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The Balancing Act: Including Others in Your Designs

Designers, we are not the only ones with ideas and solutions. There is a careful balance we must maintain between designing features by ourselves and gathering the developer’s ideas and feedback. A game is a bajillion times better when it’s the combination of everyone’s creativity. It’s the kind of thing that’s obvious in theory but is sometimes forgotten in practice.

I would argue that this is a skill, not just something that happens naturally when a team comes together. Scratch that, I know it’s a skill because I used to be bad at it, back when I was a wee designer. Nowadays, I’m proud to say that the teams I work with have enthusiastically shared how pleased they are with the amount of ownership and input they have with each game. It’s positive feedback they’ve given on multiple occasions, so it’s a very big deal to them.

Like any skill, there are actionable things we as designers can do to maximize our team’s creative input. These are a few of the techniques I use, and I apologize if some of my action items don’t translate well to your own workplace environment. The point is that we’re actively thinking about these things!

Include team in early design discussion

Designers need to get their team member’s input early in design. A team member is pretty much anyone who will be working on the game (sound, interface artists, programmers, etc). They should all get a chance to see where the game is in the early stages because they may have radical ideas that steer the whole design in a better direction. Their input is valuable.

In my workplace, there is generally a period before production where most of the work falls on the designer’s shoulders. It’s usually me doing this by myself while my future team finishes up another project. I’ve found that there is a sweet spot during this time where I’ve designed enough of the features to be able to pitch the game to them but still haven’t fleshed everything out yet. It’s when I reach this magic moment that I rally the troops to get feedback before wasting my time on taking the design further.

I suggest gathering this kind of early feedback in small increments with a few team members at a time. Any more than that and you risk opening a door to a full-blown design jam situation with too many cooks in the kitchen. This is a time to probe for ideas, not to make everyone else do the design.

Leave problems for the team to solve in your designs

When you design a feature, think about what parts of the feature your team would be able to design better. If you want your game to have a system for collecting and managing inventory objects, for example, don’t come up with the specifics of exactly how the player adds, moves, shares, and deletes objects in their inventory. Let your interface designer solve that problem.

Ways to do this are to make sure your user stories and feature descriptions are worded in a way that leaves the method of implementation up to interpretation. Compare the following user stories:

“As a player, I can share an object in my inventory with another player by dragging it out of its slot and placing it over the other player’s character.”

“As a player, I can share an object in my inventory with another player.”

Which story do you think leaves room for your team to come up with creative ideas and solutions for the feature? The second one gets across the functional design of the feature without putting a solution in the story title itself. Feel free to leave suggested solutions to a feature in its description, but don’t word things in a way that immediately limits everyone’s ideas.

Don’t leave too much for team to design

This is where some balancing comes in. Don’t leave things so open that others are pretty much doing design for you. If you’re leaving certain things for a dev to design, ask yourself “Is this a unique issue that this person is more qualified to solve than I am?” If it’s not a resounding ‘yes’ then design it yourself. Remember, you can always fully design things and still leave the user stories worded in an open way so that others can step in if they feel so inclined.

Don’t leave too little for team to design

A quality team is one where everyone feels responsible for making the game great. Everyone wants opportunities for their ideas to shine, and we as game designers have a lot of control over this. If your designs and demeanor all lean towards shutting others out from making decisions then the quality of the game will suffer in the end.

Approach spontaneous design discussions with solutions to the problem

If you have to involve others in solving a problem, it’s always good to come up with some solutions on your own before hand. Otherwise they may perceive you as leaving too much design up to them and as incapable of solving problems on your own.

This has happened a couple times to me where I saw my inclusion of the team in problem-solving as a useful thing, but because I left it so open and didn’t have my own ideas to pitch at the start they got worried that maybe I couldn’t handle design on my own. Total opposite of what I wanted! Nowadays I approach the team for design help when I already have some options for us to discuss. It also keeps me from wasting their time.

Be open to accepting and implementing feedback

It’s common as a designer to be approached by others who thought of something cool or had an idea they want to discuss with you. Give them your time and let them know you’re listening. Never shoot down these ideas, and be honest if you say you’ll consider it or get back to them. Then follow through. Even if I’m not sure about including someone’s idea into the design, I always write it down somewhere so that I can reference it in case it’s useful later.

Have frequent one-on-ones

If you have an open office where you sit near your team and use scrum, you’re probably already having lots of conversations with your devs. Take the time to approach them individually outside of dedicated discussion times to give them an opportunity to share with you what they’re struggling with and ask questions / share ideas. Some people won’t open up to you unless you approach them yourself and give them the opportunity to. I have found that stopping by people’s desks just to chat about what they’re currently working on has produced tons of valuable feedback and cool suggestions that otherwise would never have seen the light of day.

These are all simple things that a designer can do to make sure the team feels listened to and included. I can promise that you and your games will not be worse off for actively making sure the team has a role to play in the design of a game. I never got a whole lot of feedback from my teams early on in my career when I wasn’t so good at this, but I got a heck of a lot of positive feedback from them after I made these changes. So give it a try and see what happens!


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