Forest for the Trees

Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. In recent weeks, this old saying has been stuck in my head. I find myself repeating it daily, scribbling it down in my notebook when I’m trying to concentrate.

It’s important to be able to see the big picture. Often, we get so caught up in the small details, we lose focus on our overall goal. I’ve done this. For example, I was recently tasked with coordinating the delivery of assets for our project at work. Doing this task required input from artists. I thought I did a good job. I made sure to get the input I needed from the art team, setup a delivery schedule, and established a review process. At certain points, I had to hold people’s hands and make sure they got me the things I needed. I completed my task well ahead of schedule.

But then I realized, looking at the big picture, my task wasn’t a priority. It needed to get done, but not at the expense of other aspects of the project. Getting input from artists on my task took time away from these other tasks—tasks that were of much higher priority. In the end, the artists were pro and were able to get everything done. But because I had failed to see the big picture, I risked putting the entire project in jeopardy.

Many times in the game industry we fail to see the big picture. This is especially true when it comes to issues regarding quality of life. I don’t pretend to be an expert on management (not currently at least), but even as a low level employee, me and my peers could recognize when management failed to be effective.

There is no doubt that games are big business. Today, game budgets grow bigger and bigger, resulting in expectations that grow higher and higher. Developers are under tremendous pressure to deliver on time and on target. And sometimes, those extra hours of overtime are critical to the success of the project, especially as projects inch closer and closer to final submission.

But where do we draw the line?

I’ve done my share of crunch. And most times, when I sat there at 8:00 AM—almost a full 24 hours from the time I started—I wonder just how important are games in the grand scheme of life. A friend once told me, seeing that I had been at work for almost 24 hours, that there was nothing in the world that could be that important.

I don’t think his comment was accurate. But he had a point. Not all overtime is useful. The biggest contributing factor to crunch isn’t poor programming or poor design. Mostly its just bad management. Not setting proper goals. Using outdated processes. A lack of communication. All these things are signs of poor project management, and possibly, a poor manager.

So what makes a good manager/producer? As someone just starting down this path, I’ve started to look at the type of manager I want to be. As such, I believe a good manager, in the game industry, posses the following traits:

  • Keeps perspective – A good manager/producer looks at a project from every angle, including the big picture. In fact, I think the job of a good manager is to make sure his team knows how their work relates to the big picture.
  • Knows when to push and when to pull back – A good manager/producer knows when his team needs to be motivated and when they need to be left alone. I believe it is possible to build a repourt with your team without being an annoyance. No one likes micromanagers who interrupt them, but a good manager can be assertive without being annoying. Personally, I believe this is one of the key areas I need to work on.
  • Knows what works\how people work – I think another key aspect of good management is knowing how to create a working process. I’ve found that in the game industry, many managers and leads tends simply re-use work flow processes they’ve used in the past. In today’s ever changing industry, you have to be able to adapt your process to fit the needs of your project. Looking at what has worked in the past is an excellent tool, but it must always be updated to fit into your project. Too much time gets wasted on outdated and counter-productive processes that benefit no one. In addition to this, too many manager, particularly micro-managers, want their employees to be working 100% of the time. Managers need to focus on what gets done, and setting up processes to demonstrate results, rather on focusing on people’s work habits. (See Best Buy’s Results Only Work Environment for an example of this in action.)

I’m not an expert by any means. But I’ve worked in the game industry, and I’ve seen too many management mistakes not to learn from them. Overall, everyone in the game industry needs to take a look at the big picture and realize that games are entertainment, not something you need to dedicate your life to completing.

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