[How can game developers successfully implement ongoing staff training? Blitz Games (Sneak King) art director Nash discusses how the UK developer went about it in this in-depth Gamasutra feature.]
The games industry is maturing - fast. The technology playing field is leveling and the old days of game engine wars and outsourcing one-upmanship are dead and buried. The golden partnership of effective production pipelines and innovation is and has always been the key to chart topping glory. The only question is, how do you achieve both within the pressure cooker of the production environment?
Staying on any cutting edge requires people to learn and adapt on a moment-to-moment basis. Formal training using standardized educational structures is the key to building effective production processes and fostering innovation.
Though this may sound obvious for an industry that relies on continual training, we have yet to truly recognize and embrace the techniques and benefits that training affords other more mature entertainment industries.
Creating, rolling out and evaluating a training program almost always proves to be a time consuming and costly process. At Blitz Games we have walked the path of introducing a formal internal training program by creating the Blitz Academy.
The academy acts as a hub for all training efforts, and in many ways raises the profile and importance of learning within the company, and to some extent, wider industry.
Nearly all studios do utilize some training, mostly in the form of impromptu ideas exchanges and in some cases the use of external trainers. External training, however, is often expensive and not wholly suited to the very individual needs of a studio or project.
Though some external training is excellent, other sources such as identifying skills and trainers within the studio, or attending world-class conferences such as GDC, can prove very beneficial.
Aside from the core production "hard" skills of art, code and design, training "soft" skills, such as those for communication and management, must form part of a balanced program - thereby complimenting the team-oriented game production environment. The return on investment for training will be significantly higher if the skills people are formally taught can then be re-communicated informally by individuals in the production environment.
Developing the Organizational Structure
One vital cornerstone of any successful training program is its organizational structure. The vast logistical overhead of any training program cannot be underestimated - therefore, any proposed program should be managed and administered in a clear way by people whom have the skills to do so. The Blitz Academy, for instance, falls under the jurisdiction of the human resources (HR) department.
With this in mind, try to aim for a central organizational point of contact in the HR department.
Quite apart from just having the time and skills to administer all of the training efforts, the good people in HR are also able to make sure that the training program dovetails nicely with the personal development programs of individuals as well as the needs and goals of the company as a whole.
The biggest point to make, however, is that although the HR department can coordinate the training efforts, HR staff generally doesn't have the job knowledge and/or inclination to identify the skills that require training, the individuals whom should be taught, or indeed the selection of trainers.
This information needs to come directly from the development teams themselves, so other provisions in the structure need to be made. One of the best ways achieve good results is to set up working groups consisting of senior members from each discipline that meet up regularly to consider and collate the relevant details to pass on to the HR department.
Additionally there should also be a spontaneous suggestion system that allows anyone in the studio to make recommendations for training at any time.
Identifying Your Training Needs
One critical stage of creating an internal training program is to identify which areas of production require training effort to be applied. The most obvious place to start will be the skills required by your studio's projects, as highlighted by the ubiquitous schedules and manpower plans.
Some training requirements are very obvious, whereas other deficiencies can be difficult to assess and in some cases training does have other unforeseen "second order" effects.
By way of example there are a few "out of the box" modules that most studios could and should run. Any training that can reduce many of the repetitive operations associated with asset creation will have a large impact over the course of production.
Speed modeling, focusing on hotkeys, shortcuts, and marking menus, is a great example of such a course. On the more intrinsic side, color theory, starting on the basics, mixing colors using paint and light and moving onto video illegal colors, all exemplified by cinematography, will have an immediate positive visual impact.
On the design side of things, anything relating to fundamental level design theory is a good place to start, especially with regard to camera placement, land marking and player control. 3D modeling for designers (depending on your pipeline) can greatly increase productivity and reduce inaccuracy too. On the intrinsic side the fundamentals of learning curve management and the tricky subject of emergence will reap rewards in the long term.
Coding can benefit as well. Re-enforcing coding standards will have the biggest impact cross the studio by making code easier to read, debug and share. Other specialist areas such as unit testing, AI, shaders, and the art and science of special effects will greatly enhance the flexibility of any coding team.
In terms of global modules for everyone, those centered on soft skills such as communication, management, and law are incredibly useful. On a more practical front, continuous training on your chosen middleware solution, be it in-house or licensed, will grease the wheels of any studio.
Developing Your Training Processes
By mapping the requirements of any given projects by the manpower resource available, the potential training needs of individuals are often quite apparent. Interestingly, the adoption of an effective training policy can make the staffing of projects far more effective, as a lack of skills can be largely accommodated, rather than acting as a deal breaker.
Other internal processes, such as personal reviews, provide a very rich hunting ground for training requirement identification. Personal reviews also have the added bonus of affording more junior or quieter members of the production team the opportunity to recommend or suggest new training.
Significantly, the inevitable five to seven year learning curve of a new hardware generation change will always prove valuable in identifying training needs.
Once the subject matter for training has been chosen, the time has come to source the instructors. The first stage is to look to your gurus. These are the people with the types of specialist skills that when shared have a very positive impact on most areas of production.
That said, not everyone is a natural teacher; it's a communication and confidence thing, so be prepared to train your experts in the art of training too.
Delivering Effective Training: The Methods
There are a number of ways to deliver training which are suited to different needs and situations. The first and most obvious method is instructor-led training.
Instructor-led training can be effectively delivered in the studio environment, however carrying out this type training in the relative calm and quiet of a training room will prove most effective. The format for this training varies from instructor lectures and demonstrations with little attendee participation through to full practical hands-on workshops.
Another highly efficient and cost effective method is creating a training resource on an internal intranet. Intranet based e-learning systems offer the advantages of 24 hour access, direct from users' terminals, with the added practicality of allowing people to learn at their own speed.
Perhaps more importantly, they can learn around their working schedules. Also, intranet systems allow for a far greater wealth of reference materials such as desktop-recorded videos, links, and example repositories to be linked directly to the training. Intranet-based systems provide one of the best partner systems for instructor-based training.
Another approach is to support one-to-one training. By pairing up one of your experts with individuals in the studio, small areas of expertise can be transferred in a very short time frame.
This is especially useful in situations where you need to get one person up to speed such as an unforeseen project requirement, supplementing a small skill shortage or correcting specific issues in an individual's skill set.
Paired learning between peers such as two junior artists has also proven to be extremely beneficial. Having two people share the time on one machine completing similar tasks whilst watching each other work can be one of the best cost to results ratio solutions available to any studio.
The Blitz Academy is a blended training solution utilizing all of these approaches, in addition to a couple of other experimental approaches.
In terms of actually constructing the training modules, try to adopt a template-based approach. Templates standardize the process and aid new instructors in the efficient creation of the modules.
There are many sources of traditional course templates available online to help establish the types of headings needed to fully describe and support your chosen training methodology. Bear in mind that the template itself will go through a number of iterations, and will evolve - the same as the rest of the program, so don't be precious, and be ready to change it as it is tested.
The Complexities of Training
One very obvious drawback to training is its prohibitive cost. Overall training on any level is a cost to any studio and external training is generally more expensive than sourcing training internally.
To give you some idea of the costs involved, let's look at what it cost to run the Blitz Academy for one year, as it serviced the training needs of 220 staff.
In terms of external training and all associated costs, the training bill was $110,000. Internally the training cost was another $246,000, bringing the total to around $356,000. These figures cover some 50 modules delivered to around 550 people.
Things did and will go wrong. Starting the program before it is ready is an easy one. Overestimating people's ability to teach can also cause teething troubles, especially if the people handling the administration are development staff.
Don't expect everyone who says they will attend to turn up, and definitely don't assume training a coder and an artist will be the same.
Once you have delivered training, it may seem an obvious next step to measure its effectiveness. At the very least, someone at some point will ask for some serious justification for the high training expenditure.
The subjects of training metrics and training return on investment (ROI) are complex and varied in both approach and results. The biggest problem when trying to measure the benefits of the cost of training comes when you attempt to evaluate some of the softer skills.
Measuring the Effectiveness
By way of example, it is very easy to run a module on speed modeling and texturing in Maya. By simply sample testing the candidate(s) before and after the training, the effectiveness of the training is obvious. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to evaluate the immediate impact of a color theory course or even a module on avatar emergent behavior design.
It is for this reason that some of the training effort has to be signed off with a certain amount of faith. By faith I of course don't mean blind faith, just faith in long term skills investment born of years of game production experience and forethought. In short, craft skills are measurable, whereas intrinsic skills can be far more difficult to measure.
Although faith will work fine for some people, it very rarely works with the boss or, indeed, accountants. There is a simple way to handle this without resorting to the easily refutable tactic of presenting a single training ROI percentage.
The key to success here is to write a comprehensive positive report on all aspects of the training effort based on five simple measures of training provision, as follows:
- Effectiveness - Simply using measures such as pre and post training measurement or schedule tracking. Providing some metrics proving without doubt that some of the measurable training has a positive impact is key.
- Efficiency - Describes how the re-use of modules, resources, and the maximization of class sizes is an efficient use of the training costs.
- Applicability - Simply show that the subject matter of the training is aligned with the goals of the individuals, projects, and studio.
- Appropriate - A straightforward proof that the right training subject matter is being delivered to the correct people.
- Timely - A justification of how the skills are being trained "just in time" to aid in project requirements and skills reinforcement.
Of course, traditionally effective methods like pre and post training monitoring and tracking individuals work throughput in the project schedules will always be concrete evidence of what impact some type of training have made.
The Benefits of Training
The benefits of effective training to the studio and individual projects can be significant. On a studio level, the immediate impact of perceivable productivity gains will have obvious benefits.
As more people learn and train others, a strong skills leveling effect occurs, thereby allowing managers to handle project staffing more effectively as they gain a far better handle on individual skill sets. Training also improves interpersonal communication beyond all recognition leading to better team cohesion and death to many bottlenecks and hazardous dependencies.
A very welcome effect of training is that everyone in the company who receives training does feel that the studio is investing in their future, and therefore they are valued. This is a very powerful countermeasure to the specter of high staff turnover. At the end of the day, all of this combines to create better games.
On a team level, all of the above quite obviously applies, however the positive impact allows managers to mitigate more of the risk associated with developing games. It's a funny thing, though, because as soon as we mitigate more risk on a project we generally allow ourselves to take more and more risk in terms of features and general production. This is precisely how we push the envelope and drive innovation. Again, the bottom line is that we end up making better games that sell more and make money.
An effective training program is a proven productivity multiplier that brings with it a number of amazing additional benefits. By integrating a strong training ethic into the culture of a game studio by designing an effective program, gaining buy-in from all levels of management and rolling out the program with an appropriate level of importance is paramount.
The risks are numerous, but then again so are the rewards. Your studio will make better games, but ultimately training is the key to maintaining your competitive advantage over your competition irrespective of the IP or technology platform on which you are developing.
Put simply, if you want to win the development war then you must win the training battle!
Presentation photo by Ikhlasul Amal, used under Creative Commons license.
Training photo by Nelson Pavlosky, used under Creative Commons license.