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Cultivate a garden: The dangers of individual ownership

Nathan Martz, former tech director of Double Fine, outlines how shared ownership can help to minimize risk and conflict between team members during the development of a game.
Nathan Martz, former technical director at Double Fine, says individual ownership can sometimes be poisonous to a development team. During the first talk of GDC China, Martz cautioned that ownership shouldn't be left to the individual, but should be thought of as something shared by the team. Naturally, there's a strong tendency in game development teams to have a sense of individual ownership in their games. Like any art, people want to feel proud of the work they've done, the sense that they can point to something and say "I made this, this is mine." But there are serious downsides as well. "One of the biggest is territoriality," says Martz. "People say, 'this is my code, get out, I don't want you messing with my stuff.'" This is the sort of situation that leads to people fighting over systems - as a producer or manager, now you have to diffuse that situation. "Ownership concentrates risk," he says. "If a person is the owner of a system, if that person leaves or gets sick, you now have a serious threat to your organization." The solution Martz found took inspiration from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. To him, that park appears to have a cohesive look and feel, even though it is clearly enormous, and worked on by hundreds of caretakers. Thus, he thinks about software "not as something that an individual owns, but like a garden that everyone shares," he says. "Hopefully something that'll outlast all of us." This ethos helps the team work together without feeling too precious about their own work. "The garden belongs to everyone," says Martz, "There's no one piece of it that's mine or yours, it's ours." People will of course build expertise in certain areas. "It's not that you shouldn't ever touch anyone else's work, but you should at least respect what they've done," he says. "This philosophy of a communal garden gives you the benefits of individual ownership, without the downsides." As an example, Martz says you should make tools everyone's responsibility. Every artist should care about their workflow, giving feedback about the tools that facilitate it when necessary. When you combine this with hiring people who enjoy working together, and can learn from one another, you've got a much stronger team that will have fewer conflicts.

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