Given it’s taken around 12 years or so to write my first Gamasutra article, I'd say this blog post is a personal achievement.
I'm a game designer/manager, but I'm also passionate about people and helping others. I could happily write about game design. However, today I want to share with you something this industry rarely talks about, the human side to game development.
I recently (a year ago) created an internal toolkit/workshop, inexpertly named "Surviving Game Development", which aimed to equip teams with the tools/methods to solve design, project and people problems in game development. Difficulty estimating effort, Everyone's a designer, Client wants a new feature, Lack of decision making, Emotional teammate, to name a few.
The idea originated from seeing multiple teams go through the sheer mental and physical stress we put ourselves under when developing games. Heck, we are creatives, we are passionate, but sometimes that passion can lead us to unhealthy behaviours and darker paths. We seem to run into these "common" problems each project; are there better methods of managing these problems or tools we can equip ourselves with to be better prepared next time?
Conflict probably has to be top of the list, so here it is...
Most stress, anxiety and the increasing pressure we experience in game development is due to situations of conflict. Conflict with; other people, yourself, the design, the way the character just doesn't quite feel right when jumping, and of course…time.
I’ve had to come to terms with conflict in the creative workplace, learning from making many mistakes and watching how others behave. Over the years I’ve discovered a few mitigation methods which I believe can help when the next situation arises.
We’ve all been there, stuck in a meeting room pouring over a feature request, design change or task priority. A quick glance across the room reveals stern facial expressions and rigid body postures – people are alert, poised ready to attack or defend their position.
Never bring emotions to the table. Stay calm, regulate your responses and be open to change. Approach the situation from a logical standpoint. Don’t just think about how it affects you, query how it impacts others around you.
Most manifestations of conflict come from people’s innate fear to change. We are hardwired to resist it, as it’s new ground, unfamiliar and risky. Well, guess where ideas typically originate? Yes, that’s right, from “change”. Creativity comes from embracing the new, the unknown. However, do be careful, you should never change for change sake.
On the way back from the meeting that threw half of Alpha into disarray you pass one of your colleagues staring blankly at their notepad packed full of notes. You see painted on their face the frustration and the epic subconscious battle going on in their head. We’ve all been there, the internal struggle! Sometimes it’s the inability to make a decision, understand a complex problem or other times it’s those two words that scare any creative to the depths of their sole “creative block”.
Seriously! Start mapping out all possible options, variables, pros/cons and so on. Just getting it out your head will help you begin to get a holistic hold over the problem – plus it’s mighty therapeutic. I regularly apply this during my day-to-day, whether it’s providing solutions to design challenges or supporting producers on how to push back.
Get others involved. We work alongside some of the brightest individuals in the creative industry. Ask others for help. When I’m stuck on game feel I typically pick on unsuspecting colleagues who are working on other projects to provide feedback on the latest prototype or build I have to hand.
There never is enough time; this is especially nailed to you early on during pre-production. If you just had a little more time to finesse the pitch deck, finish the game balance or get through all those burning polish items. Well, unfortunately, time is against us on this one.
It makes the situation and your physical state a lot worse. People tend to make more mistakes while stuck in a constant loop of fight/flight mode. Furthermore, if you are in a position of leadership and people see or believe you to be panicking they will too. If you are worried, take a logical approach, gain council from your team, appear to be the one calming everyone else.
Seems obvious right? Well, you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to forget about this one, especially under time pressure. But wait, you say, you have no time to complete this task you just got given which is due tomorrow and not to mention the fifty other things on your plate? Prioritise! And If there is a crisis where all those things are due tomorrow, delegate, don’t try to be the hero. Please remember, to always have the long-term goals in mind; the short-term urgent items can sometimes distract and derail your line of thinking.
Although we face conflict every day when developing games, we still can get on with it despite the drama. The mitigation techniques described above will hopefully provide some stress relief when the next situation of conflict arises.