Sunday, 24 June 2012

How to really involve a larger team in the creative process

At Ronimo we strongly believe in involving the entire team as much as possible in the creative process of game development. No matter whether someone is a lead, a developer or an intern, everyone's opinion is valuable. This is, however, an incredibly difficult thing to do. In the past months we had 16 people working in our office. That means sixteen different opinions, and even just understanding each of them is already incredibly difficult, especially when it comes to difficult-to-explain graphical concepts. Let alone if you want those 16 people to agree, or to least all feel like their voice has been heard and seriously weighed in.

There are two big problems involved in this, and this blogpost outlines a method that tries to work around both:
-A decision might be made without really taking everyone's opinion into account.
-The process might take endlessly, as everyone has a different opinion and we keep trying to find a middle ground.

So today I would like to talk about the way we do that at Ronimo for our art styles. Since we started on De Blob 6.5 years ago (when we were still in school) we have been in a series of larger game projects and in each project we have learned more about how this works best for us. To keep this blogpost focussed, I am only going to talk about art style development today.

Before I start out, let me first note that this is a very flexible process for us. We don't follow a step-by-step plan and we constantly adapt to what works in the current situation. This blogpost is just my analysis of how this practically pans out for us, and since I think it works quite well, I figured other creative teams might have a use for this information.

Step 0: Communicate visually
This is not really a step in itself, but more a general concept. Describing art styles in words is incredibly difficult and in practice always ends in everyone having a different vision in their minds. So we try to communicate visually as much as possible. We don't do art style meetings or brainstorms without a computer with internet at hand, so that references can always be shown and pointed at. Clear communication is key and visual concepts should be communicated visually.

Step 1: Collect inspiration
We usually already have a rough gameplay concept before we start on the art style, and that means that most people also already have some ideas about how the game should look. So we start by making a topic on our internal forum where everyone just posts inspirational images. Images can come from any source (movies, comics, art, concept art, other games), and may contain just a couple of interesting elements, or be relevant in their entirety. Since posting other people's images does not require any drawing skills, even programmers can easily propose styles here.

Step 2: Create concept art
Our forum topic will quickly contain several dozen images and ideas. From those our artists create a series of completely different designs, trying to take in all the ideas. This should result in wildly different images. The art team tries to also express the ideas that they personally don't like. Everyone's views ought to be represented here somewhere.

(Check this previous blogpost for bigger versions of these images.)

Step 2b: Forum feedback
While the art team is making concept art, they regularly post their results on our internal forum, and everyone can add suggestions for variations and changes.

Step 3: The big feedback meeting
Now that we have around 10 vastly different designs, we do a big meeting with the entire team, around a big screen that shows the images. Since this is a meeting with the entire team, it can easily take several hours. First the art team shows each image and gives some background info on what their ideas were with it. Then we do a round where everyone in turn gets to express their opinions and elect a couple of favourites. Our producer writes down the votes and at the end we discuss the results.

Letting everyone speak in turn here is very important for this meeting: an open discussion with 16 people always has some people constantly talking, and some others who never say anything. Giving everyone a turn gives more equal weight to different personalities.

Step 4: Iterate on the favourites
Usually the meeting has not resulted in a single image that everyone is happy with. So the art team takes the two or three favourites and makes variations on these, taking into account any feedback given during the meeting or on the forum (e.g. "How about style B, but with more colour and with that tough guy from style D"). Again, results are posted and discussed on our internal forum.

Step 5: Make a final choice
Now we do another meeting like in Step 3, only this time with the goal of in the end choosing the final style. First we discuss a bit, then we do a vote where everyone can elect his 2 favourites. The style with the most votes ends up in the game.

(Check this blogpost for more on why this style was cancelled in the end.)

Step 6: Make game!
The process is done and we have a style and theme! Woohoo! The art team can now start working on designing all the different characters, elements and levels in the game, and on trying to get the style working in our engine.

A key thing to understand here, is that this process involves a limited number of meetings with the entire team, and each meeting has a clear goal. Since we usually cannot reach a unanimous decision, voting is used to make sure we never end up without a conclusion. These limitations guard us from iterating endlessly based on all the different (and shifting!) opinions.

With sixteen people in the team, the end result will rarely be a unanimous decision. However, by involving everyone in the team, and by making the art team make designs that incorporate everyone's opinions (even the ones the art team does not actually like themselves) we have a process that really gives everyone a voice and gives even the weirdest ideas a change to flourish.

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