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The Evolutionary Advantage of Hunting in Groups and the Pleasures of Proximity

Just because we CAN work remotely, scattered across the earth like nerd confetti, doesn't necessarily mean we SHOULD.

Paul Culp, Blogger

July 24, 2012

12 Min Read

Hunting in Groups

The Pleasures of Proximity


Many years ago a colleague and I built a game art subcontracting empire. Okay, it wasn’t an empire but it was a moderately successful studio and a new way to produce game art for developers. This was before SuperGenius. It was before Johnny Cash died. My life is broken into two major segments. Before Johnny Cash died and after.

Back in those days, when Johnny Cash was still singing and airplane hijacking was something that happened in the eighties under Reagan, the aforementioned colleague and I left our tumultuous jobs at a failing game developer and set out to change the way game art was produced. The company we left was consistently plagued with high overhead and it made an impression on us.

We believed we had come up with a solution to the overhead problem and we set out to build a business on it. We would help developers keep overhead costs down and do the same for ourselves in the process. We called ourselves an Art Resource Studio. Outsourcing, at the time, was another word for overseas call centers and it didn’t occur to us to label ourselves as such. It is still a term that gets under my skin.

We generally knew the obstacles that come with subcontracting a large team of offsite artists, but we got a full taste of it on our first project and it put us on a path to conquering every one. We were obsessed with making it work, and we did okay.

Using a variety of off-the-shelf web applications we constructed a system that worked as a virtual studio for our offsite subcontracting team. We designed, constructed, tweaked and polished till it did everything we needed it to. We approached it as if it were a franchise that we would eventually sell.

This wasn’t so much because we wanted to sell it – although we did - as much as we wanted it to function as a product, with all the polish of a slick software application. If we were building it for someone else to run, a complete stranger, we would make its functionality and user-friendliness a priority. The system itself would be the business. If used correctly, anyone would be able to run it.

This is the kind of wild-eyed optimism that only the founders of a startup can have. Growing up in the Silicon Valley I saw it all the time. Virtual reality would replace malls. The Segway would replace walking – that sort of thing. You drink your own Kool-Aid. Hell, in our case, we mainlined our Kool-Aid it into our eyeballs.

We were defining the science of art. We were science revolutionaries. We would take the human element out of art, entirely. That sentence alone still makes my skin crawl. But we were high on our Kool-Aid. We weren’t responsible for our actions. People were fallible, anyway. People made mistakes. People left too much open for interpretation. Systems, on the other hand, can be perfected. If mistakes were made, you tweak a process here, tweak another one there. Eventually you have perfection. People are a bit more complicated.

Our biggest target was art direction. It was too touchy feely. This was clearly a job for our new science of art. We systematized art direction. In our defense, our goal was to eradicate typical art director comments like “make it 50% more gray.” Or “Just make it more urban looking.” These are actual quotes I had documented in my notebook. Could you blame us for wanting to fix that?

It worked though. It actually worked and we built a fairly successful business on it. We produced a huge quantity of art for a lot of games. We were winning. There was just one nagging problem that wouldn’t go away. The passion problem.

For one, we didn’t know there was a passion problem. We didn’t know what the problem was and passion just wasn’t on our radar. Passion was unscientific. It had no place in our world. When we were faced with the nebulous - the problems that just couldn’t be pinned down - we just worked harder on the system, figuring it was a kink in the pipeline, not something flaky like passion. Passion could not be systematized, therefore it had no business in our business.

The passion problem was most notable during a visit to one of our high end clients in Southern California. We were working with them on a big movie tie in and their art team was world class. They were happy with the work we did for them, which we did a lot of. The quality was good. But not great. Their work, on the other hand, was beautiful. It had a certain quality and cohesiveness ours did not. There was no scientific explanation for it. We were using the same base textures. We even cannibalized some of their mesh. We could not nail it down to a number of features or techniques. We could not duplicate it. They saw it. We saw it. No one could fix it. There was a bright spotlight being shown on the hole in our system and we couldn’t do anything about it. We never did.

It wasn’t until years later, when I had walked away from the studio due to what I would call irreconcilable differences and started work at a traditional game developer that I was able to look back with a clear head and see what the problem was. Being back in a team setting gave me a new perspective on what we were trying to do, which was wrong on many levels.

I was frustrated with this new team’s lack of process but really impressed with the quality of work they produced and the camaraderie of everyone on the team. There was a good energy there that wasn’t possible with an offsite team. The in-house team setting was naturally conducive to producing good work, even without a process. On the flip side of that, a scattered team of contractors was naturally conducive to chaos, requiring a process to rein it in to something coherent. We had approached the whole thing from the wrong angle.

Without any process or direction, a group of scattered subcontractors will produce disparate, incoherent work, naturally. They have nothing holding them together. So you have to work to bind them into a single cause. A team of artists sitting next to each other, however, will assemble of their own will and produce something coherent, without any intervention. You can see which direction would be better to start from.

Not helping things is the culture of subcontracting. Subcontractors are usually supplementing their income or working between salaried jobs. Not everyone, but most. It’s a tough life, the subcontractor has. It usually involves starving. As a subcontractor your biggest priority is getting your work done as quickly as possible so you can get paid.

Of course, you have a reputation to maintain and you want to do good work, but reputation will always take a backseat to feeding yourself and your family and paying rent. You’re incentivized to move quickly and not take the extra time for love. I’ve been there. It’s hard to prioritize quality when your power is about to be shut off. It’s also hard to concentrate on the task at hand when you are constantly thinking about said power being shut off.

As an artist in a studio setting, you aren’t doing so bad. Even if you are having trouble making ends meet, there is a huge portion of the day you are focused on work, not bills. Not only that, but you are surrounded by others like you, working to make something great, and who need your help. You are part of a larger team, where there are people counting on you. You can’t avoid that. Work is a great distraction. It’s an even bigger distraction when you love what you are working on.

I know it’s very unscientific, but there is also the energy factor. An in-house art team works side by side, all day long for months on end. They pick up something extra, being there in the room with each other. It’s something invisible, but with tangible results. It is more than just the sharing of resources. It is more than a well written art bible. It is more than style reference. It is some kind of energy they collectively channel, making them more than the sum of their parts.

Maybe there is a scientific explanation for it. Maybe it’s an evolutionary advantage we have when hunting in groups.  Maybe the collective has a way of suppressing your personal concerns while you are in its company, allowing you to focus one hundred percent on the hunt. Maybe the solo hunter, by contrast is plagued with internal dialogue which makes concentration more difficult. Or it’s a supernatural phenomenon. It depends on the world you want to live in. Either way, the collective is more conducive to passion, and passion is necessary for making things great.

At my old studio, our team of subcontractors was scattered all over the United States. We did not work alongside them and they didn’t work alongside each other. I think that was a big problem. Many of them we never even met face to face. Our artists were experienced, highly talented and working within our very specific and thorough guidelines, but the work they produced seemed fractured and inconsistent when put side by side with some of our higher-profile client’s work. We produced good work and we were able to build a “successful” business with it. But that depends on how you define success. For most of the people I know, myself included, financial success with a mediocre product is a big fat failure.

So we started over. We hit it from the other side. We formed SuperGenius with a team in place. A good team. A team that without any outside intervention could produce high quality, cohesive work. From there we created our processes, but they existed to serve the team, not the other way around.

We then set out to define a culture of creativity, cooperation, and self-betterment. The kind of place where people push themselves and each other to do better work. Not by process, but by culture. The team’s motivation for doing the best work possible needs to come from within, not from an outside source like a list of rules. In order the team to be self-motivated, they have to be engaged and passionate about their work. Their position on the team has to be a destination, not a stepping stone or a supplement to their income. They have to want to be there for it to work.

Instead of putting all our energy into some Frankenstein technical solution, our goal is to focus on making our studio a place people want to be. This has to involve good projects and a comfortable place to be eight to twelve hours a day, but it also means having the right people. It’s the people that bond and develop loyalty to each other. It’s the people that develop a dynamic of pushing each other to do the best work. It’s the people who want to do their part in the collective to produce something amazing. This is a culture thing and it comes from the bottom up, not the top down. This is not something that can be dictated by a CEO or followed like a process. The more of this kind of culture you have, the less management is needed.

This does not mean a flat company. A flat company may work for a company like Valve, but it doesn’t work in a business like ours. We will always need an org chart involving management. We just want as little of it as possible. We don’t want management to have to enforce something like quality. Our ultimate goal is to have a studio that self organizes and works under a collective constitution like a University. An institution where varying, even opposing opinions can be voiced and debated regarding quality, technique, and how to build the better mouse trap. These kinds of conversations are how a business, and even a whole industry evolves, especially a creative industry like games. After all, we do work in an industry that is very new and has the power to change the world at a fundamental level. It’s a pretty interesting playground and one that we have still only scratched the surface of.

The ideal may be just that, ideal. But it’s a cosmic goal, not a three year one. As long as we’re working towards it, we’re working in the right direction. And anyway, the reason we started this, and our first priority as a studio, is doing the best work possible for our client’s games. I don’t know if the work  defines the culture or if the culture defines the work. I imagine it’s more of a closed loop, each side powering each other. Neither of which would exist without the team.

On the ground level, an in-house team means more time for the Leads, without the need to write so many critiques and do paint-overs, then wait for the next asset delivery or update. This means bandwidth for focusing on doing better work. This means more cohesive art direction since everyone on the project is in sync. It also means we can do the kind of work we weren’t equipped to do before. More in-engine, technical work. Level design. VFX. And most importantly, animation, which until recently, was one of the hardest things to send out of house. Being robust has led some very interesting projects that have pushed us to the limit. We are currently codeveloping a game from the ground up, doing much deeper work than what we have traditionally done as an art studio. This could not be achieved if we didn’t have an in-house team.

Ten years from now I don’t believe I’ll remember SuperGenius as that studio we built after Johnny Cash died. I think the pattern will finally be broken. I believe it will be the origin story of a new kind of game development institution. A place that always recognizes the power of people working together towards a common goal. A place that is dedicated to the evolution of our craft. Whether it’s making the best looking game or pushing the boundaries of what games can do, it will always involve at least two or more people working together in the same room.

Paul Culp is the CEO of the Oregon-based video game Art and Animation firm, SuperGenius. www.supergenius-studio.com

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