There is a lot of talk about the visionary for a game, the person who creates and guide the vision through development. Who is the visionary and what do they need to do to make their vision come to life? I’ve been a project manager…not a product visionary, but I’ve worked with great visionaries and poor visionaries. These are my impressions and questions:
The role of a visionary on a creative project is an essential and demanding one. Many companies that consistently produce great products owe much of their success to their visionaries; Apple has Jobs, Pixar has Lasseter, Nintendo has Miyamoto, etc. But visionaries are nothing without talented teams to realize their vision. Vision needs to be communicated, reinforced, inspected and adapted to the emerging reality of the game. This is the visionary’s fundamental responsibility to the team.
A visionary must be demanding. They have to:
- Unflinchingly question and test their vision early against the actual game.
- Not allow work-in-progress (partially completed or unproven work) to drag out too long.
- Call out substandard work immediately.
- Ensure that the stakeholders are aware of progress and are able to safely air feedback.
- Own a black turtleneck sweater
Successful visionaries have often been described as demanding, uncompromising, even brutal in their rejection of work that does not fulfill their vision. Lasseter resets movie projects late in development because the story or character aren’t right, Job's throws tantrums when a design isn’t intuitive and Miyamoto cancels games that don’t "find the fun fast". These are all examples of strong reactions to an emerging product that doesn’t live up to a vision. Does this mean that a visionary must be a tyrant? I hope not. There are as many different styles than there are personalities. The key, it seems, is to maintain integrity to a vision and to “course correct” towards the best game.
Good visionaries should be willing to compromise because no vision is perfect. Compromise is necessary to refine a game or to react to the unexpected, but compromise seems to go bad when the integrity of the vision is the thing being compromised: when the visionary assumes that some poor-performing part of the game "will be fixed later" or a bad mechanic "will be fun someday"; if the story-line isn't working, if the animation doesn't look right or if the system is sluggish, the visionary must demand correction. However, when the visionary is afraid to hurt the team's feelings or needs to hit an arbitrary milestone date, then the wrong game is created and the team must eventually face the mad scramble to cobble something together when time runs out and a vision is sacrificed for a ship date.
Things we know:
- Black turtleneck sweaters aren’t enough.
- Methodology can’t automate the role. Games will never come from an assembly line.
- Vision, alignment, talent and leadership are all necessary elements of any great game and can’t be separated.
- Do visionaries have to be mentors? Some of the best visionaries work with creators to demonstrate how to best work. I’ve read about Lasseter sitting down with individual animators to teach them how to animate the eyes of a particular character. Not all visionaries do this though.
- Do visionaries need a big job title? It would seem they do in most cases, but it is it absolutely necessary?
- How thin should they be spread? Can vision be taught? Pixar production is limited to how many visionaries they have working for them. Brad Bird couldn’t even take a few days of vacation before he was recalled to head up Ratatouille. Steve Jobs’ illness has everyone wondering whether Apple will tumble when he leaves.
- How does a studio identify and handle a poor visionary? It’s easy to promote the wrong person to the visionary role, but hard to remove them. A bad vision will kill a game or even a studio. A bad visionary will blame the team and not the vision.