Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pitfalls of Project Processes

Gamasutra today posted an excellent article by the experienced game Design Director Mike Lopez on a process for insuring great pacing in game level design.

As a long-time software developer and software project manager, I'm a believer in having sensible processes. ("Sensible" == "adaptable plan.") That said, however, it seems to me that the team scenarios painted in this article are somewhat best-case. That's not wrong for a short article -- it does no harm to promote the benefits of improving the pacing design process. If focusing on the benefits will encourage some project leads to try the process ideas suggested, that's a Good Thing.

But it's worth bearing in mind that, as with any intersection between neatly defined processes and messy, individualistic human beings, there are numerous ways in which the locomotive can start to go off the tracks. Here are just a couple.

Brainstorming: Some people are naturally hardwired to prefer seeing the problems with other people's ideas, as opposed to generating ideas of their own. These folks are valuable, but they're more valuable later in the process. When coming up with an initial set of ideas, it can be useful to make it clear to everyone that the time for applying critical judgement will come later -- the "idea assassins" need to hold their fire during the brainstorming phase in order to encourage the more sensitive members of a team to participate. This improves the odds that there'll be enough distinct ideas generated to cover the range of intensities required in level design.

Buy-in: While teambuilding is useful, buy-in (i.e., enthusiasm management) often needs to be handled on a individual basis in order to effectively address the "ownership problem." In any development project, some members are likely to be the type of person whose sense of self-worth is intimately connected to the work they do. In these cases, it can be hard to walk the fine line between encouraging these often highly productive individuals to fully invest, and allowing them to feel they (and not the project) "own" whatever work they're assigned. While investment is desirable, these individuals will often believe that their agreeing to invest in some task constitutes an agreement on your part to let them perform that task however they want to do it. Any subsequent effort on your part to change or cut that task for intensity or pacing needs will be considered a betrayal of that supposed contract, and can result in persistent arguments, emotional confrontations, sullenness (and substandard work), denigration of your competence (creating an "us versus them" atmosphere among team members), and potentially the loss of a productive worker. It's not always possible to manage these individuals; what's important is recognizing that they exist and that they make achieving the goal of buy-in more complex than simply getting everyone to be enthusiastic about the project.

I'm completely on board with the goals described in this article, particularly the top-level goal of using a well-defined process for achieving emotionally satisfying pacing in level design. Following some form of the process suggested is indeed likely to yield better results, both artistically and commercially, than proceeding directly to implementation and hoping to iterate toward quality in time to meet a scheduled ship date.

It's just useful to recognize that some people seem to enjoy sticking their thumbs in the metaphorical eye of processes, no matter how good those processes may be. (Creative types may be especially prone to this.)

So by all means, follow the process ideas described. Just be ready to handle the many forms of resistance, both overt and covert, that always occur when trying to persuade actual human beings to follow a process.

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