Double Fine’s director of developmentKevin Johnson hasspent the best part of two decades working as a producer at major studios including EA and Telltale Games. During that time, he’s learned a thing or two about what it takes to support a team working in the perennial pressure cooker that is game development while also undertaking a journey of personal growth.
Taking to the stage to open the second day of Games Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP), Johnson laid out some of the fundamental lessons that inform his production philosophy and explored what it means to both succeed and fail as a developer.
Straight from a rather damp Melbourne, here are five pointers from the keynote that Johnson believes will allow producers, their teams, and developers working across numerous disciplines to reach new heights.
Embrace your FFTs
For Johnson, one of the most useful pieces of advice he ever received was imparted during a GDC talk. Simply put, it’s this: embrace your FFTs (or fucking first times). Johnson revealed his GCAP keynote is actually an FFT and explained he’s never given such a high-profile talk until now, and therein lies the point. It’s important to try new things in order to grow, and that means pushing beyond your comfort zone while accepting that failure is a distinct possibility. That, though, doesn’t have to be a negative.
“When you do something for the first time it’s likely that you’re going to fail, and that’s okay. Ideally, you can recognize failure quickly and course correct, but ultimately failure is going to be part of the process. So, understand that and grant yourself some grace,” saysJohnson. “I’ve been in situations where the idea of messing up can just be paralyzing, and so when you actually understand that the expectation isn’t that you’re going to immediately get this right, it can be freeing.”
Nurture talent (and don’t forget where you came from)
In order to bring new voices into the industry, it’s critical that studios and publishers provide pathways for internal talent. “You have to take a chance on someone while remembering that someone took a chance on you,” says Johnson, who quips that “nobody came out of the womb with a tech demo.”
He says that anybody who’s ever made progress in the game industry has likely had some form of help along the way, and notes that once you’ve become established it’s important to recognize that fact and start paying it forward. “We have a responsibility to the next generation to bring them up and help them avoid the pitfalls we fell into,” he continues. “We need to build talent internally so that our processes get better and we can make better games.”
Know thyself and be honest about your limitations
It might be tough, but Johnson believes that conducting an honest assessment of yourself is fundamental to working in games. “It’s going to be difficult because we’re all awesome, but we’re not awesome at everything and that’s okay,” he says. “If you know what you can and can’t do, and are honest about it, that will help you grow into the best version of yourself and reach your full potential.”
Carrying that thread, Johnson told attendees that if they’re a subject matter expert they should unashamedly “be a subject matter expert.” Don’t sell yourself short when it matters. It might not come easy, especially when you’re only just starting out, but backing yourself based on lived experience when handling a myriad of tasks such as implementing effective pipelines or document structures can benefit the entire team.
Set boundaries and be mindful
“It’s okay to say that you can’t do something,” says Johnson. “Sometimes you get overwhelmed or sometimes you’re asked to do something that’s beyond your limits, and that’s okay.” He suggests that pushing back against certain requests is actually healthy in the long run, but concedes it can still be difficult to say no. “I’m still bad at this,” he continues. “But it’s not a sign of weakness to say you can’t do something.”
For producers, recognizing when someone is under pressure and struggling is equally important. “People aren’t resources, people use resources,” states Johnson, who believes that it can be easy to forget that people make games and that there’s a lot ofhumanity baked into the process. He says it’s vital to hold onto that humanity and treat people they way “they need to be treated” to enable everyone to do their best work.
Building a diverse team can only benefit your project. For Johnson—who explains there’s no shortage of case studies that show having alternate views and different voices at the table results in better teams and products—this isn’t an opinion,but a fact.
Discussing his own experiences, he recalls how during his time working on Madden at EA he was one of the only voices questioning why the team was intent on iterating on their gameplay when the in-game presentation was in dire need of an overhaul. Johnson explains the powers-that-be eventually took on his feedback onboard and used it to improve the experience, with reviewers even noting the changes.
Alternatively, he’s also been in situations where teams were “too proud” to acknowledge feedback from their peers. During a stint at an unnamed studio, Johnson witnessed QA workers raise concerns about a title’s core gameplay tenets only to be rebuffed and told to stay in their lane.The project eventually came out and waspoorly received for all of the reasons they identified. It’s an experience that showed Johnson what happens when teams that should be working together forget that development isn’t a winner-takes-all battle royale.
“We’re all in this together,” he says. “It’s important to remember that development isn’ta zero-sum game. One team’s success doesn’t mean another team’s failure. We can all help each other out and make ourselves better all around.”
Game Developer was invited to GCAP and Melbourne International Games Week by Creative Victoria, which covered flights and accommodation.