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  • Soft Skills For Game Developers

    [07.14.20]
    - Steve Thornton
  • (Steve Thornton is a Lead Game Designer with 10 years of experience in AAA gamedev, 2 degrees in Games Design, and over 10 shipped games - including design credits in many of the LEGO videogame series from UK studio Travellers Tales, and co-development contributions to titles like Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege and Assassin's Creed Odyssey during his time with Sperasoft, a Keywords studio based in Saint Petersburg. Find him on Twitter at @_SteveThornton)

    Being a good game designer requires strong soft skills. Providing feedback, mediating discussions, resolving conflicts, managing people; these require empathy, tact and diplomacy. We rarely talk about this, so in this post I'm going to share some of my methods.

    I originally composed this list of self-taught "rules" as a Twitter thread. Experienced developers replied to say that it resonated with them and their role, while aspiring developers or those new to management said that it provided a great blueprint for navigating the challenges ahead of them. Many also pointed out that although written from my experience as a Lead Game Designer, the majority of the tips are actually applicable to all disciplines, and some of the advice resonated even outside the games industry. The response was so positive that I thought it best to immortalize it in a safer place than the ephemeral timelines of social media.

    1. All Designers are Leaders

    Regardless of your prefix: junior, senior or lead, all designers act as bridges across departments, and the way they conduct themselves will do a lot to set the tone of the project for everyone. Take responsibility for the morale of everyone you talk to!

    Even if you aren't a designer, I guarantee that assuming some responsibility for the morale of your colleagues and the tone of conversation will only benefit you and everyone around you.

    2. Solve Negativity

    If someone loses a debate or expresses displeasure about a decision; even in a subtle way, like a passive aggressive joke or terse response, don't let that negativity simmer. Follow up with that person privately and ask them about their feelings on the choice. 

    Very important: When listening, let them fully explain their point of view before you explain yours. Sometimes the act of expressing their view is cleansing enough, so don't open by trying to change their mind, and don't make them feel like they're racing you to the air. You don't have to change their mind. They just need to know you didn't dismiss their concerns: you made the choice fully aware of the disadvantages/risks they have raised, and you accept them as part of your choice. If possible, ask them ways to at least mitigate the risks that concern them most.

    3. Meeting 1:1

    Most game offices are open plan, so as default conversations are in earshot of other people. This open plan area is often called "the floor". It's important to know when to talk in a public space, and when to take discussions off the floor, to a more private space. 

    Examples of when to leave the public space:

    • The talk is potentially embarrassing criticism eg. attitude/hygiene

    • The talk is about another team member, even if they aren't in immediate earshot

    • A person is being extremely negative and it may effect comfort or morale in those nearby

    • A person is heated to an unprofessional degree

    • A person seems upset or overwhelmed

    In the latter cases, the person may need space to vent, they may also need time. Sometimes its best to end the conversation, leave a short break, and then catch up with them to discuss.

    1:1 meetings are a big part of my management style; it's the only time people can talk openly, vent and not feel rushed or at risk of interruption. However, you must be aware that requesting a private conversation can create anxiety, and it can feel potentially dangerous for women. 

    If requesting a 1:1, especially in advance, be clear what the topic will be. If walking to the room together, try to break any tension they may feel, e.g. deliver a nugget of project news with a good tone. A game artist friend told me a story about her lead whistling on their way to her performance review, and how that little act of nonchalance really reassured her she wasn't marching towards bad news. I can't whistle, but you get the idea.

    Until recently, I had not given much thought to how a closed room discussion may create discomfort or even a sense of danger. However, given the endless horror stories of harassment and systemic mistreatment in the industry - especially of women and other marginalized groups - it's something I think that managers - especially male managers - need to start considering more. When organizing a 1:1 with a team member, I have heard it recommended to casually ask if they prefer a meeting room or a public space like the kitchen/rec-area. Ask if they prefer the door open or closed. Sit at an appropriate distance, let them sit nearest the exit, don't ask personal questions. In the original thread I suggested these courtesies as a way to help make women feel safer in your teams, but was left uneasy with suggesting a double standard. Someone on Twitter pointed out an obvious solution: extend the abundance of caution to everyone. This may seem unnecessary given the lack of systemic pressure on non-minority groups, but if you think about the various personality types of your team e.g. shyness, anxiety, different social needs - it's actually a great idea.

    Back to project stuff! It can be very effective to compartmentalize discussions about a topic that many stakeholders are involved in, in an attempt to address peoples individual concerns privately before they all mix together in a complicated, heated meeting. As a designer you don't always have enough knowledge from every dept to resolve all concerns solo, but before a big multi-person chat, I try to run some interference and resolve as many questions as possible outside the meeting. It also helps spot conflicting agendas in advance.

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