Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along? Well, when it comes to creative work, maybe not. According to a new study about video game companies done by Columbia University, when you’re working on a creative project, you need some tension among your workers. More specifically, the kind of discomfort that comes from having diverse work backgrounds. If you can ride that out, it’s the kind of tension can lead to some of the most successful products.
“You’re saying XXX, and I’m going but it’s YYY, and someone else is going, ‘Yeah, but W is the thing we gotta be doing,’” said David Stark, author of the new study.
Just the kind of situation that could lead to a dispute at the water cooler. In fact, notes Stark, while you need tension at work, you also need the ability tolerate it.
“If you all ironed out your differences you wouldn’t be able to come up with something new,” he said. “So it’s this kind of ability to hold tight, put up with the ambiguity, tolerate that tension and turn it into something that’s productive. If everybody on the game has been exposed to the same thing, it’s unlikely that you’re going to create something that’s genuinely new.”
Creating something new is the job of 28-year-old Ray Bruwelheide, an artist at the game studio Dots, makers of the addictive mega-hit game Two Dots. He helps design characters for use in video games. But that’s also his co-worker’s job. Recently, while working on drawings of a crab for a new project, they experienced moments that could have led to what we’ll politely call artistic differences.
“My things were too realistic. But his things were too cutesy,” said Bruwelheide. They sent the drawings back and forth like a tennis ball.
“I would send it to him – he would send it to me,” he said. “I definitely, in my mind, initially was like, ‘This is wrong, the way he’s doing it is wrong, this – it looks way too childish.’”
Bruwelheide’s arts background is traditional. “Almost a classical sense, like a life drawing sort of sense,” he said. “I was sort of thinking too narrowly – this is what a crab looks like. It’s blue and it has a claw.” The sketches submitted by 31-year-old art director Ben Rudlin featured an orange crustacean with a tiny grin.
But both Bruwelheide and Rudlin remained as cool as graphic-designing cucumbers during the exchange of criticism. “That is 100 percent fair absolutely,” Rudlin said of the feedback that his crab was too cute.
“I think it’s hard for people to understand if they don’t have a background in this sort of thing,” said Bruwelheide. “Your first take on things, or your first pass on things feels like your baby, your special perfect angel, and it’s usually not.”
Creating the perfect crab is one proof that diverse experience is helpful.
“Everybody’s coming at it from a unique perspective,” said Brian Fargo, CEO of inXile. “And they’re all right, but they all can’t get their way.” Fargo makes video games, including classics like Wasteland and Fallout. And he makes a point of hiring a mix of workers young and old. He even hires non-gamers. “They’re going to bring a unique narrative approach that is just completely different,” said Fargo.
But again, unique viewpoints can ruffle the waters of creativity. Even digital ones. Recently, writers for Bard’s Tale 4, an upcoming game, got into a tussle. Elves, dwarves – sure but, could a character’s race be based on the Picts – a group of tribes out of old Scotland? “It was like this crazy conversation with the writers that I had to pull to a stop,” said Fargo, “and say guys – we’re just making a fantasy game.”
In the end, the decision was easy. “I won,” said Fargo. In a fantasy world, he judged, the Picts as a race are okay.
While you need people with different viewpoints, at the same time you can’t revise creative work forever, said Stark. “You need deadlines,” he said. “They’re very helpful for creative projects.”
“The writer, they’re going to want to write a million words if they can. And we can’t make a game with a million words,” said Fargo. “Or the musician’s going to want to spend a year on the music, and the programmers going to want to want to write the tightest code possible and everybody comes at it, wanting everything to be absolutely perfect.”
But he notes, perfection isn’t a state of being that’s possible. At least not yet, even in the fantasy world of a video game.
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