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Agile Game Development With Scrum: Teams

In this extract from his recent book, certified Scrum trainer Clinton Keith discusses the best composition of teams in Agile work environments -- a wealth of knowledge of what processes to establish and which pitfalls to watch out for.

[For its latest feature, Gamasutra presents an extracted chapter from Clinton Keith's book Agile Game Development with Scrum, in which the veteran developer and Scrum consultant explains the nuts and bolts of Agile. In this chapter, he discusses integrating teams with Scrum processes, including best practices and potential pitfalls.]

I've worked on creating various products, from the F-22 fighters to games, for more than 20 years. The highlights of my career are clearly marked in my mind by the project teams I was working with. These teams were more consequential to enjoyment and productivity than the company or project we were working for at the time.

Working with the project team on the first Midtown Madness game was a highlight. The team was largely composed of developers who had never worked on a game before. Microsoft, our publisher, and the studio we worked at, Angel Studios, left us largely alone to develop the game. As a result, many of the smaller details of the game were left to us to discover. We were never far away from being canceled either...in some cases hours away. We had to prove ourselves.

What emerged was a team with a shared vision, a sense of ownership, and pride. We worked hard on the game. For example, we started a LAN party with the game every day at 6 p.m., and at 8 p.m. we met in a conference room to talk about improving the experience.

I'd often have an idea pop into my head during the night, and I'd rush back in during the early hours of the day to try it, often finding teammates who had arrived earlier or had even spent the night working on their own idea.

Although we spent long hours on the game, it seemed more like a hobby we were passionate about than a job, but it never felt like a "crunch."

The game we shipped was a success, but the real reward was the experience of working with that team. Much of the chemistry of that team is a mystery to me. There doesn't seem to be a formula for how such teams can be created, but I've found that it's quite easy to prevent such teams from forming. Scrum's focus is on allowing such teams to form, if possible, and nurturing them to grow.

This chapter will explore some of the basic Scrum principles and practices that support such teams and how large projects of more than 100 people can use these practices and allow individuals on teams to still have a shared vision, sense of ownership, and pride. It will also explore various team structures that have been formed on large game projects.

This chapter describes the central role of teams in Scrum, the role of leadership, and how small Scrum teams scale for large projects.

Great Teams

Great teams are one of the most influential factors for creating a successful game. Great teams are also the most difficult teams to foster. They cannot be created through the application of rules or practices alone. Studio and project leadership are required to facilitate them.

Great teams share the following characteristics:

Follow a shared vision and purpose: Everyone on the team understands the goal of what they are working on.

Complement other team members' skills: Team members depend on each other to achieve their goals by applying their unique skills to a shared goal.

Exhibit open and safe communication: Team members feel safe to communicate anything to one another.

Share decision making, responsibility, and accountability: The team succeeds or fails together, not as individuals. Everyone earns their spot on the team daily. There is no room for titles or egos.

Have fun together: They spend time together and enjoy each other's company. They care for one another.

Deliver value: Great teams take pride in their work and deliver high value consistently.

Demonstrate shared commitment: Great teams have a unified cause. When one member has a problem, the entire team will pitch in to help them out. As a result, great teams deliver value because they focus on the whole rather on their own parts. Great teams are committed to their goals. They'll go the "extra mile" to achieve a goal that they believe in.

Scrum creates a framework, through its practices and roles, to support these teams. They require facilitation and support of leadership and management to evolve. Great teams are uncommon. They create experiences -- like the one I mentioned in the chapter introduction -- that people strive to be a part of over their entire career.

When baking a cake, a few ingredients are needed before you start. If you are missing any of these, such as eggs, flour, and so on, you can't make a cake. However, just how these ingredients are prepared together and baked into the cake is the main difference between a memorable wedding cake and something that might taste like it that came from an Easy-Bake oven.

Leadership and talent are the required ingredients for a great game, but like the cake, how these ingredients are brought together, such as in a team, is the main determinant of the quality of the game. Scrum doesn't provide the ingredients for great teams but helps them "mix and bake" what's there to achieve that goal.

A Scrum Approach to Teams

Scrum creates conditions that enable such teams to achieve greatness through its practices and principles:

Cross-discipline teams: Enables teams to deliver features and mechanics that have clear value to customers and stakeholders

Self-management: Enables teams to select the amount of work they can commit to every sprint and complete that work through whatever means they find appropriate

Self-organization: Enables teams to have a degree of authority and responsibility to select their membership

True leadership: Provides leadership focused on mentoring and facilitation to free the best performance possible from the team

The rest of this section will examine the principles and practices in greater detail.

Experience

"At the heart of scrum is the interaction of the team. A daily meeting around the task board is interactive, vibrant, collaborative, visual, and tactile. It is a visual way of showing the goal the team is striving toward and the progress they are making. They, each and every member of the team, are peers.

"They own the goal. It's a team effort. They gather around the board to align themselves with each other, to honor others' contribution to the effort, and to course-correct when they are missing the mark. They argue, discuss, share, learn, continually improve, celebrate, boost each other up, and create solutions.

"There is another thing that Scrum does for the team: It creates transparency. Since Scrum depends on collaboration and continual forward progress, problems are addressed by the team as they crop up instead of dealing with them later or covering the problem under a layer of 'spin.'

"A structured, militant environment will never create a team. A team works together toward a shared goal. A group works together toward a goal given to them. Scrum is messy and noisy. It lives, it breathes, it stretches, it morphs, and it expands. Interaction is the heart of the team. The heart of Scrum is the team."

-- Shelly Warmuth, freelance writer and game designer


Cross-Discipline Teams

When the various documents are written and schedules are created, the priorities of each discipline's schedules don't often mesh. Programmers often read the design document and architect a number of systems based on the goals established in the document. Complexity and risk prioritize this work, not feature value.

For example, if the design identifies characters that walk on walls, then they architect that requirement into the character system. This requires a great deal of work to alter the physics system and the camera system. The programmers consider these changes as high priority, since they affect core systems at a fundamental level. As a result, they begin working on these changes from the start. The problem is that the "walking on walls" feature may not be very important to the designers. The feature may even be dropped when it is seen.

This lack of synchronized prioritization between disciplines leads to delays in building knowledge about the game: knowledge that comes only from using each mechanic in a working game.

Scrum requires a synchronization of the disciplines every sprint. This forces change in how each developer works daily regardless of their discipline. A cross-discipline team uses value to explore a solution, which addresses the needs for technology, design, and animation.

This drives changes in the way each discipline works to avoid one discipline getting too far ahead of the others, such as creating speculative architectures.

Programmers on a Scrum team may eventually adopt test-driven development practices, discussed in Chapter 10, "Agile Technology," to enable value-prioritized development without the cost of late changes that up-front architectures attempt to avoid.

Cross-discipline Scrum teams minimize the delays and costs that are incurred by large discipline-focused hierarchies. Team members share the same goal and therefore the same priorities, which encourage collaboration. Practices such as the daily scrum reinforce a team's commitment to the sprint goal and to solving the problems that ordinarily would "fall between the cracks" between the disciplines on a daily basis.

Self-Management

Scrum addresses the problems of communication on large teams not by adding management layers but by dividing the project staff into small teams. Scrum teams are usually composed of five to nine cross-disciplined developers who take on major game features and create vertical slices of those features every sprint. Teams take on an increasing level of self-management by doing the following:

  • Choosing the amount of work to accomplish for the coming sprint and committing to its completion
  • Deciding the best way to work together
  • Estimating their own work and monitoring progress toward their committed goal daily
  • Demonstrating sprint goals achieved to the stakeholders every sprint
  • Taking responsibility for their performance and finding ways to improve it

Team self-management doesn't happen overnight. It requires mentoring and practice to achieve. It requires trust to be built between management and the teams and the clear definition of the dividing line of responsibilities.

Self-Organization

Team self-organization is the most challenging practice for teams trying to achieve self-management. Self-organizing teams select their own members whom they believe can help them achieve the best results.

The benefits of self-organization are an essential part of a self-managing team. When teams "own" their membership, then they treat team commitments with a great deal more ownership. When people are assigned to a team built by management, it's something that they have no control over, and, as we've seen, a lack of control prevents full commitment.

Teams are allowed to change their membership between sprints, but most often they only make changes before the first sprint of a new release. Shortly after a release plan is discussed with the project staff, they negotiate among themselves to exchange members. The teams take the following into account when self-organizing:

What are the release goals and initial release plan? Sometimes release goals require a complete reorganization of the teams. For example, a game that has focused on single-player mechanics might work on online gameplay during the next release. This might require a new distribution of skills.

What disciplines and skills are required to implement the release goals? For example, if a team that has been implementing a shooting mechanic is now being called upon to create AI characters that shoot back, they need to bring an AI programmer on board. If some simple changes need to be made to the codebase, perhaps a junior programmer is the best fit.

What are the priorities of the release goals? If teams compete for people, the higher-priority release goal determines where people go. For example, if both a shooting and driving team need AI and there is only one experienced AI programmer, the higher-priority goal determines that the AI programmer first goes to the shooting mechanic team.

Do the team members have chemistry? Although it is often ignored, the chemistry of people working together on a team has as much impact as any of the practices. For example, teams often benefit from having one outspoken member but suffer from having two. Both might be equally talented, but together they just don't work well. Teams recognize this and should be able to control their membership to avoid it.

Like many other Scrum practices, a team isn't expected to master self-organization from the start. Most studios starting Scrum avoid this practice at first and slowly over time allow the team a greater degree of influence over who is added and removed from the team.

Eventually the team will make the decisions on their own, with leadership influencing their decisions and providing help with conflicts and problems that exceed the team's authority. The rewards are profound. Self-organizing teams deliver unequalled levels of performance and enjoy their work far more than conventionally managed teams (Takeuchi and Nonaka 1986).

When people first hear about self-organization, they are skeptical. It reminds them of painful childhood memories of not being chosen for a sports team. Inexperienced teams treat this practice as a popularity contest. They will need the assistance of management to help them make the best choices (see Chapter 16, "Launching Scrum"). Experienced agile teams, which understand team commitment, end up making better choices that benefit their velocity.

Occasionally, teams "self-organize people off" between sprints. The team removes poor performers or poor team players (see the sidebar "When Someone Is Kicked Off a Team"). This is necessary to allow teams to truly take ownership and commit to their work.

When Someone Is Kicked Off a Team

It's pretty rare for a team to unanimously eject someone from their team. Usually the person ejected has ignored months of team and leadership feedback about their poor performance or teamwork. However, being ejected from a team cannot be ignored. It is a strong statement from a group of your peers.

After this occurs, another team willing to take this person has to be found. They have to be made aware of the issues that led to their ejection from the last team. Teams cannot be forced to accept people they don't want.

If it's the first time this person has been ejected and several other teams are around, the person will be able to join another team easily. Most of time this person corrects the issues and becomes a valuable member of another team, or the person simply finds a team where the chemistry is better.

On rare occasions, they don't work well on the next team either. After a few ejections, it's common to find that no other team will accept this person. It then becomes management's duty to release this person from the company. Sometimes the person gets the message and leaves before this happens.

I've only seen this happen a few times. It's unfortunate, but it makes a statement to the teams: They control their destiny. They are responsible and have the necessary authority to make changes to improve their performance. When this authority doesn't exist, it doesn't allow a team to achieve its potential. Teams that can't self-organize will feel that they are stuck with the members on their team and there is nothing they can do about it. They feel helpless to make the change they need and don't make the same level of commitment they possibly could.

When you see the performance of teams that achieves their potential, you stop questioning the value of these practices. It does take a leap of faith to allow them into your studios. Unfortunately, some don't reach this point and don't see the potential of great teams realized.


Team Size

Scrum literature recommends teams have sizes of seven to nine members (Schwaber 2004). This is based on studies (Steiner 1972) and firsthand experience that shows that team productivity peaks at these sizes.

A challenge for agile game development is to build cross-discipline teams that don't exceed this range. For some teams, the number of disciplines desired to achieve a goal can be large. For example, a level prototyping team may need the following:

  • Two level artists
  • One prop artist
  • One texture artist
  • One animator
  • One sound designer
  • One concept artist
  • One level designer
  • One gameplay designer
  • One graphics programmer
  • One gameplay programmer
  • One AI programmer

This is a 12-member team that begins to exhibit some of the problems seen on larger teams. For example, some members are more likely than others to not speak up and be heard. This inhibits the team from raising their performance through commitment and shared accountability.

Another problem with larger teams is that subteams or cliques tend to form. I was on a team such as the previous one. The designers and artists formed separate cabals that raised communication barriers. Whenever I visited one of these cliques, they would criticize the other.

These criticisms weren't shared between the two factions, so problems lingered. This had a major impact on the quality of the prototype levels and the speed at which they were created. ScrumMaster intervention eventually resolved this, but a smaller team would have self-corrected this problem sooner.

A team like this might consider separating into two teams with smaller goals that "stage" the development of prototype levels, but that introduces dependency and accountability issues. I encourage teams to try different arrangements for a few sprints, and if that doesn't address the problems, they can reform into a larger team again.

Some studios have used teams of three to five people in size and report that it worked very well.

Drawing the Line

At High Moon Studios, we established some "laws" that were meant to describe the practices and rules that projects and their teams had the authority over and others that they did not. We referred to these laws as the "state laws" that defined project and team authority and "federal laws" that defined decisions that were made for them.

For international readers, in the United States federal laws govern the entire country, while state laws govern those within a state. If the two conflict, federal laws take precedence.

One example of a federal law was the use of a studiowide engine and pipeline technology. Studio management didn't want the teams creating significantly different engine and pipelines for their own games. We wanted the benefits that came from individuals understanding a shared technology as they moved from one project to another. An example of a state law was how the project organized themselves into individual teams and implemented items from the product backlog.

Leadership

When I was a child, my father decided to teach me to swim, as his father had taught him, by tossing me into a lake where the water was over my head. After watching the bubbles come up for half a minute, he dove in and pulled me out. I didn't learn to swim that day. In fact, I learned to avoid even trying for the rest of the summer.

With my children, we have adopted a more gradual approach of coaching them to take on greater swimming challenges from a few seconds of dog paddling through the point where they can swim back and forth across an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Leadership in an agile organization has a similar challenge. Agile organizations need to grow leadership at every level but find the approach between micromanaging teams and throwing them in over their head that will bring about success. Both of those extremes will lead to failure.

Project Leadership

The responsibilities of project leaders (lead programmers, lead artists, lead designers, and so on) may change as teams adopt agile:

Design and planning: Leads still define the design (gameplay, technical, concept, and so on) for their discipline in concert with the other disciplines and oversee how the design is implemented.

Resource allocation: Leads will estimate how many people in their discipline are needed on the project, what areas they will work on, and approximately when they will work on them, but these will only be estimates. The teams will slowly take over the responsibility of identifying areas of need on a per-sprint and even release basis.

Task creation and management: Leads no longer break down work into tasks that they estimate, assign, and track. Teams manage this themselves. Leads still participate in sprint planning and helping members of their discipline improve their task identification and estimating skills.

Review and promotion: Although leads may continue to review every member of their discipline on a regular, usually annual, basis, the performance of the team becomes a more important part of their the information for the review (see the "Reviews" section).

Mentoring: Leads work with less experienced developers to improve their productivity. The lead role shifts from managing primarily through project management tools to one where they "go and see" what is occurring with each developer as frequently as possible (see the "Mentoring" section).

Team self-management challenges the lead role definition. It's difficult for many leads to give up making detailed decisions for teams on a daily basis and allow them to risk failure, even for smaller challenges. However, the benefits of growing self-management behaviors become apparent as some of the more mundane management duties of a lead, such as task creation, estimation, and tracking, are taken over by the team. For example, a project staff of 80 developers generates and tracks approximately 1,600 tasks during a four-week sprint.[1] This is an overwhelming volume of detail for any lead group to manage and draws their time away from the more valuable leadership duties of their role.

Mentoring

The most important role of the lead is to mentor developers to improve how they work. An example is when lead programmers pair with associate programmers to teach them how to improve their coding and design practices.

Junior programmers often implement simulation solutions that are far too expensive in the CPU resources they consume. I recall one new programmer who was tasked with implementing a wind effect. They started implementing a complex fluid dynamic engine that used 90% of the CPU time to simulate thousands of air particles. A lead programmer intervened and showed them a few tricks to introduce a good effect in a few hours that required hardly any CPU time.

Scrum creates opportunities for leads to continue working on games and lead by way of example instead of through a spreadsheet. Rather than spending half their day with a tool creating and tracking tasks, they interact with people working one on one.


[1] 10 teams × 8 people × one task per day × 20 days per sprint


Reviews

Another critical role of leadership is to provide career support for the developers in their discipline. In companies that employ a matrix management structure, this takes the form of a yearly management and salary review. This reinforces discipline-centric performance over team-centric performance.

For example, if an artist is evaluated on how productive they were creating assets over the past year, then they focus on faster asset creation to improve this metric. As a result, when a teammate interrupts the artist about a game problem, it reduces the number of assets they create; the artist then tries to isolate him or herself to reduce these interruptions for the benefit of a better review. This is not a good cycle.

Leads in agile environments have introduced frequent team-based peer reviews to supplement, if not replace, the yearly review process. This allows feedback about teamwork and cross-discipline collaboration to be introduced. Individual lead roles for each discipline will be described in greater detail in coming chapters.

Director Roles

The game industry is filled with director roles, such as art directors, technical directors, and so on. Usually these roles are given to members of a discipline who show the greatest level of craftsmanship but who also have authority over the work, rather than a group of people.

Often these roles exist to oversee and approve or disapprove of the work being done in their area. Scrum teams need to adjust their practices to meet the needs of these roles, such as described in Chapter 11, "Agile Art and Audio."

Game Teams and Collaboration

Game development requires a high level of collaboration between diverse disciplines. For example, a character in a game has animation, physics, textures, models, sounds, and behaviors that need to work seamlessly together to produce the whole. A single discipline cannot accomplish all of these functions alone. They need to work closely with other disciplines to create features.

Unfortunately, as team sizes grow, disciplines tend to pool together. This delays integration of their work and leads to many problems. Scrum focuses development on frequently integrated features that drive close cross-discipline collaboration. Daily cross-discipline collaboration leads developers to think of themselves as game developers first and as programmers, designers, arts, QA, producers, and so on, second.

In this section, we'll examine various team structures that are used by agile game teams to promote collaboration across the project and across disciplines.

Collaboration, Interrupted

There is no shortage of ways in which companies try to build morale with large cross-discipline teams. I've been involved in a few of these potentially dangerous exercises myself in the past.

I still recall the day that a team-building exercise nearly maimed me. It was on a paintball field located in high chaparral land east of San Diego. I was lying flat on my back, nearly out of ammunition, while nearly 30 electrical engineers were trying to shoot me.

I was a young software engineer working for a military avionics company. During my career in the defense industry, I witnessed the animosity between electrical engineers and software engineers. To the electrical engineers, we lacked true engineering discipline and were overpaid. They often considered our code as a "necessary evil." We saw the electrical engineers as elitist in attitude and outdated in their technical philosophy.

Personally I believed the electrical engineers hated us because we were often the heroes of a project. The software we wrote often worked around the flaws in their hardware that threatened a project in its final hours.

It started with a division into two teams. Naturally, one team consisted of the electrical engineers, and the other consisted of us software engineers.

I won't lie and say we were better fighters that day. We weren't. I won't make excuses and accuse them of cheating, although they brought some suspicious-looking tools with them. The plain fact was that the software team lost most games, and we lost them badly.

I faced the greatest challenge during the last game of the day. We were playing an elimination match in a small plywood "village." The goal of the game was for one team to eliminate every player on the opposing team to win.

It was another bloodbath for the software team. We were quickly decimated. I survived by hiding, with several other programmers, on the roof of a plywood hut. The partial cover of three walls protected us, and the only way to enter the roof was through a hole in the floor from the room below.

One by one, my roof mates were killed off in heroic displays of gallantry and ignorance of the value of cover. I was content to hunch low and survive.

Suddenly the referees blew their whistles signaling the end of the game. They believed that all the software engineers were dead! I jumped up, roaring in defiance at what I hoped was one or two remaining enemies.

My roar was quickly choked when I saw that nearly the entire enemy team of 30 electrical engineers was still alive. Endless seconds seemed to pass as we considered each other. Then one of the referees announced, "Game on!" and blew his whistle. I will never forget the sight of all those electrical engineers, shouting with gleeful nerd rage, running toward me as I ducked back into cover.

I held out for a while. I even managed to kill a few of the enemy engineers. I would love to say that I was a hero that day, but it was not to be. Someone eventually shot me. The electrical engineers completed their victory over us, and we went back to work with renewed feelings of antagonism.

Feature Teams

Features teams are cross-discipline teams that develop core game features. For example, the small cross-disciplined team shown in Figure 8.1 could take full responsibility for a driving mechanic.

A major benefit of feature teams is the sense of ownership they experience. Participating in the full development of a few mechanics is far more satisfying to most developers than participating part-time on many. For many developers, this gives a greater sense of accomplishment.


Figure 8.1: An example driving mechanics team

A feature team should have everyone they need to build the mechanics. In practice, this is difficult to accomplish. Sometimes teams need to share disciplines in short supply. An example of this is an effects (FX) artist who is utilized 25% of the time by any single team. Often this person is shared among multiple teams.

Functional Teams

Functional teams are composed of developers who are mostly of the same discipline yet still work on a key feature. Although less common than feature teams, functional teams have their benefits.

One example is a platform te

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