Being a good game designer/developer requires strong soft skills. Providing feedback, mediating discussions, resolving conflicts, managing people; these require empathy, tact and diplomacy. This article disusses some rules of thumb on Soft Skills for Game Developers.
This interesting article, by Steve Thornton was originally composed as a list of self-taught “rules” on a Twitter thread. Experienced developers replied to say that it resonated with them and their role, while aspiring developers or those new to management said that it provided a great blueprint for navigating the challenges ahead of them. Many also pointed out that although written from his experience as a Lead Game Designer, the majority of the tips were actually applicable to all disciplines, and some of the advice resonated even outside the games industry. The response was so positive he wrote this rather interesting article on gamasutra to better structure his thoughts on the matter.
Soft Skills for Game Developers
1. All Designers are Leaders
Regardless of your prefix: junior, senior or lead, all designers act as bridges across departments, and the way they conduct themselves will do a lot to set the tone of the project for everyone. Take responsibility for the morale of everyone you talk to!
Even if you aren’t a designer, I guarantee that assuming some responsibility for the morale of your colleagues and the tone of conversation will only benefit you and everyone around you.
2. Solve Negativity
If someone loses a debate or expresses displeasure about a decision; even in a subtle way, like a passive aggressive joke or terse response, don’t let that negativity simmer. Follow up with that person privately and ask them about their feelings on the choice.
Very important: When listening, let them fully explain their point of view before you explain yours. Sometimes the act of expressing their view is cleansing enough, so don’t open by trying to change their mind, and don’t make them feel like they’re racing you to the air. You don’t have to change their mind. They just need to know you didn’t dismiss their concerns: you made the choice fully aware of the disadvantages/risks they have raised, and you accept them as part of your choice. If possible, ask them ways to at least mitigate the risks that concern them most.
3. Meeting 1:1
Now a days, Most game offices are open spaces, so as default conversations are in earshot of other people. It’s important to know when to talk in a public space, and when to take discussions off the floor, to a more private space.
Examples of when to leave the public space:
- The talk is potentially embarrassing criticism eg. attitude/hygiene
- The talk is about another team member, even if they aren’t in immediate earshot
- A person is being extremely negative and it may affect comfort or morale in those nearby
- A person is heated to an unprofessional degree
- A person seems upset or overwhelmed
In the latter cases, the person may need space to vent, they may also need time. Sometimes it’s best to end the conversation, leave a short break, and then catch up with them to discuss.
1:1 meetings are a big part of any management style; it’s the only time people can talk openly, vent and not feel rushed or at risk of interruption. However, you must be aware that requesting a private conversation can create anxiety, and it can feel potentially dangerous for women.
If requesting a 1:1, especially in advance, be clear what the topic will be. If walking to the room together, try to break any tension they may feel, e.g. deliver a nugget of project news with a good tone.
4. No Offense
Parts of games can be silly, or of comparatively low importance- but every asset is somebody’s baby. Beware jokes that devalue someone’s time/effort. Even if someone was comfortable in the past, you never know when they may be extra sensitive about a specific piece.
5. Gripes Go Up
Honesty is required to have meaningful conversations, yet you must be cautious not to spread negativity, even your own. Sometimes decisions come from above that suck, so how to acknowledge that while protecting morale?
Some managers who will only ever talk in company lines: they will never say anything in private that could not be safely shared (or has already been shared) in a studio-wide email. This ensures professional conduct, but also makes talking to them feel pointless .Other managers who are so completely transparent that they will even vent to the team about their own project frustrations.
If the leads can’t be optimistic about the projects future with all their influence, the team at the whims of the higher ups certainly can’t.
As a thumb rule, allow yourself to be more openly negative with your peers (those of equal seniority) and those above you. Truth to power. With anyone below you in the hierarchy, you have a duty to consider their morale in how you discuss news, even if you have your own feelings.
When you have to bring your team bad news or a decision that you don’t agree with: Process your own negativity in private, find the up-side, or the thing that keeps you going, and when you talk to the team, walk them through that journey. Be honest you weren’t happy either, explain the reasons you were given, and then try to share your reasons for optimism.
6. Don’t Take Sides
People may complain about a co-workers project performance in private, this can be an important part of venting, but you must demand they keep their delivery professional. Call them on anything drifting towards non-constructive, insulting or personal. If you agree with someone’s complaints about a project or team member, it can be extremely reassuring for the person to hear that from you, and know they are not alone in their feelings. As above this is delicate, as you must give a reason to stay optimistic despite the issue.
If you choose to offer some agreement about the complaints raised about another team member, acknowledge only vaguely that you’ve noticed some of the issues yourself / are aware of the issues and intend to follow up. Do not offer your own opinion, indulge in gossip or take sides.
7. Keep Calm
Raising your voice has no place in the office. If someone begins to do so, it is best to immediately end the conversation and request a private chat with that person.
If you ever are that person, catch yourself, apologize, leave the conversation.
8. Encouraging voices
If you notice someone is not getting involved during discussions, try asking them for their opinion. Give them a softball question as a starting point. If they are uncomfortable, stop pressure and talk to them afterwards. Check the reason they’re not involved e.g. engagement, anxiety or confidence. Unfortunately, the vast majority of development discussion happens live, which benefits extroverted thinkers and leaves others behind. Since this is unlikely to change at an industry/studio level, I personally prefer to try and help people to participate live.
Some good advices to be given to people who struggle with contributing to live discussions:
- Prepare your thoughts before the meeting, maybe write them down
- Ask to speak first in the meeting
- If you need time to process new information, take it while others talk and then ask to return to the previous point when ready
In general: if anyone interrupts someone before they finish their point- stop them and ask the interuptee if they are finished, then let the other person know when they can speak. If anyone comes back to a point similar to someone elses, remind everyone “ah, like X said earlier?”
9. Be Approachable
If someone comes to your desk, give them your full attention as soon as possible.
If you’re about to finish something, ask them to come back in a few minutes, but otherwise drop it and show you’re happy to help.
Do not make a show of your frustration at being interrupted, people will stop coming to you. As a designer or lead you are often the bottleneck, people wait on your decisions to move forward with their work – removing blockers that inspire an actual desk visit is almost always going to benefit the project more than the email or list you promised the producer you’d write.
10. Getting Serious
What if someone has a private/home issue?
the rule is to never ask for further info about someone’s private life beyond establishing that there is a problem ongoing.
The exact nature of the problem is not the studios business, and as such not yours either. Though it can be tempting to try and help; a) the power dynamic will make it unclear to the person where the optional aspects of the conversation end b) you are neither their actual friend nor professionally trained for counseling
What you CAN do, is suggest they take the rest of the day off and square it with the relevant leads. You can encourage the person to contact one of their actual friends to talk, and make it clear they can let you know if they need anything.
Make your support role optional. Important: Information gleaned about people’s private lives, even if freely offered, is not yours to share.
It is common for leads to let each other know when a team member may need extra support, but find the line between that and gossip.
11. Find Time for People
You are working with humans, and it can be good to try and deflate the exaggerated emotions swirling around development by reminding each other we’re people with human things like families and hobbies.
It depends on the team member, some want to clock in and get out and hate personal chat, others literally cannot be comfortable unless they feel they have a baseline human relationship with their colleagues underneath the work.
You will see some leads weaponize this, following rough meetings with visits to people to try and clear the air by “Shooting the shit“, usually without first finding time to discuss the topic that dirtied the air in the first place.
You don’t need to directly mentor someone to help build their self worth and encourage them, your time and opinions have so much automatic weight in their eyes, that asking their opinion or paying them a sincere compliment about their work, its powerful stuff.
They are far more effective with people whose work you really respect and do not want to lose.