This week we’re exploring collaborating in game writing. We’ve already covered consensus and compromise, but now we move on to the hallmark of the game industry: ownership. How does the concept of ownership mesh with collaborating in a team? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Ownership as a way to manage teams has yet to hit the dictionaries, so I’ll do my best to define it. Assigning ownership is the act of giving a project to one person who is ultimately responsible for its successful completion. Ownership allows for writers to pour their passion into their work and take pride in it. For that reason, ownership is a great way to manage ego and makes it easy to track progress, because there’s only one person to ask. Finally, ownership allows a writer to tell his/her story without the drawbacks of working in committee.
A writer with ownership of a project may act like a mini-producer, making sure systems, level design, and art can support the story, characters, and dialog. Even if the writer isn’t coordinating with other types of developers, the writer with ownership may very well need to enlist other writers to complete the task at hand. Here are a few tips on how a writer can do just that.
1. Practice good salesmanship – While you own a project, you will need to sell your ideas to everyone you enlist to aid you. The more excited you can get them about your idea, the more time and effort they will put into it. Remember, also, that good salesmanship does not end with the sale. Follow-up with thanks for their work speaks volumes.
2. Ask for and listen to feedback from peers, with reservations – No matter how fabulous your story is, you will want to get feedback from your peers. You don’t want to be making the big presentation when the company head points out the fundamental flaws in your story or character. That said, as you ask for feedback, give the caveat that you are simply trying to get people’s impressions. If you don’t take people’s feedback, they may feel shafted unless you warn them in advance. These people may then be less inclined to help or give you feedback in the future. If someone felt particularly strongly about an issue, explain to the best of your ability why you have chosen the route you are on without discounting their ideas.
3. Give as much as you receive – While you may own a project, a team member may own another section. You will probably want help to complete your project, so make sure to offer help on other team member’s projects. You want to avoid a situation where everyone is slammed with work, because no one took the time to help each other in earlier stages. Worse still, you don’t want to be the only team member who can’t finish your project because no one will help you.
4. Don’t forget consensus and compromise – Just because you have ownership of your project doesn’t mean you can’t use these other tools. Bolstering your position to the higher ups with the comment “We all agreed” can smooth the rough patches.
Once again, the simplistic example: Joe is in charge of deciding the character’s dress color. He wants it to be bright red, but elects to ask for and listen to feedback. He helped Sally the other day, so he asks her her opinion, with the caveat he is simply looking for opinions. Sally dislikes the color red, based on the idea that the character is more mysterious than seductive. Joe finds her feedback valid and decides to combine his idea with hers. He thanks her for her feedback and lets her know his color choice – dark, mysterious red. Sally is pleased with his decision. Alternately, Joe could decide that, since he has ownership of the character, she should wear bright red anyway. He lets Sally know that he wants to emphasize her seductive nature and downplay her mysterious aspect. He thanks Sally for helping him decide. Sally shrugs, not in the least displeased, and they continue with their work.
When to use ownership:
- When time is short
- When a lot of work needs to be done and working on it concurrently makes sense
- When most of the key issues have already been decided
- When you need clear accountability
Drawbacks: The biggest drawback with ownership comes from the term itself. “Ownership” is misleading, because it implies that you have final say, when that is often far from the case. When word comes down from on high or another department that something needs to be changed, the “owner” may feel marginalized, frustrated and stifled. On top of that, these required changes may occur more frequently, because a writer with ownership may not be soliciting, receiving, or accepting the peer feedback he needs.
An ownership system may also foster a tragedy of the commons. Teamwork that is actually best done as a group may fall by the wayside or be done with less care while team members focus on “their” projects. Teammates, no matter how good their intentions, often end up putting less time into helping others, because their own projects must take priority. If you own a project, but are unable to enlist your teammates because they are busy with their projects, you are at fault. After all, you are held accountable for the outcome of your project, not they.
What has your experience been with ownership? Good or bad? Next we’ll explore how you can combine consensus, compromise, and ownership to see a project from beginning to end.