Tuesday, February 23, 2010

DICE 2010: Richard Lemarchand on Naughty Dog's creative culture

Richard Lemarchand is a good friend of mine, and an amazing industry talent that I am often in awe of.
He gave a great talk at DICE this year, on Naughty Dog's culture that allows them to deliver such amazing games as the Uncharted franchise.

The talk starts at minute 5:40 of this G4 feed.

He discusses three critical pillars at Naughty Dog.
  • Empower the Team
  • Open Communication
  • Cross Discipline Collaboration
As Richard himself notes, the most radical aspect of this may be the steps they take to ensure team empowerment. Naughty Dog has a sum total of zero Producers on their team. That is not to say they do not do production, rather production responsibilities are devolved down amongst the teams and discipline leads. This means that the people creating and tracking deliverables, are the same people responsible for their execution.

This is the secret sauce.

Game Developers want to deliver amazing work, its why we all came into games. To create memorable moments takes passion. By giving the creator responsibility for the timely delivery, you maximize the efficiency of the work. The developer feels ownership of the date as well as the quality. They will strive to deliver as good work as they can in the time they have given themselve.

This is not an open invitation to take as long as they want. Having a tight knit team culture, as Naughty Dog clearly has, means that people have a sense of responsibility to each other. A team member is self-motivated not to be late, because it lets down friends and colleagues, who have there own dependencies.

At LucasArts, I created a team built on very similar principles. Ours were;

Flat Heirarchy - responsibility was taken on case by case, by whoever had the passion and was able to do the work. Anyone could own a major part of the games development. In fact we had an intern creating all enemy animations for one of our games by his second week.

Everyone Creating Everything - people had to be prepared to perform any task that might be needed to get the job done. For people who embraced this, it meant opportunity to develop skills in areas they would not typically get the chance to. Through this, a System Designer became a more rounded creative by developing level design chops. A concept artist became an Environment Artist and got to implement her artistry directly into the game. In every case, the results were awesome, largely due to the passion and desire for learning that the person brought.

Other tenets of the culture that were never formally written down but were implied and in constant practice, mirrored the pillars that Richard talks about.

So here's what I learnt from my own experiences. It works. Absolutely. No question.

This is why small indie teams are often so successful. They rarely afford specialist Producers, typically have to wear many hats, and work closely together, thriving or failing on how openly they communicate and work together as a team.

What is particularly impressive about Naughty Dog's accomplishments, is that they have been able to take this small team mindset and scale it up to a studio of 120 people delivering AAA big budget games. (By the way, I have heard that Valve similarly operate along the same governing principles).

I also think its important to note the value of what Richard describes as being 'led by artisans'. Game development changes so fast today that at some point, people who stop creating and start managing, start to lose track of the latest evolutions. I can't imagine a piece of them inside doesn't die, at losing the very thing that they loved that brought them to games in the first place. My Art Director at LucasArts was ADAMANT that a big chunk of his time HAD to be doing production work on the line. Similarly, my Lead Designer had been both a designer AND an engineer in past lives, and oversaw the design as well as making his own code tweaks to balance gameplay.

Ed Catmull has said something about the culture at Pixar that they know they are doing there job right if people go into a room and solve a problem and he only finds out about it after the fact. The scale of the projects are so huge they NEED people at the lower levels to be making independent decisions. This emphasizes the importance of devolved decision making that comes with a flatter team culture.

In many ways this is how a successful military operates. Command sets the objective and then the men on the ground take on the responsibility of how to get the job done, based on what obstacles they see ahead.

Some additional thoughts.

You HAVE to have everyone on the team to buy into this concept. Your job leading a team, is to find every way to unlock people's passions. Its this passion that leads to greatness.

What I have found is that giving people ownership, a sense of there own destiny, and as Dan Pink says, a "sense of Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose" will time and time again give results more creative than a top down command and control organization.

Oh...and one last thing...Naughty Dog have never missed a ship date!

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