As it turns out, as I was putting together the subjects I wanted to talk about for the next few of weeks - a theme became obvious. I am going to spend the next few weeks talking about the game industry as an industry and a place of employment. The four main talking points will be: Keeping a team invested in their product and the studio, practical approaches for studio management and its impact on the decision path, the impact of recruiters with their particular bias, and finally a discussion on conflict management. Most of this stuff is not new and has most definitely been discussed in many forums, but since a blog is about talking from you own point of view I figured they were good subjects to cover. The thoughts are fresh in my head as I have recently taken a few Microsoft courses on related materials which have at least been informative and in some cases have also been instructive. The refresher in thinking about these issues is what lead me to this particular sequence of blog topics.
The game industry stumbles and suffers from reoccurring issues both at the macro and micro level. I look at it the same way I look at fractals. We have the same equation creating the same pattern at the macro level within the game industry as a whole and at the micro level of individuals studios. This equation has to do with the issues caused by the explosive growth of the industry, of a project team and the equally explosive requirements in terms of data to produce a game. Early developers (or current mobile developers) can make a game with less than twelve people. This makes communication easy and responsibility enforceable through social mechanics. Everybody is in it together and there is a real sense of investment by a team because of the direct connection between work and product. This connection and investment is easy to erode or in fact have it be completely absent as team size grows. More detrimental is the separation and distancing between the developer and the product. People tend to out perform and produce when they have a direct and visceral connection to the work - when they are capable of personalizing it. With the larger teams this has been harder to achieve and the attitude of the work being only a “job” has became the prevalent mentality.
Combating this attitude is not simple or easy. More importantly there is no real solution or fix to the issue. I personally think that we have to admit that there is an element of this change that will be inevitable. Large team sizes will mean that some people will be more distanced from the centre of the project. The key here is to make them feel invested in the team and in their departments part of the project. This is the responsibility of the team leader and the feature leader, making the choices for these people so very critical. We have to make sure that the people who are leading (not necessarily managing) the group and project are capable people with sufficient soft skills so as to inspire trust, loyal and dedication. Proper positive feedback needs to be part of the work cycle at the company. Another way to increase investment is to group people together by way of feature development as opposed to the department level. In this way each cell can have a fairly short development cycle and feel a sense of accomplishment. This will also increase their ability to collaborate between fields and departments. However, this needs to be done carefully as this is only seen as a positive by certain personality types. Others will see this method as creating a disjointed and fragmented view of the project and increase the risk of creating significant integration issues (all true - just some things that needs to be controlled and managed).
Driving investment through division of labour either by feature or by department alone will not dissuade the separation between worked and project. The other key element is communication. People should be getting communication about the state of the project (honest assessment), future plans and how things are interacting. I would highly suggest public large team viewing of the project during development - specifically the major builds that are put together for the publishing company (prototype, vertical slice etc.) These should be celebrated and not ignored - more importantly this will help highlight the importance of the deliverable to the team outside of the contractual responsibility. Also, there is a pressure generated knowing that the work will be presenting to a collection of your peers. If the company has multiple teams, the entire company should be present and these showings - rent out a movie screen and give a state of the project presentation and showing. Weekly update emails created through combination of department lead information and managers should also be done as part of this communication process. Whatever method is chosen (web site, wiki, emails) the key thing is to maintain it and keep the process going no matter what else is happening at the company or the project. It is easiest to let things like this slide when they are most important because of time pressure.
Take Away: Explosive growth in the game industry has created macro and micro problems. At the micro level, people have been disenfranchised from their products. This is partly inevitable. I suggested re-investing some people through feature team compartmentalization, through departmental focus and development and through regular communication patterns.