This entry was posted on Nov 16 2011

Right now, in between trying to do new things with Marco Polo, making plans for other projects, marketing ourselves and meeting random people, we are working on a new project with the lovely people at Mercury Retrograde.

It’s a project that I have been thinking about for a very long time and is dear to me not just because of the level of effort Ant, Barbara, and myself have put into it, but also because I really want to do a good job. I don’t want anyone to feel let down at the end of this or for anyone to feel like they have settled for something. That’s not okay to me. Not for this.

So, to that end, I have been drawing up interfaces for this thing in my head for quite some time. I’ve got sketches in random places. I argued with myself and drew figures with my finger in the air, mumbling to myself all the while. So when I finally made wireframe mockup of the interface for people to see and approve, I was very proud of myself, because I felt like I had done a great job, and that is great feeling.

And then I received a criticism.

Not even a big one. Not even a criticism. Just a question. And for a moment, I was angry. I was upset. I do not take criticism well, at least not immediately. I need a few moments to get over myself. Then we had a good discussion about it, and now we are working on various solutions.

That’s the thing. I like to think I know best, but I don’t. I am not a genius. I am not a visionary. I am just a man who has always wanted to make games. The funny thing is, hardly anyone else is a genius or a visionary either. The assumption that the designer knows what is best is so common that there is even a term related to it, “pink lightsabers”, giving the people who do the approving something obvious to correct so that they can feel like they contributed and the designer can get on with their work.

I actually think that pink lightsabers is the wrong approach. I think that because it is an approach born of arrogance, of hubris and of thinking that only the designer has the right ideas. They don’t. No one does. And the thing is, when you receive a criticism or concern, unless it involves personal attacks or comes from someone with a vendetta against you, it is a legitimate thing and should be examined.

Sure, there are lots of stories of business people ruining great games due to the forcing or rushing of ideas or features despite the concerns of the developers, but many of those ideas weren’t inherently bad. They may have been born out of a fad or out of the head of some out of touch executive, but it is not the idea, it is the execution that matters.

If you really think that what was brought up is not a good thing, don’t respond immediately. Take the time to sit back, think about the reasons why you did or did not include something and explain it, but also, if it is feasible, do a mockup of the idea or bring forward examples that people can see of the same idea done by someone else (it’s out there, trust me) and give it a try. Bring in a third party and work out possible compromise solutions.

Remember, though everyone involved in a project may have different goals, everyone is doing it though the same mechanism, the game, or the project, or whatever. The developers may have a desire to make the best game they can, while the business people want to make lots of money and the marketers may want to make the most avant garde and interesting campaign they can, but they are all doing it through the same core mechanism, and all of their needs are legitimate and should be met by that mechanism.

If you are the person giving the criticism, remember, you don’t have special insight, either. I bet you a dollar you are not the visionary you think you are. If the developers or designers can give you a reason why X shouldn’t happen, and you don’t have a logical, cogent and coherent reason to refute that argument, back off. Also, because someone else did it or because so and so wants it is not a cogent refutation. If you can’t relate your argument back to why it would make for a better experience, then back off.

None of this is meant to say that you shouldn’t fight about a change that you don’t think is or is not a good thing. If you really believe that X is going to ruin things, then by all means, fight for it. A shouting match isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It helps people work out frustrations and can clear the air so that people can come back to things with a clear head once they have gotten over their passion. There have even been studies showing that groups that have one person who always disagrees or has has to be convinced get better results. But after the shouting is done, the discussion has to come back to reasonable and logical thinking. Does this make for a better story, or lead to a better experience, or make a more beautiful presentation, and is it worth the effort, or should we save it for the next iteration or project?

Remember, individual genius is rare, but through teamwork, true collaboration, and a good shouting match, beautiful things are created.

About jkempf

James Kempf, CEO of Cliché Studio, has made two games for Mercury Retrograde Press, learned from managing the comics at Criminal Records that John Stewart is the best Green Lantern, and once happily played a 12 ft. dwarf in Rifts.