We all deal with thankless, pushy bosses from time to time, and when we’re chewed out, we mumble (when the boss’ back is turned, of course) about how you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. While being bulled at a minimum wage retail job by a superior is often unnecessary (“Cut those fries faster! What’re you waiting for, the Second Coming of Christ?”), the situation tends to be different if a person is working at a job where consumers are meant to buy and enjoy the fruits of a company’s creative output.
Video games are a prime example. Tempers can get frayed close to a deadline, a cheeky bug can destroy weeks of hard work, and at certain times, even bathroom breaks and opportunities to grab a drink of water can become irregularly spaced. Competition is insanely fierce, too. How does a team manager make sure that staff morale remains high during crunch time, while still managing to offer the necessary criticism for a superior product?
Kris Piotrowski, a creative director at the Toronto-based game studio, Capy, has his own trick: “Be an asshole.”
Piotrowski’s “technique” is half jest, but he’s very serious about the quality of Capy’s output, which includes titles like Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. “There are a lot of crappy games out there,” he said at the Canadian Games Conference in May, “but I’d be surprised if the reason was always that the team was crappy. One of the most important things when you are making your game is to be honest with your team about the state of the game.”
Piotrowski went on to list some of the problems that stack up and burden a game by the time it hits retail or a download service. Put simply, little errors in the art, in the sound, and in the programming can hobble a final product.
“I’m sure programmers already know where the flaws in their code lie before they submit it, artists already know which parts of their art need more work,” Piotrowski said. “People know what is wrong with their game, and there are plenty of reasons to hope nobody notices, but they’re all wrong.”
Thus when Piotrowski suggests that project leaders need to “be an asshole” sometimes, it doesn’t mean flogging team members with a shoe to get them to work faster, nor does it mean responding to a mistake by angrily suggesting that the art director’s mother is a woman of ill reputation. It means that constructive criticism must be doled out, and should be adhered to.
This isn’t easy, Piotrowski acknowledges, but it has to be done. And, yes, even the most well-meaning and helpful criticism can be soul-shattering if you’ve been working on a project for months.
“You’re not making the game to make the team feel good,” Piotrowski said. “People get into games because they want a job that’s fun, and that’s fine, but I think a lot of developers—especially indie developers—can be guilty of wanting development to always be happy and friendly, and it can’t always be.”
Criticism can also swing too hard in the wrong direction and deflate morale like a pin to a balloon. Even so, sparing feelings when there’s a genuine problem with the project can also kill a game, but only after months of hard work have gone into a buggy final product that’s panned by critics and shunned by gamers.
The earlier a problem area is sorted out in a game’s development the better. There’s no hiding the truth: A game that hasn’t been carefully assembled and fine-tuned through the entirety of its conception will tell a sloppy tale laced with dull graphics, poor sound, glitchy character models, and crashes a-plenty. Piotrowski is correct: A leader who shies away from all forms of criticism isn’t doing his or her team any favors at all.