In a previous blog post I wrote about defining studio culture for artists, but this time I wanted to expand the scope a bit and talk about how we can help establish a healthy culture across all disciplines. These are hard earned lessons, born from mistakes I've made as well as philosophies I've cultivated in a variety of game studio environments.
Game development work is inherently & by necessity creative, yet often we don't work in environments conducive to creativity. In many game studios, over-scheduled employees are under immense pressure to meet deadlines, with the expectation of hitting ever-increasing quality & experience targets.
In a lecture at the World Creativity forum, John Cleese (of Monty Python) talked about Closed Mode (getting things done) vs. Open Mode (being creative). “If you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.”
So how do we create the conditions for creativity in such a predominantly Closed Mode (and sometimes toxic) environment? The key is to give & receive positive energy at every opportunity.
Acknowledge and support the work of your peers
It's demoralizing to work hard creating something for your game, announcing it to your team, only to be rewarded with silence. Yes, we're all busy with our own work. And yes, all those check-in mails take a little time to read. But that is exactly the time you should be giving energy back to the person who put it in. Even if it's as simple as "Wow, nice!".
The fact is that most creatives thrive on feedback, it's what motivates & drives them to repeat the creation cycle over and over. In a feedback vacuum, the light bulb of energy dims and eventually goes dark.
It's also a symbol of professional respect, the fabric of strong development teams. That bit of code that makes something cooler or appear more magical, that tweak to the design making the weapon more fun to use, or that lighting pass helping to make a space feel incredibly real... we absolutely should never take these things for granted.
Don't participate in the negative sub-culture
Not all company cultures are healthy. You may find yourself on a team where a sub-group of people continuously grouse amongst themselves about the game, decision making, or how things are being done. Or you may witness people who routinely rip on other games, ignorant of the actual conditions & constraints that those dev teams operated under.
Avoid getting caught in this undertow, there are no positive outcomes possible from these types of interactions. Channel concerns or doubts about your project into positive actions. Seek out the decision makers and politely ask for more clarity or information. Offer them alternatives, or at least your help in improving the situation whenever possible.
Accept that no project ever goes perfectly, mistakes can and will be made. Identifying problems is easy, but offering solutions shows you are focused on moving things forward. Put your energy into building your team up vs. tearing them down.
Set an example that makes others eager to follow
Cleese also said, "Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating." Bring positive attitude and humor into all of your interactions, even in "serious" or stressful situations where solemnity and darkness are normally present. Make it apparent to everyone that you protect your creative process in the face of anyone who questions or attempts to devalue it.
Associate yourself with like-minded people, and take time & space outside the grind to explore and bounce fun ideas off each other. Build up this network with the goal of creating a positive sub-culture. Like a Katamari ball, more people will be drawn in who are relieved and eager to participate.
When you see a normally positive colleague who is being overwhelmed by negative forces, or slipping into a depressive spiral, take them out to lunch and offer your help and support. Let them know you care, instead of hoping from a distance that the problem will go away.
Yes, all of this is easier said than done. Game development is hard. Some projects can go on for years, and can lead to a loss of perspective as things get ever more off-kilter. Sometimes the only solution to a terminally negative workplace is leaving it.
But the people in the industry I admire the most, the ones who survive the longest with their sanity intact, are the ones who develop the discipline to eschew negativity, and promote positive energy in every aspect of their work.