Working with Interdisciplinary Teams

BY Stephen Calender
People with diverse talents come together to create games. As a medium, games are composed of art, programming, sound, design, film, and story. My graduate school experience was entirely project-based, with each of us applying our specialized skills developed in undergrad, practicing for the complicated and collaborative environment of game development.

It is true that we learn from each other, but not as much as you might think. After several years I still cannot make an audio soundscape or define an art style; however, I intimately know the implications each discipline has on programming. Sometimes something as simple as the number of assets can have drastically different implementation strategies.

You need to know enough to be able to work together. Minimum requirements would be a basic understanding of all the other disciplines, including mastering their terminology and identifying what is easy and hard to accomplish in each medium.

Most of our work is completed independently, while teamwork moments are spent deciding what and how work needs to be done. Some decisions are about the content pipeline, and if things are delivered in a specific way it makes someone else's work go more smoothly. Some problems can be solved in multiple ways, and we need to decide on the most effective solution. We often need to take into account complex dependencies and constraints on time.

We review each other's work as well, which is critical, but tends to happen more organically than officially. If I was working on a special effect or a programmatically-driven animation, I would frequently elicit feedback from an artist. Similarly, whenever we complete a feature, we check in with design to make sure it is aligned with their vision.

Games are complicated systems and there are times when something “just doesn’t feel right.” When our collective efforts do not align, it takes all of us to diagnose the problem. We then tweak, edit, iterate, and test several different configurations until we have a solution.

We are all passionate about what we do. Despite disagreements, we know we need each other because none of us possess all of the skills needed to produce an entire game. There is a vast amount of writing on what makes a good team, but in my personal game development experience it is simple: no one discipline can be more dominant than another. Regardless of who has the largest time investment or who is more aligned with the defining characteristic of the game, the best result requires everyone.