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The authority of team leader and the fail of democracy

Availability bias, halo effect, endowment effect and the worst mistake a team leader can do.

Arseniy Shved, Blogger

March 25, 2013

16 Min Read

Don’t design by committee. Do not treat the design work as a democratic process in which each person’s opinion has equal value (“design by committee”). One person must have the authority to make final decisions, and the others must acknowledge this person’s authority.”

Ernest Adams, “Fundamentals of Game Design

 “Programmers always try to change the task to an easier one. Do not let that happen. ”

My boss, on one of my first day at work.

Hello everyone!

Last time I was talking about the problems one could face, trying to assemble a team and start developing a game. This time I’m going to discuss one of the major difficulties I’ve encountered while actually developing a game.

But first I should provide some background to the events I’m about to describe.

I’m 26 right now. I have been playing games since 6 but for a long time I did not think that I would end up in gamedev. Not that I did not want to, it just did not occur to me. In late 2011 however I have finally came to understanding that it’s the only one thing I actually might enjoy doing.

I’ve started from extensive internet search (sloperama.com was especially helpful). I sent couple of resumes, received several test tasks and eventually got rejected. Totally predictable but a bit painful. Soon I’ve found a job in a large Russian gaming magazine Igromania.

3 months later I finally entered the game designer club as I got a job in a social gamedev company. I clearly stated that I had no prior game design experience, but I guess I was at least not as bad as others, who applied as well. I was the only one game designer in a 20+ person company (now there are more then 40).

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Just knowing about this effect could benefit many people.
But most of us are incredibly ignorant about our ignorance.

I was assigned to 3 already released games. I was to suggest ways to improve them. I would pinpoint a problem and suggest several ways to solve it, usually trying to point out pros and cons of various solutions. Then I would discuss it with my boss and he would decide what to do. It was a dream come true, only better – maximum creativity and no responsibility whatsoever.

One month later I was assigned to write a concept for a new project. My boss came to me and said: “We want to make a new game. It must be a single-player side-scrolling beat’em up for social networks. You can do whatever you want, but we already have the interface. We need you to write a concept and a story. You will be working with an artist and a programmer. Oh, it has got to be about Japan and there has got to be a woman.

It was a strange task. Never in my life could I imagine that the interface could be developed for a game without a concept, based only on a vague “beat’em up” definition. But it was great as well – after all I got to start creating a new game from scratch. I still had only one, maybe two months of experience, so I ended up influenced by a programmer – we had sufficiently similar interests to easily communicate, but different enough not to agree on everything, which lead to very productive arguments. He was working like 1 year longer than me, so I listened carefully to his ideas and usually chose his ones over mine. Not blindly of course.

What's left if original concept.

The original theme of the game was pseudo-historical steam-punk in
Japan. Looks a bit like Assassin's creed, though...

The working protocol almost stayed the same –the better part of the core mechanics I would write on my own (still usually suggesting several variants). Some things I would discuss with the programmer and usually changed some parts of the document. The story was totally my domain, and it was only guided by the interface style (weird, right?) and the thesis about Japan. And my boss would decide what to do.

It was the most fun I could have. And our small team of 3 was really productive. Until the artist decided to quit. Not long before that my bosses decided that they are uncomfortable with real names of places and historical characters so some changes were to be made about the story. A new artist joined the team as well. She was unable to maintain the dark pseudo-historical steam-punk style, so the whole visual part had to be redesigned. My vision totally differed from hers.  I was designing a dark and brutal game with blood and sticky feeling of bad things happening no matter what. She was the opposite. She was the one who was working on 3 other titles and her word had more weight.

The man of power

Moriarty knows how to make smart decisions. He also knows how
to make people do as he wants. I might have had a crown but
had no authority and power.

Shortly after that I was made the leader of the project. So every single aspect of that game became my personal responsibility. But I still could not enforce my vision to be executed. Fuck. Every single letter in the script was contradicting to a gay cowboy dude she drew. Luckily she got help from a newly hired artist, who was like drawing straight from my mind. I asked him to draw one boss-character and animate him. This boss was so much cooler then the main cowboy-character, and only blind could not see that her style did not match the task at hand (which I tried to communicate to boss several times, but only this time did a make a stand and finally got what I wanted).

She left the project and only 3 of us remained. Unfortunately, along the way we appeared in a position where the visual style again dictated the concept, so I had to rewrite the whole goddamn story again and rethink the style. The carousel of artists turned into a 3 month-worth setback as we had to start work on visuals from scratch. Again. If I took a stand earlier the loss would be at least 1 month less. Staying true to what you believe is crucial. Unfortunately for me I rarely did so…

As I said – before I got promoted, boss was the one who was making decisions. Sometimes he liked my ideas better, sometimes he preferred programmer’s ones. At first it seemed like nothing have changed: I still discussed stuff with programmer and we still argued. But now it was my job to choose from several options. And, like my boss, I sometimes preferred my ideas and sometimes not.

It’s really hard to make an unbiased evaluation of ideas and to compare them.

First of all it’s natural for people to value something that belongs to them, over something that belongs to other people.  A good example of this concept is shown in a short YouTube clip by Dan Ariely. He discusses this quirk more extensively in his book “Predictably irrational”. It’s a good read.

So for example if my idea is in its outcome it absolutely identical to your idea, it’s hard for us to see it this way. Well theoretically. I’m not a psychologist.

The other feature of our brain is that we easier see other mistakes, then our own. “We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman).

So for example if my idea has a flaw, and my your idea has an identical flaw, I feel like your flaw is worse.

This situation is tough on itself but it actually gets worse.

So, I am aware if the biases which can affect my judgment. Now I can resist them. But my opponent does not give a shit about it. It goes like this:

My Idea is a “5” and his idea is a “5”. If I knew nothing about human brain I would evaluate my Idea as a “10” and his idea as a “1”. And that is what my opponent does. So we both theoretically push our idea with the force of a “10” and criticize other’s ideas as “1”. The more stubborn one wins.

But I am aware of the biases. So I try to be objective. I probably end up evaluating my “5” as a “7” and his “5” as a “3”. But he still thinks he has a “10” and I have a ”1”. Who will push harder, how do you think? I eventually tried to explain the biases, but it only made things worse. People do not like smart asses.

Brutal Dude from Brutal Legend. Available on PC now =)

I wish I had the persuasive abilities of this brutal dude...

And it goes worse. So I sometimes think that his ideas are actually better than mine. Which in my book is great for me, him, team and project. But he thinks that I am weak and if applied enough pressure I will give up. So the arguments become less and less productive and a lot longer.

It’s bad on itself – the productivity of the arguments decreased as well as the actual time on writing code. But it made the chemistry of the team bad. I started to think of him as of a jerk, and I am pretty sure the feeling was mutual.

Now, you probably have heard of the halo effect (it has got nothing to do with the game. Well maybe it has, the title is so hyped…). The halo effect or halo error is a cognitive bias in which one's judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one's overall impression of him or her.

In short it means that if I like how the candidate looks and talks, I expect him to be a man of honor and I believe he will be a good president, even if I have no clue what his political or moral values are. Or if I’m pissed at my coworker I might end up thinking that all his ideas suck. Or he will think this way about me. And it cannot be good.

Our disagreements were getting out of hand.  There were 3 people in our team. So we started to vote. The most ridiculous thing is that I think of myself as a man of honor, so if we vote, I tend to obey the collective decision. But it was not the case with him (or, it’s just the availability bias talking). If he was outvoted he would continue to argue. At that point of time I would sometimes lose my temper and yell at him (not proud of it) stuff like “I’m in fucken charge here, shut the fuck up and do what I say for fuck’s sake”. Not a good idea. Well yes, he would sometimes do as I said, but not for long. And it was bad for my self-respect, and I’m sure the others began to think less of me. I know I did.

Knowing how brain works can sometimes be really helpful. But I still
have no idea what to do if someone refuses to listen to reason?
How to compare my ideas versus other's? Or how to be a person
you believe you are?

The basic idea behind the arguments, in theory, was simple – a bunch of people discuss several ideas, come to a consensus. They make decisions and they act accordingly. It was a serious surprise for me when I found out that several of the decisions we’ve made were executed not the way I’ve suggested (and we settled on this one), but the way he wanted to. Now I had to double check every detail to make sure that he did not do things which counteracted my decisions.

It was a norm for me to ask him to do A, and he would say that he will do B and we’ll see how it works. It was better than searching for stuff he’d do his way. At least I knew what was going on.

I began to fear every single feature that had to be implemented. I would spend hours trying to force myself to start working on a feature. I was second guessing every minor decision. It’s not that I have forgotten all the game design principles, it was the fear of the upcoming unavoidable at least 2-hour long arguments.

It had, of course, obvious counterproductive effects. Lengthy arguments tend to come down to tiniest irrelevant details and blow them out of proportion (you can read more about this in Dan Ariely’s “Predictably irrational” or Jamie Madigan’s “Psychology of games” blog) and it makes everyone involved to forget about the big picture, the general direction or even what for is this feature needed. It’s like you want to milk a cow but during an argument comes up a thesis that a horse is more user-friendly and you end up building a chariot.

But as bad as it was, it still could go worse and it did. He began to alter the story – the only one thing he did not care about before. I mean what the fuck? Folks from other projects would come to me so that I wrote them texts, because they knew I was the man to ask. I did not have to help them – I was not working on their project, and had enough on my plate, but I did help them. And everyone knew that I could write in different styles and I could write long or short, I could make the text funny, brutal, creepy or anything they needed ( my Russian is much better than English, but I hope to change it with practice). And the only person who found my texts bad was actually supposed to be subordinate to me.

Batman: Arkham City by Rocksteady Studios

If you're in the same room with Joker - you are in trouble. If he
points a gun at you - it's time to pray. But if i had a choice - put myself
into the situation I've experiensed or in front of that barrel, I'd
choose the latter. Joker is fun after all, and Batman might save me...

It kept going like this for 8 or 9 months. We actually released the game. Despite the fact that it was half ready (hey, only 3 people were working on it for 8 months, 3 of them (months, not people) were lost in the very beginning) I am really proud of the outcome, considering... We actually had much more mechanics, but we did not have enough visual content like main character’s animation, which is not a good thing for a brawler.

It was not received very well, but at least we tried to pull out something that no one in Russian social gaming space tried to – develop a real time beat’em up with a deep skill system and real-time player interaction. Could it be better? Of course. Could it be worse? Yes, it could.

Maybe I should have preferred more of my decisions from the beginning, or maybe we would be better off with his ideas. Or maybe the best outcome would be if we switched all his ideas for mine and vice versa. But most probably it’s something else. In the end it were my decisions, no matter who suggested the ideas behind them. And my bad decisions led to a not so good game.

I feel like in school again, when my mom thought me not to copy others, but to make my own decision. And I lived by that code until last year. The simple fact, which I knew from school, remains true. It sucks to make mistakes. But it sucks even more to make mistakes of other people.

I still think that the best features of the game were born out of our discussions. But when the discussion is over, the decision is made, the whole team has to commit to it. Is it too much to ask?

Broken Pieces

Broken pieces still can be put together.

2 weeks ago the project was closed till better times come. Our small team exists no more – but we all continue to work on other games, and I hope on ourselves. I do.

As I continue working in that company, I still am trying to make my own game. Since my last post (and frankly a bit earlier) I’ve had some major progress there, so I might soon dedicate a post to it.

The last 8 month thought me 2 very important things, which you probably already know:

  • stay true to your own vision

  • be careful with the people you choose to work with

I hope you will not have to experience what I’ve had to experience, and I hope this post, though very long for such a simple message, will be useful to someone. Do not do my mistakes. Better do your own ones.

And we’ll see what happens next.

PS: More on how people act during arguments read in Jamie Madigan’s blogpost “The Psycology of Game of the Year Debates.” 

PPS: This post originally appeared on my personal blog here

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