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).

In Praise of Craftsmanship

The web-site is going back into mothballs for a while.  On Monday, I start at Magic Leap, and since everything I’m going to be doing is under the cone of silence, there won’t be anything to say publicly.

But, before I go, I wanted to give a big shout-out to the design team at EA Capital Games.  I’ve been playing Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes during this cross-country transition, and while it is not revolutionary or particularly inventive, it does all the little things well.  At its heart, it’s a re-skin of Heroes Charge (which is itself a re-skin of a successful Asian game), and while it uses the same core combat, equipment, and progression mechanics, it does so with lots of polish.

It’s hard to capture all of the little bits, in part because there are so many of them, but just for starters:

  • The crafting system UI obviates the need for understanding the crafting system; you drill down until you find the piece you need, then go directly to where you need to get it.  All precursor combinations are handled automatically.
  • The daily activities cover all of the core activities in the game, so you are rewarded for engaging with everything, every day.
  • The sim system allows you to grind without spending tons of time.  It is monetized, but so gently that you can still use it as a FTP player, which just incentives conversion more.
  • There are multiple dimensions of advancement that are revealed over time, including tutorials that introduce and repeat key interactions before unlocking major gameplay components.
  • The materials needed for different characters’ advancement span all of the gameplay modes.
  • You never need to see your inventory, which would be hugely cluttered and illegible on mobile devices.
  • When sending items to guild-mates, it shows you how many of that item you have before you have to decide whether to donate any.
  • The AI is stupid enough to give players an incentive to control the characters directly, but not so stupid that it can’t beat you.  This also levels out PvP matches considerably.
  • Players can select targets for the AI without directly controlling characters, which is faster but clumsier than controlling them in detail, a valuable tradeoff at times.
  • Combat is predictable but not deterministic; there are enough variables to allow for a wide range of strategies, but even exotic combinations make sense within the ruleset.

I could go on and on for pages.  From the raid system to the advancement maps, the timing of leveling over the first week’s play session, the variable timings for refreshes, the balance of the gachapon, the character/shard system, there is just so much that the team has done right, over and over and over again.  Clearly, there are excellent designers and solid design leadership on this team.

If you need a grindy RPG time-waster to carry around in your pocket, I highly recommend it.