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  • Sharing the Design

    [04.03.08]
    - Brandon Van Slyke

  •  Splitting up the Work
    When developing a new feature in tandem with another designer, it's best to decide up front how you both want to tackle the task. This usually comes down to personal preferences, and each designer likes to go about his or her craft differently.

    In some situations, it's best to simply sit next to one another and work together to formulate the design. This approach has the added benefit of maintaining strong visibility for everyone involved. In the end, you'll both know what changes were made, how it affects the overall picture, and be able to easily discuss any differences in opinion immediately as they come up, avoiding a lot of needless backtracking and unnecessary confusion.

    But working together in this fashion is not always sugary landscapes and candy-coated sunsets. This approach doesn't work for everyone and can sometimes result in impeding the efficiency of one or both of the designers. This is especially true when one has had more exposure and history with the feature or mechanic than the other. In this kind of situation, it's often best to break up the work and deal with it individually, although before doing so, it's important to establish a checkpoint. The checkpoint signals a time when you'll both stop working and meet up to discuss the progress being made and identify any outlying issues or dependencies that may have cropped up.

    Deciding how to break up the work is often the most difficult problem you'll face. What usually occurs is that one designer decides to take ownership of a piece of the design and takes it upon himself to be accountable for that portion. For example, let's say you're assigned to the team that's responsible for designing the characters in the game. One person can go off and start determining the general stats for the characters, while the other can begin documenting the characters' abilities. All the while, another person can begin scheduling meetings with the concept artists to get a head start on conceptualizing the characters' look and feel. This method tends to make the best use of everyone's time by eliminating any needless busy work.

    Another issue that may crop up regarding sharing and ownership is that you may be working with designers who are in a different time zone or even speak a different language. For instance, some mobile game developers comprise studios all over the world, which collaborate with each other on everything from a game's design to its subsequent porting and localization. This doesn't mean you need to run out and learn French, German, Farsi, and Tagalog. However, it helps if you can recognize when to be patient with other team members. It also helps to adopt a common core vocabulary of design terms, which will more often than not result in less confusion and unintentionally humorous emails for everyone involved. Also, being flexible and maintaining strong communication via instant messenger or scheduled conference calls will allow new designers to thrive in these situations.

    Benefits of Ownership
    What is ownership and how does it contribute to a game designer's job?

    Ownership is taking on responsibility for a specific piece of the design and "owning" the work that goes into it. You are in charge of defining that component's characteristics and accountable for getting it to work within the framework of the game. Ownership is a very important concept to grasp when it comes to large-scale projects.

    Giving people ownership allows each person on the team to feel as though they are significantly contributing to the overall product. When you have ownership of something, you get a sense of satisfaction from knowing that you helped sculpt the player's experience in a tangible way. It also builds confidence by providing solid direction to you as a designer. Just like playing a game, being able to identify a concrete goal can help motivate you to do your best work without feeling like you are getting lost in the mix of what is often an extremely fast paced creative working environment.

    On that same note, ownership also helps by letting designers focus in on their specific tasks without having to worry about every unique element of the design. One of the most enjoyable parts of the development process is finally taking the blinders off and looking at the game once everyone's hard work has finally been integrated. You might not have been aware that the UI was going to work the way it does or that the in-game economy had been altered to allow character leveling on a per mission basis. But being surprised on occasion by the talent of your team members, and in turn having the chance to amaze them, is one of the coolest things about working in a team.

    Collaborative game design is still being defined and will always be open to many different interpretations. Production methodologies such as agile development are being adopted to help teams identify best practices for scoping out work and assigning tasks. The majority of new designers will be exposed to these on the job. Nevertheless it's important for all new designers to realize that being part of a team requires a lot of give and take in terms of communication, sharing ideas, and assigning specific responsibilities.

    It's cheesy to say, but it's also very true: There's no ‘I' in "team." It should come as no big surprise that collaboration with others, more often than not produces extraordinary results.

    Brandon Van Slyke is a professional video game designer currently at Vicarious Visions (an Activision studio) in New York.

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