Everybody’s Doing the Baxter Shuffle

Nice moves, Sue!April is over already? Yikes.

We’ve been hunched over the keyboards, catching red-eyes, and working dutifully on lots of promising things these past several weeks, such as supporting and improving SuperBetter so that it can better help more people; monitoring fundraising games that strengthen American hearts and communities; developing a solid foundation for EVOKE 2; crafting a statement of work so mighty that our own daughters chimed in with advice; and tending to ourselves by spending a few days together finding harmony in Music City.

Indeed, all things that matter greatly to us and our livelihood are possibly not that interesting or inspiring to you. Or maybe they are! The growth spurt we’re in now has left us feeling some trippy growing pains and made it damn near impossible to see straight.

Curse you, hormones!

Uncovering exactly where it hurts has been enlightening to say the least, but our hope is that “talking it out” by documenting it here will serve as a waypoint of sorts, for us and those of you who feel (or have felt) our pain, too.

Putting pep in our step.

We’re constantly fiddling with how we design and develop games, from creating more ambitious project proposals that better align our corporate wants and needs with those of our clients’ to implementing workgroups and progress reports that encourage meaningful and rewarding collaboration to honing our processes so that they facilitate agility and uproot apathy. Every effort to improve the ways in which we work together will ultimately make future player experiences as lush and lovable as possible.

Or so our moms say. (Early Happy Mother’s Day, moms!)

Actually accomplishing these goals is rarely easy, and the challenges are made that much more grand since we have at least one person working in each mainland U.S. time zone, including several mates in the U.K. And in an industry where doubts and prophecies about the potential for games to bring about the level of societal, environmental, and economic improvements we pursue rain down like badges from the heavens, we’re reminded of former NFL head play-caller Brian Billick when he said, “Son, your potential is going to get me fired.”

Well said, coach.

We’re growing up, learning new ways to do what we do, and often fantasize about making games that players – and we – love so much that awkward poems soon begin filling volumes of spiral-bound notebooks and comment boards everywhere. As fun as fantasizing can be, it does little to help us figure out which games to chase or let come to us.

It’s in moments like those we look in the mirror, flex our scrawny muscles, and take a good, hard look at ourselves. It isn’t always pretty, but it helps us spot and sort our wants and needs. Keeping tabs on our changes early and often is one way we’ll turn our potential energy kinetic and transform ability into duty.

We put our mind to it in many ways, some more abstract than others. For example, we remind ourselves of our principles when impulse steps on the toes of patience (which happened at every winter formal we went to) and ask tough questions about them to help regain our bearings.

Principles such as, “Put the Player First,” “The Story is the Thing,” and “We’re Already Playing,” function more as understanding chaperons than finger-wagging parents on our journey to make games that bring out the best in people, especially when our primitive instincts try to spike the rational “play it cool” punch bowl. As such, we occasionally take on tasks that don’t bring out the best in ourselves. Challenging, sure, but are they worth the cost?

Everybody MOSCOW now!

Practically speaking, we’re getting better how we admit and take to heart the things we do when working on games and game platforms where a rewarding play experience is the desired outcome (which is to say, always). For example, the MoSCoW method is a useful mnemonic tool we use to pick out and prioritize wants and needs during a round of “Name the Requirements!”

And when applied to how we work, they help define the boundaries, roles, and responsibilities on various projects while making our efforts more focused and gameful. Specifically, we poke and prod our answers to the following four questions before, during, and after a project.

What are the decisions / activities we:

  • MUST make / do
  • SHOULD make / do
  • COULD make / do
  • WON’T make / do

We don’t always agree unanimously on the first answers, but they lead to more questions that, in turn, prompt deeper and more reasoned responses. It gets a bit Socratic after a while, but we believe some things are more important than reaching consensus. It’s the same idea that lies at the root of our contextual inquiry process: If we know the outcome from the start, then we aren’t making the best game possible.

It isn’t always a pleasant feeling to disagree with someone we respect, trust, and care about; someone whose personality and insights end up making our company stronger and more “mirror-friendly.” We openly share our disagreements with each other because we respect, trust, and care about game players and the work needed to make better games. We care about each other.

And when one of us claims to “know” something about a player or a game or anything without sharing why, it’s a signal for others to ask questions. Empathy and mindfulness go a long way to help clear obstructions when our view of an answer’s merits and facts are clouded by opinions or a belly full of butterflies.

If it sounds at all tortuous and cumbersome, you’re right. We won’t argue with you there. Yet in some weird way, it’s how we keep things simple. Calling on this routine from time to time helps us do the hardest work first so it isn’t as difficult the second time, the time after that, and so on. It helps us get on the dance floor faster so we can perfect our moves throughout the night. It gives us a chance to pinpoint exactly where and with whom to dance next, and allows us to do so confidently. And it keeps us humble because one wrong move could find us flat on our bums.

In short, MoSCoW (Must, Should, Could, Won’t) helps us prepare for and find novel solutions to problems created by time, space, movement, and Principal Skinner’s electrified dance floor.

Twist and sprout!

Keeping a business running when its key players are working together over a span of 3,000+ miles and up to ten time zones between them is loaded with unique challenges. In turn, they have the potential (there’s that word again) to place a crippling strain on getting things done.

We each work within our own domains under minimal or no supervision with responsibilities that shift throughout the day, so even “little things” like passing a design to be marked up and hooked up can make for some tricky hand-offs. And where one of us works alone behind a desk all day, others enjoy the luxury of meeting in a central studio, even if working on a troublesome problem is, itself, not quite a luxurious responsibility.

How do we know, then, that we’re making the best games we can?

Traditional symptoms of being productive (or unproductive, in some cases) include measurable traits such as hours worked, cost per unit produced, revenue generated, net profit, and so on. They make it easy to take a quick glance at the crowd and see how things are going. Typically, a packed floor is a happy floor. But one DJ’s Electric Slide is another DJ’s Teach Me How to Dougie.

In other words, traditional tools aren’t for everyone. And in some respects, they fail to represent what we’re capable of doing.

Collectively, over enough time, they might help us spot deficiencies and opportunities hiding in plain sight. If, for example, we notice after a long project that we spent more time and attention maintaining a game than expected, it’s good to know where along the way we lost the beat so we can adapt and improve. It’s Agile Development 101 (make, test, breakdance, improve, repeat).

At worst, retrofitting an operating framework into our world because it is the most familiar framework might severely impair how we make games. Living by the books to standardize a process in hopes of striking the optimal performance-to-reward balance (“We do X, expect Y in return, and get Y in return) threatens to stifle some of our basic needs. And when decisions are made based on symptoms rather than on the traits to which we as a company are naturally disposed, we end up limiting our ability to fully express our values (“We enjoy doing Z, and will work to optimize the return in relation to our effort until we satisfy a condition”).

We aren’t considering doing an about-face from the system that got us this far. And we aren’t suggesting the old views are less meaningful or important. Instead, we work to augment and edit it with a careful touch and mindful awareness of our nature. We aren’t biologists, but we’ve learned from smart ones that an organism’s growth potential is limited directly by its ecosystem; as fish in a pond, for example. Where our survival and ability to thrive reaches escape velocity, though, is when we identify new methods for investing in outcomes.

In light of ongoing research that suggests we long for purpose (a story we tell ourselves or buy into that frames our lives), relatedness (finding and maintaining close social connections), and expertise within our domain, adopting or creating a model based on more humane conditions might better suit the way our business runs.

It is becoming more apparent, in our practice, that the relation of people, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, platforms, programs (or anything, perhaps) impacts the success or failure of a game – and game design company – more than the quality of each and every piece within it. And if our moms’ weekly Dancing with the Stars recaps are to be trusted confidently, the old saying “It takes two to tango” endears us to this line of thinking.

It’s a subtle yet elegant step in the move from object-oriented programming and design to outcome-oriented programming and design. On a tangible level, it’s a balancing of short-term gain with our possible, probable, and preferable futures. And for a company who tries earnestly to apply to itself the lessons we learn while making games, the move is one we must become more comfortable and confident making as we moonwalk our way across the floor.

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