Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.26: Working With Teams

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Cassandra Khaw, Dan Wells, James L. Sutter, and Howard Tayler

Our series of game writing episodes draws to a close with a discussion about working with teams. This last skill set, these ways in which you learn to excel at collaborative projects, is often far more important than any of your other skills.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Spend some time brainstorming a game idea with a friend. Try to draw out and explore their best ideas, and encourage them to suggest changes to your own, to make sure you’re both contributing equally.

Thing of the week: Heart: The City Beneath RPG, by Grant Howitt & Christopher Taylor.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Game writing tends to be more collaborative. A good team player unlocks the best in everyone. Recognize that you are all on a project together. You are not working in a silo, so acknowledge and do what the group decides. Learn to compromise. Empower those around you. When you correct people, step on their toes, but don’t scuff their shoes. Honor other people’s skill sets, give them freedom to inspire you. Praise coworkers, be fans of their work and ideas. Steer with praise, aka positive reinforcement. The game industry is not a zero-sum game, where praise for a coworker detracts from you. You can advance in the company and still be friendly and team-oriented. Sometimes you have to push. Be careful not to overinvest yourself emotionally in promotions or projects. Keep or make your own creative outlets. Don’t do other people’s jobs. Avoid head canon. If it’s just in your head, it doesn’t exist. Write it down, get it accepted by the team, and then use it.

[Season 16, Episode 26]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[Cassandra] Working with Teams.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[James] Because you’re in a hurry.


[Howard] Oh, I’m sorry. Was that my job?


[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[James] I’m James.

[Howard] There is no I in mistakes.


[James] Yeah. And Howard is funnier.

[Howard] Oh, wait. There is an I in mistakes.


[Dan] So, this is… We’re going to wrap this up today, our wonderful intensive course we have had about game writing, by talking about working with teams. Writing can often feel like a very solitary thing if you’re in standard kind of novel short story. But other industries are much more collaborative. Game writing is one of those. So, tell us, what do we need to know about how to work well in a team?

[James] Yeah. So, in my experience, how good you are at working in teams is even more important than how good you are at actual game design. Because a good team player will unlock the best from everyone around them, while a bunch of cantankerous geniuses, which describes a lot of the game industry, will frequently crash and burn when they don’t need to. So I wanted to just talk with everybody about how you work well in a team. Cass, what do you have for working well in a game team?

[Cassandra] I think the most important thing is recognizing that you are all on a project together. Whatever you do, you’re contributing to the main body of this animal. You’re not working in a silo, it’s easy to think that, especially as a creative. But ultimately anything you do connects with every single other department. So you should absolutely show off your ideas. But at the end of the day, you need to acknowledge and you also need to do what your group decides, at least within reason. Because there’s always the risk of people who are a little bit more controversial trying for things that are not quite so nice. So it is a little bit of a balance. But being able to understand that you are part of a group is valuable.

[James] Yeah. Something I always used to tell my team members is you never get to a point where you get to stop compromising. As a new writer, you want to show off your ideas, like you said, but in the end, you need to sort of salute and do what the group or your boss decides. But the flipside of that is that, as I learned as a creative director on Starfinder, being a good creative director means flexing that muscle and that authority as little as possible. You want to empower those below you, technically, in the hierarchy. The thing to remember there is that if your default is yes, then when you do have to say no or why don’t we go this other direction, then you will have built up the good will that hopefully people will really listen to that and take it to heart, rather than just automatically butting heads.

[Howard] I was a terrible team player when I worked in the software industry. I was just not good at it. I got put in charge of $100 million product line. That’s not a great environment in which to learn good practices, because there’s already so much at stake. One of my bosses pulled me aside and said, “Look. When you correct people, yeah, it’s because they’re wrong. Go ahead and step on their toes. But don’t scuff their shoes.” The point being it is possible to issue corrections, it is possible to tell people, “No, that’s not fitting the course we’re going.” It is possible to do that and let people retain personal self-worth, retain pride, retain whatever. You don’t need to smack talk people in order to make your point. I don’t want to suggest that that’s the level to which I was a terrible manager of other people. But that’s the advice I got, and it has stuck with me.

[James] So, one of the things I think about a lot with this regard are art orders. When you’re ordering art for a game, you want to give other people room to be creative. Something an art director I worked with told me once was, “After two sentences, the artist stops reading.” That can feel like a smack in the face as a writer, where you’re like, “But I have 10 pages of description about this character.” But the thing to remember is that you want to honor other people’s skill sets. A visual artist is likely going to be way better at coming up with cool creative compositions than you are as a writer, because, like, that’s what they do. So giving people just enough information… So a good art order is something like, “This is a black woman wearing practical knight armor, with a phoenix on the shield.” You don’t need to say which hand she’s raising her sword with, you don’t need to say everything about what type of armor she’s wearing, unless it’s really key to the project. The more freedom you can give that artist, the better the end product is going to be. You’re giving them a chance to inspire you and make it a conversation, rather than just a top-down, “I am telling you what to do and you are doing it.”

[Howard] Yeah. This is a combat alchemist who needs quick access to lots of different chemicals. The artist is going to go crazy designing shoulder things for test tubes and whatever. Let them do that, rather than you trying to describe all of those things.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I always found that I got much better results when I talked about the mood of the character and the intention. Cass?

[Cassandra] I think our own skill sets is important in regards to other disciplines as well. It’s not just the relationship between an artist and a writer. Working in video games, you have the opportunity to collaborate with level editors and level designers. It’s easy to go, “No, you just put the nice things down. I will tell you how the story goes.” But if you’re willing to make space for them, you eventually will recognize, I know, because they’re the ones who put things down, they know exactly the structure and how people might approach it and also have little tools and little tricks that might not necessarily be things you think about that can enhance whatever story you’re trying to tell in the videogame.

[James] Yeah, absolutely. It’s not just people from other departments, it’s people in your own department. Every writer is coming with different skills to the project. So recognize when somebody’s got a good idea. Support that idea. Praise your coworkers. Be fans of your coworkers. The most fun jobs are the ones where I’m on a team and everyone there is a total bad ass. I’m just happy to be there.

[Mary Robinette] One of the tricks that I will use as a manager sometimes is steering with praise. That I praise the things that I want them to do more of, and I don’t necessarily have to tell them, “That other thing, I don’t want you to do that.” People notice. It’s like, “Oh, they really like it when I do X.” They’ll start to deliver… They will self guide, self-correct over to that direction.

[Dan] Yeah. This is a principle that I learned early in a child-rearing class, when my first kid was born. They talked about the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. Both of them work, but one of them works so much better and makes everyone so much happier.

[Howard] There is a point is a team member… If I’m on Mary Robinette’s team and she’s telling me all of these things that she likes and there’s this thing that I enjoy doing that she hasn’t praised… At some point, I should ask Mary Robinette, “Hey, this one thing I’m doing, you haven’t said much about it. Can you please tell me how you feel about it?” Then we get to have that discussion.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s… At the same time, like… Getting mad at someone because they… Because you… They keep doing a thing that you haven’t told them not to do. Like, you should do clear communication, but it shouldn’t be… It doesn’t need to be retributive to say, “Don’t do that thing.” You know, like, “You stupid wankedoda!” It’s like… “This is… This piece of it is not in line with the overall aesthetic that we’re working for. Can you… But these pieces that you do. I love that. I love this, I love that.”

[Cassandra] This is something I heard very recently from a friend who works with animal. Clicker training works with humans, and it works surprisingly well.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s depressing, but true.

[Dan] Oh, that’s wonderful.

[Dan] All right. We’re going to take a little pause here for our game of the week, which is me again. This is one of my absolute favorite new role-playing games. It’s not new, it’s a couple of years old, but I discovered it very recently. It’s called Heart, The City Beneath. It is by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor. It’s kind of a dungeon crawl game. It’s very free-form and it’s very narrative. But the thing that I love about it, and the reason that we’re doing it on this episode, is the experience system of how your characters grow over time is based on something called beats. Every character class and every character kind of calling has a bunch of like two or three lists of what they call beats that are things like “Take a certain amount of damage” or “Betray someone you love” or like all of these story elements. Then every session, each player looks at their list of beats and says, “Well, I need to pick three of these.” You pick them and you tell the game master. Then that becomes this very collaborative way of you as the player have control over what you want to do and how you want to steer your character. The game master knows exactly what gets you excited and how to build the story in order to enable those beats. It becomes this wonderful collaborative session. It’s one of my favorite game mechanics I’ve ever seen. So, Heart, The City Beneath.

[James] So, jumping back into working with teams and working in the industry, I want to throw out… We were saying be a fan to your coworkers, praise good work, honor other people’s skill sets. I think sometimes people misunderstand and the think that there’s… That the game industry is a zero-sum game, and that if they praise what their coworkers are doing, then they’ll be less likely to succeed, or, on the flipside, they feel like, “Oh, well, I can’t self advocate, because if I do, my coworkers won’t like me.” I think that, like, that is absolutely a thing that people run into, that especially runs into issues of privilege as well. But I do believe that you can absolutely climb the ladder and self advocate, while still doing your best to be responsible and friendly and team oriented. If you do good work and you’re pleasant to work with, hopefully, if you have a good team, people will be happy to see you rise. But I guess another thing I’ll tag onto that, is, I at the same time, advancing in a company, in my experience, you… Sometimes it’s about just being there a long time and doing good work, but sometimes you really have to push, because there’s often not a lot of structure in game companies that are smaller. People just sort of put things together, so they don’t necessarily have a plan for after X years, you become senior designer or whatever. So you need to show the company what you can do for them. I feel like every promotion that I got as I went to… Senior editor, executive editor, creative director, all those things. It was always about me going to my bosses and saying, “Hey. You’ve got a problem. I can solve it if you empower me. If you give me this team, I will give you this game that you want.” I think that can be hard, because it’s not about what you deserve, it’s not about necessarily who does the best work or who’s been there the longest. There’s not a clear path like that. It’s really about what you can convince your employers to give you.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think along those lines, one of the things that I want to remind people who are… Women, people who are from marginalized communities, is that women especially, we are socialized to not push. It’s not universal, but as a general rule, we are socialized to let other people have the space. So it’s important to understand that when you go in and say, “Hey, I can do this thing,” or “Give me the opportunity” or “Here is an idea that I’d like to present,” that you’re not… That that’s normal, that’s what people are supposed to do. So you’re allowed to take up space in a room.

[Cassandra] I think it’s important when talking about teams and talking about promotions, to not overinvest emotionally. Which I know sounds a bit self-contradictory, compared to the other points. But it’s just… If a promotion is not there for you at that moment, it does not mean you’re a terrible person or you’re not deserving of it were that people are keeping it from you, although the latter is sometimes. It just means it’s not the right time. That’s fine. Similarly with projects, if you have ideas, things that are precious to you, and you run into say, a creative director, who goes, “I like that idea, but it doesn’t work for this project,” you should be able to let it go. Working in teams does mean you have to be able to stand your ground, but also not overinvest and become caught up in the minutia.

[Howard] I’ve got a couple of friends who are very interested in building things that are much larger than themselves, much larger than what one person can build. Neither of them have worked as part of a team with a large organization to build something. In both cases, they’re looking at things like Kickstarter or [garbled going dark?] and going out and finding other self-starters, whatever. The piece of advice they don’t want to hear from me, but which I keep repeating, is “Until you’ve worked with a team to build something, nobody with money is going to trust you to spend money to build a team to build something.” You have to learn this first. It can be a small thing. It can be… Go volunteer for Habitats for Humanity and build a barn over the weekend with a group of people. That will teach you some of the skills you need.

[Mary Robinette] If anyone would like to volunteer for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I’d be happy to set you up as project lead on something.

[James] I also want to just throw out, tagging in on that, don’t overinvest emotionally, I’ve seen a lot of friends get really hurt because they poured all of their creative energy into the job or they gave a company the ideas that they’d cherished since childhood. Their one big setting, they sell to a company. Then they can’t… A, they can’t do anything with it outside of that company, which can be really hard, and Be backspace, like, they’ve got other people who want to mess with their thing because it’s their job to mess with that thing and try and make it the best it can be. So, one of the things that I have found really kept me sane in the 13 years that I was working at Paizo as part of the teams on Starfinder and Pathfinder was to have a creative outlet outside of work that could be just mine. Or at least different. So I’d pour all my creativity at work into those settings, but then I would go home and I would work on a novel or I would play with the band or do something that allowed me to get that same creative release without having to always be compromising with the same people, because it can really chew through friendships if you’re trying to get along with your coworkers and they keep touching your things.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The… One of the best pieces of advice that I got… A lot of my experience came from starting off in theater. One of the best pieces of advice that I got was about boundaries and not doing other people’s jobs. There’s two reasons for that. One is that if it’s a job that someone else is already doing, you’re going to annoy them that you’re doing it, that you’re trying to micromanage or change directions, and they have to reset it. But the other piece of it, and this one is really hard, is that if you do someone else’s job, it will eventually become in your job. So I was in a show and one of my cast members didn’t preset a prop. So I preset it for them. I saw it and I moved it into place. The show had already started. So when they came offstage, the prop was there. I’m an intern at this point, but being treated as if I’m a full cast member. It happens again another day, and I do it. The third day, one of the other cast members says, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “Well, he forgot to preset this.” He’s like, “If you keep doing that, it’s going to become your job to preset that. You need to let him fail on this.” The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to leave that prop in the wrong place. Even though I knew exactly where it was supposed to go. Like, I didn’t just leave it there. I said to him, “Hey, you’ve been forgetting to preset this.” He’s like, “Okay, okay.” He didn’t preset it again. Even after having been reminded. He came off… Tearing offstage. Prop wasn’t there. He had to go running around to find it. He never forgot to preset it again, and it didn’t become my job.

[James] I’d like to throw out one more rule that I have for myself, which is no head canon. What I mean by that is when I’m working on a game or something, until it’s written down and has been published or at least accepted by the team, it does not exist. Because it’s really easy to fall into the trap of you’ve decided a thing in your head, but you have not communicated it to your team or the audience. So then later on, somebody else on your team comes along and introduces something that conflicts with it. You get mad because it conflicts with what you’ve already decided, but you haven’t communicated that desire. So I think it’s really important to… I always say, when I leave the office, like, I turn off that part of my brain, and I don’t invest extra time in it, both for my own mental health, but also because I don’t want plan a bunch of stuff that I don’t actually get to implement because it’s just going to lead to version control problems down the road.

[Dan] Awesome. This has been a really great discussion. I think that we could talk for a long time about it, but we do need to end.

[Dan] So, Cass, give us our homework for today.

[Cassandra] Your final homework is spend some time brainstorming a game idea with a friend. Try to draw out and explore their best ideas. Encourage them to make changes to your homework, and make sure you’re both contributing equally. This is a chance for you to try out working in a team.

[Dan] Cool. That sounds like a fun thing. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.