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  • Managing Student Game Development Teams

    [09.17.15]
    - Adam Moore
  •  Producers and managers face unique challenges when managing a team of student game developers. This article examines these challenges, how these challenges prepare students for leadership in the industry, and some recommended solutions to the challenges.

    I have worked on several large student game projects as an undergraduate, alumni, and graduate student. On most of these projects I have filled a management or team lead role. Some of these student projects went very well, and some of these projects were plagued with issues from the beginning and ended up failing. I have learned much from these projects that I'd like to share with you.

    To clarify, by large student game projects I mean a development schedule of multiple semesters and teams of more than five developers. Oxygen, the project I'm currently working on, has a team of 18 students working on it and we're aiming to ship our game after 12 months of development.

    Resource Challenges

    Recruiting Team Members

    Behind every great game is a great team. They didn't always exist - they had to form at some point, so how do you go about building your team?

    The best way to recruit new team members is to sell them on your project's vision and objectives, but you need to understand your vision and objectives before anyone else will. With Dia de los Dinosaurios, our team was inspired by the platformers of the Nintendo 64 and our goal was to create a game that could be a memorable part of our player's childhood. This means pitching your ideas to other student developers and not being afraid of them "stealing" your ideas.

    An alternative method that we use at the University of Advancing Technology are our game studio courses. The courses are required for graduation and students that are in the game studio courses apply to and work on the set of games that the game development faculty have greenlit. Even if the students are required to work on your project for a class you still need to sell them on your project or you're going to get the bare minimum out of them and they'll leave the project at the end of the semester.

    You must understand that bigger isn't always better. In fact, on teams less is more. In one of my first student projects, we made the incredibly faulty assumption that a bigger team meant we would get more work done. The problem with large student teams is that scheduling meetings and communicating becomes more and more difficult very quickly as your team grows in size. The overhead of managing a team of 20 or 30 is more than you're going to have time to deal with as a student. Don't be afraid to cap your team size but make sure you cap your project scope accordingly.

    Larger teams tend to break into cliques and these cliques don't always play nicely together, which can be very unfortunate since the team leads tend to form a clique of their own. When this happens, you're almost guaranteed that everyone that isn't a lead is going to leave your team at the end of the semester if not sooner. If you act early enough, you can prevent the barriers between cliques from forming through team building exercises and shuffling seating arrangements in the work area. If cliques have already formed you're going to have to be prepared to manage conflicts that arise between the cliques.

    Retaining Team Members

    One distinct difference between working in the industry and working as a student is that you and your peers are not permanent employees at a studio. Every potential team member at the university will be there for a limited amount of time. In general the more experience a person has, the closer they are to graduating and leaving the university (and by extension, they will probably be leaving your team).

    The biggest motivator for someone to stay on your project is an intrinsic motivator - it's not a grade or a paycheck. If you want people to stick with your project to the end, they have to believe in your team and believe in your project and that takes a good amount of persuasion and you need to understand and communicate your goals and vision for the project, as well as listen to your team to find out what is important to them.

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