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Terrachanics is a turn-based puzzle game developed by a virtual team of volunteers for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It is designed to serve both as a recruitment and educational tool to attract STEM field students toward careers the DOE has to offer. The following is the fourth part in my four-part postmortem chronicling the unusual nature of the project and the steep challenges my team and I confronted along the way.
Previous entries talked about the organizing principles and unusual nature of the project, the challenges of the production cycle, and our design methodology in creating a serious game competitive in the broader mobile sector. This entry will be a bit more reflective, drawing on both my personal experiences as well as my own research into leadership theory, psychology, and depression.
Being Lead Designer and Producer for Terrachanics was the hardest thing I have ever done in the middle of the worst years of my life. Struggling with anxiety, depression, and a slew of personal and professional misfortunes, I was given unprecedented creative freedom, authority, and trust to create the kind of game I felt the world of serious games truly needed. It was an opportunity so exceptionally rare that I knew I had to put everything I had into it. Plenty of mistakes were made, and there were times when I wanted to give up, but stubbornness got the better of me, and after two and a half long years, against all odds, we finished our game.
When we completed development back in August 2014*, I was left with mixed feelings. On one hand, we had succeeded in completing the game in the face of tough challenges. On the other hand, I felt much of our problems could have been avoided if I had been a better leader. At the same time, I had spent the last few years trying to white-knuckle my way out of my depression, hoping that pouring my efforts into a big project would be enough to pull me from my rut and reverse the tides of my fortunes. It turned out completion of the project wasn’t nearly enough to make me feel well again.
*Bureaucratic hangups with the DOE have delayed the official release of the game. In the meantime, a video demo of our mechanics is available for those interested, and a PC demo edition of the game is available to play from my website.
Instead of rushing headlong into lining up my next game dev gig, I decided to step back and reflect on what went wrong and what value could be gleaned from it. In my research on leadership theory, and the nature of depression, I stumbled across many common threads that underlie both ideas, and has given me a much broader perspective on the nature of the human mind. I hope to share some of these ideas with you today.
This entry will be my attempt to connect the dots between a variety of topics, spanning the realms of leadership, psychology, philosophy, and marketing. While not directly related to game development in the strictest sense, I do think the lessons here are the most valuable this postmortem series has to offer. I hope it will help others create stronger, healthier relationships in their professional and personal lives.
One Recommendation: I link to many videos here. Given that we all have busy lives and time is a premium, I recommend setting youtube to hmtl5 mode and watching them at 1.5x speed. Surprisingly, I felt I absorbed more information this way.
I came on to the project thinking that I had all the skills and experience I needed for the task. Having been Lead Designer and Producer for several past student projects, I had developed a strong knack for analysis, crafting detailed project plans, and meticulously organized design documents. I further felt that the unique nature of the project would naturally give rise to a self-motivated and passionate team eager to prove their worth to the world. Therefore, I thought all the team really needed was structure, and that their passion would naturally arise from the freedom and opportunity given to us. This is not how things turned out.
The challenges that followed were built upon one key misconception - that team members ought to be responsible for their own motivation and self-discipline. While ideally we all want to work on a team where everyone works tirelessly to bring their creations to fruition with boundless energy and enthusiasm, this doesn’t happen spontaneously. No one is truly becomes “self-motivated” out of thin air, but does so through the support of other people, their environment, or from the act of working itself.
In a conventional studio, where employees are paid and gather together in a building during specific hours of the day constrained by budgets and schedules, I think it is easy to take for granted the things that motivate us to work. Our studio was far from conventional, made up of volunteers working virtually part time across the United States, with effectively no budget or time constraints to speak of. It is in this peculiar environment that the underlying mechanisms for sustaining motivation and productivity become more apparent.
While I was able to draft up a project plan, milestones, and organize the team around specific tasks and goals, this turned out to not be nearly enough. Unlike a traditional studio, our team worked on Terrachanics while juggling competing commitments from their day jobs, school, and social lives. A few saw the project as a labor of love, and a chance to make their mark on the world, but most came to see merely as an internship to put on their resume. The promise that initially drew in their interest over time became distant and uncertain, competing against other commitments that yielded more practical and immediate benefits.
There are of course many reasons why this occurred. Some people were unable to justify spending time on the project during our challenging periods in the face of more pressing matters. Some were frustrated at our pace of progress. Some just lost interest and moved on to other things. Others would have stayed on had they felt a greater sense of encouragement and motivation from me and our other leads. I cannot say for sure to what degree these and other factors had on team member departure, but I think the last one is the most fruitful in terms of discovering ways to maintain commitment to one’s project.
My mistake as a leader came down to a lack of understanding the importance of leadership. I have come to learn that while Management is the art of directing the collective talents of your team according to a sound plan and schedule, leadership is about directing emotions, confidence, and conversation to maximize creative output. A leader’s core focus is on maintaining the engagement and morale of their team in a way that makes them feel safe and committed to their work. Without it, team cohesion can become fragile.
So how does one go about the business of proper leadership? The answer lies in communication.
Simon Sinek offers a compelling illustration of the psychological and biological underpinnings of strong leadership. His perspective is epitomized his mantra "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." His "Golden Circle" model illustrates how people's behavior is driven by a sense of purpose behind their work, a fact rooted in the biological history of our brains. Our newest part of our brain, the neocortex, helps us process complex information, but it is our much older, inner limbic brain that is in control of our choices and behavior. Leadership, therefore, is learning to speak to this limbic brain to mold behavior to achieve your team’s maximum potential.
The reality is that while my team’s work environment may look quite different from a typical in-house studio, the impediments to our success are in fact a microcosm of the challenges all teams face when it comes to motivation. Everyone has competing commitments in their lives, be they social, financial, romantic, or otherwise. Making an affirmative case for why the work you do is important not only overcomes the drain of other activities, but in the best case can become a source of energy for people, giving them a reserve with which to tackle other priorities in their lives.
Making the case for why people should stay committed goes beyond the promise of money or promotion, but speaks to a sense of purpose and legacy in our lives. By stating and reinforcing a sense of purpose behind your work, you not only get people willing to pour their heart into their work, but foster energy and resilience to help your team through the inevitable challenges the production cycle throws at you. To speak to the limbic brain, you must learn to inspire others through the language of emotion and passion.
For some, it seems there is an ambivalence around emotional communication. It can come off as forced, insincere, or even manipulative. We’ve grown a distaste for it after years of political ads and advertising campaigns trying to persuade us with underhanded tugs at our heartstrings. Even nice gestures like giving a compliment can be construed as a ploy, and as a result we avoid them entirely out of fear of making others suspicious of us. We can often feel an implicit pressure to maintain a stoic, "professional" persona in the workplace. While it may seem innocuous at first, in the long term a lack of emotional energy can damage the team’s productivity and creative output.
In the midst of hectic production schedules and crunch time, the need for inspiration can get lost in the shuffle. We forget the importance of talking about what’s great about our game, sharing our games with the public, conducting regular playtests, or sharing news of our game on social media. This does not merely serve to promote the game to the outside world, but to let the joyful energy of the world in to us.
To maintain motivation, leaders must be conscious of how their emotional communication impacts their team. Whether we realize it or not, every emotion behind our words, or lack of emotion, speaks to the limbic mind within each of our teammates. Regardless of what our words convey, it can speak volumes about our confidence and commitment, and can be the deciding factor in the success of one’s team. Game Development is not a typical 9 to 5 job we can perform by rote - it is one wholly fueled by excitement and passion for bringing joy to the world. By maintaining passion, you not only boost creative output, but create long-term commitment to keep people on board for the long haul.
In my study of leadership theory, I have become particularly interested in motivational leadership. Theories like Situational Leadership are built around a supportive model, where the leader works closely with each team member in the early stages of an assignment, then over time adjust the amount of emotional support given and constraints imposed upon that individual. This not only personalizes how a each person is lead, but also ensures the leader and team member work closely together to develop a rapport and common understanding of each other. This enables leaders to more accurately learn about what motivates or brings tension to each team member, and thus tailor their interactions toward satisfy their individual needs.
This notion was most clear to me when I think back to when I started managing our programming team. I was significantly more effective at leading our programming team than I was with heading up the design team. While this may perhaps be from having better programmers going into our 2nd year, I have come to realize that a big reason has to do with the demands of technical versus creative tasks.
I’ve come to realize my style of leadership I had employed was better suited to the analytical, mechanistic tasks of programming than it was for the creative tasks of design. Programming lends itself to more concrete, objective, clearly defined tasks, and the act of programming produces a tangible and testable product that can be easily evaluated in largely unambiguous terms. The result is that programming generally has less of a dependence on motivational leadership compared to creative teams, as the work itself provides the programmer with a sense of clear validation, outside of the judgment of any other person.
Creative tasks are a bit more complex. As I see it creative leadership rests on three pillars:
Identity: What is the core idea of your game? What is it about? What is the feel or character of the game? Who are we making this game for?
Validation: How do we judge what is a “good level” or “good mechanic?” How do we come to a decision on this?
Investment: Why should we keep working on this? What about this game is special? What about this game is important to us?
In the early stages of development, Identity and Validation are often developed alongside one another. Throughout production you have a constant tension with each new idea whether to throw out or change it to conform to an established Identity of the game, or redefine the Identity to include the new idea. Validation often comes down to gut instincts and preferences, and is generally messy and subjective, harder to articulate through words alone. It calls for the communication of your sensibilities and intuitive judgements through comparison, references, prototypes, and other visual and interactive presentations. It is more often deliberated through conversation and experimentation than ticking off check boxes.
Investment in particular highlights the most crucial difference between creative and technical teams. The demands on Designers are in many ways harder, as they must be creative in how to articulate their thoughts, flesh out their ideas, and translate feedback into actionable tasks. Due to the highly iterative nature of creative work, Designers have to confront and overcome failure and setbacks on a routine basis. All this means that to maintain the motivation of such individuals, it is necessary to create a team environment that is both safe and supportive, and gives people a sense of purpose beyond themselves. That is not to say the same is not true of other kinds teams, but that it is especially critical for creatives.
Suppose you have a creative team of highly passionate designers, but find it difficult to agree on the direction to take your game. The typical solution is to work hard to hire and cultivate a team united around a common vision, and doing your best to get everyone on the same wavelength. The alternative is seen as a mass of confusion and chaos, illustrated in the old adage of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” But some of the most innovative companies in the world go completely against this notion, embracing diversity and conflict as the core of their creative process.
In these high-innovation studios, they take a very bottom-up approach to idea generation. They seek out feedback from every person at their company, even down to the janitors and accountants. Their leaders in turn serve less as visionaries, but more as social architects, promoting interaction between team members and seeding debate in order to explore a variety of ideas and discover the best solution. They then create a systematic method for decision making that is both transparent and instills a sense of trust. This approach acknowledges that the best ideas often start hidden within many separate ideas, and that finding an intelligent way to test, refine, and meld them together is key to creating the best solutions while keeping people engaged.
This concept intrigued me, as it seemed to be the answer to my own leadership conundrum. Since learning about Blizzard’s approach to having a “Designer Culture” in their Starcraft II behind the scenes DVD, I have been attempting to reverse-engineer their approach. My belief with Terrachanics was if I merely laid out the prerequisite conditions for creative freedom and open dialog, that this kind of collaborative, passionate culture would naturally emerge -- that great soil would bear great fruit. But like a garden, soil is only part of the process, and that you must also provide water and sunlight (support and direction) for the fruit to grow.
A bottom-up, decentralized approach has the advantage of being resilient and adaptable with changing situations. Having a single visionary at the helm can be good for getting startups off the ground, but less so for long term growth. Decentralization creates a company culture where the collective skills of the whole team are enhanced and celebrated. I can also say from personal experience that if you do not trust your team to be self-sufficient on some level (be it for real or perceived reasons), it puts you under a massive amount of pressure, as any misstep of yours can ripple out to the entire team.
This kind of conflict-driven culture also counteracts the serious issue of conflict aversion. Much like the pressure to remain stoic, there is a pressure in our personal and professional lives against speaking up or “rocking the boat.” Without a willingness to stand up when we are mistreated, or to challenge other people’s ideas, a team can fall into a cycle of stagnation and resentment. The same is true in personal relationships as well.
Nietzsche brilliantly exposes the temptation toward conflict aversion in his concept of “Sklavenmoral” or “slave morality.” His idea is a critique of Judeo-Christian morality, claiming such virtues as “purity” or “patience” are in fact excuses for those that cannot find sex or have the power to get what they want. While harsh, I think it is a good lens for examining our own moral behavior, particularly in team and interpersonal contexts. As Martin Luther King says, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” I believe the same holds true for harmony on one’s team.
Just as important to this conflict-driven collaborative culture is a focus on pluralism. Pluralism acknowledges that no single person has all the answers, and in every idea is a spark of genius. It separates ego from the creative process, trading loyalty to oneself for loyalty to your team and your product.
I have seen the above mantra appear in several game studios I have applied to over the years. For a while I disagreed with this sentiment. I always assumed ego was an essential part of passion, that in order to defend and support one’s ideas you had to have a strong sense of confidence behind them. Those without an ego seem passive, willing to go along with whatever more passionate teammates came up, rarely offering their own input. It felt to me that such people were just coasting on passion of others, unwilling or unable to add value to a product on their own. I have since come to realize the dangers of entangling one’s ideas and self-worth upon one’s ego.
In the short term, ego can be quite potent, giving you both the energy to act on your ideas and the personal magnetism to inspire others to follow. Ego is built upon the praise of others, and a sense of high status above the norm. Yet whether this is overtly expressed or just silently observed, it puts one in an unhealthy, judgemental mindset. At its worst, the failure of a teammate does not conjure an empathic desire to offer help, but silent comfort in how they have made you look better by comparison.
Ego is fragile, and losing your grip on it can be devastating. If your ideas go from being unanimously supported to being summarily rejected, you become defensive. If you find you cannot hold your own in your new creative environment, you run the risk of breakdown. For if your sense of value judgment hinges on your ego, then that too is lost when your ego falters. Your elitist notion that you are among the most talented in the world gets called into question. Once you begin to doubt yourself in one area, you doubt yourself in others. Your ability to judge the value of yourself, and thus of everything else, falls apart, and you become adrift in a sea of confusion, vacillating between feeling like a delusional idiot and feeling directionless and lost, unable to trust your instincts or intuition. I know all this because this is the very thing that happened to me.
I never considered myself egotistical or narcissistic by any means. I never bragged about my accomplishments, nor necessarily looked down on any particular individual. My every decision, such as not drinking, doing drugs, or sleeping around , sprung from a desire to be a better human being than what was considered normal. I suppose you could say I was a modest narcissist, driven by a quasi-religious desire for purity and prestige. It never occurred to me that this was a problem. As with many things, popular media tends to show narcissism in an exaggerated, overt manner, which can render us blind to its more subtle and insidious elements brewing within ourselves.
This mindset served me just fine until Senior year of college, when I was confronted from the dual threats of losing my Grandfather and feeling ostracized and ignored on my senior team project. This incident put me into a depression that has thrown my career off course for four years, and it is only in the recent months that I have come to understand the weight of my error. It was in fact learning about the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy that encouraged me to learn about leadership, understand motivation, and what collective creativity looks like. It is what has helped me start to pull myself out of my depression, and bring us to this very blog. For this, I offer a personal thanks to Warren Spector for developing such a program.
I have learned that good leadership is in fact the antithesis of narcissism. This realization has not only brought me closer to creating the ideal team culture, but to also overcome some of my most formidable personal flaws.
While it may sound odd, we have a tendency to be biased toward reality, or rather what we think reality is. We overestimate just how much we know, fall into the trap of feeling infallible, and at times impose rational thought where it can not only be inappropriate, but potentially lead us into dangerously fundamentalist rigid-thinking.
In my search to understand the nature of depression, I came across several excellent TEDTalks by Andrew Solomon. In one of his best talks he delivers a quote by writer Maggie Robbins, saying “You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away - the veil of happiness - and that now you are seeing truly.” He later goes on to talk about the rampant problem of depression among indigent populations. For those people, who face hardship on a daily basis, they feel it makes sense to be depressed when things are going badly, and thus never seek treatment. It was on this point that I was particularly curious, though Solomon does not delve deeply into it.
While the gray veil analogy makes sense for depressed people with a good life, it doesn’t explain how some people with miserable lives were able to overcome their struggles. For them the problem isn’t a misconception of reality, but a fixation on it. They have become so focused on the reality of their situation, and their extrapolations toward the future, that they overlook the power of unlocking their potential by other means.
Solomon’s talk essentially speaks to what Tim Harford calls the God Complex, believing that their dark and dreary appraisal of their lives is the only true interpretation of reality. As long as they are stuck in believing their perspective is infallible, they will remain in a depression unassailable to reason. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that it makes perfect sense to be sad when things go bad for us, or to be happy when things go well. But it would seem the answer to lifting oneself out of hardship comes from breaking this connection, allowing us to remain in control of our own mood regardless of the outside world, rather than have it be subject to the fickle whims of fate.
The fallacy of “hyper-rationalism” seems to be supported in the realm of applied psychology, particularly behavioral economics. Rory Sutherland eloquently points out that your mind "doesn’t give a shit about the truth, it cares about fitness.” Our mind is an inference engine, driven to understand and create probability models of what will happen. Essentially, rational thought is about prediction, and thus concerns itself with the future. Yet there are times when we apply our rational, predictive models upon complex subjects (such as human relationships) and are thus lead astray. Or in the words of Karl Popper, we treat things like clouds as though they were clocks.
Rationalism and its overuse can also be tied to Philip Zimbardo’s theory of time perspectives. His theory suggests that people’s mood and behavior can be explained in terms of how they prioritize their past, present, and future. Traditionally, highly rational “smart” people tend to have a higher focus on the future, which ties in to the predictive aspect of rational thinking. Such people are motivated by long-term outcomes, and less so on immediate gratification. Taken to excess, however, this can be a fragile and hazardous mindset to remain in.
If life goes off course, beyond your ability to predict your future, you can find yourself in a difficult situation. Not only do your ambitions feel less attainable, but you feel the pain of the sacrifices you made to the present without reaping the benefits you expected to receive. In order to overcome this, you have to develop a healthier balance of time perspectives, and focus more on the present. In game dev terms, this means learning to enjoy the act of creating games, as well as the thrill of seeing your game fully completed. A healthier focus on the present can in fact be accomplished through training the limbic brain.
While much of Sutherland’s talks contain brilliant insights into the realm of behavioral economics, there is one area I disagree with. In one talk he cites the psychologist Haidt’s metaphor of the rider on an elephant, with the rider representing our neocortical self, and the elephant our limbic self (or System 1 and System 2, in Daniel Kahneman’s terminology). He describes the rider as “more like a press office than the oval office,” post-rationalizing what the elephant does, believing they are in control when they are not.
I have a different perspective. Before I had even heard of Haidt’s metaphor, I developed a metaphor of my own of the rider on a horse. I feel based on my experiences in overcoming my depression that it is more appropriate. Our limbic self does act like an animal, yes, but it does not have to be wild. It can be tamed. A story I stumbled across some time back spoke of a cowboy who would get drunk at the saloon, hop on his horse, and it would drive him home. I believe the same principle is at play when dealing with depression. Just as a well-trained horse will take a drunk rider back home, a well-trained limbic mind will take a stressed neocortical mind back to the road of sanity. This can restore one’s sense of control and thus lift you from your anxiety.
My journey to learn to better control my limbic self brought me toward studying meditation. I initially was skeptical about its effectiveness, and when I had tried sitting meditation I found it hard to maintain a sense of calm. But as I learned more about the effects of meditation, particularly in relieving anxiety, I gave it another look.
I became drawn to Tai Chi. It’s a martial art less focused on physical feats, but more on meditation assisted through various postures. It appealed to me more than sitting meditation, given the recent studies saying “sitting is the new smoking.” It also shared some elements with dance, which I wasn’t particularly interested in, yet studies showed offered interesting cognitive benefits.
One of the key aspects of Tai Chi is cultivating the feeling of relaxation. Through a combination of gentle poses and postures, you engage in a state of transient hypofrontality (aka flow), making you focus on your immediate surroundings and the sensations of your body. Through this you meditate in those poses, silencing the chatter of idle thoughts and worries, training your brain to be more economical in how it directs its attention. It helps you achieve a flow state more naturally and consistently, while instilling greater discipline over the limbic mind.
Tai Chi and other forms of meditation demonstrate that it is possible for us to train the wild beast of our limbic mind, and in the process achieve more and foster greater resilience within ourselves. A strong, well trained horse can take you anywhere.
As you might imagine, this is probably the most complicated blog I’ve written to date. I couldn’t quite fit all the thoughts I wanted to in here in a coherent way, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other resources to check out.
This book is worth a topic unto itself. It is the book that got me started in thinking about a lot of these concepts, including being less focused on “reality,” engaging with people with humility and compassion, and training yourself to become more empathetic toward others. Much of what I talk about here are not new ideas - this book has written over 75 years ago and still holds up remarkably well. Definitely worth the read.
In a talk about his book about the life of Jesus, Reza talks about how the ancient world had a very different understanding of facts and truths. They did not see the two as synonymous, and in fact were quite comfortable with bending the facts to suit the “truth” they wished to impart. It occupies a strange and nebulous gray area between lies, metaphor, and rhetoric, and shows just how different our modes of thoughts have become over the centuries.
A really fascinating guide to work/life balance and teamwork. In particular, he talks about the importance of managing energy and creating a schedule in your life and work. He imparts a lot of great lessons on how to maximize creative output and improving one’s satisfaction in their own work.
Thank you for reading and following this postmortem series! As you might know, we are currently stuck in post-production hell with Terrachanics, as the Department of Energy has been slow to take the steps necessary for us to officially launch our game. DOE’s policies have also prevented us from creating any social media accounts or even have our website fully online.
If you appreciate the work my team and I have done, and the lessons in this blog series, I would be grateful for your help. Please Tweet “@ENERGY Release #Terrachanics !” on Twitter to tell the DOE that you want to see our game released.