How well the team works out creative differences is discernible in the end product. Quality suffers when the team cannot balance the input of many personalities. This can be tackled with a team-oriented approval and review process.
Video game team culture is never a democracy. There is normally a hierarchy on a team with people directing work. I like to tell people that there’s three kinds of creative direction on a team:
No direction - soft gloved, disjointed, people do what they want
Bad direction - poorly expressed, unimaginative, meandering or lacking conviction
At one studio I worked, we cycled between none and bad as we looked to hire experienced directors. One of those new directors was very good, but one turned out be a wolf in sheep's clothing and showed me a new level of bad. I'll dub it authoritarian direction.
An authoritarian director makes all the creative decisions and approvals. They believe they know best and do not trust their team. They never abdicate quality control to leads or individual team members. They tend to micromanage their direct reports and have flat teams where no one can intervene in their messaging.
Authoritarian directors can have great success. True geniuses can produce great works, they are just not pleasant people to work with, and they are not always the geniuses you hope they are, for the company's sake.
Authoritarian direction adds significant risk to the design and product. Flaws in the director's thinking go unreported or unchallenged. They can sometimes ignore, twist or fail to incorporate consumer data points or others advice, doing what they want, not what careful analysis dictates. They prefer to surround themselves with capitulating direct reports rather than thoughtful and potentially contrary leads who might stand up for themselves. Thus they fall prey to the peril of groupthink.
Team members in such scenarios stop thinking for themselves. This suppresses their enthusiasm and contribution of ideas and strips away any sense of ownership and accountability, except when it is convenient for the director to lay blame. Because they cannot think for themselves, team members cannot solve their own problems. Decisions slow down to the availability of the director, where a week or two away from the office means possible slips to the schedule.
I'm not one to shy away from a fight when there's something amiss in my studio. I am always looking to improve processes with the end goal of quality, timely releases and team contentment. To combat this growing authoritarian in our ranks, I preached inclusion and empowerment of individual contributors and leads.
Then as EP and manager of hand-off process and embedded testing, I put my money where my mouth was and instituted an approval process that pushed quality checks down to the leads. I couldn't force the authoritarian to give up his reigns on design direction, but I could promote a team-oriented approach to quality control as part of the embedded testing process for hand-offs to formal testing.
In a team-oriented approval process, sign-offs are not about control. When distributed to the leads on your team and taking input from team members during regular reviews, they are about empowerment. They are about sharing responsibility for quality.
For each release, milestone submission, or each game feature or level you can insert an approval step as a quality check. A good approval system should do the following:
Seek sign-offs from each discipline lead and director. This can be design, art, sound, engineering, math, product management, the game director and QA.
Make their approvals visible on a dashboard. I first tried getting sign-offs with a contract-like document, but that didn't work as well as a white board mounted on the wall. Clarity creates goals. Goals motivate team members. Later I moved it to big screen monitor on the wall.
Open up the review process to more team members. Inclusion breeds loyalty and gets better feedback. This doesn't mean it's a democracy unless you choose to call for vote. It just means you gather more data to make a decision and provide opportunity for criticism or alternate ideas.
Track decisions and feedback on a visible checklist in Confluence or team-shared document. Personally I found it easier to keep polish lists out of JIRA or the bug database as it can often be a pretty long list of tiny changes.
Test new ideas and give others’ ideas a fair shake. Honest discussion fine-tunes thinking. This eliminates groupthink. Giving people a little leeway to experiment may clear up any disagreement.
Share consumer data points from your metrics, customer service, sales and focus tests with the team. This helps the team understand what is being asked and why, providing context for decisions and opportunity for them to suggest solutions.
Foster a safe environment to critique each other’s work. Team members should feel safe to both share and receive criticism of their work without fear of reprisal. Remind people it's a team effort and making the game better is the top concern.
Think out loud and share your reasoning with the team. This provides context for your opinions and also allows it too to be criticized. When you think out loud, people will also learn to anticipate your feedback and speed up future efforts with less iteration.
Acknowledge mistakes. Humility is a very important trait for growth. Every failure presents us with an opportunity to learn.
Acknowledge ideas contributed by junior team members. They don't often get the credit they deserve, and calling out their good work in a team setting is a great way to encourage those ideas to keep flowing.
Allow approvers of different disciplines to cross their lanes. If the engineering manager sees some hitches in animations and wants to hold off his sign-off, let him. It might mean bad compression or bad art. You don't know until you dig into it. It's safer to make no assumptions and catch all mistakes whatever discipline is involved.
An approval system if implemented wrong can also be a recipe for disaster. Here's a list of DON'TS I can pass on from lessons learned at this and past companies.
A single point of approval is a single point of failure. Games are too complex to afford that risk. Good direction must incorporate team and consumer feedback and ideas. Present the team with a sign-off board and team review process and they will rise to the occasion, finding more issues and finer polish than with a single approver or no sign-offs. That finer polish and the team-oriented approach to content approval is how we transform good games to great ones.