In October 2013 Julius and I hatched the idea to make a jokey political game called Party Animals for a 1 week gamejolt gamejam. Our original plan was to keep working on the game, finish it in 6 months, and ship it out as our first indie collaboration. A year and 6 months later we've added two team members and our estimated release date of 4th quarter 2015 looms closer and closer everyday. It's only been 4 months since we've had our full team of four, and so while I was willing to chalk up the preceding year to experience, I knew I didn't want to repeat some of the same mistakes we made before. We needed to be more organized, which meant adding "producer" as well as artist to my collection of hats.
Can You Be a Good Producer Without Being an Asshole?
This is a question I've struggled with in the few times I've taken on the roll of being the leader (not that the producer is the leader in general, but in this case some of their roles overlap). Does a good leader necessarily have to fit the Steve Jobs archetype of brilliant asshole? the accepted wisdom that authoritarian leadership in tech companies is what wins the day is hard to avoid. Dilbert and Office Space successfully satirized of managers who are inflicted with the Dunning-Kruger Effect (tl:dr The less you know the more confident you are about what you know). They were so successful in fact, that my innate tendency to shy away from being "that guy" may have slowed down development of the game.
For better or for worse, I've always approached group projects with a democratic, almost communistic outlook. Everyone would do according to their capabilities and in the end we would have a finished product we could be proud of. That may have been possible as two people, but by necessity our team grew to four, and each addition made it increasingly hard to be laissez faire about the organization of the group. It's not that any of us was irresponsible, it's just that each of us seemed to have different ideas about what we could best do in order to make the game happen, and those ideas often did not mesh very well.
So the question for me was, how do I get us to stay on track without pissing people off and cutting into the precious time they need to actually work on the game? Here's some of the tools I'm currently using to keep on top of the project's needs.
Hipchat is our main communications tool. It's a private IM service that lets us chat without the distractions of Facebook and other IM services. It also integrates well with other services like github and Trello, so that we're instantly updated when someone pushes some new features to the build. Slack was an alternative that we looked at, but for whatever reason Hipchat works better with Marnielle's shitty internet situation, and so we chose that. A lot of communication issues crop up because of bad internet, and so I've learned to be flexible when communicating with the team. I used to feel bad about messaging them about something more than once, but I've learned it's ok to use Facebook, email, or even SMS to contact them if a matter seems urgent enough.
Julius is working in New Zealand now, so whereas we used to be able to do meetings every 2 weeks, working out how to meet and chat with each other now presents an additional degree of difficulty. For one on one chats Julius and I used Vibe (no particular reason, we just both had it). Viber doesn't allow for group chat though, so for that we use Google hangouts. We've used Skype to do a group chat before but it wasn't working out for us the last time we tried a group chat but Hangouts did, so we'll be sticking with that for now. I should mention that Hipchat also allows for voice chat, but it's a paid option, and we're trying to save as much money as possible so being cheap trumps efficiency for now.
To-Do List + Project Planning
We use Trello for our task list and Tom's Planner for, well, planning. We used Trello exclusively for a long time because I had this aversion to Gannt Charts, but Tom's Planner (hereafter known as TP) makes it super easy, and having a schedule laid out for me is visually much more intuitive than looking at a laundry list of tasks that need to be done. Of course there is always a risk of being too anal about the schedule, but I think we're managing to be flexible about it and use the chart as a guide and adjust plans according to the current situation. I did some research on alternatives to TP, but it's definitely the best value for money for anyone who wants a dead simple Gannt Chart app. There are Excel template the simulate Gannt Charts but they're unwieldy, especially if you're untrained in the fine art of Excel. TP's free version only allows one person to manage a project, but you can share it easily. For $9 a month one project planner can handle the project but allow multiple free users access to edit the project but I don't think we need that for now.
Our use of Trello has waxed and waned at different points in development. It becomes more useful the closer we are to a deadline and more immediate listable items we have, but it's less useful when, for example, we are working on a longer term feature like creating the game AI. There's a bit of overlap between Tom's Planner and Trello, and I find I'm referring to Tom's more often than not. Whether that continues remains to be seen.
Game Design Documentation
Our documentation situation was a mess until very recently. We started out using Google Drive, shifted to Office because Tristan was more used to Excel (where he simulated the game's formulas), and along the way we accumulated a bunch of different documents with different information in them all across our different computers. Since we already used Dropbox to share the art assets used for our prototype, my quick solution to our situation was to create a "Documentation" folder and dump all of the files there.
While this made it easy to access the files it was still difficult to find specific bits of information, and oftentimes Marnielle or Julius would message on Hipchat asking 'Hey what's the formula for x mechanic? I can't find it." We had to figure out a way to unify all of the documentation into one concise package that was easily searchable.
Luckily Tristan had been playing around with a service called Tiddlywiki that allows you to create a customized wiki. He'd actually done this for a previous version of the game, but we'd forgotten about it in the midst of working towards a playable build in March. So far it's been the perfect way to store and search for information about the game, a rare case where we found the exact solution to a specific problem that we had.
Hipchat is great for short bursts of free flowing conversation, but sometimes you need (well, at least I do) a more structured conversation to discuss a specific point. Kind of like email, but with a group. Google Groups is essentially exactly that, and it's what we use for longer conversations. We used to have a private Facebook group but being on Facebook was bit too much of a distraction. Google Groups isn't the ideal solution, and I find its interface super clunky, but it serves our purposes well enough.
These are the tools we're using right now to help us keep on track. This doesn't take into account Sourcetree for managing repos as well as Dropbox for file sharing. On first glance, it feels like a whole hell of a lot of different services, kind of overkill for a four man team. But since laissez-faire didn't work then perhaps overdoing a little bit with these services isn't the worst thing, and if I find that it's too much we can very easily scale back some of this stuff when necessary.
Our experience is not the same as yours, and in fact the prevalence of small indie teams making games seemingly at will with little to no supervision is what made me think we could do the same. Our circumstances are different and these are the kind of things we're hoping will address those issues. If you find that your circumstances are similar, I hope this will be of use to you.
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