An archive of posts tagged productivity.

Flow - Make Better Games

7 min read

I’ve been meaning to re-present something I did for a whole gamedevelopment studio a while back about ‘Flow’. It instantly improvedproduction and was something we held dear as a team.Have you ever said anythinglike: “Wow, is it that time already?” “Sorry, I was miles away” “I get my best work done when everyone’s gone home!”If the answer is yes, then you’ve experienced a state of Flow andmost likely been incredibly productive. It’s sometimes called being “inthe zone” too among others. Here’s my take on a well-known psychologicalstate and why it’s important to game developers.Flow is a highly productive state of mind, time slips by and you blitzthrough work, making fewer mistakes, no thought about how much effortyour making and generally higher quality thinking goes into it too. “Flow is a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvement. In thisstate, there is a gentle sense of euphoria, and one is largely unawareof the passage of time.” DeMarco.I’ve been a long time supporter of enabling people to enter this stateof Flow and stay there so they can do their best work and enjoy it.It’s important for managers, colleagues, producers and businesses torecognise that supporting this can make a real difference to the qualityof your game.As you settle in for agood working session, you slip from your Regular un-productive statethat you sit at your desk at, through your Immersion phase into astate of Flow and this whole process typically takes you about 15minutes to get through, although it can vary from person to person.InterruptionsWe’ve recognised that the state of Flow is important and that ittypically takes you 15 minutes to get there. The problem here isthat there are many distractions and interruptions that break yourconcentration and send you crashing back up through the layers toreality.These interruptions mean you’re now back to the start and it’s going totake you yet another 15 minutes to get back down there and if you’d onlyjust got there then it was also a waste of your last immersion. That’s15 minutes lost for every interruption you get. This can be incrediblyfrustrating and it drives me insane!Imagine a horrible state we’re you’re constantly interrupted and neverget into Flow.Explicit Interruptions You get an email pop-up – +15 minutes IM pops up – +15 minutes Telephone call – +15 minutes At desk requests - +15 minutes ‘ping’ from a new text message on your mobile - +15 minutes Starting a long build – +15 minutesImplicit Interruptions Noise Interrupting colleagues – how often does your neighbours phone gooff?You can quickly see how this can mount up to a problem and in a biggerteam the problem compounds itself as the people who have beeninterrupted start sending emails, pop around to someone for a chat, askif you want to join them for a coffee, etc.There’s also a consideration for time of day too as if it’s close toyour break/lunch/home time then you’re most likely to just not bothertrying to get backI had a particular problem when I was running a team and sitting amongthem. I often had to use the phone to make or receive business calls. Irapidly became aware that every time I did that people stopped workingto listen to what I was saying and I was obviously disturbing them. Theyweren’t cross, they were just interested in what I was talking about andoften asked questions. I intended this to be transparency but I wascausing a whole load of drag on people’s time.You’ll also see this happen when you approach to ask someone a questionand the others around them drift out so they can pay attention.Mitigating InterruptionsHere are a few things you can do to try to helpyourself: Turn communications systems off and let everyone know why you’redoing it; E-Mail, IM and Phone. It’s not going to be forever and I’msure your manager/lead will be happy you want to be focused. Use your email apps Out Of Office system to auto-respond lettingpeople you’ll get back to them soon. This prevents them fromthinking you’re ignoring them for no reason. Set your email app to only check emails every 30 mins or so. Doemails really need an instantaneous response? ‘Zebra’ Mail - I’ve also used the email apps rules systems topickup keywords in the subject line to bring an alert up. In myexample people knew that putting the word ‘Zebra’ in the subjectline would mean it would get my instant attention. I could alsochange the word to prevent people just using it all of the time. Put your headphones on. This seems to be the internationalsymbol for Do Not Disturb plus you’ve got a damn good excuse for notresponding to general chat as you can’t hear them! You don’t have tolisten to music either, just pop your headphones on. Door Etiquette - If you’re fortunate to have your own officethen adopt a door protocol suchas: Door Open - ready for interruption Door ajar - priority interruptions only Door closed - Do Not Disturb on pain of death Consider other people’s desire to be undisturbed, do you really need ananswer to that question now?  Try and use appropriatecommunication: Time critical: voice Immediate & discreet: Instant Message Can wait: e-mailTeams and Studios should support this whole way of working by beingconsiderate and enabling people to work for extended periods in anundisturbed state.How long to stay in Flow & ExceptionsIn our game development world there are typically 2camps: Developers and Managers.Developers generally need to stay focused for 2 hrs to get anythingmeaningful done and make progress. I’ve rarely seen anything take lessthan this and staying focused for more than that is difficult.Managers are exceptions as they typically work in 20 min batches ifthey’re lucky. Their job requires constant monitoring and attention toothers and they need to use email, phone and IM to communicatethroughout the studio.People in a Lead role are caught between the two roles as they are oftenasked to both Develop and Manage. In this position they need time to dothe work but they’re constantly interrupted and this often leads to asense of immense frustration. I often see Leads spending the regularworking hours being interrupted and attending meetings but staying lateto do their work. It’s a tough place to be and the only advice I cangive is to try to time-box your availability so people know whichhat you’re wearing at any point in time.ConsequencesThere are natural consequences of not considering Flow.Being mindful of it and actively supporting it improves efficiency,quality of work and aids progression. All of which make for happierDevelopers and a better game.The natural opposite of this in a world where interruptions are rife andpeople can’t work are poor performance, poor quality of work and mostlikely late delivery.We all know that the work still needs doing so in the latter example,people end up working overtime to compensate. This overtime usuallyoccurs when all the interruptions are gone so people get work done.Strive to keep a working environment that enables people to Flow asoften as possible.Meta-FlowIn addition to the regular working flow I also believe there’s a conceptof Meta Flow if we take the principles of having a continuous andfocused train of thought about a particular subject over an extendedperiod.This comes in to play when you’re team members are working on aparticular item for an extended period of days, even weeks. Their mindis full of a single task and shouldn’t be polluted or interrupted byother things occurring. Think of a physics programmer being pulled offto do work on the rendering system only to return back to physics ashort while later. In this scenario it makes sense for them toconsecutively focus on Physics.SummaryBeing aware of, honouring and supporting Flow can make a realdifference to your game development team and therefore the game.Encourage everyone in your organisation to learn about it and respectit.Further Reading•“Peopleware”– Tom DeMarco•“Cringe from crossing a concentrating coder”•“Promoting Flow in Software Development”