Using Team Protocols to Improve Game Development

Alex J. Champandard on September 26, 2007

Developing games is difficult. Gameplay and AI are particularly tough as the process is most similar to making art. The games industry has been trying to develop this skill for years with varying degrees of success.

This article launches a weekly series covering The Core: a set of principles and methods to help create great teams and products. Here on you’ll get a chance to apply it in practice by helping design the artificial intelligence for a little simulation game. (Read on!)

The Trouble with Developers these Days…

The whole process of developing a game is a tortuous road, mainly because individual developers can make so many mistakes when interacting with the team (i.e. not even technical mistakes). I’ve probably done them all myself multiple times over! Problems arise when developers:

  1. Isolate themselves to solve hard problems.

  2. Always rely on others to delegate the work.

  3. Focus narrowly on one aspect of the solution, e.g. technology or design.

  4. Believe they are ultimately responsible for everything.

  5. Don’t have any kind of ownership of the solution.

These mistakes, among many others, are caused by extreme emotions and behaviors, so in most cases there’s a healthy medium to be found.

Team = Product

“The team itself is the biggest liability and the greatest asset of any game studio.”

From my years of experience in game development (including at Rockstar and consulting since then), I can safely say that the team itself is the most important factor for any game development studio — more than any idea, technology, intellectual property, or superstar developer.

You can’t really make great gameplay or artificial intelligence without a multi-disciplinary team functioning like a well oiled machine. The McCarthy’s say this best: “Team Equals Product”.

If you build a great team, you’ll end up with a great product. And conversely, if the product is mediocre or doesn’t ship, it reflects on the team. It might seem self-evident, but it raises the question: how do make a great team then?

Peripheral Solutions

There’s lots of buzz about this in the games industry and software development in general; “people” are an important part of the agile manifesto. Different groups advocate their own recipes:

  • The technology crowd is focusing on test-driven, continuous integration, automated testing

  • The management community is buzzing about product backlogs, short iterations, agile estimation, etc.

These ideas certainly improve teams, they only help indirectly by creating an environment suitable for a happy and productive team. But what can you do specifically to assemble a great team?

The Occult Art of Team-Building

There are three common ways of building great teams these days:

  1. Hire an experienced manager/game producer who can whip into shape any band of decrepit hasbeens and geeky wannabes.

  2. Bring in a consultant to resolve any problems between the team members and help inexperienced managers.

  3. Try your best to find compatible team members, and “discard” the troublemakers.

Now that’s fine if you have the time & money, and are willing to pin your hopes on a few people. But ultimately, if the team can’t whip itself into shape, your project is in trouble. In fact, the best teams must develop without external help and eventually figure out their own approach to the problem…

A Blueprint for Building Great Teams

The question is: isn’t there a better way to build great teams? Can’t you follow a step by step guide for a team to become great by itself? That’s where The Core Protocols come in to play. Here’s the 2 minute pitch from its creators…

The Core Protocols are literally “software for your head,” as described in Jim McCarthy’s homonym book describes. The idea is that by systematizing interactions between team members, they are less encumbered with raw emotions and become more efficient. In effect, the protocols remove the drama from daily development.

Along with the protocols, you’ll probably also need team members to follow The Core Commitments. These are basic pledges to make sure everyone is accountable and on the same page: don’t do anything stupid voluntarily, engage when present, speak only when you can contribute, etc.

A New Series

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing more about The Core Protocols and Commitments on There’s a little simulation game in the pipeline, and since it’s not quite ready for implementation anyway, you’ll get the chance to help design great artificial intelligence using these new methodologies.

Dogs Sitting, Lying, Standing, Rolling

Screenshot 1: Sample behaviors for a dog simulation.

Specifically, you’ll learn about:

  • Decider Protocol — How to make faster and better decisions with less useless discussion!

  • Ask for Help Protocol — Making it easy for people to get assistance and reduce unwanted interruptions at the same time.

  • Investigate Protocol — Get to the essence of an idea or design systematically.

…and many other protocols such as checking in, scary idea, and the intention check.

Tune in next week for the next article in this series. Comments welcome as always!

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