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Lessons in Game Development Leadership from SMU Guildhall

Drawing from my experience as game designer and producer in two different student projects at SMU Guildhall, I discuss the nature of leadership on game development teams.

Introduction

SMU Guildhall, located in Plano, Texas, is one of the country’s leading graduate programs in video game development. The hallmark of its academic program is the Team Game Project (TGP) curriculum, in which students from all disciplines (Art, Level Design, Production, and Programming) work together to create games on rapid development cycles. This allows students to experience all the thrills and pitfalls of real-world game building – the palpable energy of the first brainstorming session, the anxiety of looming milestones, and yes, crunching.

I am currently in the middle of my second TGP at the time of this writing, working as a producer on a team of nine developers. In the previous project, I served on a team of five as its game designer. These leadership roles, I have found, have a tendency to find themselves at odds with each other. The game designer’s primary concern is to make the game as fun as possible, while the producer’s job is to ensure the game actually ships on schedule. On the other hand, when the producer and game designer are in lockstep with each other, their team becomes unstoppable. Although my career in gaming thus far has been brief, my TGP experiences have given me plenty of insights on these seemingly conflicting leadership roles and how teams can turn this conflict into a force for good.

Producers Are Your Friends! Seriously.

If one were to ask twenty Guildhall students about their understanding of the producer’s role, not one answer would be the same (although there might be a quite a few jokes about Excel spreadsheets). In an article for Gamesauce’s Spring 2010 issue, wonderfully subtitled “Producers: Essential Glue for any Project or Useless Bags of Meat?”, authors Kenn Hoekstra and Dan Magaha identify five key roles that game producers inhabit:

  • Project Manager
  • Champion
  • Communicator
  • Counselor
  • Problem-Solver

All of these roles fall into the larger catch-all title of “Leader.” The success of any game project, especially those with rapid deadlines like those at SMU Guildhall, hinge upon the team’s ability to come together as a cohesive unit and create its own unique culture. The producer, in many ways, is the facilitator and protector of that process.

Positive cultures emerge when producers give each individual on their team the opportunity to grow and succeed while simultaneously contributing to something larger than themselves. At the beginning of any project, the producer should take the time to get to know each member of his or her team – their personalities, their strengths, weakness, preferences, workflow – and use this knowledge to place them in a role designed to maximize both performance and personal satisfaction. Everyone on the team should feel like they are making valuable contributions to the game every day.

In most cases, the producer acts as the game’s representative, meeting with stakeholders to present progress and reporting back to the team to communicate feedback and requests. They should be the buffer between the developers and any outside forces that threaten to derail the project, and once the game is complete, the producer should step aside to allow the team to receive its due credit. As Hoekstra and Magaha write, “Producers are truly the force multipliers of game development: a bad one can weigh down even the most stalwart of teams, and a good one can help a mediocre team raise its game.” As projects proceed further into development, if all goes well, the responsibility of the game’s success gradually shifts away from the leadership and onto the rest of the team. The best producers know the right time to step aside.

Game Designers, Your Other Best Friends

Depending on the team’s hierarchical organization, the game designer holds the potential to wield a tremendous amount of influence on the formation of team culture. Their most powerful tool in achieving this is vision – the synthesis of all the team’s best ideas in the pre-production phase of the project – which takes tangible form in the Game Design Document (GDD). The GDD is the team’s Bible, and the game designer must know it inside and out, not only to communicate the core game vision to stakeholders and consumers, but also to ensure that the team holds true to that vision amidst the chaos of rapid development.

In the first TGP at Guildhall, teams of four or five must build a 2D tablet game in roughly eight weeks. Under such a tight schedule, it’s only natural for the student developers (many of whom had never made a game previously) to ignore documentation in favor of spending more time in the editor, and my team was no exception. As more seasoned developers might expect, in the absence of concrete, recorded definitions, mismatched assumptions quickly arose, leading to heated discussions, drawn out design meetings, and major mechanical changes halfway into the project. Ambiguity has no place in game development, and the GDD exists specifically to stamp ambiguity out.

As leaders, game designers have the potential to be even great force multipliers on teams than producers, not only in their capacity to synthesize a game vision that the team can unite behind, but also in their responsibility to champion the game to stakeholders and potential investors. A confident game designer goes a long way to convincing developers that the project is worth investing their time and effort.

Conclusion

When I think about the difference in leadership roles between producers and game designers, I like to use a military metaphor – the producer is in the war room, planning grand strategies with maps and charts while the game designer is out on the battlefield leading the charge. If they can recognize their respective strengths and limitations, then their team quickly finds itself in a position to consistently succeed. Although their areas of focus differ, producers and game designers share the big-picture goal of delivering the best game possible, and they achieve this by empowering their developers and protecting the team culture from all manners of external threats. It’s a job that’s truly never done.

 

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