At last week's Unity engine conference, Flashbang Studios gave a presentation about how to make games faster. To me, it was a surprising and great presentation. Surprising because went against my expectations of what a talk at the Unity conference would be about. Great because it summarized much of the best advice I've heard about project management in one place with nothing extra.
Flashbang decided to make games on an 8-week cycle (!!) and post them at blurst.com. They made 8 games this way. They've now decided to change their model and work on polishing up just one of those 8 games into a full version, but that's really beside the point. The particulars of their situation aren't important because their message is appropriate to a very broad audience: not just Unity engine users, not just people who want to make 8-week games--or games at all--but really anyone who is working on a software project.
Reframing the Problem
Matthew Wegner (founder and CEO) and Steve Swink (game designer and kindred sprit) presented. They started by explaining the importance of questioning the framing of a problem, as opposed to trying to find a solution for a problem. A problem you might have is, "It takes too long to place enemy AI waypoints in each level of my game." You might optimize that process by finding a way to reduce the number of clicks the designer needs to place any given waypoint. But if you use a bit of lateral thinking, you might instead design levels that don't need so many waypoints. Or much better than that, design the AI system so that it doesn't need waypoints at all! What they're getting at is that if you take the problem as given, you will probably limit your solution space--the set of things you would even possibly consider as potential solutions.
What if your problem is, "how do we make games faster?" I think they might have given another presentation about how to optimize various things inside the Unity engine (or at least I think they said they did), but here they were saying that that sort of thing isn't *really* the problem. I mean, when they try to ship games in 8 weeks, is it really the inefficiency of waypoints or whatever that threatens the schedule? There are much, much bigger problems. In fact, the question should really be, "how can I get more things done?" (Not their words, but here's a link to the seminal book on Getting Things Done.)
Two Amazing Hours
The first part of their theory is that we really only get about 2 hours of seriously focused, amazing-quality work per day--if we're lucky. Maybe you can get 2.5 or 3 sometimes, but that's pushing it. There are so many distractions and blockers, so many times when you're too tired or hungry or upset about something, or whatever. Flashbang is saying just be real here: accept that you're only going to be able to do amazing work for a short time each day. Knowledge work as it's called, is the type of thing where you could spend 20 hours on a problem and not solve it, but just *one* hour of your fully charged genius-time could solve it.
Ok, so how do we make sure we get that super-charged-time each day? And how do we maybe get a little bit more of it than usual? Flashbang's answer is that the WORST thing you could do is work really long hours as is common in so many game companies. If you're spending all your time at work, tired, fatigued, probably malnourished, how are you going to have any of that time be the amazing 2 hours? Factor in that you probably had no time for laundry, a haircut, your dentist appointment, or your relationships, and it sounds like you're going to be pretty miserable. Do you think being miserable is a good way to increase the number of super-productive hours you have?
Flashbang tried an experiment. For two weeks, they REDUCED their work hours to 10am to 3:30 pm. The idea is that everyone knew they had only limited time to get things done, and they had plenty of time to live a good life outside of work. At first, they actually kicked people out at 3:30 and turned off the power to make sure people left and didn't stay out of some strange guilt. They measured (though didn't give the details) their productivity before and after this change. If it turned out they got less work done than usual during that 2 weeks, they would cancel the plan and go back to regular work hours. The thing is, they found that productivity really did go up. They kept these reduced work hours for the rest of their projects. It's more informal now and sometimes people do stay longer, but they said "if we're still at work and it's time for dinner, we usually say 'hey, that's pretty weird! This is like crunch-mode day!'"
They said that if you see your time as an unending ocean ("hey, I'll be here for another 15 hours anyway today, and again tomorrow"), then it doesn't even phase you if the solution to a problem would take 5 hours of menial labor from you. But when your time is limited, you think about alternate solutions, or question the framing of the problem that is leading to the tedious work. This is one area where I'm not sure I agree though. I do often see my own time as an unending ocean, and if a task takes me 10 hours, that's what it takes. I asked them about this afterward and Matthew said "yeah, when you work from home, it feels like every moment is a moment that you 'should' or at least could be working." I guess spending long hours of my own time on what I choose to spend it on at home isn't quite the same thing as a game company creating a corporate culture where you must be there 15 hours per day to fit in.
48 Minutes of Flow
This concept of high productivity time is really called Flow. (Here's the seminal work on Flow.) Steve Swink gave further advice on how to actually get down to work. He said what usually happens is