The Team Game

There is a simple truth about professional game development today that few people outside might realize: games are made by teams.

No, really!

A team doesn’t mean a famous designer and his nameless troops. (Believe it or not, David Jaffe doesn’t just wake up and make God of War.) Nor does it mean whatever Sid Meier dreamt of at his desk last night. It means a real, honest-to-god team, where every decision is forced through filters before actually appearing in the game itself. With the average project having more than fifty people and a year to complete, no choice is lightly made.

But I just want to be the guy who writes game concepts!“, an aspiring designer might say.

Tough. For most developers, the projects come to you, not the other way around. New IP gets vetted by other designers, producers, managers, and publishers until the original fingerprints have faded away. Your fabulous idea of pirates and ninjas may initially seem sound, but if marketing doesn’t think ninjas will sell, programming doesn’t think pirate ships are feasible, and the publisher is only willing to foot the bill on ponies….you have to expect that you might be making a pirate horse racing game instead.

That is to say, when you work for a studio and not for yourself, expect some compromise, because design is more often about the decisions we make rather than the ideas we dream.

From the top to bottom, a development studio is a team. There isn’t just one programmer or one designer or one artist, but entire groups of them, working under leadership, working under schedule, and working under compromise to get the job done. Want a feature? Get a producer to find time in the schedule. An artist and programmer to get the graphics and code in place. A tester or designer to make sure it all works together.

It might sound stifling, but they want to make a great game too, and they are best equipped to do just that when presented with a plan to get there that doesn’t involve a pay-cut and a round-the-clock work week.

(Despite the corporate world’s best efforts, it seems there are still only 24 hours in the day. Whew.)

The designers and producers heard about in the press the most often – the Hideo Kojima‘s or Shigeru Miyamoto‘s of the world – are famous for the games attached to their names, but the ideas behind those games aren’t what made them successes. Success came from the decisions they’ve made and, perhaps more importantly, the decisions they have empowered others to make, until it eventually all rolled up into the final product.

The best in the industry can surround themselves with a team to do this, year after year – with a little luck no doubt – until they have the free reign of a Kojima Productions or a Valve Software, but large or small, every studio needs to have people making smart decisions on the long run to actually ship a game. Decisions to sell. Decisions to make the game better. Decisions to get people home to their families before their kids fall asleep.

Some decisions will turn out well, others not, but we have to make them – and learn from them! – with the team in mind in order to move forward.

This is the challenge of game development.

This is the team game.

And the quality of the games we make depends on how well we all play it.

2 Comments

  1. Tyler Sigman

    Well said Richard, and SAGE ADVICE for any aspiring designers out there. This post could really be expanded into a series.

    I think most of us get into Design for the urge to create a masterpiece, but this really needs tempered by an understanding of what role you play in the team.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leading teams and working on game projects, it’s that the ability to compromise and communicate is *almost* as important as good design horse sense (at least for a Lead). If you don’t understand the real world ramifications of making a product with a team of people under schedule and budget constraints, then you stand little chance of getting ideas implemented well (however great those ideas may be in a vacuum).

    This is not always a bad thing, though. “Constraints breed creativity”, as they say. And you can earn a good living if you have a wider perspective on the product than just fighting with every person within reach over a tiny detail that won’t cripple the game either way.

    I rely on personal projects to make sure I can explore some creative directions without constraints. When I go to work, I know I have to keep schedule, budget, and other factors in mind in addition to the one most important to me: good game design.

  2. Pingback: Strange Journeys » Game Design is a Team MetaGame

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