help make this game better, and build it around that core idea.

During your keynote speech at PAX, you expressed that you have a fear of looking stupid with your ideas.

I do. I've gotten mostly over it. And that really has happened over the last few years, just probably the last three years. Now I'm a lot more self-confident. I don't know what happened three years ago, but I just kind of crossed some sort of boundary. And now I don't mind if someone tells me I'm an idiot to my face for suggesting part. I've basically conquered it. There are things that I will still hold back on, but that tends to me more about not wanting to take production off track.

Any other tips for maintaining consensus among your team?

It all comes back to personalities on teams. You have people who are all great at doing different things, and if you are a leader of a team, one of your most important jobs is to figure out where they can be most effective. If you do have consensus builders, then make sure they're in a position where they can build consensus. If you have people who are the idea guys, make sure they have an opportunity to speak up and be heard, and let people respond to them.

That's the wonderful thing about creative teams: there is no black and white. It's almost a feeling thing.

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Ron Dippold
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'the person asking the question was asking if we use Agile or Scrum. I wanted to point out that I think we at Insomniac, the lesson we've learned over the years is to be "agile" in the most base form of the word, and not subscribe to any particular methodology.'

I'm sure this was hard won wisdom as well. Anyone pushing hardcore Scrum, or gawd forbid ExxXtreme Programming, seems to be an incompetent trying to cover up their lack of rigor with rules excusing it. Agile in general is absolutely the way to go, especially in the games industry where 'fun' isn't quantifiable without trying the product constantly. But if you want to spend your days just spinning at high speed, sure, Kent Beck totally has your back, but we fired those methodology fundamentalists because their productivity was atrociously bad (sometimes negative!). It sounds good, so you give it a shot, then oh god. You just can't beat hiring good people - no methodology can patch over that.

Also, very strong agreement on the off cuff remarks by CEOs - I've certainly been on projects that derail because a manager took one of the owners' idle questions as a Thou Shalt. You have to realize that non-technical managers are very bad at filtering those unless you make it tediously clear. BUT if you make it clear that it's just a thought, we've had some brilliant ideas from savvy execs. You just need to sort them from the rest.

Stepping back, I've seen some comments on this week's Ted Price posts that 'oh, this is obvious', but if only it were. I'd work for Ted based on what he's said. (Though if I were Ted, I wouldn't hire me - not nearly enough experience with the very special hell of Cell architecture).

Sean Scarfo
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As a new person to development in general, can you describe simply how Agile functions. From what I understand its plan, interact, examine issue, interact, repeat.

I tried looking on Wiki and my googlefoo isn't what it seems to be.

Clinton Keith
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Agreed. One of the biggest dysfunctions I see with teams & Scrum is their focus on following the "rules by the book" rather than adopting the mindset.

Justin Lynch
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Excellent points! I've quickly learned that you always need to adjust your development style to your team's strengths. Actually right now we completely got rid of estimated hours which is removing a big component of Scrum but the team has actually been more productive since then.

The biggest reason was that it took a lot of time to estimate the hours, record them, and update them. Plus the team didn't feel pressured by getting tasks done within a certain hour timeframe and instead were focused on getting all their tasks done by the end of the sprint.

Brian Stabile
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"Anyone pushing hardcore Scrum, or gawd forbid ExxXtreme Programming, seems to be an incompetent trying to cover up their lack of rigor with rules excusing it."

You won't believe how many times I've run into this... Worked on a 5 person team (two coders, two artists, and a 'manager' who didn't know the first thing about video games). There was one coder assigned to each game, and yet we still had to do multiple 'Scrum-ins', and weekly meetings, all actually distracting us from getting our jobs done, because our manager wanted to make it seem as if she was in control of everything unnecessarily.

Clinton Keith
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Sounds like "cargo cult" Scrum.