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How to fire your teams’ creativity while still hitting delivery dates

Video Games

It would be hard to blame a project professional if the thought of working with artistic or creative teams brings them out in a sweat. Even the most flexible project management is fundamentally about delivering known quantities to definite parameters – certainties that creativity likes to screw up and lob at the waste-paper bin.

Yet such subjective endeavours are making their way into all manner of work these days. Project professionals in even the most business-focused modern enterprise may find themselves having to wrangle the delivery of websites, augmented reality platforms, social media campaigns and videos.

Spare a thought for project managers working on video games. These days, a blockbuster game may have a US$100m budget. Hundreds of visual artists, programmers and sound designers work together to create vast open worlds, designing and building everything from the broad game mechanics and user interfaces to specific weapons and character movements, creating thousands of lighting and sound effects, directing voice actors and making smoke particles move and interact.

Know when to back off

“Managing people is a very interesting challenge for the games industry,” says Bob David, producer at Reflections, a Newcastle-based games studio that is part of the French Ubisoft Group. “Games can be considered art, and everyone has their own opinion of them. So trying to align people, manage their expectations of what’s going to be achievable, and get their buy-in in terms of the right approach is a big part of the role.”

At Reflections, the responsibility for project managing the games’ development lies with assistant producers (APs). There’s one AP for every 15–20 game development staff. Each AP runs this team like a mini project, with a list of things to achieve and checkpoints along the way. They coordinate with other teams, create schedules, prioritise tasks on the backlog and gauge scope versus capacity.

The latter can be particularly challenging: a truly pioneering game is a creative enterprise built around a central premise or feature that’s never been done before, so it can be hard to get realistic estimates of how long things need.

But much of the challenge comes back to managing the people involved. Creatives may sit in very different places on the introvert-extrovert scale from the technical teams they collaborate with, for example. But the most important thing is to break the development process into clear phases – and know when to back off and leave the creatives to it.

Letting happy accidents happen

“In the early phases you’re trying to find a breakthrough, a USP to build the rest of the product around,” says David. “There’s a lot of prototyping, trying new ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. You have to be hands-off and leave the creatives to define and test different theories. We follow the four Fs: fail fast and find the fun.

“From a project management perspective, that’s quite scary, but if a project was led by a project manager from start to finish, you’d probably end up with a very safe game that didn’t necessarily drive anything forward. It’s best to let happy accidents happen, and that can end up creating whole new games.”

David cites the example of Devil May Cry, originally intended to be a sequel to the smash hit Resident Evil. But a bug in the prototype meant that when the player fired guns, the enemies flew up in the air and they stayed there. This ended up becoming a core mechanic of the Devil May Cry series, a feature around which its developers built a whole franchise.

As for methodology, David finds scrum useful in this purely creative phase. When working with unknowns and aiming to fail fast, taking a sprint-by-sprint approach is logical. And for prioritisation here, David favours the MoSCoW standard.

“Super-creative people may not understand all the logistics of the different prioritisation methods you can use,” he says. “Having a simple ‘must have, could have, should have’ system allows them to wrap their heads around what will happen in these cases.”

No game is ever finished

There are, however, clear dangers to letting such creativity go unrestrained for too long. Finding the fun is one thing, but it still needs to lead to a coherent, tangible product at the end. Hence it’s important for project managers to step back in to play a hands-on role once the game enters the pre-production phase, where it becomes about making everything you’ve decided needs to be there. And it needs to meet realistic timeframes.

David reports seeing some projects where the creative teams polished one aspect of the game as an example of everything else that was to follow. But with too much polishing, what the team said it could get done in six months threatened to take two years.

Here David favours a Kanban board approach, focused more on velocity and hitting targets than short milestones. Because those moveable goalposts are one thing that threatens to derail creative projects more than any other.

“For us, it’s about knowing when to finish, effectively,” says David. “Unfortunately, and this is said a lot in the games industry, no game is ever finished.”

Read an in-depth feature on project management in the video games industry in the winter 2020 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

Image: sezer66/Shutterstock.com

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