What Makes a Design Team a Team?

Game design is an endeavor that becomes more fun and more effective with a team, yet good collaborative environments seem relatively rare. That’s unfortunate. I think approaching design as a team sport can have a big positive impact on design quality.

Our company has one of the largest dedicated game design/development departments in the business. A chunk of them sit in an open cube area called ‘The Pit.’ These cubes don’t have walls, and in the center of the area is an open gaming space. Designers move freely between their workstations and the center tables. Frequently someone will call out “Anyone available to help try out this new build?” Usually several people will step up. The company culture rewards open debate, argument, and brainstorming. People feel comfortable being open with their thoughts, and aren’t afraid of being pilloried for dumb ideas. I believe this culture of collaboration is extremely powerful and very rare in game design and other creative fields.

In smaller game companies designers are often protective of their projects. They’ve learned that the more they reveal about why they’ve made specific design decisions, the more others feel invited to criticize or push for changes. If the design seems good, others want to leave their mark so they feel like they were a part of its success. If the design seems shaky, the fear is that others may try to take control of it from the creator. It seems safer to keep it close to the vest.

In larger companies I believe it’s common to find a culture of competition rather than collaboration. Game designers each feel their careers are closely linked to the success of their own projects so they are reluctant to spend their valuable time on others’ creations. There’s also sometimes an underlying sense of mistrust. Why would you ask a rival for advice? Designers working on a close-knit project team have a better shot at collaboration but they usually only do so under the guidance of a powerful project lead. A good lead knows how to foster this sense of teamwork, but good ones seem to be rare.

Lots of game design is done on a freelance basis. In those cases the team lead will usually have spent a long time cultivating a small group of trusted designers. Those that work well together tend to have the most success, and those that don’t, well, you can read some Darwin to figure out what happens.

One of the most common reasons creative people are hesitant to work with others is the fear of idea theft. What if the person you’re working with claims the idea as his own, develops it, and has a blowout success leaving you with nothing? This is especially worrisome when an independent designer is shopping ideas to publishers or developers. It’s also a problem when a designer has an innovative solution to a problem his team is working on. Is the risk worth the upside?

Complicating matters, there aren’t effective legal protections for game ideas. Trademarks protect words and phrases. Copyrights protect passages of text, music, and images. Patents cover tools, devices, and processes. None of them really work on an early-stage game idea. It’s understandable that countless beautiful ideas that might have bloomed in the light instead wither in the darkness of fearful creators.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any legitimate cases of ideas being stolen before publication in the gaming industry. Like a child whose parents never let it out of the house, an idea is far, far more likely to die of loneliness than to be kidnapped.

Sometimes I’m in a conversation about the IPod or Facebook, and the other person says “Oh, I thought of that years before it came out.” I think to myself “That may be 100% true, but the idea didn’t do you any good, did it?” It goes to show that the idea all by itself isn’t worth much without outstanding development partners, timing, funding, risk-tolerance, and market conditions.

I think there’s a romantic notion that Miyamoto had the idea for Mario and that idea alone was good enough to change the face of the industry. It’s fun to imagine that Magic: the Gathering sprung from Richard Garfield’s mind into the world like the goddess Athena after Zeus’ headache. Wow, wouldn’t it be great if one of our ideas could shake the world like those? Of course the truth is that innovations like these started with one famous good idea and then the designers sought out partners. The result was dozens of other non-famous good ideas from many people working on the game’s development. If Miyamoto or Garfield had decided to work solo on their projects they probably would have gone nowhere.

In my view, game idea abduction seems a lot like alien abduction. It’s spooky to imagine it and there are those who swear it happens, but when you try to pin down a verifiable case, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The most convincing point against the likelihood of idea theft is the fact that companies would much rather steal ideas that have already been released and proven successful. A truly innovative idea of any kind requires a publisher to take a risk on an unknown concept. Look at the percentage of new releases that are knockoffs and sequels. Most publishers just can’t stomach the financial risk of pioneering a new concept no matter how cool it seems. They would much rather wait for a small independent developer to release it, prove it’s great, and then either follow with a knockoff or buy them out.

So theft is mostly an imaginary threat. But there are real downsides to collaboration. In the Pit we have politics. In an environment like this you have to generate widespread support for any controversial decision. John may be a random developer who’s not even on my project team, but since the company culture encourages anyone to jump in with their opinion, John’s objections to my decisions make their way to the department head and set me back two days while I rally others to explain why they agree with me. Luckily, not many people seem to take things like this personally and all is forgotten as we move to the next project.

Coming back to my point, designers have much more to gain than to lose by sharing ideas. Building and leveraging a network of collaborators can have a massive positive impact on your game design success. You don’t need a big team to benefit from collaboration. Even one partner to volley ideas with can have improve the quality of your output. If you do have a partner or team, think about how well you are working together. If you are already clicking, you should appreciate how valuable that teamwork is.

Next time you are on a design project, put yourself in the shoes of a sports coach. What would Phil Jackson have to say about how your team operates? Does everyone know what his or her role is? Does everyone feel responsible for the outcome? Do the team members trust each other and feel comfortable being open? Creativity is all about seeing familiar objects from different perspectives. I hope you get the chance to try out this perspective and see if it helps move your project forward.


4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. MikeElliott,

    Nice Comments Brian.

    I don’t worry at all about other designers or companies borrowing my spec designs, and once something is public I would expect everyone to study it and use anything they can. That is just the way the business works. I have never felt like I lost a concept due to showing it to numerous people. Probably 100 or more people over the last 18 months have seen the recent dice game I did with Eric Lang that is just now getting published. The only exception would be if you are working for hire at a company, where barring an agreement anything you show or produce while working at that company would then be subject to the companies property rights claims. This alone can often stifle innovation in larger companies, where designers may be reluctant to pitch ideas that they are not sure will be used over concerns about losing them forever. The most common “Theft” scenarios are usually when an idea starts that more than one company or designer is working on the same types of ideas at the same time. This is especially true for games that capitalize on current successes. I have a current card drafting game project and so do probably 20 other designers and companies. If another one comes out that is similar to mine, that is the breaks, since almost everything in game design builds on common building blocks that are well known in the industry.

  2. Brian, I love what you’ve said here, but I think you left out an important factor in what makes a great design team a team: belief in their project. The success of Magic design teams also comes from the love all the team members have for the game. They all want Magic to be awesome, and this helps break down a lot of the barriers and problems that could otherwise cause friction between them. Sharing the same goal, even if your exact vision for it is different, enables the team to put egos and politics aside and work together toward that goal.

  3. Hey Brian,

    Great, great read. As someone who read the Game Inventor’s Guidebook a long time ago, one of the largest takeaways I had were some of the same principles you laid out here – most notably that sharing your ideas is crucial to good design.

    Now that I’m older and have worked on some design/development myself, I agree entirely how important those concepts are. Frankly, without the feedback from my peers and fellow designers/developers, I know the final product of any project I undertake would come out much worse. That collaboration is so important. It’s easy to have an idea of how you think some design is going to work out, but often it isn’t until you receive some playtesting feedback or another designer looks at your design in a different way that you really begin to see how that design would actually work out.

    Thanks for writing this! It was a great read, and I look forward to seeing more by you in the future.


  4. Trick,

    Just found the blog Brian and am loving going back over your previous posts, also enjoyed this one greatly :)

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