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Production Values: The Value of Communication In Game Development

In her latest 'Production Values' feature, EA, Ubisoft and Activision veteran Heather Chandler discusses how game producers can improve communication on their teams, helping to fix mismatched creative visions, missed deadlines, and more.

[In her second 'Production Values' feature, following a detailed discussion on project management, EA, Ubisoft and Activision veteran Heather Chandler discusses how game producers can improve communication on their teams, helping to fix mismatched creative visions, missed deadlines, and more.]

Communication is something we do every day, so you think we'd be pretty good at it by now. However, if you talk to an average game development team about the one area that needs the most improvement, they will probably say communication. Bad communication seems to be a catch-all explanation for a variety of problems that occur during game development, such as missed deadlines, misunderstandings about what features are being worked on, and mismatched creative visions.

And when you start thinking about how a game producer spends his or her day, you will find that most, if not all, of the work revolves around communicating the project's needs to various people throughout the company -- working with IT to order new computers, meeting with management to discuss the budget, and prioritizing development tasks with the team. Therefore, I wanted to briefly discuss the value of communication, and ways you can improve it on your game team so that you can prevent bad communication from becoming a troublemaker on your project.

Bad Communication

What constitutes "bad" communication? If you can't answer this question, it will be almost impossible to improve the situation.

Bad communication can be created in a variety of ways, but most examples fall under the same major categories: people are too busy to communicate, people are not effective communicators, or office politics creates situations where people can't communicate.

Too Busy to Communicate

How often have you heard someone say, "I have an open door policy, stop by anytime to talk," but every time you go by his or her office, no one is ever there? As you get more anxious about talking to this person, you find yourself walking by the empty office every chance you get -- you even invent errands so you have more opportunities to catch this person before the end of the day.

How about when you finally get some face to face time with your boss in his office, and he is so busy answering emails, screening phone calls, or instant messaging, that he is not even listening to what you are saying? By the time you leave his office, you are convinced it was a waste of time, as he probably didn't hear anything you said.

Have you ever spent 10 minutes explaining the risks and options to someone, and she keeps nodding her head in understanding, then when you are finished, she says "I'm sorry, I was thinking about something else while you were talking, can you explain it again?"

In each of these scenarios, the person you are trying to communicate with is clearly too busy to communicate with you. This doesn't make them a bad person, it just means they haven't figured out how to deal with all of their obligations in a timely manner.

So if you anticipate these scenarios ahead of time, you can tailor your communication approach to these busy people in order to get the most benefit for both of you. If possible, prepare these people for your meeting by putting together an agenda or just briefly describing what your major goals for the meeting are.


Ineffective Communicators

This category of bad communication is a bit harder to define and the problems caused by it lie solely with the communicator. While it is said that communication is a two way street, the person doing the talking needs to make sure there are no road blocks that impede his ability for clear communication.

Lack of clarity is the root of many communication problems -- mainly because the person simply did not understand exactly what you wanted. You need to be able to clearly define what your needs are when asking for something. There is a big difference between telling someone to build a scripting tool versus telling someone to take three weeks to build a tool that allows the designers to create AI pathways and place enemies in specific locations on the map. Having no idea what their manager was asking for is more common than people probably want to admit, so instead of asking questions or getting more information, they just start working on something and hope it fulfills the request. This approach will create instances where work has to be re-done or even completely discarded.

Poor presentation is another catch-all used to describe ineffective communication. Poor presentation means that the communicator has bad public speaking skills -- he mumbles, he doesn't make eye contact, his body language is closed, he doesn't have information to back up his requests, or he is reluctant to take suggestions or answer questions. In situations like this, you are not motivated to actively engage in a dialogue with someone and you don't feel like it is okay to ask questions. Also, you literally may not be able to understand what is being said because the person is mumbling.

Another culprit that contributes to non-effective communication is the "telephone effect." This is named for the popular kids' game, where one person whispers something into someone's ear, and this person whispers it into someone else's ear and so on. By the time the information has gone through several people, the end result is not even close to what the person originally communicated.

So keep in mind that the context or intent of any information you receive third-hand, or even second-hand, is always going to change with each re-telling. If someone tells you that the lead designer said a certain feature was being cut from the game, you should go talk to this designer directly to find out specifically what was said. I'm sure you've have many instances where you've done this, and the person said, "that's not what I said at all!"

Office Politics

While you may not like to admit it, office politics also play a large part in bad communication. If you are in a politically charged situation at work, you may find it difficult to talk to the person you need most. For example, you might be an artist who needs to speak with the art director about an issue you are having with someone on the art team -- however, this person happens to be the art director's best friend. You don't feel comfortable discussing your problem with the art director, for fear that he may start giving you grunt work to do (for the sake of argument, assume it is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed, or else the game will be at risk of not shipping on time) so instead you say nothing and the problem grows into a huge risk to the game.

Hidden agendas and lack of respect are other symptoms of office politics at work. These can also work in concert with each other -- someone may not respect your work and has an agenda to get you moved into another position on the project. It is unfortunate that situations like this occur, so in order to minimize the problems these things can cause, you need to constantly assess the quality of your work and how you may come across to people. If you are team lead, this self-awareness is critical to being the best manager you can be.


Improving Communication

Now that you have a better idea of what bad communication is, you can start working on ways to improve it. Here are a few ways you can start:

Respect Your Team

Take time to address everyone's concerns, even the small ones. It could be something as simple as acknowledging the request someone makes and explaining that the request has to be a low priority for now, but will be addressed when time permits -- then be sure to follow through. You want people to feel like they are being listened to and that their concerns are validated.

Effective Listening

Effective listening is when you are fully engaged in listening and understanding what the person is telling you. While listening, you are focused on the person in front of you, you make eye contact, minimize outside distractions, and don't interrupt the speaker. It is important for the speaker to be able to fully articulate his thoughts, without being interrupted in mid-sentence. Finally, you should summarize the main points of what was said back to the speaker.

Schedule Time to Listen

If you have a lot of demands on your time, you should make an effort to schedule some time to listen to your team members. Consider scheduling office hours -- times when you are sitting at your desk and are available to talk to anyone who drops by. Schedule regular meetings with key members of your team, and remember that one on one time is important too. Walk around the office and check in with people; you can learn a lot about how people are doing if you just walk around for a few minutes each day.

If you are trying to get a moment to talk with someone, see if you can schedule an appointment -- which will probably be the most efficient way to get his or her complete attention for a few minutes.

Specific and Defined Points of Communication

Chain of command is important for a good communication pipeline. People feel comfortable if they know who they should go to in order to escalate a problem or request. It can be a great source of frustration if someone has an issue and doesn't know who to discuss it with, or they can't get access to this person.

On all of my projects, I make it very clear who to talk to about any problem. For example, if one of the leads had an issue with something I'm doing, I let them know at the beginning of the project (before there are any issues) they should go to my boss to discuss it. Members of the team shouldn't feel they have to confront someone directly about a problem, specifically if it is a sensitive personnel issue; they need to know that a producer or lead will take point on getting the issue solved with the appropriate people.

Keep Communication as Close to the Source as Possible

In order to cut down on the "telephone effect," try to go to the source whenever possible to get all the information. This is especially important when dealing with changes to the projects or personal accusations. Also, maintain the content and context of any communication that is second or third hand. If you are communicating something on behalf of someone else (such as management), try to stay true to the original the content and context of the message. This will prevent misunderstandings that may have a large impact on the project.


Gear Information and Presentation Towards Your Audience

You will need to present key information with multiple methods (email, meetings, face to face), to make sure that everyone knows about it. This is especially true for critical information such as key deadlines for checking in updates to the build, project review dates, and so on. If you are dealing with sensitive issues, you will want to handle these privately and keep it on a need-to-know basis.

Consider which method of communication will be optimal for the type of information being communicated. For example, if the project schedule is going to be pulled in by two weeks, it is better to initially communicate this information in a team meeting rather than an email. The meeting will give the team an opportunity to get answers to their questions right away. You can then follow-up the meeting with an email containing the key information. If you are providing the regular weekly status report to the team, it is probably fine to email these -- as these are not mission critical.

You also want to tailor the information to your audience. For example, management is more interested in big picture items -- is the project on schedule, what are the key risks, how much money do you need? The team is focused on things that affect their day to day work -- when will the PS3 dev kits arrive, when will the Unreal engine SDK be available, what features have be changed?

So if you are giving a status report on the project, make sure you address the areas that will be of most interest to your audience. The entire design team doesn't need a detailed and technical explanation of scripting -- that's only for the designers who are actually going to use the tool. The other designers only need to know what types of things the tool does.

Central Location for Publishing Team Information

Once you put forth all this effort to improve your communication pipeline, make sure that the information is accessible to everyone. A team wiki is a great place to store meeting notes, track key deadlines and feature changes, and post bios of new team members. If everything is archived in the wiki, people have the luxury of digesting all of the information on their own timetable.

Get Specific

As discussed earlier, provide specific information with all your requests. Make sure people fully understand what is being asked of them. This includes defining specific deadlines, the number of assets needed, details on requested changes (who asked for them, what needs to be changed, when the work is due, etc.) It is a great idea to have people restate what you told them in order to make sure that you are on the same page.

Ask for Feedback

Most importantly, be open to improving your communication skills by asking for feedback from your peers. There is always room for improvement and feedback provides a good gauge on what areas you can improve on. You can do this by casually asking, as you walk around and chat with your team, or you can schedule brief one-on-one sessions to discuss the feedback more privately. In any case, be aware of how people react to you and try to be aware of ways you can improve how you communicate with people. Also, once you have feedback, make changes based on the suggestions. It is pointless to ask for feedback if you don't plan to make any changes.

Conclusion

It is important to note that you should constantly be aware of communication issues on your project, because they will never completely go away. Things are constantly changing on projects -- scope, personnel, priorities, features, deadlines, managers -- and these things all have an effect on the communication pipeline that you work so hard to define. I encourage you to be vigilant on the communication front, as this is an area where small improvements go a long way and have a big impact on the overall project.

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