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From the trenches - Design politics

Real-world design is not how is depicted in books. Most of the time you need to deal with company politics trying to make the best design possible. This post intends to provide some examples and advices to help you navigate through different team dynamics

As most junior system designers, at the beginning of my career I devoured books & articles about how to make the best designs possible. The authors were so positive about the goals you had to have and processes to follow I was lead to believe that as long as my proposals made the game better, the team will surely recognize it and they’d be approved without further ado.

Boy, I was wrong.

Yes, good design work (in my mind, a mix of documentation, creativity, feedback and realism) is always valued… but the decision-making process for videogame teams can be strongly determined by the internal balance of power of the group of people working on it.

In my personal career I’ve worked within different group dynamics. These are the most relevant as far as I remember:


Designers are trusted to do their work without interferences: This happened to me mostly when everybody was too busy to even think about anything else… or when the project focus was someplace else (i.e. technology, sales...) and nobody cared about the design itself.


Lobby Wars: People interested on design (could be anyone) teamed together into lobby groups to support certain ideas, and often collided with other groups defending different approaches. The number of individuals and their combined prestige points (see below) eventually determined the winner.


The Sun King: One person and only one made all decisions. This was not 100% true since they will commonly had a posse on whose members the King delegated some decisions as long as his authority is not questioned.


The “if they’re happy I’m happy” approach: The one who was supposed to run the show (i.e. producer/game director) wanted to keep the group of leads happy above any other consideration (commonly to minimize the possibility of any of them trash-talking about him to his boss or company owner). No matter what the team may say, he always took side with anything the leads said.


The “Illuminati”: A small group (commonly leads, but not exclusively) made all relevant decisions. Their gatherings were kinda mysterious (the list of atendees was limited) and the outcome was presented “Moses style”: Obey these tables of law I’m presenting to you, or be damned...


Flat structure: Everyone in the team could express their opinions, and decisions were made ensuring that everyone’s voice was listened, valued and incorporated to the design. In my experience that commonly leads to design by committee in the best case, and open warfare between team members in the worst.

 

Please don’t take this post as an attempt to criticize any of these past situations, or vent frustration. At the end of the day I believe it’s just human nature and Anthropologists’ business. Also I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of other different team dynamics. As I said, these are only the ones I experienced directly. Feel free to add your experiences in the comments section.


Anyway, my point is: This environment is substantially different from what you read in most manuals about the design work and decision-making processes, isn’t it? I believe designers need to understand these circumstances… because they will heavily affect the design work and could lead to frustration if not managed properly.


So, how these political games work in the mentioned cases? In general, you could say the actors involved are managing a precious but invisible resource that determinates their political value within the company/team. The higher that value, the better chances you have that the design/ideas you stand for make it into the game. In one of my previous companies we used to call it the “prestige bar”. Think about it like floating health bars over people’s heads but in this case showing how much prestige/weight you have in your team.

 

Floating health bar in most games

 

According to the number of prestige points required, the number of team members needed to approve a feature or design change will be different. Here’s an example: Let’s say the required number of “prestige” points to greenlight a feature is 8, and different team members provide different values depending on their roles:
 

• Owner/CEO: 8 points
• Leads: 4 points each
• Seniors: 2 points each
• Regulars: 1 point each


So, in order to get your idea/feature done you need to either convince only the owner (instant win!) or any combination of employees who sum up a total of 8 prestige points...

 

 

The prestige points of the people involved in the decision-making processes mentioned at the top have to be factored, and will mostly determine who’s the winner in case of struggle. But how do you earn these points? According to this theory, team members can gain prestige by: 


• Doing a good job
• Make upper management believe you’re doing a good job
• Coming from other (and preferably more prestigious) company
• Suppressing political competitors
• Being the only communication conduit towards upper management
• Also simply being new at the office also awards some “starting” points


As well as winning points, you can lose them of course. They’re lost when:
 

• Doing a bad job
• Someone convinces upper management you’re doing a bad job
• When being suppressed by political competitors
• By being too much time on the same company (you become old news)

 

So, in order to survive to these political environments that I believe are fairly common (particularly in those companies with big teams and lots of employees), it is advised for a designer to have a minimal amount of “political” skills that will make his life (and hopefully the design!) better. Here are some:
 

• Flexibility when dealing with other people’s ideas – Learn to listen politely no matter how crazy the proposal is, make them feel valued in any case, and incorporate whatever is salvageable (if possible)
• Learn how to be a good salesman when pitching ideas
• Be good at detecting the flaws on other people’s arguments to increase the success of yours – In general debate skills will help you inmensely!
• Face time with upper management in general
• Some controlled flaunting wouldn’t hurt, too


Welcome to the jungle, and good luck with your designs!

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