(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.
4. No Offense
Parts of games can be silly, or of comparatively low importance- but every asset is somebody's baby. Beware jokes that devalue someones time/effort. Even if someone was comfortable in the past, you never know when they may be extra sensitive about a specific piece.
5. Gripes Go Up
Honesty is required to have meaningful conversations, yet you must be cautious not to spread negativity, even your own. Sometimes decisions come from above that suck, so how to acknowledge that while protecting morale?
I know some managers who will only ever talk in company lines: they will never say anything in private that could not be safely shared (or has already been shared) in a studio-wide email. This ensures professional conduct, but also makes talking to them feel pointless. I also know some managers who are so completely transparent that they will even vent to the team about their own project frustrations. If the leads can't be optimistic about the projects future with all their influence, the team at the whims of the higher ups certainly can't.
As a rule, I allow myself to be more openly negative with my peers (those of equal seniority) and those above me. Truth to power. With anyone below you in the hierarchy, I believe you have a duty to consider their morale in how you discuss news, even if you have your own feelings. Someone on Twitter sent me a clip from Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks' Captain explains his own motto for dealing with this duty, which he eloquently calls "Gripes Go Up".
When you have to bring your team bad news or a decision that you don't agree with: Process your own negativity in private, find the up-side, or the thing that keeps you going, and when you talk to the team, walk them through that journey. Be honest you weren't happy either, explain the reasons you were given, and then try to share your reasons for optimism.
6. Don't Take Sides
People may complain about a co-workers project performance in private, this can be an important part of venting, but you must demand they keep their delivery professional. Call them on anything drifting towards nonconstructive, insulting or personal. If you agree with someones complaints about a project or team member, it can be extremely reassuring for the person to hear that from you, and know they are not alone in their feelings. As above this is delicate, as you must give a reason to stay optimistic despite the issue.
If you choose to offer some agreement about the complaints raised about another team member, acknowledge only vaguely that you've noticed some of the issues yourself / are aware of the issues and intend to follow up. Do not offer your own opinion, indulge in gossip or take sides.
Many toxic self-help PUA style manuals will suggest being a "chameleon" as a strategy, reflecting whoever you talk to: this is a terrible idea that will backfire the instant you have to talk to two people at the same time, or the first time they talk to each other.
7. Keep Calm
Personally, I believe that raising your voice has no place in the office. If someone begins to do so, I will immediately end the conversation and request a private chat with that person. If you ever are that person, catch yourself, apologize, leave the conversation.
8. Encouraging voices
If you notice someone is not getting involved during discussions, try asking them for their opinion. Give them a softball question as a starting point. If they are uncomfortable, stop pressure and talk to them afterwards. Check the reason they're not involved e.g. engagement, anxiety or confidence. Unfortunately, the vast majority of development discussion happens live, which benefits extroverted thinkers and leaves others behind. Since this is unlikely to change at an industry/studio level, I personally prefer to try and help people to participate live.
Advice I give to people who struggle with contributing to live discussions:
Prepare your thoughts before the meeting, maybe write them down
Ask to speak first in the meeting
If you need time to process new information, take it while others talk and then ask to return to the previous point when ready
It's important to support them in this effort by letting them finish talking without interruption (stop anyone who tries to jump in while they are forming their sentences) and help when they get stuck. Big them up a little, re-iterate their points (with credit). If someone is uncomfortable participating in live discussion full stop, don't stubbornly push them to talk or keep putting the spotlight on them, as that is obviously going to create huge amounts of stress. In this case, offer them time before or after a meeting to hear their feelings - then bring their points to the meeting for them, ensuring to credit them when you do so e.g. "X was saying before this meeting that -" or "after the meeting I caught up with Y and-".
In general: if anyone interrupts someone before they finish their point- stop them and ask the interuptee if they are finished, then let the other person know when they can speak. If anyone comes back to a point similar to someone elses, remind everyone "ah, like X said earlier?"
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.