Teambuilding Pitfalls in an Online Environment

I once took a class on teambuilding for my Game Design Degree. I went into the class thinking it’d be slack. After all, I’ve led teams before, used teams at work, and micromanaged game guilds (much to their annoyance). What actually happened is I learned WHY I do the things I do, and I also learned some valuable lessons about the team dynamic and my own weaknesses.

I want to say, first off, that I was blessed with an awesome assigned team. We were all willing to work hard and spend the time to succeed, and we all had the skill and drive to get through our class goals. We meshed well, and had no major destructive moments. I found, though, that even with a near perfect team there are hurdles to overcome. Let me elaborate.

Communication

We emailed each other maybe three times a week, sometimes more. We all had access to Skype for instant messaging, and some of us used it often. We also held our meetings in Skype chat at least twice a week, some of which where more than 6 hours long when we went into power mode.

That is not enough.

The problem with online collaboration is so much gets missed in the cold voids between typed words that it takes much longer to get your point across, and that point often needs to be reinforced and refined over and over again. Some of us had that level of communication through Skype chat, as we messaged each other throughout the day to ask questions or pass along information. Other members of the team answered emails and showed up at the meetings, but had a definite lack of presence between those times. We communicated well when we communicated, but it wasn’t nearly often enough to reach our full potential.

Another aspect of team communication that is absolutely essential in online environments is getting to know your team. You may think socializing is a waste of time, but let me put it to you this way: When you use instant messaging, much of the tone and emotion of the conversation comes from knowing the person typing to you. When you encounter a new person online, you don’t know when they’re joking, holding back, angry, busy, or anything else until you get used to reading the signs in the way they type. Without this, there can be no real trust between teammates. You will always be second-guessing each other.

Conflict

The communication topic leads nicely into the topic of conflict, primarily because much of the conflict you’ll see between online teams stems from failed communication.

  • I didn’t understand what you meant…
  • I thought we talked about doing it this way instead…
  • I didn’t get copied into your email…
  • I wasn’t at the meeting…
  • The kids were distracting me and I missed what you were saying…
  • I thought you only wanted a reply if I disagreed…
  • I thought you were joking about that…
  • Nobody told me that we had an emergency meeting…

Conflict is inevitable in an online environment. There are a few different ways to handle it, with variable effectiveness.

Procedure

There are many procedures created to draw out conflict and help solve it. The web is infested with advice and helpful techniques. Many do not apply to online collaboration. Fail.

The best “procedure” I’ve discovered (hindsight is 20-20) is the idea of team assessment. However, I would personally make it a bit less of an exercise than the texts I’ve read describe. In the most simple terms, a team assessment is the act of deciding how well your team is doing, what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and what they could do better.

If I took this class again, I would have the entire team do a quick assessment at the end of each week or so. Have each team member write down one thing the team is doing well, one thing the team is doing poorly, one thing for EACH team member to improve upon, and one thing THEY personally need to work on. This way each member comes up with something not only for the entire team, but for themselves. It brings out their own weaknesses and makes them take a good hard look at their participation. It’s also an excellent way to broach a sensitive subject, if you discuss these assessments at the next team meeting.

There are, of course, many ways to document or assess conflict. What works for some may not work for others. The point is to try to draw out the problems before direct confrontation is required.

Confrontation

At first glance, this seems like the same thing as conflict, but in reality it’s “elite” conflict because confrontation implies the conflict is being brought out into the open where it can potentially be solved. Confrontation can result from a team member voicing concerns, from a flare-up of suppressed conflict, or from a third person catalyst that brings all parties together.

Many people shy away from confrontation. How many of us like to be the bad guy in a group? To be the rat? To be the whiner? Maybe you’re afraid your peers will take offense and you’ll lose credibility with them? Maybe it just isn’t worth the effort? There are a few things I’d like to point out about the choice to avoid confrontation. First, you are damaging the effectiveness of the team, because latent conflict will either stagnate and hold your team back, or eventually explode. Secondly, if your teammates are petty enough to hold constructive criticism against you they aren’t the kind of colleagues that will be a positive contribution to your career anyway.

The thing to remember about confronting the team or a team member, is to be PROFESSIONAL. Never take personal shots, never insult, never yell or swear, never be rude. Anger or accusing behavior only results in more of the same. When you confront a person, state the problem and possibly why it’s a problem, and try to respectfully suggest a solution.

Mediation

When all else fails, when parties are hostile or uncooperative, when things escalate… seek a higher power. Find a neutral party that both sides will listen to, and present your case as clearly and unbiased as possible. A mediator may not be able to fix everything, but it never hurts to get some sound advice, or an outside viewpoint.

The Non-Team Player

My final subject is dealing with the team member that refuses to be a team member. We only experienced a passing hint of this kind of behavior in our team during class, but a hint was enough to get us talking about it, and thinking about it.

There will often be that one person who doesn’t return emails, doesn’t show up at the meeting, doesn’t talk during the meeting, doesn’t do their work… You know the kind. How do you get them to participate?

Take Out the “Optional”

Don’t make participation based on initiative. Tell them when to be at the meeting. Ask for their opinion directly in meetings. Assign them tasks. We are not all the same, and some of us need a bit of prodding to get started. If this works, great! If not…

Discuss Participation

This is where the team assessments come in. Bring the subject of participation up in the meeting. Stress that each member is responsible to contribute to the project. Don’t accuse, and don’t name names. Make it a broad statement, and they’ll figure out you’re talking about them. Still not working?

Confrontation

Confront the person. Professionally and respectfully explain, either in person or as a team, that their participation is required. Clearly state your expectations, and allow them to speak. Don’t jump down their throat, but be clear that the behavior isn’t going to be tolerated. Always keep your temper, and if the meeting is getting out of control, end it and either return when heads have cooled, or move on to the next step.

Removal

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there’s no reconciling with a person. Once this is clear, take measures to remove the person from the team. Consult higher authorities if necessary, and drop the dead weight. This is an extreme solution, only to be used when there’s no other way to solve the problem. While it may result in tougher deadlines, more work for the remaining team members, and high emotions, it will benefit the team overall.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m no expert. This article is merely the hindsight of a normal team member. Hopefully someone can find this and learn from my experiences. All professions have their versions of “crunch time”, not just the gaming industry. Teams can use all the help they can get.

My Thoughts on Guild Wars 2

It’s been a few weeks now, and I thought it was high time I wrote something down on the internet about Guild Wars 2.

I got the Collector’s Edition, pre-purchased waaaay back in April. I participated in BWE1, 2 and 3. I was involved in some (but not all) of the stress tests just prior to the game. That was mainly due to my work schedule, but partly due to wanting to play the “real” game and not the test version. (I’m a bit impatient.)

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Do what you love, and Love what you do

I’ve been trying to work with a group of fellow alumni on a game that will be our “break-in” indie game now that we’re out of school. We are following all the best advice on start-up studios, researching the business end of things as well as the development end, and laying the foundations of good communication.

You’ll notice I said “trying” to work. We hit a bit of a snag in the start that we shouldn’t have even run into. What was it? We tried to make a game that was logical for us to make, rather than something we WANTED to make. We opted for the safe bet rather than the dream. We should have known better… after all we got our degrees so we could make games we loved.

So what changed?

I was speaking with one of the lovely professors that so recently released us into the wild and he said we should come together as a team into a game we could all get behind. He said we’d crash and burn if we didn’t love what we were working on. (I’m paraphrasing of course.)

So I decided that we needed to find out what we all loved. There are six of us, and we’re working remotely, so finding common ground isn’t easy. I decided to go with a survey:

  • Genre I most want to make:
  • Single player, 2 player, or multi player?
  • Favorite themes/periods:
  • Platforms:
  • Roles I’d like to fill:

Looks simple, right? Sometimes it’s the simple things that trip us up, like trying to make a game that we didn’t care much about.

Turns out we ALL wanted to make RPGs (a few had multiple genres, but RPG was on everybody’s list.) We had been trying to make a RTS game. We also all loved the same general themes and periods. We trashed the RTS game completely and started over.

Now we are rolling. The over-arching story is fitting into place, the mechanics are being hashed out, and the technical details of platform and engine are being looked at. This is looking like it’ll be a great experience after all, and if all goes well a brand new indie studio will be rearing its head within the next year.

Watch for us. 😉

The Need for a Guild

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all players are created equal, that they are endowed by their Developers with certain unalienable Points, that among these are Karma, Influence and the pursuit of Experience. – That to secure these points, Guilds are instituted among Players, deriving their just powers from the consent of the members, – That whenever any Form of Guild becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Players to complain or to leave it, and to institute a new Guild, laying its foundation on such Servers and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Influence and Experience. ~ The Declaration of Independence (as interpreted by Me)

Yesterday was the announcement of the launch date for Guild Wars 2. pause for cheering

Yesterday was also a time of happy planning for our guild. We’re a small group in GW1, usually there are just five or six of us that play together often. Porting the guild to GW2 is going to be as natural as pie. But with that move (and probably in an effort to busy ourselves until release day) we’re sprucing up the place. A few of us are creating a website, a few are looking after the details of organization, a few are writing content, etc. We’ve the start of a spangly new Guild Charter, and I’m trying to think of a suitable rank for myself as second in command. (apparently “The Cat” does not demand enough respect, and “The Goddamn Cat” was not acceptable either.)

What does all this have to do with a game design blog? Why should you care? Because I’m going to talk about guilds, an important part of gaming society.

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But *WHY* Can’t I Work Remotely?

I am a game designer. I even spent 3 years at school to get a piece of paper that says I am a certified Bachelor of Game Design. I graduated with high honors and lots of awesome references from teachers and fellow students.

Tragically, I live in the middle of nowhere. I’ve a family, and a farm, and I’m in no position to leave. I overcame this hurdle with my education, finding a great school and working hard to surpass all expectations of me. I worked full time, studied full time, and was a mom full time. When I graduated with that degree I left my mark on it, and I left a name in the minds of the many people I interacted with.

With high hopes and a determined spirit, I turned to start a career in the game industry… And I found a wall.

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Playing is Designing – The Analog Prototype

When a design studio is developing a game, there is a period of time during which they cycle through multiple incarnations of “the prototype”. Nearly every game can be considered to have had a prototype version. Most design companies today use a rough digital version of the game as a prototype, not taking advantage of a very useful and cheap tool available to them: The Analog Prototype.

I think that the biggest reason that large design companies don’t take advantage of analog prototyping is that it’s considered “throw-away” material. When you are designing a digital game you are most often under a steep deadline, and to take time out to put together something that will in no way be included in the final product is inefficient. Through digital prototyping they hope to salvage at least a framework of code, or a few scripts, in order to make the final product easier to produce.

I think this is the wrong way to think about analog prototypes. Instead of thinking about the effort that goes into them being a waste, consider that you are saving time in the long run by sorting through features that you will end up throwing out before the game is finished. Some of the benefits of analog prototyping are its ease of use, relatively cheap setup, and adjustability. It also can serve as a stress reliever. I’ve been in many jobs where the constant pressure of deadlines can get you down. Taking a day to build paper prototypes can be a fun experience for a designer, and can allow them to get back in the game with renewed interest.

Not all games are best suited to analog prototyping, however. Some games contain many outside factors that are best handled by simulators. Other games may have progressed beyond the point of analog prototypes and there are already scripts in place that can make the building of a digital prototype relatively simple. Still others are so simply represented in a digital medium that using paper would be too much effort.

Personally I prefer analog prototyping, because it puts me in the creative frame of mind. It allows me to work while having fun, and gives me an outlet for trying all the ideas that come up without having to redesign the game. It’s much easier for me to think creatively if I can change things on the fly, and analog games are extremely easy to make changes to. Digital prototypes would allow the creative process to stagnate as they are being built.

So when you’re out there in the real workplace, remember the benefit of post-it notes, paperclips, and paper. You just may find that a wealth of ideas comes from actually playing your game before you’ve finalized it in a digital medium. Release the inner kid, and make a game.

What is the square root of cheese?

Impossible to answer? How about something easier… What genre is my video game?

This one is a question that often trips me up in my education. I am constantly confronted with genres, like the self-inflicted stereotypes of the video game world. They are a necessary evil and I understand this, but like all stereotypical generalizations, they are sometimes hard to pin down.

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Remote vs. Freelance in the Game Design World

Rock ’em, sock ’em game design.

There is a very very limited amount of remote work from what I can see in the field of game writing/design. Most of what people would call remote work is in actuality freelance or contract work. So the thing that remains to be decided for me is if I continue to search for that remote golden egg, or if I strike out and look for the sunny side up omelet instead.

Obviously if I intend to get anywhere with building my resume for the day that I trip over the golden egg, I need to start freelancing. With that in mind, I’ve begun the painful process of branding a studio name. In the next weeks I’ll talk more about the decisions I come up with, but for now, the process…

For all of you designers out there looking to “break in” with freelance or industry work, the first place to start is in creating your sparkleBRANDsparkle.

I’m doing this by first thinking up a name for my studio. This should fit with what I intend to design, my game style, and my own unique personality. It’s a choice that is very difficult to “fix” so take some time with it. When you’ve decided on a name, sleep on it for a week or so and see if you still like it.

The next thing to do is to reserve that name on the twitterwebz and as a domain. Even if you aren’t ready to create a web presence, you should register the name. Twitter names are going fast, and you need to snap yours up. Try to keep them the same, so do a bit of homework. You don’t want 5 different versions of your brand out there. You want one unified front.

When you’re thinking up names, keep logos in mind as well. Think about abbreviations. Ponder business card and website design prospects. And make sure that the name isn’t already in use by a design studio. 😉

You may want to practice saying the name out loud, try it out on some trusted friends, or write it out on paper in various forms. Make sure that it can’t be warped into something embarrassing. (Look up the history of the name “PacMan”)

I’ll be doing all of this in the next few days, so stay tuned for the outcome of my brain thunder!

Can You Game for 24 Hours Straight?

Welcome to Extra Life, an annual 24-hour video game marathon that raises money to help kids at Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. It’s never been this much fun to do this much good.

This year’s event begins at 8 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2011. Each participant is asked to raise money by recruiting sponsors to donate to the cause. It’s suggested that each sponsor donate $1 per hour played, but through the web donation pages any donation amount is accepted.

What makes Extra Life so incredibly easy is you can do it from the comfort of your own home. While many churches and schools do lock-ins for Extra Life, you don’t HAVE to go anywhere. What’s more, you can play any game or games you want to during the event. Xbox 360, PS3, PC, even games on your phone count. To register to PLAY, visit this link: [[http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.eventDetails&ev…][2]][2]If you don’t want to become an Extra Life participant, you can donate to the cause as a sponsor. Here’s a link to my donation page: [[http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&eve…][3]][3]

If you sign up and play for the event, feel free to add your own donation link to this thread. Remember that our littlest warriors are depending on us!

[]: http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.eventDetails&eventID=501
[]: http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&eventID=501&participantID=4851

Progress Report: The Shelf Hath Food!

Worked til 1am last night on my level. So tired this morning, but if I could pick and choose I would rather be home working on it now than AT work. I need to get the level of comfortability with UDK and Maya that I have with AutoCAD and I’ll be golden…

So I have created a little climbing/balancing/jumping challenge in my section of our game. It took some creative use of my limited stock of meshes, some BSP brushes, and a number of blocking volumes… but the player doesn’t just “walk” through the level now. I have also REALLY gotten the hang of converting static meshes into something they weren’t originally intended for, as the tupperware in my level looks nothing like the casserole dish it originally was.

Whilst working on the meshes for this level I realized something important to my design of the game: It doesn’t have to look TOO real.

I was stressing out over WHY there would be so many of the same meshes in a single refrigerator. In reality the player knows it’s a game, the meshes are just “stuff” and I shouldn’t worry so much. So now it doesn’t seem all THAT weird that there are three cartons of juice, two wine bottles, and a six-pack of soda in with my cake. They are just shapes for the level.

Now, if I ever revisit this game in the future to make it “real” I’d want to take a lot more time with the meshes, maybe model it after my own refrigerator… Although I suppose if I’m honest, there are a few bottles of wine and cartons of juice there too… and lots of tupperware…

Next on the list is figuring out what to do with that massive space in the corner before you round the cake to the button. I’m thinking about an AI bot to shoot at, maybe a little tupperware bunker? I can’t wait to get home and play. 😉