Managing Culture Changes
This blog was cross-posted here.
Ah, culture change. It happens at many studios- as they grow, as they bring in new management teams, or as they shift in genre focus. In the age of tech art, there are times that culture change can occur in art content creation and management pipelines. From world editors, to audio management tools, to animation systems, new tools will often create new problems before solving the ones they set out to fix. Managing these changes can prove to be quite difficult.
Let’s say you’re the character team lead. Your team has just shipped a great game, but during the course of creating the game you and your team compiled a list of shortcomings in your character creation system, software, and pipelines. The phrases “we need to find a way to do this better,“ and “we need to stop being so dependent on Bob the programmer so we can create characters more efficiently” were uttered often, especially during the final push.
Even with those "broken" pipelines, the project was successful. Your team moves on to the sequel, which needs to be created much faster with many of the same tools and pipelines. Sure, you make a fix or a change here and there, but you’ve barely made a dent in that huge wishlist you compiled during the last project. You go on to make a better game than the first, but the problems from the first development cycle still exist.
Thankfully, as the sequel ships, studio management finally agrees that a new Character Creation System (CCS) is needed to keep moving forward with the franchise in a way that can compete with the big boys. The studio selects you as the person to guide the CCS development team, and gives you the resources to create the ideal CCS.
6 months later, it’s done and works perfectly! Pipelines are exactly what everyone wants! The CCS works like a dream! The tech and project teams are delivering each other’s babies! All is right in the world and you are all now rich. The end.
Hahahahahaaaa. Right. If only :)
Reality Sets In
A few months after the CCS team begins development, reality sets in. The studio needs to re-allocate resources, so your team shrinks, and with it, your Alpha milestone feature list. You begin to realize that even in the design phase, the character artists are beginning to question decisions that are being made in regards to the new CCS. Features they had clamored for just months ago were suddenly not so important. The old CCS suited them just fine, they claimed, except for these three things. No, make that five things! In the coming weeks, it’s ten completely different things, all of which were never on the initial wishlist. And forget about the animators, they say, even though they need this tool as well. Just implement the character art features and let the animators deal with it!
After all of this, it becomes apparent that the character artists each had their own idea of what the proposed changes would be, and how they would affect their daily workflow. While this individuality is what will eventually make the CCS great, it currently makes it extremely difficult to develop in a way that will make everyone happy.
Not only is the new CCS affecting the workflow of the character artists, but it’s affecting you! As the CCS team lead, you want to deliver the best possible toolset, based not only on your experience but on the experience and input of the rest of the character artists. There is a lot of pressure on you, not only from the character artists to deliver what they expect, but from management.
So you rely on the character artists to give input and guidance for WHAT to deliver while balancing the features that the CCS team CAN deliver. Quite often, you come out as the bad guy with the character artists, even though you are one of them- you were even involved in the initial wishlist that resulted in the CCS team being created! The level input you receive from the character artists devolves from enthusiastic to almost nothing, even when you request it. You begin to deliver incomplete or incorrectly developed features only to learn that the character artists never read the design documents for those features in the first place, even though THEY prioritized them.
Eventually, you feel like the character art team is working against everything you are working for, even though you were all supposed to be working towards the same thing. And the character art team feels like YOU are working against THEM. There is a lot of tension between the sides, and eventually management has to intervene, sometimes more than once, with limited effectiveness.
It’s not quite how you envisioned it happening, is it?
Tim’s Amazing Way To Do it Right!
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Both sides of a culture change don’t have to be in conflict- hell, they don’t have to be on opposite sides! There is a better way to handle a situation like this, but it takes EVERYONE involved- in our example, the character artists, the character art lead, the CCS team, and most importantly, management.
The number one thing that a change like the CCS needs is support from all levels of management- from studio level down to the character team lead, and everything in-between. If this support doesn't exist, you need to get it, starting from the bottom up. Get buy-in from the character artists that this is a change that needs to happen (This should be easy, as it was their idea!), then gain support from their and your managers by outlining the project cost savings of the CCS, and then finally studio management.
Once you've garnered the proper support from all levels of management, you then need to set some ground rules. The character team and its lead need to know that their managers support your development of the CCS. Studio management and your managers need to support you by helping deal with any conflicts that may occur between the CCS team and the character team. You should also now hammer out how features and assets will be delivered, and implement a change request system for features that are broken or require changes as well as for new features.
Once the rules are set, you are hopefully making the development of the CCS more about the behaviors of the people involved and less about how it is being developed.
Seek Peer Counseling
The number one thing that YOU will need while guiding the development of a change like the CCS is friends. People to talk to. Peers, not just in character art, but in life. Developing the CCS is going to be hard, it's going to be stressful, and it's going to flat out suck sometimes. You'll find times where you don't want to get email from the character art team for fear of what they don't like that day. You'll find yourself second guessing every feature design spec you write.
So you'll want, no, you'll need people who you can go to. People you trust, who can sanity check your ideas and also tell you when you are being an idiot.
If you have people like this to unload on, then being confident in what you are trying to deliver will come easier. It will also allow you to get stress off your shoulders so that you don’t take it out on the team you are delivering to (in this case, the character artists).
Stay the Course
Remember that the CCS was a group idea, supported by management. If it ever feels like everything you are doing is pointless, worthless or unappreciated, just remember that the goal is to deliver a toolset and pipeline that will make everyone's lives easier when it is done.
In that same vein, be confident enough to change direction if needed. It could be that the initial ideas sound great on paper to everyone, including the character art team, but once put into practice it becomes obvious that things need to change. Work with naysayers of the vision to determine if their concerns are valid and course correct if they are. If they aren't valid, clearly lay out why they aren't valid to those people.
Most importantly, don’t feel threatened by people who seem to be working against the end goal of the CCS. Give them all of the information they need and ask THEM propose better solutions. Quite often their antagonism is caused by simple miscommunication (I'll outline what should happen if it is truly brought on by ill will or poor intentions later).
Communication and Transparency, the catch-all words that are supposed to make everything better, right?
Just saying you "need to communicate better" or "have decision making be more transparent to the team" isn't enough. You'll need to outline HOW communication needs to happen and how each side will respond to it. You need to have a process for making decisions and making sure those affected know how the decision was made without holding 5 meetings and having different go-betweens.
If you have features that the character team needs to read over, set the ground rules for how they'll read over them- are they just bullet items? Do you have design docs written for each feature? Set a consistent expectation and then police it. For example, let's say you've got a feature list that contains design documents for each feature. At 12:00, you ask the character art team to read it over and prioritize it. At 12:10pm, they have it prioritized. Does that sound right? No. They probably didn't read the design documents of each feature. Kindly ask them if they did, and if they didn't, ask them to do so in order to ensure that the CCS team delivers the features properly. This will hopefully eliminate the possibility that, upon delivery, the feature is not what they expected, which could (unfortunately) lead to your team being thrown under a bus due to miscommunication.
If there is resistance to proper communication from the character art team or the CCS team, you still need to keep trying. Get management involved if need be, but hope that you won't need to. It would also would be a mistake to step back and stop pushing for input and feedback, and to stop GIVING input and feedback to the project and project needs. You need to remain steadfast against the wishes of those who are either complaining about or worse, threatened by your presence- instead, talk to those people and find out exactly what is causing the tension,and work to correct it.
And if at all possible, keep the CCS team and the character art team in the same room! Feedback can come more freeform, both sides can see how each other's decisions are made, and it can potentially eliminate an air of open hostility (if it ever devolves to that). At the least, it can help you identify when it starts so you can work to resolve it quickly.
Respect & Ownership
No matter what you think as the CCS team leader, you don't own the CCS. It's being developed for the character art team. Make sure they know that, and make sure they feel empowered to use the processes outlined in the points above in order to get the tool that you and they had initially envisioned. This is very hard to do, especially when things aren't going the way that everyone had planned or hoped.
The best thing for the CCS team leader to do is to treat character art team with respect, and leave it up to them to return the favor. During troublesome interactions with the character art team, think of how you would resolve a situation with one of your closest friends- would you complain about them behind their backs, try to garner support against them, and then blindside them? Or would you lay it all out to them, face to face, with the hopes to resolve what is likely a minor conflict?
Make Personnel Corrections
Even with the best communication, the most thought out processes, and all the respect in the world from your team, there are people who just aren't going to get on board. Whether they don't trust that the CCS will be what they want, or don't like the people working on it, there is the possibility that you'll have to deal with bad situations involving them. Like in the above example, if the character lead or team is shown progress of said feature, but raises no red flags until the feature is delivered, that's just bad. If those people are also involved other subversion (like circumventing the use of the CCS), that's even worse! First you'll want to find out if there is a valid reason for this behavior. If there truly isn't, those people need to be properly disciplined- performance warnings, firings (last resort), whatever, but it needs to get nipped in the bud.
If management is already supportive of the goal of the CCS, they should get involved in these situations quickly and correct the situation as swiftly as possible. If they don't, as the CCS team leader, don't take it out on them. There can be any number of factors in determining if someone needs to be disciplined. You need to trust management to do their job just like they are trusting you to do yours.
That's All Folks!
Overall, making a culture change like the CCS is not easy. It can be a long, arduous journey, but if everyone realizes that they are all aiming towards the same goals, it can be successful. Getting management's support early, setting up expectations properly (and following through with them), treating everyone with respect and making sure the right people are in the right positions are the keys to that success. I'd love to hear from others regarding their experiences with similar situations, and if they have their own ways to do this better!