Why Communication and Community Are so Crucial to the Video Game Industry

Photo credit: Sean Do

Everyone has been on a team at some point in their lives – whether in sports, acting in a play, volunteering, or at work. Human interactions were a common thread in the presentations made at this year’s Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS) at all levels of communication from within teams to collaborating with the industry at large.

Why your team might not be communicating effectively

Most of us spend more time at our jobs than we do with our families, so it’s extremely important that communication in our work relationships be rock solid, especially in time-sensitive projects like the development and launch of a game. Having a producer or project manager is one way to ensure that the communication process is dependable and well-prioritized in your game studio.

In the presentation Danger Zones: Spotting the Red Flags of Project Management, Felix Kramer, a producer at Polytron, gave many examples of how the communication process can slip through the cracks and how that generally spells big trouble for a game’s development. It’s not enough to just communicate the vision and expect it to trickle down through the ranks to your junior employees. Everyone needs to be on board from the get-go.

It’s not your team, it’s your timeline

Effective project management does away with the “set it and forget it” concept. It can be tempting to soldier on and hit targets, but once your project changes, you need to revisit your initial timeline, update it, and communicate the changes to the team. Felix stressed that, although it’s often seen as a failure for the team when a project gets behind its timeline, it’s really just a sign that resources have to be reallocated.

Exceptional talent doesn’t always mean exceptional management

One red flag for Felix on small teams is assigning producer or leader roles to certain senior managers (like creative director). When you’re tied to a project’s creative side, being objective about cuts necessary for a production to run smoothly can be difficult. It’s also unlikely that you’d be able to spot a problem before it becomes an issue in a game’s production schedule. A producer must be able to clearly communicate any potential cuts to the team, especially to those with a personal stake in the creative vision. Dedicated producers can propose any cuts or feature downgrades without any possible collateral damage to their own creative egos.

Photo: GamePlay Space

This also goes for promoting visionaries into management or project management positions. Former MOZ CEO Rand Fishkin blogs about the business myth that top positions should go to those who manage people. Developers with incredible vision and technical prowess may know nothing about managing a team. Promoting them to a management position means you’ll lose their technical expertise while ensuring that those under them will be poorly managed. It’s a promotion model that can definitely be applied to the game industry. Reward talented team members with technical promotions and hire those with communication and management skills to keep the team on track and get the game shipped on time.

Felix ended their presentation with a great line summing up better communications on game teams: Keeping a realistic vision will make for a better experience – or at least one person can actually play!

Communication with the community

But communication doesn’t end with your team. It’s important to look beyond the studio to your community as a whole. It’s the community that supports the arts, and this extends to film, music, and video games. It’s the fans that allow you to keep doing your job, and it’s the industry that supports your business in the work you do.

GamePlay Space (a co-working space dedicated to video games in Montreal) executive director Liv Lunde organized a panel to shed some light on the administrative side of the business. Speakers focused on how community organizations are an integral part of the industry. They provide workspace as well as programming that addresses important production components outside of physically making the game. As marketing manager of GamePlay Space for the past year, I have been able to see firsthand how a community hub like GamePlay Space can help with training on how to run a business, including networking, speaker and pitch preparations, peer-to-peer mentorship, and meeting grant deadlines.

A physical space to bridge the divide

Gamma Space (a video game co-working space in Toronto) co-founder Henry Faber found that even though there were plenty of developers in Toronto, they wouldn’t talk to each other outside of larger, expensive industry events like GDC. The development of a co-working space like Gamma Space created a smaller area where devs could talk shop and create a sense of community all year long.

A thriving community not only focuses on the games being made but also on the people making them and, as Henry pointed out, who is “allowed” to make them and get the necessary support to do so. Community organizations can help bridge the gap for even more inclusive communities and by working with different levels of government to enhance the perception of games as cultural production. As non-profits, co-working spaces like Gamma Space and GamePlay Space can wield more influence and provide more access and support for grant applications to independent developers.

Hosting business development opportunities that operate outside of heads-down work on the game also creates more opportunities for interaction, iteration, and community support for individual studios. By expanding our idea of what a creative community is, and by developing solid communication processes within studios, we can create healthier workplaces for the game industry and make even better games for our fans.

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