Part 8 of 10: Lone Wolves and Wolf Packs [previous parts]
All the most rewarding design discussions in my life have had something in common: they didn’t involve talking to other designers.
None of them were part of the regular development process, either.
One day, a concept artist came over to my cubicle and started asking questions, simply because he was tasked with drawing sketches of a new level, which he had been told nothing about. There was no documentation, and I was the only designer who wasn’t busy, so he thought maybe I knew something (I didn’t). We spent the next two weeks actually inventing that level, and it was one of the fastest learning experiences in my life. It’s amazing how much you can learn from someone who talks to you about your own work in terms which are alien to your mindset.
My most frustrating design discussions involved talking to design leads. They boiled down to one sentence that came in two varieties: the polite one started with “that’s a good idea, but...”, while the rude one said “you suck, therefore...”. Both ended with “you need to do it my way”. Such is the hallmark of Lone Wolves: they keep ideas to themselves, and they’re not really interested in hearing what you, or a programmer, or a concept artist have to say. But they're usually not the ones building the prototype, either. Hence, the only thing they achieve is that the implementation is based on someone's imperfect understanding of an imperfect description of the original idea. Lone Wolves think they're in full control, but they're actually letting the idea run wild.
Then there are pipelines. Ideas originated by game’s designers are sent as “black boxes” of desired specs to programmers and artists. They create “black boxes” of theirs: the code and assets. Those are assembled, and another “black box” arrives at a level designer’s desktop. Teams are organised around the “black box” notion. For instance, programmers sit close together, so they can talk easily to other programmers, rather than other people working on the same thing. Those are Wolf Packs: they keep together, shut within the mindset of their respective specialty, always on guard against other packs.
And that’s a pity, because there is a multiple feedback loop between various feature components that belong with different specialties. The source code and game mechanics translate directly into each other. So do mechanics, such as moving a chess piece, and dynamics, such as achieving checkmate. On yet another level, there’s a connection between dynamics and aesthetics: the speed of a character movement affects both the difficulty of your reaction to that movement, and how the character animation looks and feels. There are also use cases, as in level designers creating specific uses for features in their levels; those relate to all of the above.
Regardless of whether you're a programmer or an artist, a director or a grunt, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about with people who are unlike you. That is, unless you’re so versatile that you can prototype all aspects of the entire game all by yourself.
Lesson Learned: Embrace Dungeons & Dragons. You don’t make a fighters-only party in D&D. Work in interdisciplinary teams; buy desks on wheels if you have to. Oh, and if you’re one of those Lone Wolves – don’t be a dragon. They’re greedy – and evil.