This article is intended to help new design managers and lead designers provide effective performance feedback for their direct reports and people within their org structure.
The art of leading and managing in the field of game design is slightly more challenging than most fields. This is because, as gamers and game designers, our immediate instinct is to be critical and find fault in games and game system (not to mention, movies, books, TV, politicians and just about everything else).
The game industry in full of super sharp, highly effective critics, which is a great tool, but not what you always need in order to be an effective manager. To be an effective leader of designers, you will need to temper your natural instinct to find the fault in everything, particularly when it comes to human beings.
Constructive Reviews – How To
- Always give the feedback in complete privacy, completely out of view or hearing range of any coworkers, never in a remotely public place. You want zero chance for embarrassment during the process. In general, you should never criticize someone in a public place, there is no upside and only downside. You can, however, praise someone in public if you genuinely feel it’s appropriate.
- Start a performance review with positives, both general positive qualities of the designer and specific positive things they’ve done or positive elements of their designs.
- Avoid associating negative “qualities” to a person. Never say, “You are unfocused”, instead say, “That particular design document would have been better with less overall text and more specific design elements called out directly.”
- Remember that rewarding and encouraging success is infinitely more effective than punishing failure. Failure, at times, is inevitable for any design team, especially if they are pushing the limits of what is possible.
- Never be remotely rude, mean, insulting, or angry, even in a joking manner. As a manager, you have inherited the responsibility of being extremely careful with the things you say. People’s careers are delicate issues and as a leader, you now hold an incredibly important role in the future of people’s lives. We all have the ability to make really hilarious sarcastic comments, but we lose most of those privileges when we start managing people.
- Be direct and be specific. If you’re anything like me, the people working for you are smarter than you and talented designers. Don’t waste their time with vague sugar coating. Keep it direct but positive. It’s a sign of respect to be straightforward and honest with someone, even in tough situation.
- When you’re giving feedback, you should also ask for feedback. Ask what you can do to help the designer and what they think could be improved on any level.
The annual employee review is now generally regarded as outdated and much too infrequent to be useful, especially in the game design industry.
A much better model is the much more frequent review that is shorter in length. It’s less pressure for the manager and the designer because it can come in bite size pieces. It’s less likely to result in “surprises” that can come when there are long periods of time between review sessions.
I recommend setting aside one hour per month for each of your direct reports for a combined review and monthly check-in. It doesn’t need to be longer than an hour, but it does deserve a full hour set aside.
You can spend the first half of the meeting going over a performance review and the second half talking about anything else that interests the designer, including their future, their salary, their job responsibilities, the projects they will work on and anything they are concerned about.
A good review should go something like this: “Hey, you are doing awesome at A, B, C and you are a huge benefit to the team. Keep doing that and also work on X, Y, Z to keep getting better and better. Thank you so much for what you do, how can I help you be even better?”
During the meeting, you can have the previous review printed out and the new review with any changes. Keep a dedicated folder for yourself for yourself in google docs or whatever your IT department approves of. Instead of starting from scratch with each monthly review, you can start with the previous review and update it to reflect any changes.
It’s even acceptable for two reviews to be nearly identical in subsequent months if there are no significant changes, but hold the meeting anyway to allow face time and mutual discussion.
It’s best for everyone involved if a performance review is kept simple and uncomplicated.
You don’t want a manager spending excessive time on these and you don’t want reviews with a designer to go un unessesarily long. The first 20-30 minutes is the most effective, so make those count.
Many of us have been at the large corporation that has a 6-page, highly detailed employee review template that includes every quality a human being can possess and rates them on a 1-5 scale. They mean well, but are huge time wasters, so just avoid them if you can.
I’ve been using a system for almost 20 years now that’s been successful at very large and very small game companies. Sometimes, I’ve had to use it alongside the official corporate process, but today’s companies tend to be more flexible for managers who want to use their own proven review process.
This is the review format that I personally use and recommend for all managers:
Opportunities for Development:
That’s it, that’s the entire performance review template.
The Strengths section can include specific things the designer did that were successful or general qualities they posses.
The Opportunities for Development should always be written as positives to achieve, not negatives to erase. Example: “Jamie should become expert in balancing sniper rifles and opening up viability for new sniper rifles models” as opposed to “Jamie failed to balance sniper rifles properly.” Whenever possible, they should also have something measurable attached to them, like a date of completion or some other metric of success.
Either of the sections can have more points added or removed, but you should always keep the strengths section longer than the Opportunities for Development section. People react far more effectively to praise.
In the additional notes section, try to write a sentence or two of honest encouragement and appreciation for what the designer has done recently or over the course of the project.
Note: You can also use this format for Self Reviews and Peer Reviews if you choose to do them. If you have the time, they are somewhat helpful, particularly peer reviews which can turn up a gold mine of stuff for the “strengths” section that you may not have personally witnessed as a manager.
Here’s an example of a completed review: (image)
Name: Samus Ripley, Associate Designer
Review Date: 01/02/2017
- Strong analytical skills and ability to parse player data.
- Extremely successful rebalance of auto rifles.
- Excellent interactions with production and engineering team.
- Successfully worked with engineering group to create user-friendly design tools to review weapon metrics, leading to an increase in productivity for the tuning team.
Opportunities for Development:
- Increase communication with community team and seek their feedback before any balance changes are finalized.
- Review low-impact pulse rifles and all shotguns and formulate a recommendation for rebalancing by 1/30/2017.
- Research sniper rifles in The Division and the latest installments of COD and Battlefield to assist in potential design adjustments by 2/15/2017.
Notes: Samus is an incredibly strong designer and respected by her peers. With each balance update she increases her efficiency and effectiveness.
Good night and good luck.