My favorite part of any collaborative team project is that first brainstorming session, watching the walls turn multicolor in a shower of sticky notes, people furiously scribbling on whiteboards as others shout out ideas and plans. Anything is possible in this stage of development, and quite often that becomes a double-edged sword for teams. Team leaders can easily find themselves trying to stop a runaway train, or herding cats, or whatever management metaphor with which you prefer to describe chaos. To make matters even more difficult, the anything-goes nature of team brainstorming can give rise to cliques and dominant personalities. Fortunately, there are ways for producers and game designers to mitigate or even prevent these dynamics from occurring, by giving structure to the chaos and empowering individuals on the team to champion their ideas, often without them even knowing it.
Setting the Stage
Brainstorming, in many ways, is like playing in a sandbox. The team is free to experiment, improvise, and dig deep into their imaginations, but every sandbox needs boundaries. For development teams working within a larger studio or company, new projects likely have some requirements dictated by upper management – the nature of the IP, the game engine, genre, budget, etc. Having a structure already in place gives the producer and game designer the definitive boundaries they need to contain the rapid exchange of ideas.
For independent projects, the team leaders must create their own boundaries to the brainstorming sandbox. I’ve found that a top-down approach works best here. Start the discussion by asking the team about their skills and broad interests – genre, tone, style – and write them down on sticky notes. The team leaders should participate in this exercise themselves, but more importantly, they must watch the situation unfold. The game designer should be looking for patterns of repeating ideas and preferences, and the producer should take note of both the dominant and reserved personalities of the group. This information is vital to the health of the team in the pre-production phase and beyond.
The project leads should time-box this discussion to thirty minutes ideally, and certainly no longer than an hour. Wrap the session up by organizing the sticky notes into correlating groups and focusing on the areas of most overlap. With any luck, the team will have arrived at a big-picture view of what kind of game they want to make.
Shrink the Sandbox
At the end of this initial session, the producer should give each member of the team an assignment to do in preparation for the next meeting. Using the newly established project framework, they must write down three game ideas, no more than two sentences each, to pitch to the team. This empowers the more reserved members of the team by giving them a platform, and it challenges the more ideaphoric members to focus and choose only their strongest pitches. But here’s the twist: when the team meets again to discuss their concepts, they are only allowed to pitch one idea. This forces each person to put their best foot forward, and only the very best ideas are up for negotiations.
During these pitches, team members in the audience can ask general clarification questions, but this is meant to be a rapid process. The producer should be writing all the ideas on a whiteboard in view of the team while the game designer facilitates the pitches, or vice-versa. After the last pitch, the team may freely discuss the ideas with the goal of arriving at a single concept, either through process of elimination or by incorporating elements of multiple ideas into something new. Suddenly, the sandbox becomes much more manageable!
Of course, since this is not a truly democratic process, certain individuals are bound to feel unrepresented in the team’s final decision for the project concept. As with the initial brainstorming session, take note of teammates who appear quiet, uninterested, or frustrated with the pitch proceedings. In the first few days after the team forms, I like to hold department meetings to get a better sense of the people I will be working with. In these meetings I ask my teammates three questions:
- What are your strengths and weaknesses as an artist/level/designer/programmer/etc.?
- Were there any experiences in your previous project that you’d like to repeat or avoid?
- How can the game designer and myself best help you succeed?
The last question is the most important – it is the first step to building trust with your team, and the faster you can build that trust, the better your game will be.
I used this method in my current game project, For the Family, a capture-the-flag first-person-shooter set in the Prohibition Era. A level designer pitched the idea and the team rallied behind it in a single brainstorming session without any bruised egos, and we have met every milestone expectation thus far. With every new build of the game, I see the unique contributions of each of my teammates coming together to form one cohesive vision, and that is something I am very proud of. I highly recommend that producers and game designers try this approach to the brainstorming process – it will force you to set boundaries, empower your team, and ask the right questions, all essential parts to being an effective leader in any field, especially one as chaotic as gaming.