It’s easy to make friends at work as game developers because we all have one thing in common from the start– we love video games! However, making friends at work comes with a dark side. One of the hardest things to do when working on a game project is to give a close friend negative feedback or to ask them to make a change you know they don’t want to make.
The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University is a graduate program for four distinct disciplines of video game development (Art, Level Design, Programming, and Production). I am currently a production student in my third semester at the Guildhall. As a producer I often find myself conveying feedback from our stakeholders to the team– who are also my classmates, and friends! There have been several awkward situations revolving around friends and work. Here is a short list of challenges I have faced— and how I overcame them! Plus, I have included a few bonus points focusing on the best things about working with friends!
Challenge 1: Work bleeds out of work time.
Breaking news! I have found that game developers love making games. We love talking about games, we love critiquing our game and talking about other projects. If I am hanging with coworkers outside of work, the conversation always falls back on games and our projects. So much that, sometimes I feel like I do not know how to hold a conversation with anyone outside of the games industry.
Solution? Boundaries. BUT— Have fun with it when you can.
Initially, I was always down to be available to talk about work. At. All. Hours. Then, I learned why game developers burn out. I was having dreams about how to improve the performance of specific levels of our project. It became all I knew. Setting boundaries made a big difference. I am down to talk about the project from 8 am to 8 pm, but if we are outside of the workspace, the project becomes a villain. The-work-that-shall-not-be-named is avoided at movie nights with coworkers, and at any other gathering of those who work together… outside of work. We don’t need to solve framerate issues at a Taco Bell at 10 pm. They will still be there in the morning. If you do have an idea you need to jot down, write it in your phone notes or a work notebook for the next workday.
Challenge 1.5: The Flip Side– Your friend is mad at you for external reasons, and it’s bleeding into work.
When you spend time outside of work with your teammates you see every day the lines between professional and personal become blurred. It becomes really easy to say something in a personal environment you would regret in a professional environment. On my last project, there were a few occasions where I was oblivious to the fact that I hurt a friend’s feelings, eventually that boiled over into the workplace. The first thing I did was sit back and think about the situation from their perspective. Then I told the truth, “I was a horrible friend, and I messed up”.
Solution? Kindness and the truth.
Far easier said than done, right? To me, the important part is what you do next, no matter what party you are– the annoyed or the annoyer— strive to be better, and not repeat mistakes. Both parties have to be professional to overcome this challenge. I find every day that kindness goes farther than bitter words. Be sincere, it’s easy for tensions to get high when you are deep in the development process of a game you are passionate about. This isn’t a linear process, there are always ups and downs— striving for kind, truthful, and sincere talks with friends at odds helps smooth out your journey on the way.
Challenge 2: You must give your friend negative feedback from your higher-up.
Because of personal bonds with a teammate, it feels harder to convey negative information to them. As Lead Producer on my last project, I served as a voice for the stakeholders relaying information to teammates. Our stakeholders wanted a critical part of our art changed, and the artist responsible is a close friend of mine. I received some pushback from my friend because the requested changes altered their vision. Frustration mounted from both sides, but the stakeholders and my friend both stood their ground.
Solution? Listening and understanding both perspectives, and striving to reach a middle ground, if available, if not? Reach an understanding with your friend.
I spoke to my stakeholders and my friend and took notes as to why each felt the need to make, or not make changes. I then spoke with the stakeholder about the scope and what needed adjusting. Could we make changes to half the assets, but not all of them? This change will be time-consuming, and the artist feels it compromises their vision”. EXPLAIN “The Why”. Why does this change need to be made? Why do some feel it does not need to be made? Explaining all angles benefited me when trying to come to a resolution. All parties want to be heard, and understood, and knowing “why something is the way it is” helped those involved feel affirmed and allowed us to reach a middle ground. If a middle ground is not an option, at least provide your friend with “the why” for the feedback they are receiving.
Challenge 3: You disagree with your friend.
At work, there are many times when critical decisions need to be made, and you may agree with one solution more than another. You may find yourself defending one idea, while your friend is defending the opposing idea. On my last project, I supported game title option one, and my close friend who was also a lead, backed game title option two. Both names were cleared by legal, but nobody could decide which one to use. It became a running joke to over-enthusiastically back one or the other. Our disagreement that started lighthearted devolved into a pain point. The choice bubbled up to our stakeholders who… were also equally divided.
Solution? If possible, gather outside opinions. If that doesn’t work, talk it out.
Remove your biases from the decision and have someone not involved in the friendship have a say. Our final solution was a poll. Of the entire team, and all staff members in the building. The voting was nearly tied, one vote swung the poll. Having an outside voice of reason helped my friend and I come to terms with the choice, and why it was made. When there weren’t biased interests involved it became easier to see the pros and cons of the options available.
Despite the challenges, there’s also a positive aspect to working with friends! Having someone you enjoy being around at work, during lunch, and in meetings, makes going to work easier and more exciting. Here are a few fun moments I have shared with friends while working on a video game project:
- “The Office look”
Sometimes, you need an “Office camera” to glare into. In the hit sitcom, The Office, when something ridiculous happens characters will look into the camera– breaking the fourth wall to show their exhaustion. Having *that one friend* at work who you can look at as if they are the camera in The Office adds a comforting moment to your day. This look could say anything, “did you just hear that?” or “oh no…” and even “what is going on right now? Are you as lost as I am?”. There is an unspoken sense of comradery– “the look” means what you want it to mean. It helps you feel understood in the tough moments and feel less alone in the workplace altogether.
- Sanity checks, and someone to vent to.
Like the look, sanity checks are required work friend moments. “Hey… am I crazy or…?” Sometimes I find myself in need of confirmation to ensure that I am not wrong, or if I understand something correctly. Game development is stressful. We care about what we do. Sometimes we need a friend who understands us. Having a work friend to share your frustrations, to talk with on hard days, or that backs you up and gives you a new perspective on challenges ultimately makes work so much better.
- Playing games together off the clock.
Finally, one of the best things about having friends at work as a game developer is the little slivers of time you have to play games together when you aren’t working. Yelling at each other as you duel online is therapeutic–I recommend it to all game developers. Go back to your roots, and remember the fun. Or, if you are like my coworker friends, playing games together, and then accidentally doing QA instead, for example, getting excited and yelling “That grass is floating!” and “There’s Z-fighting!”. It’s the little things.