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.