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October 2021

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.

How to Work with Game Consultants

3 minute read

The LabyrinthWhen I set up International Hobo back in 1999, we were something of a conundrum. There were a great many game developers who could not understand how what we were offering could possibly work. "But what do you do...?" seemed to be the main question. After more than two decades, I feel that we've more than proved that our model of providing game design and narrative services to developers and publishers via external consultation works. But there is still some mystery about just how it works. I thought it might be useful to provide a few short articles about how game consultancy operates, why International Hobo is still a unique example among the companies that provide game consultation services, and some advice about how to get the most out of working with game consultants.

Perhaps I should start, however, by answering that question:


But What Do You Do...?

When it comes to my company, the answer to "what do you do?" is "everything an in-house game designer, narrative designer, or scriptwriter would do - but externally". In 1999, this might have seemed like a crazy proposal because most people didn't understand remote working. After 2020, that mystery has rather fallen away, and it's become clearer how remote working can function effectively. Actually, putting aside the depressing big issue stories from that year that affected everyone, 2020 was only unusual for International Hobo in that we didn't get to go to conferences, because in all other respects we carried on working with our clients just as we had every other year.

However - that skips over the toughest part about being a game consultant, which is that you are on the outside.

This turns out to be both a benefit and a cost. On the negative side, being outside means you are quite insulated from the internal development culture, which creates a very specific problem I'll explore next week. But it is precisely because we are outside our clients' company culture that we can bring the kind of insights into a project that we always do. It's not because we are 'more objective' - that word gets sorely misused. It's because when you're inside the maze you can only see the walls and the dead ends, but from the outside you're ideally positioned to offer guidance. 

The heart of what we do at International Hobo is provide documentation that helps clients navigate a different aspect of the game development labyrinth.

A concept design provides raw material for developers to make technical assessments or to pitch to publishers, bringing focus to the early stages of development when focus is hard to come by.

A core design (or GDD) provides a framework of how all the eventual elements of the game will work together, and on some projects will be a 'living document' that changes every month or week (at times, every day!).

A narrative design explores how the game's assets are used to create a story experience - with or without voice over. It's like a core design for the way the game will create engaging story experiences.

A game script provides dialogue that a voice actor can use to make sound files that deepen the player's emotional engagement with the game.

A game audit explores how well the existing design or build meets the client's creative and commercial requirements, providing a map of where the project is strong and where it needs some work.


What We Do

What we do at International Hobo is listen, ask, play, write, and edit.

I've heard it said that game developers don't need documentation - and if you have a tight development culture, you certainly can minimise this requirement! But in our experience, every project that doesn't have adequate documentation has a problem and just doesn't know it yet. And the more systems the game entails, the more unreasonable it is to just try to play the design or narrative design process 'by ear', as it were. Games are expensive... you're almost certainly wasting money if you're just trying to 'wing it'.

I used to say that what we do is help our clients make better games. But 'better' isn't quite right... if you're trying to be 'better' you don't really have a clearly defined goal.

What we do is help our clients understand what is good about their game project, to eliminate as early as possible anything that doesn't contribute towards what's going to be great about the final game, and to ensure sound practices underpin every design and narrative decision.

What we do is help clients navigate the maze.

We don't pretend that we 'know better' than our clients - we trust them to know what they're doing. What we bring to them is decades of experience honed from working for clients all around the world on projects at every scale of development. That's what a good consultant always brings to the table - experience. The trick is in knowing how to use that experience to foster co-operation. And that's something you can only learn together.

Next week, some good advice for working with any kind of consultant.