The Job Matrix

One of the advantages of publishing and consulting is that you get to see how a lot of different people go about design.  I’ve worked with a couple dozen studios in my career, and no two of them approached design in exactly the same way.  Roles are different; tools are different; expectations are different; processes are different.  There are as many languages of design as there are design communities, and each studio in its own way has to define what “good” looks like and how it is different from “bad”.  At the same time, there are common, fundamental problems that every studio faces and has to address.  One common design management problem is defining what progression means for a designer – how are senior designers different from juniors, and how do you know when someone is ready for a promotion?  The common answer to this is “I know it when I see it”,  but let me propose that there is a less naive approach available.

Now, much like a taxonomy of design, there is more value in the tool for the person doing the work of developing it than there is to any potential audience.  There is no universal taxonomy worth the weight of implementing, but investigating your own system of knowledge analytically can provide valuable insights.  Similarly, the Job Matrix is a tool for thinking through this problem, not a set of answers.  It will be much more valuable for you to develop your own definitions within your own context than to try to apply someone else’s.  I’m happy to share what I’ve come up with as an example, but no one should mistake this for gospel.

Preview

Design Team Job Matrix

Basically, if you can take each level of design role and break out all of the things they are responsible for, what’s expected of them, how they interact with the team, get approvals, etc., then you can create a “ladder” of behaviors and expectations that reaches from your basic, entry-level designer up to your studio design director.  There are a couple of things that are important to do in this process to make it work.  First, you must make meaningful distinctions between the roles; the language is arbitrary.  What “basic skills” means vs. “intermediate skills” is something that you will need to work out with your team, but there have to be distinctions between the roles that map to meaningful behaviors that can be monitored and documented.  Second, you need to cover as many of the areas on which designers will be evaluated at performance review time as you can; decoupling career progression from performance evaluation is a recipe for endless headaches.

It’s useful to take a first stab at coming up with something like this on your own.  It takes some time to figure out the right categories, level of detail, etc.  However, this is only ever the beginning.  Where this tool really starts to matter is when you talk about it with your team.  This is essential; every member of your team should understand exactly where they fit in the matrix, what they need to do to “level up” to the next role, and how they can demonstrate those behaviors within the context of their current project.  You need to have this conversation with them one-on-one, in private, so that you can address any discrepancies they might have between their self-perception and your evaluation of them, but also so that you can candidly discuss what each of these terms mean in your particular context.

This is a great forcing function as a team leader, as it makes you really think through each of your designers, where their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement are.  Ideally, it pushes you to think about how you are going to grow each of them – what kind of opportunities, coaching, training they might need.  But, it also forces you to be really honest with your team about where they are, how they are performing, what is expected of them, and what doing better looks like.  These are things we should always be doing as leaders, but it can be easy to avoid the uncomfortable conversation with someone who is not excelling.

Don’t be surprised if you end up going through a lot of iterations.  As you talk with your team, areas are going to come up that you didn’t anticipate, or definitions will shift for certain terms.  Again, the process is more important than the end-point.  By working through the categories, you will develop a common understanding within your studio of design practice, roles, and responsibilities.  Incidentally, once you are done, it also fairly easily gets re-composed into job listings, but that’s just whipped cream on top.

One side-note, in my matrix, I’ve divided the career progression path from Sr. Designer/Lead Designer on into two parallel tracks: one for individual contributors and one for team management.  As discussed here, promoting great IC’s into management can be disastrous, and the best way around this is to provide advancement without requiring management.  However, the base reality is that managers tend to get paid more, which is reflected in the salary numbers at the bottom (again, don’t take these as gospel; salary figures vary highly by region).

Size Matters

There’s a narrative going around the game development community.  Games are getting shorter, it goes; people are busy, they don’t have time.  As the average age of active gamers, and particularly paying gamers, continues to rise, game makers feel justified in making smaller, more polished, often cinematic games.  Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they make games with very short session times; what can you do in the time it takes to get coffee at Starbucks?  Simpler games are better, games with easy to understand mechanics.  Gaming is both maturing and mainstream, colonizing other media, like Japan’s Prime Minister as Mario at the Rio Olympics, a little grey around the temples, but still playful.

Lately, though, I’m starting to feel like it’s not games or gaming, it’s game developers who are getting old, who only have a few minutes to devote to something here or there.  It’s not just No Man’s Sky; lots of people have forgotten the peculiar joy of figuring out a game’s behaviors through trial and error, experimentation and exploration.  But that game is just the latest of what I suppose you could call the world-exploration genre.  Fallout 4, for example, has many of the same elements – procedural battles, resource gathering, crafting, upgrades – and at a base level, you spend most of your time wandering around the world, looking for things.  Or Shadow of Mordor; while more combat-focused thematically, it was still largely a game that was driven by exploration of its world, whether literally its geometry or the back-story in the little collectibles.

What these games all have in common is that they take a very long time to play.  The grind for upgrades in No Man’s Sky is very similar to the grind in any MMO (yet another kind of world-exploration game); covering all of the ground in post-war Boston or Mordor takes a lot of time.  On top of that, there’s extensive replayability.  In Fallout 4, there are the various storylines and factions (one of the many excellent implementations being the warning before taking a story-altering action) in addition to the world-simulation elements.  Shadow of Mordor has the revenge and fealty systems to constantly shuffle the deck for as long as you feel like playing.  It goes back to one of the early arguments for gaming – that on a per-dollar basis, it is one of the most effective forms of entertainment.

Yes, we used to play endless hours of Quake 3 or Counterstrike or Civilization or whatever your particular flavor was, but when you divided that $50 (assuming you actually paid for something) by the number of hours you played, you got some infinitesimal number of pennies, whereas you were paying $5+ per hour at the movies.  With arcades, you were paying $0.25 every 3-5 minutes, so about $4 per hour.  Hell, with early internet connections, some people were paying $2 per minute or $120 per hour to play their favorite games, or check their e-mail for that matter.  When we were young and poor, students or just starting out, the value you got from gaming was tangible.  It was better than television (the next best thing to free), but affordable in the long run precisely because we had so much energy to burn and they kept us occupied for so many hours.

For a lot of gamers, nothing has changed.  League of Legends, one of the most popular games in the world, has an average session length of 30-35 minutes, and gamers sit down expecting to play multiple sessions.  Raids in World of Warcraft are still multi-hour affairs, albeit not the insane grinds they used to be.  In terms of value per dollar spent, they still eclipse everything else in terms of media.  If you have a lot of time to kill, these are great ways to kill it.  So are free-to-play games, don’t get me wrong.  They are huge in their own ways, constantly growing, constantly evolving.  It is terrifying to think of the collective amount of time spent tapping the screen to move gems or candies or barbarians or cartoon houses.

So, both ends continue to expand.  Tentpole games aren’t going anywhere.  Yes, they cost tens of millions of dollars to make, but each one returns hundreds of millions.  Services will live as long as their player base supports them.  The high-risk areas remain the unproven and the middle ground, and indies are happily throwing themselves on as many grenades as they can find.  At the moment, we’re still in a growth market.  More people are playing electronic games today than at any point in history.  People are finding more ways to play, dedicating larger amounts of their time and resources to playing.  There’s VR/AR, location-based gaming, and so many other avenues that are ripe for development.  Surely, that can’t hold true forever.  At some point, there will be a saturation of the audience – young and old, poor and wealthy, the time-rich and the time-starved, the twitchy and the cerebral.

But, for now, surely these are the salad days.  It seems odd to say after decades of experience playing and making games, but we are still at the beginning.  There is more to invent in front of us than there are established models behind.  And yet, one thing, I would caution, remains true.  Players want time-consuming games, deep, rich, long, rewarding engagements that can last weeks and months, not just days or hours.  It’s great to create experiences, but worlds will win, nine times out of ten.