The Beautiful Closed World of Shenmue III

This is a critique not a review. If you want my review of Shenmue III it would be 'play this game if you have ever enjoyed a Shenmue game or are interested in unusual approaches to game narrative'.

Screenshot 2022-02-26 11.59.26It takes me quite a while to get around to playing games these days, which helps insulate me from jumping to kneejerk conclusions about what I've been playing. I like to have the time to engage in a game in the way that it requires, which isn't something you can do under the time pressure inherent to reviews. Thus, earlier this year, I completed my playthrough of Ys Net's 2019 title Shenmue III. It's a remarkable achievement on many fronts, not least of which is that it managed to pick up a franchise after an absence of a decade and a half and provide a sequel that is entirely in keeping with the aesthetic achievements of its predecessors. Yet many people have complained about the time they spent with Shenmue III, in one extreme instance lamenting that "Shenmue 3 is a Terrible Game and I’ve Wasted My Life".

Gladly will I concede that, as a commercial proposition, Shenmue III has serious problems... but those problems are the ones it inherits from Shenmue itself, and as a game that was funded by a Kickstarter pledging to provide a true sequel to 2001's Shenmue II, objecting that it is too much like the games that preceded it might rather miss the point. Frankly, if the flaws in an artwork are that some people do not like it, this really isn't as knock-down an argument as it may seem. Rather, to appreciate Shenmue III we have to understand why it is the way it is, how it fulfils the promises made by its creators, and why its beautiful closed world has more to teach about game narrative than most of its critics are prepared to allow.

Yu Suzuki's Shenmue series is a work of flawed genius, and it is not for the reasons its creator claims that they stand out in the history of videogame narrative. It's originator gave the original game the clunky genre title FREE, standing for 'Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment', supposedly to show the interactivity and freedom the player would have. Well, interactivity maybe - you can indeed spend hours meaninglessly opening each compartment in every chest of drawers, for instance. But 'freedom' is precisely the opposite of what a Shenmue game is about, and it is all the better as an artwork precisely because it is really quite uninterested in the player's freedom.

Suzuki-san and his colleagues often try to paint this series of games as a precursor to the open world genre. Indeed, in the Kickstarter for Shenmue III, the text expressly tries to make this claim:

Shenmue defied all convention and created the genre that later came to be known as "open world." An unparalleled level of freedom let you chose how you wanted to play.

But this is neither true nor fair. Not only does 1999's Shenmue not foreshadow or influence the open world games of the early 21st century, what it actually does achieve is artistically far more interesting than this claim would suggest. The open world genre crystallises in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, especially after its transition into 3D models from its sprite-based roots. As I have written about before, it is the playground worlds of 1985 (which were never exported to Japan) that influenced GTA, most especially Elite, although I still suspect Paradroid has a part of this tale to tell. Suzuki-san was neither influenced by these titles nor went on to influence the open world lineage that followed.

But so what? The open world genre may have become a commercial powerhouse, and certainly contains a great many games that enjoyed both huge sales figures and critical acclaim. But the open world is a narrative dead end in many respects... brilliant, and still evolving, but also highly limiting and increasingly stagnant creatively. To get stories into open worlds, designers have to seed the huge landscapes with signposts that push to set piece encounters, a technique I have compared to 'plot origami'. From a game design perspective, this is often brilliant - both Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild have shown the immense appeal this can have when it is done well.

Yet the open world is a format that is fundamentally limited when it comes to characters. Precisely because the worlds are so large, characters either remain locked into a geographical slot they inhabit, or have to haunt the landscape as ghosts who can appear only when they need to miraculously reveal themselves to the player in order to advance the storyline. As a result, the open world's fevered desire to satisfy the player's desire to 'do anything' always risks becoming narratively flat... whatever interesting aspects of Breath of the Wild story I might have picked out in Zelda Facets, it cannot change the fact that the moment-to-moment activities the player pursues are basically a kind of bizarre subsistence hunter-gathering, collecting durians, horses, and weapons to fund the player's role as an itinerant trouble-maker.

Shenmue III is not an open world. Nor should it have been, because neither of its predecessors are either. This is most obviously apparent in the fact that each game consists of two different 'village' locations, as opposed to having 'dungeons'. This split into village and dungeon dates all the way back to the tabletop and Dungeons & Dragons, and was picked up by Ultima and Wizardry, and so spread into videogames. There are no dungeons in a Shenmue game, only villages - and each episode is about two such villages (although the second episode foreshadows the village that will feature at the start of part three). If Shenmue III were an open world game, you would be able to return to Bailu village from Niaowu. But you cannot. Once you leave Bailu village, the story has moved on and you have moved on with it. Shenmue III is a closed world.

Being a closed world affords enormous advantages for narrative in games. Precisely because an open world game features a vast landscape, the depth of conversation you can have with characters is necessarily curtailed. Open world games often do a great job hiding how shallow its cardboard cut-out characters are with lively dialogue and quips, but fundamentally every open world game saves its interesting characters for those narrative 'ghosts' who the player cannot access on demand, and populates the rest of the world with convenient stereotypes. Yes, you can run over anyone you like in Liberty City or San Andreas, and you can kill a bokoblin all over Hyrule. What you cannot do is learn anything about these characters, because they are not really characters in the literary sense at all. They are props to make the playground seem lived in, like the woman in the princess costume at Disneyland.

Precisely because it is a closed world, Shenmue III can be about place in a way that no open world game can manage. That's because human places - villages, towns, cities - are about the people that live there, whereas videogame places - inns and shops, dungeons and secret bases - are about the loot the player can steal and the advantages the player can eke out of them. To be fair, there's a little of that in Shenmue III as well - it is still a videogame after all! - but by building these games around pairs of 'villages', each Shenmue game evokes a sense of place that is rooted in the people who live in these places, and complemented by the player's character, Ryo, who is much more than just a blank slate like, say, the Master Chief. On the contrary, how much you enjoy playing Ryo will depend upon how much you are willing to become Ryo.

Screenshot 2022-03-01 15.26.47Here we come to the biggest complaint levelled against Shenmue III by its detractors: the kung fu fighting isn't good enough. But this is paradoxically not a game about kung fu fighting at all. Indeed, when you fight in the major battles, you will not use any of the skills you have practiced up until that point, because victory in these set pieces is determined by QTEs i.e. Quick Time Events, which is to say preset button sequences. Shenmue did, alas, invent the QTE, although the 1983 arcade game Dragon's Lair had already pioneered the form (and for detractors such as myself, shown how tedious it could be). If I have warmed to them over the last forty years, it is only thanks to the efforts of Shenmue... and I am still quite frosty about them.

In so much as it is about kung fu at all, Shenmue III is a game about practicing kung fu. This is not about the freedom to go and beat the living daylights out of ten thousand cardboard cutout characters creating the illusion of a city, this series is partly-yet-significantly about Ryo's restless youth gradually coming to terms with the commitment and patience required to master a martial arts. Thus the player is asked and expected, in every game in the series, to spend a significant part of their time performing repetitive actions to master the individual moves, or the elements of their form. Thus in the original Shenmue I spent a part of every day repeating sweeps and kicks, because as a game-player I wanted the advantage of levelling up those moves.

By Shenmue III, while that carrot still dangles, my engagement with the training exercises such as Horse Stance and One Inch Punch is practically meditative. Yes, as a player I am conditioned to want to complete my bars and gain higher levels. But as a visitor to this world, I am choosing to train at the dojo high in the mountain so I can watch the clouds drift lazily across the mountains as I do so, immersed in the beauty of this world which is categorically not reducible to polygon counts. So effective is the game at getting the willing collaborator into this state that it is possible, as happened to me, to be sad when the training exercises are completed, and no more points can be earned. The game has made me into Ryo, and given me the slightest taste of his impatience along with a parallel yet opposite flavour of what it means to practice a real martial art (or, for that matter, any other art): patience and commitment.

In this regard, it is a design flaw of the combat system in Shenmue III that you can assign moves to controller shortcuts and therefore execute them effortlessly. Having spent hours mastering the control inputs during sparring, we really ought to be tasked with executing those moves ourselves, not handing them off to an automated surrogate. I imagine this was a design decision intended to support weaker players, but since all the moves power up, even a button-masher who persists can get by without being able to execute the stronger moves. Letting them be triggered by an all-too-convenient shortcut control undercuts the focus upon training that suffuses the player's experience. I am almost ashamed that I made use of this feature at all, and if I play the game again, I will certainly try to avoid doing so.

Screenshot 2022-02-23 16.44.07So much is Ryo's kung fu training foregrounded in the game, that one of my favourite characters turned out to be someone who has really quite a peripheral role in the story: Su Zixiong. This jocular, overweight tai chi (taijiquan) instructor is found at the village square on the edge of Bailu village every day, training the young children in their moves. When Ryo meets him, he declares himself preposterously to be the Lu Bu of Bailu village, referencing the unbeatable warrior of the legendary Three Kingdoms era of China. Pressed on the topic, he admits to being more of the Zhang Fei of Bailu village - another legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms, and one that is a slightly more honest fit to this character, for all that it maintains a self-aggrandisement that is both harmless and charming in its excess.

Every day, I went to spar with Su Zixiong (although I think his name ought to be Zixiong Su...), even though he is a deeply minor character in the plot. My primary motivation for acquiring new move scrolls was not to learn new moves (I didn't need a wide range of moves in any Shenmue game), but to have something new to practice while sparring with my friend in town, since he declines to spar if you have nothing to learn. That I was able to form a surprisingly robust relationship with such a peripheral character could be dismissed as merely a quirk of my personality. But I do not think so. It speaks to precisely why the closed world of Shenmue III works: it is full of interesting peripheral characters, so many that whoever the player bonds with really is up to them. No open world can claim this, because the major characters are 'ghosts' who appear only when the plot requires them. Shenmue III offers a greater sense of place than almost any other game you might choose to mention.

I adored my time in Bailu village, which is among the most beautiful villages in any videogame to date, and easily my favourite settlement of the six to feature across the Shenmue series. I was literally saddened to leave, and as the plot inexorably pushed me to the point of 'have you done everything you want to do here...?' I found myself wanting to tarry longer in Bailu, to spend more time fishing her streams and lakes, to continue my training in her mountains - even though I could not, because I had acquired all the available move scrolls, and maxed out the bars for my training exercises. The game conspires through its design to force you to co-operate with its plot voluntarily, an extremely clever trick that perhaps is difficult for most gamers to appreciate.

There was another reason I did not want to leave Bailu: Shenhua's house. It is your home in Bailu for the entirety of your stay, and I found myself becoming absurdly attached to it. Not as a mere building, as I had done with the house Link purchases in Breath of the Wild, but as a genuine home. For to my surprise, I wanted to talk to Shenhua when I came home every night, even though the conversations were pointless if judged in terms of game benefit or plot advancement. As someone who has to write videogame dialogue as part of my job, I have very little patience for the so-so conversations most games have to offer. Many a time do I find myself clicking impatiently through weak dialogue. This never happened with Shenhua. I wanted to talk to her - I wanted to learn not only about her, but about Ryo through her.

One remarkable moment in my nightly discussions with my host came when I was given another strictly meaningless choice about how to respond to something Shenhua had said about her quite literally unbelievable ability to speak with animals. I made my comment, and clearly caused offense with my (and Ryo's) down-to-earth scepticism. I wanted to take it back, but I did not, not least of all because reloading the game was pointless (this conversation did not have plot consequences) and would not in fact undo the choice I had made anyway. The very fact that I even considered reloading to undo a 'meaningless' choice reveals the depth of meaning these conversations had to me.

Screenshot 2022-02-27 14.45.36The game is rather less successful with its second area, Niaowu, which although enjoyable suffers from not being able to include quite enough passers by to really capture the sense of a busy market town in rural china. Don't get me wrong, there is a great deal of character to Niaowu, with its vast array of shops - and Shenmue's signature capsule machines ("I love those!") - giving the player many corners to poke and prod. But I enjoyed learning about the herbs and plants of Bailu far more, and although you can still find these in Niaowu they have lost a certain part of their resonance in the market town, where the shops and their shopkeepers are far more crucial to the spirit of the settlement.

There is so much more I could say about the closed world - or perhaps, closed worlds, Bailu and Niaowu being quite distinct - of Shenmue III but let me close this critique with a reflection of the role that time plays in the player's experience, and the tension it reveals with the expectations of gamers. A great many players complained that you could not skip ahead, just as I know many players bitched about being forced to work the forklifts in the original game. This could not be further from the spirit of Shenmue. Just as Ryo is asked to learn patience, so is the player. While as a commercial decision, skipping time would be justified, the entire issue is parallel to the way that the quick travel of Breath of the Wild guts the brilliant horse riding of its joy and wonder. It is precisely because you will frequently have time to spare that you will find yourself playing pachinko, or dropping coins into capsule machines, fishing, or working the docks. Not out of the love of money or the other game currency, XP, but for what that XP is named after: the experience.

Likewise, those who complain that this should have been used to tie up the storyline and give players some closure are missing the point. Ys Net did not promise to conclude the story with this Kickstarter, they promised to make another Shenmue game. If this game had ended the story, they would have failed to have done so. This desire from players was in tension with the spirit of the Shenmue franchise, which is neither as swift nor as impatient as most players of games have become. On the contrary, in not only bringing back Shenmue II's delightful rogue Ren but in establishing both him and Shenhua as companions on Ryo's adventure, the game escapes the very real risk of being just a super-polite, gently paced version of Herge's intrepid boy adventurer Tintin. On the contrary, Ryo is so much more than just 'Japanese Tintin', precisely because he is Ryo.

Shenmue III invites us, once again, to become Ryo. How much you enjoy that experience depends to a great extent on how much you are willing to be Ryo, to endlessly train for fights you won't actually have, to talk and to listen to strangers who may yet become friends, and to obsessively drop coins into a capsule machine in the hope of that one rare drop. This is not, despite Suzuki-san's protestations, a game about the player's freedom, for you are not free, just as the world is not open. On the contrary, you are constrained throughout by the invitation to become Ryo, and if you accept that invitation you will find yourself in a beautiful closed world of surprisingly vivid characters who inhabit a place that transcends the usual limitation of videogame villages: the world is there for you to discover, and is not merely a pile of resources for you to loot and pillage. Ryo's adventure is not over, and even if there never will be another Shenmue game, it is inescapably appropriate that Shenmue III ends once again on 'tsuzuku' (to be continued) not 'owari' (the end). It is far more wonderful that the narrative tree that is Shenmue was given another chance to blossom.

For Jed.


Kult Post-mortem (3): From Tom Baker to Release

This originally ran in March 2014 on the website for Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms.

Tom Baker in the studio for Shadows Heretic KingdomsPreviously I told the story of the origin of the Heretic Kingdoms setting and of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms' hybrid design, which shared elements of both Western and Japanese RPGs. In this final part, I talk about one of the most fun parts of the production of this game: working with voice actor Tom Baker.

Who to Voice...

One of the consistent problems that Kult faced was how to get the most value out of its extremely modest budget, and there were distinct questions about what to do about voice recording. It wasn’t going to be possible to voice all the characters, but it was still an option to cast the main character and some of the other leading roles provided we stuck to just a few of the key conversations. But I began to think that our best chance of success was to pick one really good voice actor and have them record narration for the painted cut scenes that were our cost-effective way of advancing the narrative. Almost immediately, I wondered about the former Doctor Who, Tom Baker. He was doing voiceovers for a number of TV shows at the time (including Little Britain) and one of the people I knew who worked in voice recording was able to get a quote for the work we needed. It was, on the whole, extremely reasonable – and I knew that it would be a huge asset to the project to have Tom as narrator.

At the time, Tom was living in France but was over in London periodically to work on various projects, so we were able to book a slot with him one of the days he was in the UK. Both myself and the recording technician had to catch a train down from Manchester to London in order to get to the studio we’d booked in Soho. It was a four hour session, more than enough for the core narration of the game since it was only about 200 lines. I’d already had a fair amount of experience working with voice actors who had a background in TV and radio in Discworld Noir, which had talent like Rob Brydon, Nigel Planer, Robert Llewelyn, and the inestimable Kate Robbins, delivering lines from my script (the first one of mine to be recorded, actually).

In the Studio

Meeting Tom was a dream come true for me, but I tried to remain professional. He too was the consummate professional, and arrived with extremely insightful questions about the script and suggestions for how to get the most out of the material. I remember a discussion about the word ‘inculcated’ in the script that showed a really masterful understanding both of English as a language and also fantasy as a genre. I had absolutely no problem with him during the recording of the narration – except that periodically he would launch into an entirely random anecdote about an ex-wife, or some incident in his past, and we would have to wait patiently for him to finish. Frankly, these only added to the experience and I had neither the need nor the desire to hurry him along.

We actually completed the narrator script in good time, and so I went on to have Tom begin to record the history books for the game. This was probably a mistake... we didn’t specifically need them, and it transpired there wasn’t actually enough time to complete recording all of them anyway. It proved rather taxing on Tom to get all the awkward names and sentences in place for the history books, and in the end I cancelled this part of the recording session and called it a day. Quite a day! It’s not that often you get to work with someone you admire and see just how good at his job he really is. Listening back to the sound files afterwards was extremely satisfying, and it was clear from the reviews that going with Tom had been a great choice for the project. In fact, one reviewer made a point of praising “the voice actors” – he hadn’t even noticed that we only had one voice for the entire game! That’s the value that a really great voice actor can add to a project.

The Home Straight

All the way through, Kult had been short on time and money, and in the end we were definitely not going to be able to complete everything to the standard we would have liked. A decision was made at some point that we would focus on getting the game balance right for the main body of the game, and not worry too much about the ending. The result was that the final battles are actually really quite easy – but anyone who was hooked into the game mechanics and the story were thoroughly into the game at that point and they didn’t need a knock-you-flat end of game boss to come away having had an enjoyable experience. I’m sure other game designers would have felt it necessary to work on making the final boss a mountain to climb – but it’s not really my style. I’d rather give an interesting game experience than a vicious challenge any day of the week, although I have great respect for the difficulty involved in making a satisfying challenge. Honestly, though, there’s no shortage of challenges in videogames – but interesting experiences are a little harder to come by.

One casualty of the rush to finish was the difficulty settings: we really only balanced the game for the normal difficulty (and even then, only the first three quarters of the game). All the other difficulty levels were effectively an afterthought, and I really don’t know how satisfying they were to play – although I’m doubtful they came out well under the circumstances. Still, I figure it’s better to have the option to adjust the difficulty (even a badly balanced option) than to not have it at all, especially since it was in essence just a few changes to the parameters of the core combat mechanics.

When the game came out, I didn’t know what to expect from the reviews but in the end I was thrilled by how it was received. Of course, there were reviewers who couldn’t get past the game’s technical limitations or who didn’t see anything new in the design for whatever reason, but there were a wealth of reviews praising both the story and the attunement system. Worth Playing gave it 90% and were particularly impressed by the depth of the skill system, while Boomtown, Game Chronicles, and Gamer’s Hell gave it 80% and considered both the game mechanics and the story to be innovative. Four Fat Chicks also gave it 80% and said it was “fun, fun, fun and destined to be a sleeper hit” – which is an extremely gratifying thing to read about a game you worked on. Game Over Online and My Gamer both gave it a 78%, the former saying that it “does more new things in one game than I’ve seen in the last dozen games I’ve played combined” while the latter suggested that it “proves that innovation is alive and well”.

I’ve worked on over forty videogames at this point in my career [more like eighty now!], but there’ll always be a special place in my heart for this little EuroRPG that gave International Hobo and 3D People (now Games Farm) a chance to show that even when you don’t have a mega-budget, you can still make a game which offers an engaging experience and a memorable story if you’re just willing to take a few chances, put in the legwork, and keep believing that if you make a game with something to offer, the smart gamers will eventually find it.

Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) was released in April 2005.


Park Beyond Takes the Rollercoaster to Infinity… and then Some!

PB_KA_WIP_SIMPLELAYER_1772Why put a limit on imagination? International Hobo Ltd is proud to announce the release later in 2022 of Park Beyond, a revolutionary new theme park sim game published by BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment and developed by our friends at Limbic Entertainment.

"From the very beginning, this was a special game," says Chris Bateman, ihobo's founder and chief consultant. "Limbic had a vision to create something that broke through the limitations of the traditional theme park sim, and it was a huge honour to work with them on the narrative design and the script."

François Reinold, Executive Producer for Park Beyond at Limbic, was delighted by International Hobo's involvement on the game's ambitious narrative: "Chris and his team have a real instinct for how to get the most out of videogame stories. They're also extremely responsive to the challenges of game development – from fleshing out the concept, to recording the voice talent, ihobo have been there to support us."

Limbic Entertainment develops high-quality entertainment software for the global videogame market, with highly skilled and experienced teams in game and level design, programming, and art. They focus on PC and next-generation console games developed with Unreal.

International Hobo Ltd is the award-winning creative consultancy that coined the term 'narrative design', and has a strong history of commercial success with its client's projects. In 2019, their chief consultant, Chris Bateman, was selected to be the first writer to contribute to Bloomsbury's prestigious Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. Bloomsbury also publish the second edition of the seminal textbook, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris, and featuring contributions by some of the major names in games narrative.


How to Get Out of a Tricky Situation

3 minute read

Thunderbird 2Nobody who has built half a house wants to knock it down and start over. What a waste of effort! But if you're building the house wrong, if it doesn't make a space that people can actually live in, then completing the house would be the waste of time. You ought to knock it down and start again. It's just the same with a game project.

There's much talk about 'agile' development in software development, including videogames, and this word suggests that teams will be flexible. There's some truth to that - after all, the key insight of agile development lay in shortening the development lifecycle to provide more flexible iterations. That was a radical departure from the more traditional method of planning everything out in excruciating detail at the start and then simply trying to implement it all as written. That method had a huge disadvantage - you learn the most important lessons about a project when it's underway, not while you're planning it.

What do you do, though, when you find yourself backed into a corner with no apparent options?

 

How are We Going to Get Out of This One...?

The last thing anyone wants to do with a project is pull the plug. But it does happen that you reach untenable situations. It's part of doing business and it cannot always be helped.

What we have always tried to offer at International Hobo, though, is more than a 'yes-no' approach to project consultancy. A significant number of the nearly 80 game projects we have helped clients to deliver are 'rescues', projects that got into trouble. What sort of trouble?

Projects that never established a clear vision, and so didn't know where they were heading.

Projects that thought they could make up their design elements as they went, and so didn't think about how all the systems had to fit together.

Projects that had too many systems to deliver in the time available.

Projects that had beautiful art but nothing to do with them.

Projects that became invalidated by unexpected shifts in the market.

Projects that knew what they wanted to be as games but not as stories, or vice versa.

The loss of morale that a team faces when they come up against these sort of problems can be devastating. Which is why it can be immensely helpful to get on the phone to Tracy Island and call for the Thunderbirds to rescue a project from having taken a wrong step.

 

Can Anybody Help Us...?

It's not a coincidence that the name 'International Hobo' evokes the name of the rescue organisation in the 1960s classic sci-fi puppet show Thunderbirds, 'International Rescue'. If it wasn't somebody else's brand, we'd have loved to have used that name instead! The very mission of the company was to be able to find ways to solve the new problems that the games industry was encountering at the start of the twenty first century.

At the core of our original mission was finding ways to put people with story skills together with people who had game skills. This led to Richard Boon and I coining the name 'narrative design' for the process of making story and game pull in the same direction, a term which spread into the games industry via the IGDA's Game Writing Special Interest Group, which I set up and ran. In 2006, Stephen Dinehart became the first person to be hired as a 'narrative designer'. Narrative design is now a big part of the games industry's business, and we're proud to have had a role in making that happen.

But although narrative design was always a key part of what we did, our vision of it was always based upon the idea that games were collection of assets and that it matters how each of them gets used. What matters is both how it looks and how it behaves in the game systems, and because both the function ("it shoots the player") and the fiction ("it's a tank") matter, every game is always producing a narrative experience for the player. You cannot avoid performing narrative design if you're making games, although you can certainly do it badly!

When we've come on board to rescue a project, we always start with the asset list. What do you already have? That sets a major constraint for what a game could become, which doesn't have to be anything like what the game was originally intended to be. Coming from the outside, as discussed last week, gives us the opportunity to think up new ways of making a game work, by building new options for narrative design from the available building blocks.

I've never seen a project that couldn't be rescued, provided the team is ready to ask for help. The key is remaining flexible, and not getting blinkered by what the project was originally supposed to be... and sometimes, teams need a little help to achieve that.

More consultancy advice soon.


How To Bridge the Inside-Outside Divide

3 minute read

Minecraft BridgeThe biggest problem facing any company working with consultants is how you deal with the fact that the consultants are 'outside' and the team is 'inside'. Or at least, that's how it often seems...

Now there certainly can be problems between the internal teams and any external teams working on a project, and it's worth considering how to address these. But in fact, every company already has a far bigger divide that it has to bridge daily - the top-bottom divide, that is, the manager-team divide. Because although there are a tiny number of small enterprises that operate with internal equality, for the most part the role of the manager or producer is an unavoidable cost of doing business. And it is the manager role itself that can create the biggest problems when a team isn't quite working as intended.

 

What's a Manager For...?

There is a prevailing mythos in business that the manager, being higher up in the corporate hierarchy, can see further, and therefore can make good decisions to steer the team - like the Captain of a ship or the commander of a military unit. But this risks devolving into nonsense, as anyone who has worked on restructuring organisations can attest. It is not the case that the manager has access to a special perspective by virtue of their position (although they may have that insight by virtue of their skills and experience). In fact, it is quite the opposite: the manager is quite frequently the key bottleneck in a team's ability to operate.

For all but a vanishingly small number of organisations, the manager has to bridge between the constraints being imposed top down (including financial, market, and governmental constraints) and the problems being experienced bottom up (including operational problems, clashes of personality, and breakdowns in communication). As a result, a depressingly large number of managers find themselves in a position that is pragmatically impossible because there aren't enough hours in a day to thread the needle. So they end up either siding with what's above them, where they risk becoming a slave driver, or siding with those below them, and thus risk becoming a loose cannon.

What can you do?

 

What's a Consultant For...?

What a good consultant brings to the table in any situation is an external perspective. As consultants, we have to understand all the constraints that operate on a project, but - unlike managers - we aren't caught up in the operational complexities and so have greater freedom to reflect upon the possible meanings of those constraints. That's part of the advantage that hiring a good consultant brings to the table - not only the benefit of an external view for a 'sanity check' on what's being attempted, but also the luxury of a little space to think about the problems being faced and how they can be solved.

A key principle of how International Hobo consults on all its projects (whether in the games industry or otherwise) is that those on the 'outside' are in an advantageous position to spot problems, but we are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing which possible solutions have the best chance of solving the problem. That's because solutions to problems are operational - these have to be resolved by managers listening to the issues those problems present at the team level before putting any possible solution into action.

It is also worth noting that the first solution attempted is not always the correct one - too many companies get caught up in sunk cost fallacies about solutions that have already failed and miss their chance to pivot onto alternative solutions. A good way to resolve this is to have multiple solutions to problems from the outset, and have the team rank-order these solutions. That way, if the first solution proves inappropriate, you have a Plan B (or even C or D...) in your back pocket.

We take pride when we conduct a design audit for any project, and that's evident in the way we present the potential problems we identify as entirely separate from any proposed solutions. We may have insight on what's causing problems because we are 'outside' but that comes with a necessary disadvantage at judging the efficacy of solutions for exactly the same reason.

As a result, you don't need to bridge the inside-outside divide when you're working with a good consultant: you just need to make that divide work for you.

Next week, the tricky problem of incorporating external feedback.