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  • Soft Skills For Game Developers

    [07.14.20]
    - Steve Thornton

  • 9. Be Approachable

    If someone comes to your desk, give them your full attention as soon as possible. If you're about to finish something, ask them to come back in a few minutes, but otherwise drop it and show you're happy to help. Do not make a show of your frustration at being interrupted, people will stop coming to you. As a designer or lead you are often the bottleneck, people wait on your decisions to move forward with their work - removing blockers that inspire an actual desk visit is almost always going to benefit the project more than the email or list you promised the producer you'd write.

    10. Getting Serious

    What if someone has a private/home issue? My rule is to never ask for further info about someones private life beyond establishing that there is a problem ongoing. The exact nature of the problem is not the studios business, and as such not yours either. 

    Though it can be tempting to try and help;

    a) the power dynamic will make it unclear to the person where the optional aspects of the conversation end

    b) you are neither their actual friend nor professionally trained for counseling

    What you CAN do, is suggest they take the rest of the day off (or at least a break) and square it with the relevant leads. You can encourage the person to contact one of their actual friends to talk, and make it clear they can let you know if they need anything. Make your support role optional.

    Important: Information gleaned about peoples private lives, even if freely offered, is not yours to share. Call it Designer/Patient confidentiality. It is common for leads to let each other know when a team member may need extra support, but find the line between that and gossip.

    11. Find Time for People

    I had a producer who once told me he starts every interaction with a personal inquiry, such as an observation about a persons desk decoration, or a comment on how they look. This is, wow, just horrendous advice, but he did raise one good point....

    You are working with humans, and (while maintaining personal boundaries & being respectful of the power dynamic) it can be good to try and deflate the exaggerated emotions swirling around development by reminding each other we're people with human things like families and hobbies. It depends on the team member, some want to clock in and get out and hate personal chat, others literally cannot be comfortable unless they feel they have a baseline human relationship with their colleagues underneath the work.

    Getting to know your team members doesn't need to be invasive, it can just be about movie/game opinions, weekend plans, it doesn't need to escalate to friendship even, but being able to have these normal conversations reassures them the air is clear, reducing anxiety over their standing. You will see some leads weaponize this, following rough meetings with visits to people to try and clear the air by "shooting the shit", usually without first finding time to discuss the topic that dirtied the air in the first place. This is them seeking reassurance, not giving it.

    As a lead, you might be surprised to find out how many younger team members look up to you as default, and how much they value your attention. This is the thing that abusers weaponize, but it can also position you to do incredible good. You don't need to directly mentor someone to help build their self worth and encourage them, your time and opinions have so much automatic weight in their eyes, that asking their opinion (and hearing it!) or paying them a sincere compliment about their work, its powerful stuff.

    I'll end by saying that NONE of the above will work without sincerity behind it. A lot of people would like to see themselves as master manipulators and puppet masters, and if that is you: I guarantee you don't have the self awareness or control necessary to hide that agenda. This stuff only works if you care about the wellbeing of your team, and your professional relationships with them. They are far more effective with people whose work you really respect and do not want to lose.

    Thanks for reading! I hope this provides a useful guide for those who want to improve their soft skills, or a handy refresher for those who have been juggling these complicated responsibilities for a long time. Of course, knowing what to do is just the start. The hard part is to practice what you preach and follow through on all these, even under the stress and rush of development. You need to try and be your best self every day.

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