Good Leadership

For the last few years, I was a (semi) active member of my school’s game development club. Last year, it was almost disbanded due to a lack of members, which was due to a lack of a leader. I stepped in at the last minute, but missed opportunities ensured no one knew we existed that year. Thankfully, a new group of friends were much more involved the following term and invested in taking the club in a new direction.

Having been a “leader” for this club for a short time, another student one day asked me how to get friends involved and invested in working on a team project. It was a general question that could be used for club leaders, class projects, or general fun stuff to do with your friends or family. If you have a project to finish, and are able to get other people to join your “team,” how can you get them to contribute and get excited in the project as much as you are? Having been a poor club leader, I had no real answers. It didn’t help that people in my area happen to be very laid-back and uninvested in general (whether this has to do with being Canadian, being from Windsor, or being from my lazy generation, I may never know). But after seeing a handful of ambitious students struggle to encourage involvement, including my own experiences, I think I see several cases where people have gone wrong. I hope this post helps guide wannabe directors and leaders in the right direction. Keep in mind that there are thousands of other good website posts that also state similar advice (see wikihow or google), but mine comes from my personal experience as an indie game developer and as a student, even though it can likely be applied elsewhere for project-based work.

To be a good leader, I think there are four important things to focus on:

  • Vision

Some leaders I’ve seen try to take a very democratic approach. That means if they were able to get a group of people together with a similar goal in mind, then they can decide what to work on together. The benefit of this is that the idea becomes that of the entire group, and that people might become more invested.

However, the first meeting of such a group usually goes like this: “Welcome everyone. We are all here because we are interested in  X. So… what would you guys like to make?” Then silence and twiddling of thumbs. After about an hour, the leader tries to make something up on the spot for the project to be about. People in the group then complain they don’t like the idea, but don’t have any other suggestions to replace it. That shows a very serious problem with this “democratic” method. Don’t do this.

Taking a cue from evolutionary algorithms (sorry for the obscure AI reference here, but it seems appropriate), it is possible to evolve solutions to problems out of anything, getting improved solutions with time and iteration. However, all of these algorithms require a STARTING solution to evolve, a seed if you will. They could literally be a random solution, better solutions could still be made from it. But the start has to exist. In terms of a project environment, someone has to step up as the creative director or director or leader, to come up with the first idea.

And that first idea has to be a complete one. A incomplete idea is worth a dime a dozen, I get incomplete ideas every day, and so do you. One person I knew was a business student, and was very eager to work with me on a project. But he didn’t know what the project was yet. He literally wanted to get started on a project without knowing what it was, and asked me for ideas. Don’t do this either. Eventually, after coming up with dozens of ideas (most of which I could give a counterexample that already existed), we had something to work on, but I’m convinced it was a weak project due to not knowing what we were making from the start, and not knowing what we needed, assuming that the two of us were capable of doing it on our own. Another person I briefly worked with provided concept art for a game, but wouldn’t make anything unless I could describe exactly what I was looking for, a common trait in artists for hire who don’t want to iterate too often. Understanding what you are asking for is crucial, having that initial vision is necessary.

Being the leader of the first idea doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible. I’ve encountered a few people who took charge of the idea, but has a very strict idea of what they intended. Your idea might be inspired, but that doesn’t mean it’s good, and you might be thinking of something too complicated for people to appreciate. Be sure to ask for advice from other people in the group, and to be open to ideas. Your vision should be dynamic and capable of change. Very rarely does your initial vision match exactly with your completed project.

  • Communication

I’ve worked with people both locally (where I could meet them face to face), and also overseas through Facebook and Skype. I’ve also worked with a company that makes applications for clients that would come in once a month to check on the work. After all of this, I’m convinced that the best scenario to ensure good communication is to have the director present every day, and if possible to have them sit down with you each day to discuss what you’ve done and what you are planning to do next. I’ve seen some cases where this works very well.

Unfortunately, I’m aware that’s not the norm. Most likely, a lot of work for a larger businesses are not all done “in-house,” forcing you to get updates from elsewhere at intervals. For projects for the client, the client is technically the creative director and has final say of the decisions, which is difficult when they can’t work in your office each day until the project’s completion. For smaller projects, unless you all live in the same house, you will most likely not be communicating more than once or twice a week due to other commitments, which is again a serious problem.

One of my biggest pet peeves in inefficiency in hours spent working and thinking. I don’t like working for weeks on a feature only to later hear that it all has to be redone. This is why I consider communication to be the most important feature of a good leader.

And please be explicit in your communication. Verbal dialogue or a few posts on Facebook is not explicit. Detailed written documents are better.

If you want to pay someone for their time spent or work provided, write a contract of agreement before any work is done to ensure that both you and the employee know exactly what is expected of each other (I’ve had at least one instance where both parties were left unsatisfied because both were not aware of what was expected and what was possible, resulting in a unfinished product and no pay. I’ve also worked with other artists who insisted on a contract, which worked out much better.).

In the case of game projects, write the project idea down into a design document. This is the blueprint and checklist for development. Most projects of all types will have something like this, I’ve seen it used in companies and it’s the first thing my game development and project management classes would teach. This design document should detail everything about the project, beginning, middle, end, user interface, art description, music/soundfx description, everything, so that everyone who reads it would have a complete picture in their mind of what the finished product would look like, and THE SAME picture, regardless of specialization or background. This makes it much easier to have everyone work together in cases where day-to-day communication is not available. I’ve already hinted at this, but one director insisted on describing the entire game through Facebook, and left out a few too many details, so that when the project was almost complete he revealed it wasn’t half-way done in his view. So please, make that “design document” before hiring anyone. The role of a director on a small team is to be able to be the bridge between all parts of the ship, and guide the ship at the same time.

  • Experience

Some people might disagree with this one, but I think experience is a necessary trait for a good leader. Not necessarily experience leading people, but experience with all the components that you are asking other people to complete.

In the case of games, I have experience with programming, scripting, game engines, art, animation, story, and a little amateur experience with music and voice acting. This means I understand and appreciate the challenges behind all of these components. I also understand that programming is like architecture, and it can be difficult to add new rooms to a skyscraper late into development. I understand that art is by far the most time-intensive task for game development (other developers have agreed with me on this). I understand that original music can be challenging, but that it’s easier to change a game to fit music than to change music to fit a game. Voice acting is the quickest to do, but can also reveal how weak your team is if it sounds bad, and my voice simply does not sound as good as I think it does in my head.

In theory, I know enough to make an entire game on my own. I also understand all of my weaknesses, and appreciate anyone who can contribute, knowing full well that it would improve on what I could accomplish alone.  If you are unable to understand at least the basics of what you are asking for, that will hurt your communication and the project is certain to suffer.

My experience also helps me if a team member is forced to drop out, allowing me to finish their work myself and still have their contribution benefit the project. I’ve seen some people completely helpless in finishing their projects if a single person leaves the group. Without understanding what you are asking for or what you are getting, you would be no different from a “client” or a “producer” telling a director what to do: I expect a film director to be able to act, do set design, lighting, wardrobe, camera work and edit if the situation demanded it. Some would probably disagree, but that’s how I see it.

  • Passion

Passion is important. It’s simple: if you, the leader, does not have passion for your own project, no one else will. Alternatively, showing passion for your project will help entice new team members to join and spark interest in customers.

This is probably where I personally falter the most: I am extremely passionate for what I do, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But I have a hard time showing it. I’m self-conscious and don’t like to involve others unless I am certain the project will be finished. This is contradictory, since it is difficult to finish a project properly without others.

Overall, I think the right approach is what I follow: “I believe strongly in this project, and I WILL finish it by this deadline even if I have to do it alone, but it would be a stronger project if you helped me.” This attitude helps ensure that friends won’t feel obligated to join. It also means less people in general will join. But if they do join your team, it will be because they WANT to, and that immediately makes them feel a little more passionate, a little more committed, and a little more likely to see the project through to the end.

As for showing passion to customers, it’s difficult to do without appearing like an obnoxious spammer who thinks he’s discovered gold. Finding that right fix of being passionate and humble is tricky, let me know if you have any tips about that…


Anyway, that’s my two cents. To this day, many large-scale projects (film, games, etc.) that take “years” to complete only take so long because these tips aren’t met. Another reason why smaller teams are generally better, because it’s simply more manageable and easier to communicate to.

I apologize to Project FliqFlo, which I ranted a bit on in a previous post (a benefit of blogs is that it lets me let out a lot of steam). That project is slowly going forward without me, and my schedule was ultimately a huge factor in that game not being available now for you to play. But I don’t think I was entirely at fault. The advice I give in this post is important, and I don’t think I would ever join another project unless all of these are met by the leader in charge. Unless it was for a full-time job… if I get paid each week, you can be as inefficient as you want.