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Producing with Beginners Mind

How the Japanese concept if 'Shoshin' aka Beginners Mind can help Producers - and the rest of the team - make great games and stay sane in the process.

Producing With ‘Beginner’s Mind’

The Japanese have a cool saying (as they do for everything) to mean ‘work with a beginner’s mind’. That means staying curious and flexible. Once you’re an ‘expert’, possibilities become narrower and narrower because of your experience and, worst case scenario, pride in what worked before. So stay excited, unafraid of failure and un-attached to methods. Stay shoshin.

If you’re making a game, and especially if you’re a ‘producer’ — we’ll use the term broadly to encompass: organising/project managing/overseeing/contributing from the perspective of overall viability etc — then you generally have experience and some authority. You’re required (often) to be rigid, (usually) to be responsible, and (rarely, I hope) to say ‘fuck it’ and go a bit crazy.

Yet, if you really unlock the best from your team, keep a project on track andstay sane in the process, you’d do well to remember shoshin.


Imperfection

You and your team need to admit and remember two things. The commercial/production buck stops with you but that doesn’t mean your decisions are perfect. This will preclude resentment. Make your stands, communicate why, and be willing to bend instead of break. Sounds obvious/simple, but the most important things usually are.

 

Eagerness.
 

Eagerness to learn is a key facet of shoshin. Even with years of managerial experience and a technical background, you can’t be the expert on everything — you have a team of experts for this reason. So show an open willingness, a hungry eagerness to learn from them and understand their process. Share that knowledge when you can. Never stop wanting to learn.

This takes never-ending practice: the more everyone understands of each others’ workflow, the smoother and more respectful feedback between people will be. This way the game benefits and you-as-producer are doing your job well.

 

Options.

An expert has few, a beginner has many, as we’ve established. Experimentation though can be costly, in terms of time and money. So we have a conflict between the needs of traditional game development and our philosophy! 
Perhaps the best compromise is to carefully consider the options, always ask whether there’s a better or more unusual one, before diving in. Change is inevitable but it’s also more costly half-way through something. To make a game that stands out in some way however, it’s almost inevitable you’ll need to try a few new things or combine systems in a ‘strange’ way. Ensure your team know where and how their non-traditional input is valuable.

Do not fall into the trap of ‘this is the usual way’ or ‘we cannot afford to try, or risk’. Just do so sensitively, with as little waste as possible. This is The Way.

 

Interrogation

Interrogate everything. Especially the things you do. This is a companion point to ‘options’, though an important distinction. A true beginner will never stop asking questions — they are yet to learn the accepted wisdom and so have the ‘audacity’ to constantly ask why something works (or worked), why it’s done in a certain way — even to ask if it’s strictly necessary. I can’t tell you how much easier you will find it to question the decisions of your team when they truly believe you have the capacity to question your own.

 

The concept of Tao, Zen, and of Shoshin of course go much deeper. However, I’m not going to foist their mysteries on you, though I do recommend you investigate further. It’s recently become popular to just lazily apply zen/Taoism to aspects of office life, but you must follow these disciplines inwardly before you can manifest them outwardly. Still, Tao rarely draws a line between the spiritual and ‘working’ or ‘doing’ life, so perhaps both are equally good places to start.

Go forth and be ignorant!

Follow me (and say hi, or argue) on Twitter
Check out the Odd Tales dev blog

From the archives: Don’t have (or not) a writer? Here’s how to make great game writing.

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