Freedom is fantastic, says The Creative Assembly's Tim Heaton, but there's something magical about working in a team

Why big dev teams still matter

It’s interesting to see the current crop of single-person and very small start-ups making mobile and download games.

It’s a good time to try that, although there’s considerable risk; for every success, there are significant numbers who don’t win the lottery. Sometimes I think it’s driven by the wish not to be part of a team; freedom.

It seems to me that it misses out on one of the best parts of working in the industry.

There are few industries that require sometimes hundreds of people to work together, with a single aim, for a year or more.

These are big projects by anyone’s standards – thousands of man months, millions of pounds, and the success of most is bound to how well the team works together.

And just to complicate matters, these teams are often made up of people from different backgrounds with different interests.

Although the stereotypes of engineers and artists mixing like cats and dogs might ring true occasionally, teams have plenty of creative programmers and logical artists, and characterising elements in the team like that doesn’t really stand up to inspection. But there is a hugely diverse set of people working within each team.

GLOBAL GATHERING

We at The Creative Assembly employ people from many countries and backgrounds. They’re from art colleges and universities, have twenty-plus years in the business or are straight out of academia and wondering whether to work at Google, in the city or at a start-up.

But they come to Creative Assembly with a common objective: to make great games. They join high-performance multicultural teams, people who are ambitious, driven and keen to innovate and lead. Get the ingredients right and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Collaboration and cross-functional development lead to really great things. To watch a feature-development discussion between a programmer, an artist and a designer is to watch one of the great mating dances in any industry. ‘It’s not possible’, ‘you can have this but not that’, ‘that’s a stupid idea, let me explain why’ spiral into common understanding and then to compelling invention.

And all the time people are in an environment where they can learn from other team members who have different sets of skills, and possibly different ways of looking at a problem. To be successful you need an open mind, you need to learn how to negotiate, how to problem-solve, and how to communicate clearly. These are vital skills, not only in the office but out of work too, and they are learnt skills – learnt from the people around you who are similarly motivated.

THINKING BIG

That’s not to say that an effective big team discourages virtuosity; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. It allows deep specialisation, allowing individuals to do more of what they enjoy and less of what takes them away from their skill set.

The close and long-term relationships that grow during development also mean that significant amounts of trust and understanding build up between staff, allowing clear communications and expectations that can exceed the normal day-to-day methods of working.

A dysfunctional team is a scary thing. Progress can halt entirely, and getting back on track is hard work. These problems are often caused by a lack of common purpose, lack of individual accountability, or lack of individual freedom. It’s no surprise people would want to look at other ways of working, possibly by working on their own or with just one or two associates. But a healthy team is a powerhouse, and a great place to be.

One that shares a common purpose, where individuals take responsibility for their actions and where a team is structured to allow people with talent to do the work they have an affinity for.

The camaraderie and sense of common purpose are incentives to great work, and the ability to learn from others in close proximity, and to see how others understand issues differently, are vital in the rapidly changing environment we work in. As mobile and download games grow in sophistication and scope it’s likely that team size will grow in those areas too. Make sure you know how to scale – it can be a very positive thing.

Tim Heaton is studio director at The Creative Assembly, the UK-founded studio behind the acclaimed Total War series of PC games, as well as numerous other works including original and licensed products.
www.creative-assembly.co.uk

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