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Ninjas Are Helping Me Do My Job

Time management vs AAA level design problems, and why Ninjas might be my solution.

I’m sure every lead in game development has a busy calendar. My schedule is 99% full most days. I’m constantly in meetings to approve features or game content, and it’s becoming clear that I’m not spending enough time with my own team. You know, the talented people that I picked to help me make our part of the video game… the people without whom, my work will not get done.

My biggest battle in the near future will be for time, and making sure that my designers get the support they need not only to “do what I want them to do”, but to become better designers. I want to be able to dump all of the ‘current problems to solve’ to my team and let them help me rock it out, and I want to spend enough time with them to ensure that people’s skills are evolving.

I’m too busy to do this alone. In today’s post, I’m going to talk about how I plan to solve my time problem…. I guess in a year I’ll write about whether or not my plan worked. :)

** Author’s Note: Somebody hold me accountable to follow this up in a year. :) **

Problem: I’m unavailable to my team because I’m always running to a meeting.

I know that I should be spending more time coaching and helping “my” designers solve problems, and yet: that calendar. The problem is that everything in my outlook calendar actually is important. I care about game mode and story design, and I have to participate in that process. Upcoming tests with real players? I need to be involved. Regular meetings with our superstar art department? Can’t skip. Feedback from other directors and producers? Also top priority. I need more time to sit with my designers and give feedback, but I’m very, very busy.

Solution: Ninjas

“Ninja” isn’t an official job description in my studio, but on my team I have elected and empowered ninjas to follow up for me on key subjects. I have a mission design ninja, a multiplayer map ninja, and a stats and player analysis ninja. All of those roles are being filled by senior Level Designers whose commitment and talent allows them to be especially good at certain tasks and help others to improve in those areas. I don’t have as much time as I’d like to teach multiplayer layout design, so I have a high-functioning ninja helping me in that role. I don’t have enough time to bug the stats tracking team about oddities in our stats, so I have a proactive, experienced ninja who I can trust to do that for me. Each ninja can be deployed to ‘hot topics’ within their expertise, they can attend meetings on my behalf, and I can trust them to speak for my team.

By sending ninjas to status-update type meetings, I free up some of my time. Furthermore, the ninjas can be relied on to answer questions when I’m not around. Of course, this means I need to reserve plenty of time for the ninjas, so that I’m in touch with what they’re doing.

Downside: This is opt-in, for the ninjas. If they are overwhelmed or perform badly, I have to revert to doing things myself. The additional workload of the ninja is not in their official job description, and it wouldn’t be fair to hold them accountable.

Problem: Designers need coaching and mentoring.

I’ve written in the past about how designers’ growth can be stunted in large teams, and lack of access to coaches and mentors is surely a part of that problem. I can always have somebody redesign a level ‘the way I would do it’, but if I don’t take the time to share my criteria and process with junior designers, how can I expect them to improve? Without good feedback and encouragement, game and level designers will only do the tasks assigned to them, and won’t find and fix their own problems. I need to spend time with my designers so that I can help them grow professionally, and so that they understand what I want from them.

The best way to embed ‘my philosophy of space design’ into my team is to spend time with them actually doing design together. They learn, I learn, and everybody gets better at their job. The most fun parts of my job are working with my team and designing stuff together, and ultimately it should be a very high priority.

Solution: Giant Immutable Blocks of Time

This fix is obvious I suppose. I just haven’t been reserving enough time blocks with my individual designers. I know that there will come a day when my team is so large that I have to rely 100% on others to give coaching, but for now, I’m going to book more 1v1 time with mission and level designers.

I've shared my calendar to a few of the PMs on our team so they can tell what meetings I have and whether or not it's 'ok' to move a meeting. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is spending time with my team looking at levels and missions and solving problems; talking not only about the content, but how to figure out the solutions, and what kinds of rules are useful. By re-arranging my schedule to focus more on my team, I’m ultimately making my job more fun.

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