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  • A Comprehensive Guide To Successful University Group Projects

    [05.10.18]
    - Luke Haslett
  • Who am I?

    At the time of writing this, I'm a Master's student at Staffordshire University, studying on the ‘MSc 3D Computer Games Design' course. Prior, I did my Bachelor's at the same establishment where I earned first-class honours on the ‘BEng Computer Gameplay Design and Production' curriculum. Then before that, I spent 2 years at The Bournemouth and Poole College doing a ‘Web and Games Development' programme.

    I'll also point out that I left high school with nothing. No grades, no direction, and no idea what I wanted to do. I spent 7 years working to afford to live and explore my hobbies, then at 24 I knew my next chapter would be the academic system, with a focus on game design.

    So, over the last 6 years of education I've been involved in a lot of group projects, at least 15, which have been both good and bad, and I've come to a point where I've refined my approaches to an extent that would have been enormously useful to know from the start.

    Who is this for?

    Essentially, I want this article to answer the question "How do I succeed at my group project?".

    The core audience in mind for this guide are students of game development that are making a game together, however that's not to say information can't be gained or translated into a field more relevant to the reader.

    Importance of Collaborative Projects

    I also want to open this article by stating my belief that collaborative projects are one of the most beneficial experiences to obtain at university. Working in different groups with unfamiliar members may feel intimidating if you're not used to it, but the advantages largely outweigh the negatives, and the following list clarifies my reasons why:

    • Connections

    Meeting new people means making more connections. You'll sometimes hear it's not just what you know, but who you know, and if you're in the final interview stage of an application with someone whose skillset matches yours, a good recommendation from a connection already at the company can be the boost you need.

    • Learning

    With multiple people sharing responsibilities on a project, it can afford you extra time to focus and refine your own skills, and fulfil tasks you are accountable for to a higher standard.

    • Portfolio

    An assignment developed by a group of people will likely have a larger scope and collective effort than one developed alone. This means your portfolio will contain more polished and impressive examples to help you stand out from the crowd.

    • Head Start

    And most importantly, with the exclusion of solo indie development, the gaming industry is not a solitary effort. It is made up of teams, you will be working in one, and as such you will be expected to perform to an appropriate standard.

    Meeting Your Group & Choosing A Leader

    Start Early

    If you don't know the people you're going to be working with, and you have introvert characteristics, it can be easy to put off that initial awkward meeting. However, it's highly recommended to avoid this and rip the band-aid off.

    My experiences have taught me that it's best to start early and avoid procrastination because there is always more that could have been done if you had more time, whether it's features or polish.

    Introduction

    When meeting your team members for the first time, play an ice-breaking game. I know, I know, they're cheesy and most people hate these. But honestly, you can gain a lot of quick insight about one another and connect with your peers sooner.

    Try just going around the room and saying:

    • Your name
    • The areas you specialise in
    • Where you want to be
    • Where you have come from
    • Your interests
    • What games you're currently playing

    That's just a plain example, but there are plenty more creative forms suited to different team sizes. Check out www.icebreakers.ws for a list of these.

    Identify Goals

    You should also take the time to listen to what each member of the group wants to get out of the project, especially regarding skills development, as this can help naturally place people into slots and form an intuitive hierarchy.

    However, that's not to say people will only get to do what they want to. It's still a group effort, and that means doing your part regardless.

    This means your true goal on a shared project should be to take pride in your work.

    Taking care to make sure your work meets the requirements, and is of a professional standard, makes you stand out. It's an attractive trait and people will remember it.

    Having a ‘bare-minimum' attitude or expressing that you've "done your part" as an excuse not to do more because it matches your teammates' lack of work, both make you stand out for all the wrong reasons. It makes you look lazy and like you don't care.

    So, I'll reiterate: take pride in your work!

    Select Leaders

    Now you need to nominate someone to lead. Usually you will have someone who seeks this role, but if not then you will each have to assess who you believe can confidently carry this responsibility.

    The leader needs to be someone that you can trust to listen to the team and make unbiased decisions with the best interests of the project above all else. They also need to be able to communicate effectively, by keeping each member organised and clear what the vision of the project is.

    I've often seen groups work without leadership because they haven't been explicitly told they need it, but usually they end up lacking direction, unhappy, and victimised by the situation.

    Group Size Differences

    Depending on the size of the team, you may find you'll need to expand on the range of leadership roles.

    This should still work in a pyramid-style hierarchy and always have a producer at its peak making the core decisions.

    If the group has between 10-20 members, you'll probably find it easier to appoint leaders by department: Art, Design, and Tech.

    Any more members than that, and you'll want to break it down further, to where leads handle smaller groups within their department, and overall managers deal with each respective department.

    To get a better visualisation on this process, refer to the next point.

    Management Hierarchy

    For clarification on what a typical organisational structure looks like in game development, check the following image.

    (Image from www.blitzgamesstudios.com)

    Of course, this is not a 100% accurate representation of the scene, as different businesses employ different models and often diversify what types of roles are required on a project. But this does at least provide a good basis for understanding who is responsible for which roles.

    Idea Generation

    Now everyone's clear on how the group is going to function, it's time to get to work, and that begins with finding an approach that the team can get behind.

    This should be a group activity where every member gets to feel like they're contributing. First, the leader needs to make it clear what the project requirements are, then it's their job to encourage the brainstorm phase, preferably with a whiteboard so everyone can see and think about the concepts being suggested.

    Remember, it's important to never shut down another person's idea, even if it's going in an unlikely direction. Every idea should be noted, and no idea is stupid, because the merit behind a bad idea can inspire a good one. Supporting the team's creative flow in this sense produces a much larger list to draw from.

    For ideas, think about things you like and games you can relate your ideas to. Here's a list of consideration to get you started:

    • Genre
    • Theme
    • Mechanics
    • Art Style
    • Narrative

    Finally, if the process is moving slowly, use a game idea generator to get the ball rolling. Check out http://orteil.dashnet.org/gamegen as an example.

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