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Team dream

Musings on Game Art Production, Management, and Other Psychobabble

By Neil Melville - Sept 2nd 2003

A production team is just that: a team. Like any team sport, not every player can or will play all positions. In fact, the best teams are those that have great communication, clearly defined positions, and specialists recruited to fill those positions. The best specialists in the field need not be available, if the team has a well-rounded roster, good morale, and support from great team managers.

The team member in the role of Lead is not more important than the rest of the team. He/she is a team captain, and is respected for his/her experience. It, like any other role, is an area of specialization. A Director is like a sideline coach, and uses his/her unique perspective and planning skills to help raise the awareness of each player, and advance the goals of the team. This is a position where coordinating information and mutual trust is of paramount importance. Anyone in a managerial role is support for the players on the field: the production team. It is the managerís responsibility to provide the information or equipment the team needs to do their jobs.

The most important team building activity is the hiring process. Choosing the right personnel for the right team positions is crucial to a companyís success. If a candidate cannot or will not perform the tasks required by his/her position, or does not have goals that are compatible with those of the team, they in no wise should be asked to join the team. If a current team member displays these same qualities, frank discussions should begin ASAP. I donít think that this bottom-line attitude should mean to deal with people without compassion, but, keeping information from a person that pertains directly to them, is doing them, and the team, a disservice. Most people WANT to know if you think they are off-course (especially if you are mistaken in that thinking).

Constant communication is key to efficient teamwork. Good communication practices come naturally to a team whose members earn the trust, respect, and confidence of their peers. To do this, I think all team members need to be forgiving of basic fact that humans sometimes make mistakes. For example: Iím human. I make mistakes. Does this mean you canít trust me? Of course not. You can trust in my skills, my experience, my good intentions, my goals, and my potentialÖ And my willingness to own up to my mistakes. I am certainly trusting that you will point out those mistakes.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone to never make a mistake. And I will not ask it of any of my teammates. The whole point of respecting each other is to make it easier to identify any errors that will affect the team. Not to point a finger of blame, but to give the person responsible the opportunity to effect repairs and to better themselves. Also, it is better to address the issue before it snowballs into a larger, more devastating problem. Another example: would I inform you that your fly is open in an effort to demean and embarrass you? No. I know all too well that I could easily be in the same predicament. I would want YOU to point out that I have a problem needing resolution, before it leads to a REALLY demeaning and embarrassing situation.

To some, this fact that others have the power to remind them of their humanity (through the sadistic ritual of noticing their mistakes) makes them feel somehow subjugated and enslaved. For those, I suggest you beat them to the punch. Imagine their utter astonishment when you blurt out, "HellaCool! I just screwed up, big time!" and then ask for their help. By owning the mistake, you take charge of the situation. Since you were the first to announce the mistake, the only one that has any control over you, is YOU.

To some, the very concept of making a mistake can be devastating, and ego, or lack thereof will prevent them from owning it. Selfish talent (prima-donnas) who sometimes put their own goals ahead of those of the team, or insecure players who donít realize how valuable their contributions are, will need extra encouragement to feel welcomed on such an empowered team. I believe in peopleís ability to change for the better. I also believe in peopleís right to decide for themselves if there is anything about themselves that they want to change. And I even more also believe that I have the right to do everything in my power to sever my relationship with a person who will not abandon goals or lifestyles incompatible with my teamís.

A team that practices honest disclosure and supports each other in difficult tasks should have little need for major conflict resolution. When problems are encountered, this team will be solution-oriented. A unified team shares unified goals. If any member of the team does not agree with the teamís goals, there will be some loss of team efficiency. Any questions or complaints about the teamís direction should be addressed quickly and diplomatically. I believe that a certain level of difference of opinion is healthy to the team, as long as it is openly discussed, and a workable compromise can be achieved. Each team member is free to have their own goals and opinions, as long as they can be professional enough to put the needs of the team first.

So, letís assume for a moment that all that structure and interpersonal dynamics mumbo-jumbo I just spouted is in the bag. We have an ideal work environment. We are "The Dream Team." What now? We make lots of money making awesome games, thatís what. Ah, but there is more to making successful games than having a groovy, (insert trendy office efficiency catchphrase here) team. Like having the right game. By this, I donít mean a game of the game-youíve-always-wanted-to-play-but-it-never-existed variety. Iím talking about the game that is right for the current market, target demographics, and the publisher that is going to sink millions into its development. The development team, for all its talent and camaraderie, is seldom the sole deciding factor for the nature of their current game project.

There are a lot of people involved in making a successful game. Most of them care how good it looks. This is where I come in. I feel I owe it to them to represent their interests as best I can. Being in a manager-type role, I see it as one of my primary responsibilities to gather, comprehend, and weigh all the requirements, limitations, and capabilities of all the internal, external, technical, political, commercial, and psychological forces that influence the production of the game. And I wouldnít and couldnít attempt this alone. In addition to my own judgment and experience, I rely upon the opinions and expertise of the team. The goal: to establish a unified vision of the game.

This unified vision then serves as the central standard for game production. It is given tangible form through the art style guide, and asset creation task lists. It is given definition through the technical procedure outlines, data output paths, and rendering engine budgets. It is maintained through critical stage analysis, art critique and approval process, and play-testing.

Does this unified vision remain constant and unchanging? I would be surprised if it did. Actually, I would be worried if it did. I think that aspects of a development plan and game vision need to adapt and evolve. New information becomes available. New processes are invented or discovered. People make mistakes. Whatever the reason, the current vision needs updating. I believe that, like people, game visions can change for the better. But, due to investiture of resources, delivery commitments, and basic principles of structure, there will be certain parts of the vision that should not or cannot change. In order for a project to maintain integrity, the vision must resist cate