How To Do Everything

Probably one of my favorite things about making games is the dynamic nature of the process.  The design and requirements of a project can change multiple times over the course of even a single day, which means game developers have to be fluid and adaptive in their daily work.  A developer might find themselves working with a game’s camera in the morning, then the physics system after lunch, and then a totally different project the next week.  Despite all this though, professional game developers are typically siloed in terms of their work.  The industry often looks at development teams in terms of “classes” in a multiplayer RPG: successful teams will have an Engineer-class (the DPSs), an Artist-class (the Healers), a Designer-class (the Crowd Controllers), and a Producer-class (the Tanks).  Professional developers are often hired as one of those 4 classes, and most educational resources are presented as if the reader was of a single class.  Even GDC divides its content into “tracks” which roughly map to those roles (though multi-track sessions are common).

This never quite made sense to me.  If the process of creating games is so inherently fluid, dynamic, and creative, then why do we as game creators spend so much effort categorizing ourselves?  Doesn’t it seem limiting to encourage someone to fulfill only a single role in the creation of something that is constantly changing?

I believe every team needs a multi-classer.  In the 5-ish years I’ve been a game developer, I’ve done work as a tools programmer, an IT-guy, a project manager, a 2D artist, a build engineer, a designer, and even a BBQ pitmaster.  Each time I stepped into another role, I learned new things and solved important problems for the teams I was working with.  For development teams, that’s the biggest benefit of having (and encouraging) multi-classers: they are Swiss Army knives, capable of solving many of the random problems your team will face.  Outside of simple problem solving, multi-classers also exemplify the type of cross-disciplinary thinking that, frankly, leads to better games.

Having a multi-classer is great, but being a multi-classer is wonderful.  You learn new things every day, largely because you’re doing new things every day.  Multi-classers also enjoy a completely different perspective on the projects they’re involved in because they have so many viewpoints.  And, selfishly, if you’re a good multi-classer, your ability to solve all the problems helps make friends and get jobs in the industry.

So how does one become a good multi-classer?  I’m not sure.  Maybe in another 10 years I’ll write a followup to this post with the golden wisdom.  Mostly what I know now is that it requires a lot of flexibility, and that it’s honestly not for everyone.  However, I do have some tips for those that are or are looking to become a multi-classer:

Always be looking for problems (and solutions)

At the end of the day, the most important role of the multi-classer is to solve problems that more specialized teammates aren’t able to or willing to solve.  Unfortunately, your more specialized teammates might not tell you about those problems, either because they are blind to them, or they just aren’t able to communicate what the problem is.  Good multi-classers are always looking for those problems.  Know your teammates and keep an eye on their blind spots.  For example, your systems designer might always come up with mathematical solutions to design problems, but she might not see an issue that could be solved with an art or sound change.  A constant drive to learn more will also help you identify future problems and solutions.  The more you know about a wider set of skills will give you better insight into the processes and mindsets of your teammates, allowing you to see their blind spots more readily.

Recognize you probably won’t be great at anything (and that’s ok)

Being great at something requires dedication, both to your craft and to the idea of being great.  As a multi-classer, you don’t have time for that, so you’re probably not going to be the next John Carmack or Brenda Romero.  The important thing to remember is that your value to a team doesn’t come from your flawless models or your pristine Gantt charts, but from your unique perspective on all the problems you solve.  Being able to look at a challenge from multiple angles at once is an extremely valuable skill in multi-disciplinary teams because it not only helps you to communicate with a larger swath of your team, but it also affords you the ability to see solutions other more specialized people may not.

Confidence is great, humility is even better

As you come to fulfill more roles on a team, and as your team depends on you more for those roles, it’s necessary to strike a good balance between having confidence in the skills you have and knowing you’re probably not the greatest at any of them.  That balance is generally important when you’re working on a team, but it’s particularly important for multi-classers.  As someone who plays multiple roles, your confidence in your abilities has a multiplier effect on team morale and confidence.  If you are confident you can succeed at many, varied tasks, your team will be that much more confident in the success of the project.  On the flip-side, since multi-classers often play so many roles on a team, it’s very easy to see oneself as “the rock” upon which the team is structured.  Resist that temptation.  Having an ego about your role as a multi-classer can not only hurt your relationship with your team, but it can prevent you from learning more, which in turn prevents you from being a better multi-classer.

Remember not everything is a nail

This is something I struggle with a lot.  If you are like me, and you have a stronger background in one skill than the others you practice (mine’s engineering), it’s extremely tempting to solve most problems with that skill.  When you look at a problem you need to solve, challenge yourself to analyze it from as many perspectives as you can.  See if you can solve it using multiple skills.  That way, you won’t end up trying to solve what really is a production problem with your artistic skills.  Nobody wants that.

Enjoy it

Being a multi-classer is challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.  Take pride in your multiple abilities.  Know that your dynamism will let you do almost anything you need or want to do.  Get to know your teammates, and maybe show them a perspective they might not have seen before.  Satisfy your curiosity about everything, because it may all eventually be useful.  
Cheers to the multi-classers!

-Ted Aronson

Rocket Surgeon/Programmer/Designer