Sunday, November 4, 2012

Go Learn Something!!!

I'll keep this one short.

If you accept the premise that personal development is achieved through a persistent state of learning, then you must accept that continuing to do things the same way (especially for extended periods of time) will stagnate personal development.  I crashed face-first into this only a few weeks ago when a coworker of mine (Helder Pinto) was nice enough to point out that I was doing something the slow way.

As a lead/manager/director, I've spent several years crafting documentation for internal teams, outsourcers and (in the past) tutorials for the public at large.  As all of them have been largely art-centric, I have always been dependent on Alt+PrntScr to capture an image and then taking that capture into Photoshop for editing.

Imagine my stunned silence when Helder showed me the "Snipping Tool" in Windows.  Others then kindly pointed out other software that achieves similar results.  My first thought?  Damn, I'm stupid (and old.)  My second thought?  Awesome.  I just got better at something.  I have to share this with someone.

Thinking that, if I didn't know this tool, there were bound to be some other developers around me who didn't know it.  You know what I found?  I was right!  There were quite a few senior artists and leads who didn't even know about the tool.  Some did.  But, not everyone.  Ironically, this is how people improve -- by sharing knowledge.

So, here's my chance to pay (a simple) one forward.  I used to run semi-regular Photoshop guru sessions with groups of artists in which everyone who share some tip or some technique.  Every year, there would always be at least one person who didn't know about the "New Window" function in Photoshop.

She short explanation is that the new windows allows you to maintain a zoomed-out view of your image in one window as you perform any detailed work in another zoomed-in window.  This is great for both concept development as well as texture creation.

The irony of this example is that Snipping Tool didn't work here.  Snipping Tool would cause a defocus and thus hide the menus I was trying to show.  Proof that, even when learning new techniques, that doesn't automatically mean the old ones are defunct.

Lesson:  Stop doing what you're doing, and Go Learn Something!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Above My Paygrade

In retrospect, I've probably heard that phrase a few too many times -- and in situations where it didn't warrant use.

In rare instances, I have also said this.  And, having contemplated the meaning in greater depth, that doesn't make me proud.

For those readers who may not be familiar with the phrase, it's most commonly used to indicate a decision or responsibility (and occasionally knowledge) that lie with a more seasoned staff member, a senior employee, lead or director.

Well, clearly someone else is making all the choices here....

I've also heard it used as an expression of frustration. In those instances, it occurs when a person doesn't agree with a choice or direction -- it's akin to saying, "Well, if I were in control, this is how things would change."

Ultimately, it's a statement of abdication.
Abdication of responsibility.
Abdication of influence.

Hit it.

This is what has caused me to ponder the phrase in greater detail. As I said before, I've said it in the past too. When I think back on those times, I can't help but ask myself the following question:

  • Did the situation which triggered the statement get any better in light of my abdication?  Honestly, the answer is sometimes yes, and more often no.

In the positive case, did I influence the outcome. No.  I can take no credit for having improved the situation for myself or my coworkers.
In the negative case, did I influence the outcome. Yes.

Yes. Considering that the phrase is most regularly heard in situations where the speaker doesn't agree with something -- some wrongdoing -- it is rather ironically also a statement of complicity Whether you recognize it or not, electing to abdicate your influence (on the team, the project, or on the company) will only perpetuate the problem -- and potentially institutionalize it.

Get it?

This is going to be a difficult idea for some to accept. The counter argument, naturally, is "I'm not responsible for fixing this problem," or "That's not my job," or "No one is paid to listen to me."

If this sounds like someone you know, please allow me to point out the problem. This person has confabulated influence with authority.

Do you see the difference?

Leadership structure is about authority. Just because you do not have the authority to make the final decision, does NOT mean you should abdicate your influence. Authority has to reside with a select few -- as do the consequences of their choices.  Influence, by comparison, is open to all.  In the image above, the graphic on the left demonstrates authority, but not a communication structure (in a healthy organization, anyway.)  The graphic on the right demonstrates a communication network, where influence is represented by those nodes with the most connections -- the ability to influence other nodes.

So, what do I say to the person who says, "That's above my pay grade" to express his or her lack of authority. Fair enough, I say.

Sometimes, I feel like this too.

But it is only "fair" if that person has reasonably expressed their influence. Just because you express your influence doesn't mean you'll necessarily see the results you wanted. After all, accepting the authority of others has little to do with influence, and lots to do with professional maturity.

Calm the fuck down already.

This is a type of influence.  Good leaders don't respond to it.

So, why do I keep using the phrase influence?

Every employer in the game industry understands this term. They may use slightly different words -- influence, impact, clout, respect, etc. I promise you that every studio uses it when comparing employees -- and certainly when identifying those for career advancement. It is quite simply one of the most significant attributes or effective leaders.

It's mildly ironic then, that someone would identify a potential problem. Rather than attacking the problem directly, he or she then uses this phrase to abdicate influence. Naturally, their lack of influence or impact on the issue consequently diminishes their career progress.  This, in turn, results in them not having the authority to make such decisions in the future.  And the circle begins again.

Sucks, right?  Confusing, too.

So,where am I going with this? In the end, I hope each reader will recognize the power of his or her influence. Even lacking authority, each of us are professionals and have the responsibility to improve our work environment. It is only by first having influence that we then gain authority -- that is the golden career path.

Yeah, Eddie thinks this is a lame graphic choice too.

You want to know what I think? I think you should listen for this phrase in the days, weeks or months to come. If you hear a less-experienced employee say this, offer them some advice -- express your influence. However, if you hear one of your peers say this --


Pay Attention! This person may have just highlighted a problem.  Not just a problem, but an opportunity for you -- and for your career.  Not a guarantee, but a good opportunity

Some may yet say that they can't express their influence. That speaking out gets them in trouble. That they don't feel safe.

Those of you who work in unhealthy organizations are probably right.  You should do something about that.  I also suspect that there are others who would use this excuse to avoid the fact that they lack the skill to manage their influence -- that they lack the professionalism or maturity to address an issue in a productive and respectful manner.

Influential or not, don't be that person.

Talk about your asshats....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Good Developer Traits: Impatience ... Paid in Time

In a recent conversation with a coworker at Blizzard, we talked about what makes a "good developer."  It was an interesting topic, and I thought one worthy of sharing.  To be clear, we weren't talking about "good artists."  Nor were we talking about good programmers.  Nor good game designers.  Nor producers, managers, directors, etc.  Specifically, we keyed on the concept of a "good game developer."

In the conversation, we discussed a variety of factors -- enough to warrant whole series on the subject.  This first post is about Impatience.  That point in a project where most developers arrive (mentally), where speed is of the essence -- and good judgment is sacrificed.  Ultimately, the cost of such impatience is paid in Time.

This is a picture of my grandfather.  He led an interesting life, and held down many jobs over the years.  His last career, prior to retiring, was a painter.  Not the fine arts.  He was a professional painter -- homes, businesses, schools and the like.  That was his profession.  He was a good painter.

This came to mind as the result of a home improvement project where I repainted the back patio "cover" on our new home in California.  I painted it, for sure.  I was painting.  However, this does not make me a good painter.  Multiple reasons.  The quality of craftsmanship is in the "amateur" category.  I missed a number of spots and left an unfortunate number of uneven areas.  It also took me a ridiculous amount of time to complete the job.  Lastly, and most importantly, I committed a horrible error in the very final stages.

With less than 10 feet to go on the few remaining boards, I got impatient.  I didn't ensure that the paint tray was adequately secured to the ladder before moving the ladder.  You can probably see where this is headed.  Shortly after moving the ladder, I was back to painting and a careless jostle caused the paint tray to slip loose from the ladder..  I should also mention that I had recently refilled the tray -- so, it was nearly full.  Now, imagine a nearly full tray of paint falling approx. 6 feet off a ladder and the resultant impact spray.  In that instant, I proved the tagline from Alien inaccurate, as my screamed expletive was most certainly heard in space.

My error -- my impatience -- carried a very real cost in Time.

With more patience.  With more care.  In fact, with more understanding of the complete job of a painter, this whole incident would have been avoided.  Rather than completing my job in less than 10 minutes, my impatience resulted in me pressure-spraying around my backyard for at least another two hours.  Sound familiar?

That day, I learned that I was not a painter.

"You have insulted the memory of my l33t painting skillz, Grandson!"

So, how does this tie in to game development?  Let me ask you this: how many people have you known who have lost an hour's worth of work or more?  Other than yourself, I mean.  Regardless of the reasons, it happens.  It happens a lot.  Here are some prime examples.
  • Failure to save a Max/Maya/Photoshop file for an extended period of time.  Crash.
  • Failure to submit files to an asset management depot.  Corruption.
  • Working locally.  Crash or Corruption.  Computer death.
  • Virus outbreak.  Widespread loss.
I have either witnessed or personally experienced each of these incidents.  As a matter of fact, I wager that most developers have It is often by having these things happen to us that we learn patience.  We learn (the hard way) that craftsmanship means caring as much for the time involved as for the final product.

My coworker and I postulated that good artists/programmers/designers who fail to recognize this craftsmanship will struggle to become "good developers."  For example, I once worked with an artist who lost over a week's worth of work by failing to submit his file(s) to Perforce on a regular basis.  I felt bad for him.  That is, until the same thing happened to him again several months later.  Rarely does that lesson need repeating -- and yet, for some it does.

The simple truth is that a good game developer recognizes that Time is the most critical resource.  For young developers, this is often mistakenly interpreted as working lots of overtime or cranking through your work as quickly as possible (even though these approaches are prone to inefficiency and waste). 

Seasoned developers recognize that Time is to respected, is to protected and is to be traded cautiously -- that one's time should be used effectively and that preserving invested time (by archival or incremental saves) is how you become a "good developer."

That, and learning from your mistakes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


GDC 2012:  Art Director / Lead Artist Roundtable

Day 3 - Friday, March 9

3 Day Attendance Stats:
Wednesday -116, Thursday - 90, Friday – 57

First of all, let me state once more how much I enjoy attending and speaking at GDC.  This was my fifth opportunity to speak at GDC, but the first time heading up this specific roundtable.  I want to take a brief moment and thank everyone who attended the roundtable series, especially those who put forth the effort to attend each session.  I also want to extend additional thanks to the Conference Associates who helped run these sessions.

On with the notes…

Day 3:  “Here we are again…”

The opening topic of the day was art leaders’ struggle between leadership and delegation.
  • Interesting, the first speaker was a student, who wanted to talk about the struggles of leading student groups.  He shared his perception that student projects often lack clear direction.  Many of us remember group projects from school.  However, unlike the workplace, in academia the only individual with authority is the instructor.  In absence of the instructor establishing clear roles and responsibilities, leadership is left to the discretion of the group – to the benefit or detriment of the whole.  Ultimately, it seems like that is one of the project challenges as well.
  • The second comment also did not come from an art lead or director.  A programmer in attendance, which is spectacular to see, asked who holds responsibility for providing feedbacks on tools or art-pipeline development.  It’s a great question.  The response seemed to be that feedback on tool usability or functionality needs to come from the individual artists.  The critical component, however, is that the tool has to be in active-use rather than just being observed-in-development.  Furthermore, responsibility for tool priority is best shared between engineering and art leadership.
  •  In order to successfully delegate leadership responsibilities, an attendee asked what type of leadership training was offered.
o   One director commented that it’s important to identify key individuals in each discipline (character, environment, cinematics, etc.), and provide targeted mentorship to that group.
o   Another director commented that the best process to provide mentorship/feedback was face-to-face and in real situations.  The best ways to provide guidance is by observing the individuals’ natural style and provide feedback in separate one-on-one interactions.
o   While a select number of participants from a handful of studios indicated that their employers provided regular leadership training, the majority indicated that leadership mentoring happened individually (and irregularly)
  • Another attendee indicated that the most important factor wasn’t the structure of leadership training, as much as it is identifying the right people.  Putting the wrong people into positions of leadership will do more to harm the project (and the team) than if they were operating without any leadership.
o   Through discussion, the group agreed that the best artists frequently do NOT make the best leaders.  In fact, by shifting such people into positions of leaderships, the team may be losing out on key “hard skills” that may be of greater value.
o   One attendee brought forth what he called his “theater analogy.”  There are actors and there are directors.  Being a great actor is not the same thing as being a great director.  And being a great director does not automatically mean that the person had to be a great actor first.

Naturally, the next point of discussion was how the attendees’ respective studios identified leadership opportunities in their staff.  Without simply thrusting someone into a position of leadership, what qualities do you look for in candidates for consideration?
  • The first quality voiced was sociability.  Communication is obviously a key factor in leadership.  However, this comment was aimed at the individual’s extroversion and tendency to get engaged in group discussions.  The speaker indicated that some artists in their studio have a stronger tendency to put on their headphones and focus simply on their work.  While valuable, an individual who naturally becomes a nexus point for communication will have more ability to lead a team (by channeling information internally and externally with respect to the group)
  • One quality voiced was consistency over time.  Leadership is best groomed rather than simply bestowed.  In this case, the speaker advocated that growing team members is ultimately more likely to succeed than hiring externally (although this is obviously difficult and takes more time/investment)
  • Another smartly identified observation was the individual’s response to critique.  An individual who cannot productively or effectively give (or take) critique will struggle in a position of art leadership.  Therefore, those who are good at building their peers and critiquing work-in-progress, may have a knack for leading art teams and setting clear vision.
  • A very important component voiced was that anyone with leadership aspirations or potential has to be willing to let go of content creation (to some degree).  Leading teams frequently (and necessarily) result in the individual spending more time guiding others and less time dedicated to individual goals.
  • Likewise, an effective leader is someone who can share the vision.  However, this cannot merely be someone who decides everything down to the last detail.  Along with sharing the vision, the leader needs to be able to trust others to carry the vision forward.  In short, beware individuals who only trust themselves or seem unwilling to share responsibilities with others.
  • Although this is an incredibly difficult attribute to identify in others, leadership candidates must be able to strike a balance between guiding the project, and also being caretakers for the careers of others.  Naturally, these responsibilities more fall to management roles rather than directors.  However, strong directors are also capable of identifying the strengths of their team members and nurturing those strengths through work of increasing complexity or responsibility.
  • At this point, I posed the question:  How does the art director or lead artist maintain credibility with their team, given their lack of hands-on art creation duties.  These are just a few of the responses that were offered:
o   Regular interaction with the team.  Through communicating the vision of the project, and through regularly critiquing artists’ work, the lead/director establishes their understanding and vision.  Even without creating the content themselves, the results of the team showcases the lead’s/director’s ability to “set a course and hold true.”
o   The lead/director also maintains credibility through their focus on the culture.  Team’s accept and respond positive to those who can build an environment for the team’s success.
o   Although this may seem superfluous, the lead/director also establishes rapport and credibility by sharing in commonalities.  Even if this person is not tasked with creating art, it’s equally exciting to see this person become excited by art, media or other creative outlets.
  • Going back to the topic of sharing the vision and trusting the team, how does an art director or art lead do this while also adhering to the stylistic goals of the project?  As one attendee suggested, the art director should be "stubborn in vision, and flexible in details.”
o   In terms of vision, the director should clearly establish the guiding principles of the art styles.  Clear priorities and points-of-reference help the team to validate their work against these principles.
o   Understandably, the art director also has to have the right team to accomplish this goal.  Although reviewing resumes and sitting in interviews can eat up a great deal of time, this is one of the most direct means by which the director ensures that the team can operate autonomously and successfully.
o   Simply put, the art director must cultivate an attitude of “Letting Go.”  As the vision becomes more firmly established through the stages of production, the director should enable his art leads to hold responsibility for adhering to the vision in their respective disciplines.  This allows the director, in turn, to focus on how the pieces are coming together, rather than on the pieces-in-isolation.
  • Naturally, a good leader is someone who can learn from past mistakes, but it was also pointed out that the leader has to also be able to teach from those mistakes.  Someone who refuses to take responsibility for their mistakes (and there will be mistakes in game development), or looks to blame others when things go wrong will never be an effective leader.
o   Another roundtable attendee commented that being able to solicit input/feedback from the team is a similarly desirable attribute in an art director or lead.
  • Although not explicitly an attribute, the group also discussed that an effective leader looks for opportunities to “break the routine.”  Game development is a business, after all.  However, this should not preclude the team from finding opportunities to engage in dialog around other games, art styles, films, comics or other forms of visual entertainment.
o   Some studios look for opportunities to have events over lunch – whether it’s watching parts of movies or having informal sketch sessions.
o   Others proposed sessions after hours sessions, which could go for longer duration.  However, this has the obvious downside of being at the end of the day when team members may be ready to go home.

At this point, the conversation shifted again to focus on career development for art teams.  The question was posed as to how art directors and art leads provide meaningful direction on a regular basis.
  • Art Lead – naturally, the art director relies on input from the discipline specialist to validate and inform their observations of team members.
  • Attendees agreed that providing career development regularly included the reassurance that moving into senior roles did not mean that the individual had to change career path (from content to leadership).
  • The question was voiced, how you respond when someone asks their path to Senior Artist.  The advice given was that the lead/director/manager should always respond with “Why?”  Although this catches the person off guard, it also gives them a chance to talk about why they want to be a senior artist, which does more to fuel the conversation.
  • A large number indicated that their studios had a “Principal Artist” career position.  As such, I asked what expectations were set forth for this title:
o   This individual is tasked with the largest, most difficult problems
o   This individual sets the standards, in both process and quality
o   Aside from problem solving, this person is also on the frontline of problem identification and risk mitigation.
  • What attributes of a Senior Artist do you communicate to artists as critical for career advancement?
o   Expanding influence was listed as one of the key components of advancing one’s career.  In the beginning, an artist is focused on their own work.  However, over time that person’s influence should expand to impact their discipline group, the art staff, the whole project or the whole studio.  That is how you identify someone whose career is advancing.
o   Mentorship.  Although this can be construed as another component of expanding influence, the key here is that the person is communicating what has been learned to other artists.  Senior artists are naturally going to be learning, but it is their teaching that indicates their ability to lead others.
  • What attributes of a Lead Artist do you communicate to artists as critical for career development?
o   Management and Organizational Ability.  Lead artists need to be able to step away from the tactical components of production and address strategic planning issues.
o   Communication Ability.  Obvious, huh?
  • Back to the point of identifying artists who are on the right path to career advancement.  One attendee indicated that he focuses on those who ask for responsibility.  Not those who ask for a title.  Game development is largely a meritocracy (or it should be), and so most leaders look for those who contribute first, not those who are looking to be given a reason to contribute.
  • During this portion of the roundtable, one of the significant revelations occurred.  I asked, of the directors present, who went through some period of anxiety as they transitioned from artist to leader.  Of the group, almost every single hand was raised.  I then asked who among them are actively involved in guiding artists down the leadership path.  Again, a large number of hands were raised.  I then asked how many of them warn artists of this anxiety.  Almost no one raised their hand.  That is simply fascinating, but I also realized that this would be better saved for a future session rather than the remaining few minutes of this roundtable.

One attendee posed the question:  What do you do when an employee asks for more money?  Here were the responses:
  • Send them to HR.  If the lead has little insight or input into salary ranges or where someone fist on the scale, this obviously limits a lead’s or director’s ability to respond, so redirection is reasonable.
  • Others advocated direct involvement in the conversation.  They usually tried to direct the conversation to discuss experience and level of contribution to the project or studio.
  • Still others advocated using this question to kick-off a conversation around opportunities for the individual to have greater impact.
Do studios still focus on the “number of projects shipped” as a contributing factor to promotion?
  • It makes sense at an entry level (associate position) when a person may not have any experience or little relevant experience.
  • More than number of projects shipped, the more reasonable assessment seems to be the impact the individual has on the team.  What do they contribute?  Experience is obviously a factor here, but it isn’t tied solely to inconsistent project durations.

In the last few remaining minutes of the roundtable, I polled those attendees who had changed employers over the past year.  I asked these people what was most important in the next studio they worked for:
  • Values of the studio
  • Work / Life Balance
  • Defining Individual Growth beyond work
  • Smaller (or right size) of company
  • Opportunity to build the art culture
  • Presence of Veterans (implied stability and satisfaction)
  • Opportunities to network, learn from others
  • Life drawing, Sketchcrawl

Noticeably absent from the list:

Big Takeaway / Lessons Learned:
  1. Finding the balance between leadership and delegation.
  2. Identifying attributes that suggest leadership potential
  3. Strategies on providing career direction to others.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


GDC 2012:  Art Director / Lead Artist Roundtable

Day 2 - Thursday, March 8

3 Day Attendance Stats:
Wednesday -116, Thursday - 90, Friday – 57

First of all, let me state once more how much I enjoy attending and speaking at GDC.  This was my fifth opportunity to speak at GDC, but the first time heading up this specific roundtable.  I want to take a brief moment and thank everyone who attended the roundtable series, especially those who put forth the effort to attend each session.  I also want to extend additional thanks to the Conference Associates who helped run these sessions.

On with the notes…

Day 2:  “This is more like it…”

The second day of the roundtable was much more successful.  Armed with the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to post notes to the walls, I came armed with tape and was able to post the notes to the table (facing inwards, towards the center of the circle).  The slight downside is that this meant that not everyone could see the notes, and no one could see all of them.  However, it provided enough topics within easy view that individuals seemed to feel comfortable broaching topics and discussion points.

Beyond introductions, I started the session by asking any art director present to voice his number one frustration over the past year for the group to drill down and discuss.  The first topic voiced was Scope Creep.  From there the group then began brainstorming and sharing experiences from a variety of studios as to how they addressed this issue.  What follows in a list of key strategies and contextual solutions.

Problem Topic:  Scope Creep
  • Mini-milestones.  One manner by which scope can be managed is by setting more finite delivery dates and sprints.  Lengthy milestones can be tempting opportunities for exploration, both good and bad.  A fast pace keeps the team focused on immediate goals.  The scope is constrained by the necessity of stringent deadlines
  • Weekly Reviews.  Regularly recurring reviews provides opportunities to re-establish goals.  Also, the team maintains traction on priorities.
  • Milestone Bucket.  Be clear with how much is planned for a given milestone.  Either it’s in, or it’s out.  The bucket should have enough “buffer space” to allow for the unknown, but not so much that focus is lost.  Any in-depth exploration is then reserved for future buckets, which have to sacrifice what may have already been planned.
  • Prioritized Backlog.  Goes hand-in-hand with the previous point.  Succinctly, new ideas or avenues of exploration are added to the backlog rather than the current milestone.  It should be noted that the person who voiced this solution also commented that this largely works in theory, but little in reality as the backlog can just become a catch-all for ideas and then the priorities can be manipulated outside of the scope of the project.
  • Sprints.  Clearly related to the mini-milestones and prioritized backlog.

The next question posed:  What is the greatest contributor on your projects to scope creep?
  • Increasing Complexity.  This can be natural due to emerging gameplay systems coming online and having to interact.  This can also be the unfortunate consequence of pursuing complexity rather than simplicity.
  • Shifting Priorities.  During the development cycle, priorities shift as expected.  The problem arises when the shift in priorities result in pursuing gameplay, engineering or visual development that wasn’t previously planned or established.
  • From running to flying.  This was a concrete example of a foundational gameplay component that would have significant impact on scope.  In this instance, the way in which the game is authored and played has to be re-evaluated at a basic level.
  • Story Development.  Changes to story will also impact scope.  Gameplay components and engineering needs may be directly impacted by story hooks, encounters and even by cinematics – especially given the popularity of QTE sequences.
  • Competing Art Direction.  In this case, competing art direction referred to having to match stylistic and franchise (or IP) direction across a variety of platforms (console, PC, web, mobile).  It’s possible that limitations of one platform result in art direction changes across all SKUs.
  • Creative Director.  Understandably, whoever holds the “project vision” will directly impact the scope of the project, especially if the “vision” is unclear or prone to change/redirection.
  • Buffers.  An interesting point raised was that “buffers” are necessary to insulate the team from certain scope changes.  The idea being that the department director (and Leads) can prevent the team from becoming “distracted” by scope changes.  The counterpoint voiced was that the “buffers” can also negatively impact scope by preventing information from reaching the team for too long.

The next question posed:  What strategies have your studios employed to address scope creep?
  • “Baby Kills.”  In short, the team strives to engage in regular sessions where they kill ideas before they become anyone’s “baby.” 
  • Broad vs. Specific.  The idea is that the project’s or team’s broad goals are established and confirmed first, before the pursuit of specific elements commences.  Chasing the details before the high-level vision is established is the quickest route to scope creep.
  • Striketeams/Scrum/P.O.  Using some form of agile development or feature-driven development teams may prevent scope creep from happening by providing a broader cross-section of the team to investigate the element at an early stage.
  • Find Allies.  At the risk of sounding political (which is NOT the goal), working with others to help them understand why an idea is or is not worth pursuing can bring the issue to light and gain traction on a solution quickly.
  • Pick Your Battles.  Priorities.  Because some scope creep is inevitable and some can be beneficial, it’s also important to remain open to new opportunities.  Plans can change, and probably should.
  • Change Date.  Not much detail needed here.  If release dates move in, the scope of the project needs to be changed.  The problems really become exacerbated in the rare circumstance where dates move out, and the team defaults to adding more content rather than refining/polishing what already exists.
  • Communicating Consistent Vision.  If you know the “razor’s edge” or “hook” which defines the vision of the project or the core gameplay, changes to scope can then be measured against the consistent vision.
  • Good Project Management Team.  A good management team will develop and safeguard a clear change management approach.
  • Overscope Early.  The idea here is that crafting a large scope early dissuades the team from continuing to overscope and instead breeds a culture where the team is focused on trying to reduce scope.  However, I would say that this only works if you have a leadership group who understands that that they’ve intentionally overscoped rather than just having unrealistic expectations.  The two scenarios look disturbingly alike.
  • Broadcast for Ideas & Actively Cull.  In short, create an open environment for idea generation and then openly cull the ideas, closing the communication loop.
  • Know Team Strengths.  The idea here is that identifying the skills and abilities of the team can prevent the project scope from drifting into areas that do not play to those strengths and will invariably take longer to explore, learn and develop.

The next question posed:  Is scope /feature creep always a bad thing?
  • Feature Creep Can Be Good.  One attendee rightly pointed out that sometimes the most innovative ideas come out of exploring ideas that were not part of the original plan.  However, this needs to be carefully balanced against reality – not all gambits pay off.
  •  Art Leads Manage Process for Change.  Although this is true for the leads from any department, scope creep has the highest probability for success if the department leads actively manage the change rather than stepping aside.  If the leads are invested in the change (and moreover, willing to sacrifice other elements), the new element has the highest probability of success.
  • Tools Impact Viability.  Understandably, the capability of the tools can limit scope creep from happening.  However, changes to scope can also motivate tool development and additional (or more efficient) feature integration.

Having wrapped up this topic roughly halfway through the session, it was a good time to jump into the next major topic.  The next topic up for discussion was how to create an environment for effective art critique?

Problem Topic:  Creating Effective Art Critique
  •  Meetings.  The point here is to fine the meeting structure that best suits your team or group.  Some people prefer a group meeting structure, some face-to-face interaction.  Meetings aren’t a surprise, the effort comes in finding the process that works for your team, and then refining that process as the team evolves.
  • Dailies.  One participant suggested that daily feedback is most effective.  What should be kept in mind is, as above, the frequency with which feedback is given should be adjusted to match the team, not the other way around.
  • Artist-driven vs. Director-driven.  One point of discussion was whether or not to build a process driven by the art lead’s or director’s needs, or rather the feedback should be initiated by the individual artists.  While there was no sure-fire solution (again, build the structure around the team), there seemed to be a general consensus that the early stages of development are defined more by lead-driven feedback and the latter stages by individual-driven feedback.
  • Peer critique first.  One director shared that his system was built around ensuring that the artist has shared the work with his peers first.  The idea being that the person can share the feedback they’ve received from others when the director reviews the work.  Understandably, there is a chance that the artist may respond to conflicting direction.  However, the upside is that hearing the feedback an individual recounts from their peers provides the art director insight into how well the art direction of the project is understood by the whole team.
  • Animation – block out, checkpoints, asset viewer, game approval.  This was the process advocated by an animation lead for staging out feedback on animation development.
  • Get it in Game.  Despite the ease of reviewing work in your primary DCC tool, most attendees agreed that it was best to view assets in game rather than outside.
  • Group Meetings > Emails.  The consensus here being that feedback via email is significantly less effective than group meetings.
  • Space Planning for Interaction.  This point was that the art team be arranged and organized in such a manner as to create effective critiques, especially in cases where you want similar artists to hear similar feedback or learn from one another.
  • Let it sit; Use time.  While the natural tendency for most art leads and directors is to provide feedback instantly  and in-the-moment, one attendee suggested that allowing time for an asset to sit can be beneficial.  Obviously, this wouldn’t be the case for assets that are way “off mark,” but could be useful for having an artist move onto something new while the lead reviews a larger group of assets in context of one-another.
  • Remote Development -> Skype, Vid Conf ; Face-to-face > email.  The question of how to art a direct external team was posed.  While the leading tool was understandably some form of video conferencing, more important was the need to have face-to-face or real-time interaction rather than just emails and/or forums.
  • No Meeting days; Preserve time.  As time for critique always seems to come at a premium, clearly setting aside the time for proper critiques is instrumental rather than simply relying on critique happening on the fly and irregularly.
  • Impacted by Team Seniority.  As a key factor, the seniority of the art team directly impacts the effectiveness of art critique.  A more senior team can potentially stand in for the art director or lead at times, moreover than can help guide junior artists through the early stages of critique.
  • Time for playing the game.  The point voiced here is that setting aside time for regular play ensures the team maintains context for both their work and the project’s vision/direction.

Peer Critique:  The next topic that was discussed was how peer critique was leveraged in different studios.
  • 360 Feedback.  One posed that within a smaller studio or team, if the art direction is documented and clear, that the feedback can come from anywhere on the team rather than solely following a hierarchical structure.
  • Adaptable / Flexible.  The counterpoint to the above was that that required a team that was adaptable and flexible to changing direction.  The point here was that 360 feedback may require review and revision from a director if he or she disagrees with the peer feedback.  In short, this approach has to reflect the abilities and culture of the team.
  •  Safe but hierarchy for decisions.  Another attendee countered that this practice could create a more safe environment for critique, but that ultimately the responsibility for the decisions will still have to rest with the director or lead.
  • Start with technical checklist and then teach aesthetics.  This was a very interesting suggestion.  In the early stages of production, focus peer critique on the technical checklist of assets.  Over time, this can naturally segue into more aesthetic critique.  The upside to this approach is that it builds confidence and certainty over time.
  • Break the production pace.  The intention behind this suggestion is that setting aside time for in-depth peer critique breaks up the production pace and gives everyone time to review and critique rather than just moving on to  the next major milestone.
  • Too rigid a schedule for reviews.  The unsurprising counterpoint was that one attendee pointed out that most studios have far too rigid a schedule to allow for those types of critiques.  Naturally, the only way that idea would solidify is if it were built into the team’s culture from the inception and that the project planning took into account.
  • Show WIP.  Although obvious, one attendee pointed out that it’s important to build a culture of presenting work-in-progress rather than just whenever the artist thinks it’s complete.  The benefits should be obvious, but the reality of rigorous production milestones can erode away at that original intent.
  • Allow for iteration time.  Most would probably agree that trying to finish the game by completing cross-sections at a time can often create more problems than solve.  Rather, it makes more sense to get as much “beta-level” art into the game as possible allows for the gameplay to iterate across the entire experience without the art team wasting time polishing components that may get cut during gameplay iteration.
  • The next point was to ask what structure different studios used to facilitate reviews.  While some favored a simple network folder, other studio have dedicated forums or web galleries for displaying WIP.  In general, the attendees didn’t favor either system over the other, as the most important component was to ensure that the face-to-face time and time spent reviewing-in-game were preserved.
  • Lastly, it was posed that in multi-project studios, there is real benefit in having different teams review and provide feedback on the art that is in progress.  While they may lack the complete context necessary to provide an accurate critique, the other team is also not burdened by assumptions.  The critique can hopefully be honest and pose meaningful questions.

The last component of the critique discussion focused on:  Taking Non-artist Feedback.  Most attendees seemed to agree that taking feedback from outside of art is inevitable, but also beneficial.  However, there are some caveats to this process.
  • Reframing / Understanding Comments.  It’s important for artists to make sure they understand the feedback, as artists may not speak the same “language” as other departments.  Learning to ask good questions and rephrasing feedback is a good habit for artists to develop.
  • “Lunch & Learn.”  One attendee indicated that their studio would regularly invite non-artists to an in-studio lunch where they showed the current stage of art development.  This was good for both presenting art goals, and soliciting feedback from outside of the department.
  • Encourage whole team to participate.  Rather than creating an environment where non-art feedback happens erratically and only from a select few sources, invite the entire team to participate on a regular basis.
  • However, it is not enough to just sit non-artists in front of the work and expect usable or productive feedback to just pour forth.  First, the lead or director is responsible for providing the context behind the work before critique is offered.  Second, the art team is responsible for closing the loop on that feedback and clearly indicating which feedback they intend to integrate and which they will not.
  • One of the most beneficial upsides to organize critique sessions outside of art is that, naturally over time, you teach the other departments your vision, your values and your goals.
  • Clarity of Design.  The last point voiced was that, while the idea seems simple and alluring, it is also vital that the art be supported by clear design.  If the design of the game is unclear, then accurate and useful feedback is hard to judge or align with product vision.

Big Takeaway / Lessons Learned:
  1. Strategies for addressing scope creep.
  2. Ideas for building an effective and productive atmosphere for critique.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

GDC 2012:  Art Director / Lead Artist Roundtable

Day 1 - Wednesday, March 7

3 Day Attendance Stats:
Wednesday -116, Thursday - 90, Friday – 57

First of all, let me state once more how much I enjoy attending and speaking at GDC.  This was my fifth opportunity to speak at GDC, but the first time heading up this specific roundtable.  I want to take a brief moment and thank everyone who attended the roundtable series, especially those who put forth the effort to attend each session.  I also want to extend additional thanks to the Conference Associates who helped run these sessions.

On with the notes…

Day 1:  “The best laid plans…”

Candidly, I found the first day’s session to be both painful and frustrating.  I also want to apologize to those who attended the first day, as I feel that that session was below my expectations as well as those of the organizers of GDC.
My initial plan had been to turn that day into a kind of mini-poster session where we would get a small handful of topics posted around the wall, assign individuals into groups by interest and then do breakout sessions.  In hindsight, this was far too much for a mere 60-minute roundtable.  To add further complication, conference speakers were banned from posting anything to the walls due to union regulations.  As a result, I had to quickly scrap my plans and take the roundtable in a different (and unfortunately more chaotic) direction the first day.
While ultimately we were unable to pursue any topic in depth, we were able to use the first day as a genesis for ideas and issues.  I proposed a single question to the attendees:  “What has been the most significant issues that have impacted your work over the past year?”

Here were the topics in response (in no particular order):

  • Art’s relationship with other departments
  • Dedicated code support for art issues – Artists communicating tools needs
  • Maintaining naming conventions
  • Middleware’s impact on art style and development
  • Marketing’s impact on development cycle and timeframes
  • Accountability for doing the right thing - exposed processes and decisions
  • Building an environment for constructive critique
  • Grey-boxing:  how much art is needed to test gameplay
  • Creating and maintaining style guides (both for internal and external teams)
  • Building a knowledge center
  • Maintaining documentation throughout development cycles
  • Change Management – impact to art assets
  • Scope Creep
  • Crafting Art Pipelines
  • Art Directing remote teams
  • Maintaining relationships between Art Director and Artists
  • Micromanagement vs. Ownership – trust building
  • Art style consistency across platform variety (console, pc, mobile, web)
  • Developing art in absence of clear gameplay
  • Adjusting quality across the full development cycle (later content looking better than early content)
  • Consistency in art process – maintaining quality bar
  • Career development for the tam
  • Maintaining speed of production
  • Art Directors/Lead Artists – time management for themselves
  • Maintaining Morale – in the face of big changes
  • Clearly communicating the framework for creativity.

As you can see from the list, this was way too many topics, and this list has already culled out a number of similar/duplicate issues that were voiced.  One of the downsides of not being able to post topics on the wall was that scope creep became my challenge.
Again, while I don’t feel the first session was successful, I do feel that the genesis of these ideas helped fuel the following two sessions, which were more organized and more productive for attendees.

Big Takeaway / Lessons Learned (for myself):

  1. Be prepared for anything and always have a backup plan.
  2. For future sessions, bring a small handful of macro-themes (style guides, career development, recruiting, cross-department conflict) from which attendees can pose specific topics
  3. Don’t try to pack too much content into a single 60-minute session.
  4. If you’re going to try group activities, give explicit directions.

Monday, April 30, 2012

GDC 2012:  Art Director / Lead Artist Roundtable

3-Day Summary | March 7-9, 2012

Problem Topic:  Scope Creep
  • Mini-milestones. 
  • Weekly Reviews. 
  • Milestone Bucket. 
  • Prioritized Backlog. 
  • Sprints.

The next question posed:  What is the greatest contributor on your projects to scope creep?
  • Increasing Complexity. 
  • Shifting Priorities. 
  • Story Development. 
  • Competing Art Direction. 
  • Creative Director. 
  • Buffers.

The next question posed:  What strategies have your studios employed to address scope creep?
  • “Baby Kills.”    
  • Broad vs. Specific. 
  • Strike teams/Scrum/P.O. 
  • Find Allies. 
  • Pick Your Battles.  Priorities.
  • Change Date. 
  • Communicating Consistent Vision. 
  • Overscope Early. 
  • Broadcast for Ideas & Actively Cull. 
  • Know Team Strengths. 

The next question posed:  Is scope /feature creep always a bad thing?
  • Feature Creep Can Be Good. 
  • Art Leads Manage Process for Change. 
  • Tools Impact Viability. 

Problem Topic:  Creating Effective Art Critique
  • Meetings. 
  • Dailies. 
  • Artist-driven vs. Director-driven. 
  • Peer critique first. 
  • Animation – block out, checkpoints, asset viewer, game approval. 
  • Get it in Game. 
  • Group Meetings > Emails. 
  • Space Planning for Interaction. 
  • Let it sit; Use time. 
  • Remote Development -> Skype, Vid Conf ; Face-to-face > email. 
  • No Meeting days; Preserve time. 
  • Impacted by Team Seniority. 
  • Time for playing the game

Peer Critique:  The next topic that was discussed was how peer critique was leveraged in different studios.
  • 360 Feedback. 
  • Adaptable / Flexible. 
  • Safe but hierarchy for decisions. 
  • Start with technical checklist and then teach aesthetics. 
  • Break the production pace. 
  • Too rigid a schedule for reviews. 
  • Show WIP. 
  • Allow for iteration time. 
  • Different structures 
  • Different teams critique. 

The last component of the critique discussion focused on:  Taking Non-artist Feedback. 
  • Reframing / Understanding Comments. 
  • “Lunch & Learn.” 
  • Encourage whole team to participate. 
  • Providing context. 
  • Teaching visions and values. 
  • Clarity of Design. 

The struggle between leadership and delegation.
  • Student projects – lack of authority
  • Programmer / Tools feedback – usability from staff and priorities from leads
  • What type of leadership training is offered.
o   targeted mentorship
o   one-on-one interactions.
  • Structure of leadership training, identifying the right people. 
o   best artists frequently do NOT make the best leaders. 
o    “theater analogy” director != artist

  How the attendees’ studios identified leadership potential
  • The first quality voiced was sociability. 
  • Consistency over time. 
  • Response to critique
  • Willing to let go of content creation
  • Can share the vision
  • Caretakers for the careers of others
  • Maintain credibility with their team:
o   Regular interaction with the team
o   Focus on the culture
o   Commonalities
  • Sharing the vision while adhering to the stylistic goal?
o   "Stubborn in vision, and flexible in details.”
o   Clearly establish the guiding principles
o   The right team to accomplish the goal
o   “Letting Go.” 
  • Can learn from past mistakes,.
o   solicit input/feedback from the team
  • Break the routine
o   events over lunch
o   after hours sessions

Career Development for Art Teams:
  • Art Lead - reliance for input
  • career development regularly (from content to leadership).
  • Path to Senior Artist?
o   always respond with “Why?” 
o   talk about why they want to be a senior artist
  • Principal Artist. 
o   Most difficult problems
o   Sets the standards, in both process and quality
o   Frontline of problem identification and risk mitigation.
  • Senior Artist
o   Expanding influence
o   Mentorship. 
  • Lead Artist
o   Management and Organizational Ability
o   Communication Ability
  • Focus on those who ask for responsibility (not title)

What do you do when an employee asks for more money? 
  • Send them to HR. 
  • Discuss experience and level of contribution
  • Kick-off a conversation around opportunities
  • Number of projects shipped” as a contributing factor?
  • Entry level (associate position), little relevant experience.
  • Impact the individual has on the team

What was most important attribute in the next employer:
  • Values of the studio
  • Work / Life Balance
  • Defining Individual Growth beyond work
  • Size of company
  • Opportunity to build the art culture
  • Presence of Veterans (implied stability and satisfaction)
  • Opportunities to network, learn from others
  • Life drawing, Sketchcrawl

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How (Not) to Phone Interview

Over the past 5 years, I've had many opportunities to phone screen potential art candidates for a variety of projects.  Phone interviews are very important in this industry, as it is the first exposure both parties have to one another.  It's important to make a good (and honest) impression in that first conversation.

Thankfully, most phone interviews go well.  Most candidates are pleasant and are capable of holding a conversation.  I know there are lots of similar articles to read on this topic, but I continue to be surprised by the number of candidates who flame out on a couple of seemingly obvious pointers.  In the interest of educating others, here they are:

1.  Be enthusiastic.

This one is pretty simple.  If you're willing to commit yourself to working for an employer, you should at least be excited to speak with people who work there.  And if you're not excited, why did you bother applying?  Most candidates do not come off as apathetic, but periodically a phone screen will suggest the candidate is neutral.  Sometimes, the person being interviewed sounds like they just rolled out of bed -- monotone and monosyllabic responses.

I suspect that some of this may stem from formality expectations in phone interviews, which don't really play out to this industry.  It's the equivalent of wearing a suit to the onsite interview.  It makes the interviewer question whether or not the candidate understands the industry or the company.
Of course, it's possible to go too far in the other direction.  Believe it or not, but there is such a thing as "too excited" and that can put be equally off-putting.

2. Know the company.  Know the games.

I remain shocked at how frequently this happens.  Less frequently at Blizzard than at Volition, but it still happens (believe it or not).  If you get to the point that you are asked to interview over the phone with members of the team, take some time and prepare for the interview.  Do some light research.  Find out about their projects and where the studio is located.

I was shocked how many phone-screening candidates commented how much they wanted to work for Volition and would love to live in Chicago.  Chicago?  After a couple of years, my standard response would be, "Yeah, Chicago is great, but that 3-hour commute to our office is gonna be a pain in the ass."  It would take the candidate a few seconds to catch on, but was extremely cathartic for me.

*  Before you ask, yes, I did indeed see a cover letter addressed to "Violation."  I assumed this was a typo.  It gives me nightmares to think that someone might have actually sent me an application for violation. *shudder*

The issue of knowing the games has diminished between Volition and Blizzard.  I would periodically encounter Volition applicants who were unfamiliar with the Red Faction or Saints Row franchises.  I found it mildly disconcerting, but would often segue that revelation into questioning why the person wanted to work for Volition if they hadn't experienced the products first hand.

Nevertheless, there have been a small handful of Blizzard applicants who have similar "shortcomings" in the research department.  Believe it or not, I actually had a candidate tell me that he was a "huge gamer" and that he "loved Blizzard's art style."  However, when pressed for experience, the candidate admitted to never having played any Blizzard games.  Any.  I'm sure my making such comments only add to the perception that you have to play every Blizzard game to work for Blizzard  -- which isn't true.  To the contrary, we hire people who don't categorize themselves as "gamers" in the traditional sense.  However, if you're going to proclaim yourself a gamer, who loves the art style of the company on the other end of the line -- you really should have played at least ONE of the company's games.  Just a thought.

3. Be available.  Control your environment.

This is more of a logistics and professionalism issue.  It should come as no surprise that when a company schedules a phone call with you, you should be ready.  Although rare, it's disconcerting when a candidate fails to answer the call, or answers it from an unexpected place.

Sometimes people have to use discretion when answering an interview call.  If they already work some place, it's understandable if they have to sequester themselves in an office or answer a call from the parking lot or their car.  I'm not talking about that.

What I am talking about is the handful of candidates who have answered the call in odd and what-should-not-come-as-unexpected environments.  I've had candidates answer their cell while driving on the freeway (may be forgivable), from inside a subway terminal (what?) and in an airport terminal with the flu (why?).

My recommendation is this:  Control your environment.  If you're genuinely interested in speaking with a company about a position for yourself, ensure that you can give the people on the other end of the line your full attention.  Ensure that you are at a location where you can clearly hear the other party, and are free from unreasonable distraction (I don't care if you're at home and your dog barks; that's fine.)

4. Answer honestly

I'm going to end this post on a philosophical note.  Phone interviews will periodically contain "gotcha" questions.  The obvious one is, "Please describe your ideal role..." or some variation thereof.  With rare exception, the candidate will usually just describe the job for which they are interviewing, sometimes parroting back the job description text itself.  This is rarely the best answer, and oftentimes highlights how certain the degree of self-awareness the candidate possesses.  For those who truly see the position as their ideal job, (referring back to point #1) the energy and enthusiasm of their response is the key indicator.  Lacking that energy/enthusiasm, it has the potential to come across as insincere or disinterested.

All candidates should endeavor to answer each question as honestly as they reasonably can.  Sometimes, this can be more difficult than it sounds.  So, let me put it to you this way.  If you obtain a position at a company, any company, by answering questions in a way that isn't completely honest with yourself, how happy do you think you'll be in that job?  How long do you think it will be before your employer detects your unhappiness?

Even if your ideal role isn't the position for which you are interviewing, say so.  The interviewer will appreciate your candid responses.  Also, you may have also demonstrated a level of self-awareness that will impress the company and lead to a better position in the future.  Never forget that this is an industry of interconnectedness, and that your contacts today will lead you to your jobs in the future.