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At Digital Dragon 2018 event Andrew Maximov gave an inspirational talk on the culture of Shared Creative Ownership acquired by several cutting-edge game studios, including Naughty Dog. We’ve picked out the most important thoughts on what this innovative approach to the task management gives and the points to consider before following the same path. The whole talk can be watched below.
Dedicated management exists because products don’t ship otherwise and that’s how we’re basically used to thinking. Every business everywhere exists with a dedicated management layer because it works. We’re so used to the idea that dedicated management is a thing, that all of a sudden we forget that maybe it isn’t. But in order to break any rule, you only need one example where that’s not necessarily the case, and today it will be a little studio Naughty Dog. This company does not have any dedicated producers and managers and for a team of three hundred people at most the company had two production coordinators, which for an industry average of a producer per 10 people is pretty much nothing. At the same time, Naughty Dog shows solid consistency: they’ve been around for 33 years, shipped 19 games that were well received. Some studios did manage to survive without dedicated management. How did it happen? It always starts with the individuals and the way they operate.
If you were trying to transplant some of these ideas to an existing studio that did not operate under that model, you will need to start with the people on an individual level. Everybody fundamentally wants some form of a creative ownership over the products that they’re building because they are passionate about it, and that’s where we have to start. Programmes, artists, animators – we’re all fascinated by building systems and a particular process that we’re trying to communicate to our audience. What’s more, every part of the video game or any commercial form of art has a purpose: when you have a character it serves the story, and the story defines certain features that need to be portrayed. It means that the character has to adhere to a certain set of rules, which is essentially answering the important question ‘why?’ Why is this character created in a certain way?
The moment everybody on the team starts asking themselves the question ‘why am doing it in a certain way?’, they fundamentally start asking themselves ‘what is our core product?’, ‘what are we building?’ and ‘what am I willing to sacrifice in order to make it better?’ It makes the team mature around that concept of building a whole product together that will excite people instead of doing separate tasks like creating a character, animation, etc.
In order to acquire the culture of the shared creative ownership, there are a few principles to consider and follow.
As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s always paramount to ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ because not only does it give you more insight into how to do your job better, it also gives you more ideas on how it can be improved. The ideas push you to check them in with the art and creative directors and you make them work. In that situation, you are being proactive instead of waiting for someone to come and tell you what to do, and you have the ownership over the situation.
This model also demands to know what the reasons behind certain choices are. At Naughty Dog, everybody’s ready to sacrifice the one thing they love for something else that’s going make the overall product better and everyone is encouraged to give feedback on any subject whatsoever. In order to make sure your feedback is good, there is one very simple tip which is again connected with the question ‘why?’ Does your feedback align with the why? If you understand that your feedback matches the global ‘why are we making all of this?’ reason and makes things better, you can argumentatively justify how it is going to work and essentially prove that this is not a subjective idea that you simply like. This is an objective way to contribute to the overall product. When every conversation is structured around that and when everybody can give feedback to everyone (and that’s the job of the direction staff to propagate this model), then all of a sudden the team itself can move forward, have discussions and improve the initial ideas. Yes, you’ll get a slight divergence, but everyone’s going to move in the same general direction instead of needing to be constantly controlled.
The ability to give and receive feedback requires a mental shift for a lot of people as well. When everybody can give feedback to you, your work is always on display. This leads to another important thing which is transparency. It’s hard for some people showing stuff, especially when it’s not finished, and they will feel uncomfortable. But fundamentally when you’re exposed to many great ideas from the smart people around, all of a sudden you find yourself learning a lot. Even if eight out of ten suggestions are not good, the other two are going to make your work better – and if you do care about the work and the project, then an opportunity to grow is all you need. This system will also allow everyone to have input where it matters and contribute to the project.
The next principle is connected with the communication aspect. When there is no producer to defer to and nobody says ‘go talk to these people’, there appears responsibility for your project that you own. Something’s broken? Get up from your chair and go talk to someone. Need someone’s help? Find someone and figure it out. When you constantly engaged in that kind of conversation, all of a sudden the work flows faster, and you learn to solve things on the spot. As a result, the project moves along better. Obviously, at times you don’t want everyone to communicate with you and put the headphones on instead, but if you want to have that creative ownership, you have to be available and ready for discussions and criticism whenever necessary. This is a part of the bargain that will make your work better.
Apart from responsibility, removing constraints and structure activates people. Every time we hire a new person at Naughty Dog, they get a task – for example, to make a level, – and sometimes their work is not being checked for a month. Either it’s not the time or there are different priorities, but fundamentally we do not check the work for the sake of it and let people run with it. When there’s literally no one there standing over your shoulder and telling you what needs to be done, people start thinking okay, I need to talk to my texture artist; it looks flat, let’s make it lighter; oh, look at what these guys are doing with their level, that looks cool, let’s steal some of their ideas. All of a sudden the realization that no one is checking on you every second energizes you to do better work because you feel that it’s up to you. And that is really fascinating.
Inclusivity is also something to strive for. It can be greatly summarized by just one sentence: if somebody is a part of the solution, they should be part of the discussion. It’s very hard to care for your project when someone just goes in and tells you ‘we’ve talked about your work, made all of the decisions and now you have to do a B and C’. You will immediately get less output from the person because he or she no longer feels like a part of the work. As long as you involve people at all times, even if there’s nothing they can fundamentally change in the conversation, they’ll be thankful and feel ownership and do their all while working on the project.
Here appears the question: how do you make sure that nothing goes off the rails?
We call the approach we’ve been applying to solve it juggling. We’re trying to see what are the most off the rails things and then we bounce them up. Some teams might not get any attention at all or just a bit, because they’re doing a great job. If they click with what the project needs, there is really no necessity to overburden them with structure.
It’s very important to analyze all the things you implement, and there are different mechanisms that you can apply along the lines that promote communication. One of the things we do routinely is cross-disciplinary playthroughs, where we just all get into a room – designers, lighters, FX artists – play the level, point out the things that could be better, make a list and then talk about it allowing everyone contributes an equal input.
Other things that different companies do are also cool. For example, Pixar has an improvement day once a year when they literally spend a day talking about the things they want to improve. They pre-organize it a little bit breaking down into categories of the things they want to discuss, then they all go into a room, spend three hours discussing the topic and then pick a person who is going to drive that particular improvement they’ve discussed.
Bungie has something called planning days where every 3-4 months they get together into a room as a team and think about what they want to accomplish in the next 3-4 months? They kind of build a small mental map and check it in with all the departments (who do the same thing). That’s the amount of organization that goes into it, and then everyone just goes back to their work.
What else influences the team culture?
An interesting fact: at Naughty Dog no one new has ever been hired at a leadership position. Everyone who’s ever been a leader, director at Naughty Dog has always gone all the way up from being an artist, designer or programmer. I think this fact has a significant impact on the team culture because the team knows the person already and it results in a tighter community.
More than that, Naughty Dog always had, historically, a double for most of the high-level decision-making positions: there were always two presidents, two art directors, sometimes two leads. The whole idea is that there is no ultimate decision-maker, everyone’s opinion is challenged at all times. The directors challenge each other: if an artist has an argument with one director and they don’t agree, he or she can go to another director, have the same conversation and see if some of those points are valid. The main idea behind it is the same: every thought is up for debate.
Everyone does hands-on work from our co-president writing a lot of code to, obviously, the game directors doing design. Our director actually makes environments and shaders and writing code. It brings everyone closer to the team, and the worst thing you can do while trying to support your team is detaching yourself from it.
In order for the shared creative ownership to work you need some really motivated people which are really hard to find – and we do spend a lot of time recruiting. But searching is worth the time because you can teach people a lot of things but you cannot teach them to care about what they do – and that is the point that will make them apply that extra effort to communicate, to be out there, to be vulnerable, to do their absolute best for the game.
With a team of truly passionate people, the quality stops being a variable. When everyone’s fully engaged and you tell them hey, you know what, we don’t have the time, we don’t have the budget, they’ll not listen because they’ve spent all of their time and energy on this.
Whenever you make a priority giving people the ownership of the game, they will make it awesome whatever it takes. And you should at all times expect people to come up with better solutions than you have because they have more time to toy around with different ideas. For you, as a director, it means that nothing will be done how you expect it. What matters is that the problems that you put forward will be solved.
There’s also another vital point to remember about: the moment you give a lot of passionate people the ownership, they will undoubtedly overwork themselves, and you cannot shy away from the responsibility of taking care of them. At that point, you cannot consciously abuse that kind of commitment, because people will put all of their energy into work and so you have to make sure that you use your levers where you can add more time or add more people. Remember that if everybody is giving their 150% effort and it is taken for granted, people will stop doing that, and there will be no team to do it again in the future.
In conclusion, even if we can’t sometimes change the usual structure of how our team operates, I think that if you apply at least some of these principles they can result in making the game better. The whole idea is about creating the kind of culture where everyone stands behind the core idea of the project. If this happens, the project will move along on its own. It will require some, you know, corralling here and there, but it’s going to be way less overhead than you’re traditionally used to.
When you’re running a company or directing a project, no communication means inefficiency. The model in which you tell everyone exactly what to do is not sustainable, especially when we’re talking about big productions. When people have some autonomy, they have way more time to think about their work. And they will undoubtedly improve on whatever you think is going to be the best solution for the project because they’re passionate and involved. Keep in mind, that you’ve presumably hired people that are good at what they do – so trust them, get out of their way and let them do their job.