Five things to consider when assembling a team

2011-06-09 by Kelketek

One of the most frustrating and wonderful elements about modern games is that they usually require more than one person to make them. Back in the days of the Atari, a single person could make a game if they wanted and do quite well with it. Some modern developers are still able to do this. Cave Story was written, designed and programmed by one single person. But he took five years to finish his game, and not everyone is Daisuke Amaya.

What this means is that you need a team to create the game you want. Some of us may remember the ordeal of group assignments at school and work and groan at the thought of having to deal with and manage such an endeavor. But it doesn’t have to be bad. It can even be exciting. So what should we look for in a team?

5. Don’t pick your friends.

Or, more specifically, don’t pick your team members because they are your friends. The qualities that make someone fun to hang out with aren’t always the same as what you need in a developer, writer, designer, or any other position in your group. In fact, there is a good chance that if you pick your friends and have trouble getting the project off the ground, YOU WILL LOSE THEM. People go to their friends to get away from work and take a break and have fun. You are now introducing work into a relationship that may have been formed around activities that normally avoid it. Thus, you put strain on your relationships unnecessarily by pulling your friends onto the team.

You can pick your friends.

You can pick your nose.

But if you have your friends pick your game’s nose, you’re liable to get covered in snot.

That’s not to say you won’t become friends with your team mates. There’s a good chance you will. But those relationships will be forged with work already in mind and develop in interaction there.

4. Pick people that are different than you, but that you can get along with.

Gaming is an incredibly unique and versatile art form. While other art forms will take you to places and show you things, gaming places the keys in your hands and lets you be the one who drives the story, complete the objective, or save the day. You not only get to go somewhere new, you get to be somewhere new. Your team, like your game, should be something different and new.

Part of the reason why big name games that gross millions (and even billions) of dollars are so good is because it’s not just one person making them. It’s a team of creative people under good leadership working together to bring about a finished product. Each of them sees the world differently, but gets behind a common vision for the project. Now, that doesn’t mean they agree with everything the project does, but it means that everyone’s collective skills and artistic or logical insights are what make the piece, not just one person doling out the exact prescription of each element.

Now, this varies some. Some project directors really love to be intimately involved in every aspect of the work. And so long as they aren’t too micromanagerial, and they’re working to bring the best out of their team, that’s ok. Other project directors prefer to be much more hands-off to see how things develop independently and then work them together with the minimal amount of interference. Both approaches have drawbacks and benefits, and both can be taken to an extreme that kills the project.

But both require people different than the project director. If you’re an improvisational sort, this is probably more intuitively obvious to you. If you’re a person who gets into the specifics of everything, you have to remember that the differences between you and someone else are often the only way you’ll ever get the best ideas. Someone will hear your idea and say ‘wait, why that when we can do this?’ And even if you don’t accept their alternative idea, the very fact you had to defend yours will make you have to think it through in a new way. When describing your idea to someone who doesn’t see the world the way you do, you hone your idea and make it better, because you have to consider it from another angle. Some of the best ideas that have come out of my projects have been because someone who thought quite differently than me asked a few simple questions I’d never have thought of.

Sometimes, I’d get mad at them for it because I didn’t like my idea being challenged, and I was very confident in it. But many times, after taking some time to think about why I was angry, I’d realize they were onto something, or, that both of us were wrong, and the only way for me to see what was the best way was to have the viewpoints butt heads.

3. Pick people who are better than you at their skill than you are.

Some of us are talented. Some of us are very talented. And some of us are multitalented. It’s rare that someone be good at all elements of game creation that they can make a game from the ground up on their own that excels in every respect. And those that do take a long, long time to pull of their work, and they don’t release often. Most of us have something we’re really good at, or a lot of things we’re decent at, or somewhere in between. So, if you’re going to assemble a team, assemble people who are specialists in what they do, and have one or two generalists to weld things together and pick up the slack.

A mistake that many make, which is greatly due to pride or insecurity, is to pick people that are inferior to themselves in the area they’ll be supervising. This may seem silly when speaking about it, but it’s often a subconscious thing. Will I be able to understand what they’re doing? Will I feel discouraged at seeing their skill, and find myself saying ‘I’ll never be that good’?

If these questions apply at all, you’re doing things wrong. You bring someone on the team because they have something to offer. You entrust them with an element of the project. That’s their task. Your task is to lead them along with the group (and, realistically, do your section of the project. How many indie games have a dedicated administrative head that never gets their hands dirty?) If you can’t trust anyone with that element of the game, then you either need to do it yourself, or rethink whether you’re cut out to lead such a team. And instead of feeling outclassed by your team, celebrate in your team’s effectiveness and take opportunities to learn from them if you want to know more about their skillset.

Guess what? Your talents and skills aren’t static. The myth that one is born with talent and never can work to become better at something permeates western society on a conscious and subconscious level. You get better by practice, experimentation, and exploration. Everyone on the team will be better at their skills when the project finishes than when they started. And if you take the opportunity to learn, so will you.

2. Find people who would work on your project even if they weren’t getting paid

…because, chances are, you aren’t paying them. You’re an independent game maker, and ramen noodles aren’t currency. We can’t be here for the money. We’re here for the passion of the art.

Now, that’s not to say we wouldn’t all really like to be the next Minecraft, and make enough money to support what we’re doing full time (and then some), or to be the next Portal and get recognized and brought on by Valve. We absolutely would. Of course, those people either become big game houses or get absorbed into game houses, and they ‘lose their indie cred.’

But do you think they care? No. And you wouldn’t either if you were getting paid to do what you loved day in and day out.

Now, if you do hit the jackpot and design a ton of games and then see the independent developer crunching along on an idea that makes you say, “what ever happened to my vibrant creativity?” then, yes, it’s time to rethink some things.

You are free to pursue some sort of monetary compensation for your team, be it in game sales, in-game item and service sales, or by getting hired by the big guys. But if you’re expecting to get rich from building your game, and expect to pay your team mates in a reasonable time frame, you might want to rethink some things. The love of the art is what will get you through the difficult times, not the taste for money that you will one day doubt will ever come.

Not to say that it won’t or it can’t. It can.

But if you’re not doing this because you love doing this, game development will be like zealously donating liters of blood to the Red Cross, and then getting angry when you find out, shriveled, laying on the ground, that they don’t really pay you to do that. It’s a volunteer thing.

1. Prioritize ability to deliver over skill

I have met a good deal of very talented programmers and skilled people. And many of them I would never consider doing a project with. On one project, I had at least three different people step up and claim they desired to program, but when the time came, they always had something else to do, or they weren’t feeling inspired. Weeks and months would go by with no significant change occurring in the code.

Now, to be fair, sometimes they had very good excuses. Personal life tragedies and whatnot. And if this happened after they came on the team, it can be especially gut wrenching to realize that you’re going to have to replace someone who really is interested, and is even a well liked team member. You’ll feel you’re kicking them when they’re down.

The key to making the right decision here is both in frame of view and presentation. First, you shouldn’t view replacing them as kicking them off the team when they’re down. The amount of stress on a person who knows they’re failing to deliver and is needed is going to be much greater over time than the act of removing them will be for the moment it happens. It may be difficult, but what you are doing is removing from them a responsibility they don’t need to bear when financial crisis, sick loved ones, or, heaven forbid, a zombie apocalypse, is weighing on them. Their attention really needs to be focused elsewhere, and your project should not take forefront in these times. Make sure they understand that this is the heart behind it as much as making the project go forward is, and consider taking them back when the tribulation has passed.

Bearing all of that in mind, look for people who have portfolio items they can show you. Have they completed any of their personal projects? They don’t have to be big, they just have to be completed items. You can’t expect big flashy products from your prospective team mates because they’re not likely professionals with a big resume. They’re eager hobbyists, and whether you intend to turn professional with them or not, they won’t be where they will be when they’ve been working on a real, sizable project. Look for potential more than skill, and for ability to deliver even above that.

A person with gifts and talents who cannot deliver is a person with no gifts or talents.

…At least, as far as your project is concerned.

Game development is one of the most challenging kinds of artistic work, and one of the most personally rewarding. Those rewards do not come easily. They come through hard work, creative exploration, and sometimes through challenges or failures that you must overcome to bring your vision to fruition. You will get angry with your team mates. You will have conflict. But if you stick through, it will be worth it.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re doing something you love, and don’t lose sight of your vision.