Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Key game studio success ingredient: Positive Energy

Game development work is inherently creative, yet often we don't work in environments conducive to creativity. In many game studios, over-scheduled employees are under immense pressure to meet deadlines with the expectation of hitting ever-increasing quality & experience targets.

In a lecture at the World Creativity forum, John Cleese talked about Closed Mode (getting things done) vs. Open Mode (being creative). “If you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.”

So how do we create the conditions for creativity in such a predominantly Closed Mode (and sometimes toxic) environment? The key is to give & receive positive energy at every opportunity.

Acknowledge and support the work of your peers

It's demoralizing to work hard creating something for your game, announcing it to your team, and being rewarded with silence. Yes, we're all busy with our own work. And yes, all those check-in mails take a little time to read. But that is exactly the time you should be giving energy back to the person who put it in. Even if it's as simple as "Wow, nice!".

The fact is that most creatives thrive on feedback, it's what motivates & drives them to repeat the creation cycle over and over. In a feedback vacuum, the light bulb of energy dims.

It's also a symbol of professional respect, the fabric of strong development teams. That bit of code that makes something cooler or appear more magical, that tweak to the design making the weapon more fun to use, or that lighting pass helping to make a space feel incredibly real... we absolutely should never take these things for granted.

Don't participate in the negative sub-culture

Not all company cultures are healthy. You may find yourself on a team where a sub-group of people continuously grouse amongst themselves about the game, decision making, or how things are being done. Or you may witness people who routinely rip on other games, ignorant of the actual conditions & constraints that those dev teams operated under.

Avoid getting caught in this undertow, there are no positive outcomes possible from these types of interactions. Channel concerns or doubts about your project into positive actions. Seek out the decision makers and politely ask for more clarity or information. Offer them alternatives or at least your help in improving the situation whenever possible.

Accept that no project ever goes perfectly, mistakes can and will be made. Identifying problems is easy, but offering solutions shows you are focused on moving things forward. Put your energy into building your team up vs. tearing them down.

Set an example that makes others eager to follow

John Cleese also said, "Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating." Bring positive attitude and humor into all of your interactions, even in "serious" or stressful situations where solemnity and darkness are normally present. Make it apparent to everyone that you protect your creative process in the face of anyone who questions or attempts to devalue it.

Associate yourself with like-minded people, and take time & space outside the grind to explore and bounce fun ideas off each other. Build up this network with the goal of creating a positive sub-culture. Like a Katamari ball, more people will be drawn in who are relieved and eager to participate.

When you see a normally positive colleague who is being overwhelmed by negative forces, or slipping into a depressive spiral, take them out to lunch and offer your help and support. Let them know you care instead of hoping from a distance that the problem will go away.

Yes, all of this is easier said than done. Game development is hard. Some projects can go on for years, and can lead to a loss of perspective as things get ever more off-kilter. Sometimes the only solution to a terminally negative workplace is leaving it.

But the people in the industry I admire the most, the ones who survive the longest with their sanity intact, are the ones who develop the discipline to eschew negativity, and promote positive energy in every aspect of their work.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Philosophy of Teaching Game Art

Students playing "Undertakers" at Columbia College's Manifest 2013

For the last two years I've worked in Chicago as an adjunct professor, teaching college students various aspects of game art production. Recently I was asked to write up my teaching philosophy, and since it's actually an art process I felt it appropriate to post here.

My teaching philosophy is rooted in the practical realities of working in the games industry for over two decades. Throughout the process of making games, interviewing and hiring hundreds of artists, building art teams, and surviving the churn & rapid change in the industry, I've developed what I would call a realist philosophy.

For those art students seeking to work for a major game developer or publisher, competition for jobs is at an all-time high. Only the most dedicated individuals with rich portfolios demonstrating a balance between strong art fundamentals and advanced technical skills are being considered by the top studios.

If students wish to pursue the rapidly growing sector of Indie game development, here again only the most creative, prolific, and differentiated individuals will find it possible to sustain a career.

It is for these reasons that I see my goal as closing the gap between expectations and the reality of what students can expect after they graduate. Learning needs to be role-focused, so the skills obtained directly relate to work they will do as professionals. Following is a list of the techniques I apply toward these goals.

1)      Integrate art fundamentals at every step of technical instruction – Creating art in a software package is different from creating a visual aesthetic. Without a solid grounding in visual theory (contrast & affinity, space, line & shape, tone, color, etc.) many students do not attain the ability to precisely control their work to achieve a specific outcome. These skills need to be reinforced and applied at every stage of their work.

2)      Create a culture of feedback & critique – This is done both in the instructor/student level as well as the classroom community. Critique helps students prepare for professional environments where taking direction is required function of the job. Helping students detach ego from their work is part of this, and will result in a stronger portfolio and the knowledge of how to critique others in a positive manner.

3)      Provide a platform for experiential learning – There is undoubtedly a large amount of information that must be imparted to students learning technical skills. To this end lecture is often unavoidable. However wherever possible I believe it’s better for students to gain experience in the process of setting their own goals within time constraints, delivering results, and allowing them to repeat this loop as often as possible. Quite simply this is what they’ll be doing continually in their professional lives.

4)      Focus on building a robust portfolio – Whenever practical, every visual project undertaken in a class should produce portfolio-worthy work. I try to let students make the work uniquely theirs to elevate their attachment & investment. In a four year program, students ideally should finish with dozens of diverse & compelling work examples, curated from hundreds of attempted pieces. I impress this metric on every student I meet.

5)      Teach the importance of building community – Nearly equal to visual & technical skills is the ability to effectively communicate and work in a cross-discipline team setting. The best artists in the world still need to collaborate and interact to be successful, both in local and the global communities. I relate my experiences (both successes and mistakes), show students what professional branding is, and demonstrate why building strong industry connections is crucial to their future.

The professional games industry is an exceptionally challenging, often difficult place to establish and maintain a career. Statistics have shown that the average length of a game developer’s career is around 5-7 years before they burn out.

My goal is to give students the tools, resources, and skills they need to avoid the pitfalls, and give them the foresight to know what’s ahead so they can be successful & happy professionals. I believe the return on their educational investment is of paramount importance.