Choosing The Right Projects

Recently, I was asked to describe my methodology for choosing the projects and endeavors I pursue - a seemingly simple question that to answer thoroughly requires an internal assessment of one's values and goals, in addition to numerous other factors. Below is my attempt to unpack some of the larger contributors to my decision-making process.

The Challenge

Definitely among the larger contributors to my decision-making process is the challenge of the project I am considering taking on - the reason for this, I feel is best captured by a quote:

I have realized; it is during the times I am far outside my element that I experience myself the most. That I see and feel who I really am, the most! . . . That's why I enjoy taking myself out of my own element, my own comfort zone, and hurling myself out into the unknown. Because it's during those scary moments, those unsure steps taken, that I am able to see that I'm like a comet hitting a new atmosphere: suddenly I illuminate magnificently . . . - C. JoyBell C.

I believe challenges force us to become the best versions of ourselves by requiring us to rise to the occasion, developing ourselves in the process. Like muscles when weightlifting, we can only improve by pushing through and overcoming resistance - repeatedly. We have to be ambitious, but also realistic with our goals, as to not set ourselves up for unattainable goals and unnecessary failure.

For an existing project a prudent first step is typically to review its past. Understanding the challenges that have arisen over the project's history, as well as if/how they were overcome, can provide valuable insights into the types of challenges that might crop up moving forward.

Before I joined Puny Human on their migration of the popular mod Dystopia to Valve's Orange Box engine, I dedicated a significant chunk of time to understanding the problems the team ran across in the development of the original mod, and the status of those issues over time. Through conversations with multiple team members, it became apparent, as a geographically distributed team, one of the largest unresolved issues the team was up against was finding ways to clearly track and communicate progress to each other. This was especially true for a project with such deep interdependencies. The discovery and analysis of the project's historical challenge painted a clear picture of the types of challenges I would encounter and work to overcome throughout the delivery of Dystopia and two commercial titles with that team.

While a project's past can provide valuable information about looming challenges, the projects I work on are typically developed by highly dynamic teams and organizations, that create evolving challenges of their own, making current goals and expectations much stronger data points for the types of challenges to come.

When I was brought on to the 0 A.D. team as Associate Producer, I joined a modestly-sized team of volunteer indie developers working on an ambitious title, using mostly traditional management styles. While the game was progressing well and garnering attention within the indie community, one of the goals for the team was to find a way to sustain the project in the long-term, as a couple of the core developers had given notice, which would soon create a hefty burden on the remaining developers. The first solution that came to mind was obviously recruitment, but we found that developers who joined the team would be valuable contributors for 2-4 month stints, then disappear into the shadows, sometimes returning many months later to repeat the cycle. What I found, over the course of many conversations with these "seasonal" developers was that they truly enjoyed working on the project, but there were many development tasks that, while essential to the continuation of the game's development, they found burdensome/uninteresting. This was an important moment because, at the beginning the challenge was developer recruiting, but it quickly shifted to developer retention - a much more nuanced challenge.

In order to retain developers we had to find a way to keep them engaged while still moving the project forward toward its key objectives. After lots of careful consideration and strategic preparation, we made the move to open-source the project's development. By providing clear guidelines and workflows for community contributors that allowed us to reduce the amount of less interesting development that had to be done by the core team (though code review grew more essential), empowering developers to focus on the features they were passionate about, while improving the project's programming momentum substantially.

The Impact

Another major area that plays into my decision-making process when selected projects is the impact the project will have - namely how the initiative will drive significant change to the team, organization, users, or, potentially, the world. After all, a challenging project with no significant impact is rarely worth the investment of time and energy.

During my time at id Software as Associate Producer, I had the fortune of working on a number of extremely challenging and impactful projects, including the single player component to DOOM. However, one of the initiatives I am most proud of is working to found the studio's playtesting and usability department which we used extensively on DOOM to gather feedback and collect information about real players' experiences with various aspects of the game throughout its development. The initiative was challenging, but even more impactful because the information from performing the playtests directly benefited the team and project, and allowed us to deliver a better experience to the end-user. The department proved so successful and beneficial to the organization, it subsequently became the playtesting hub for not only id Software, but Bethesda and other ZeniMax subsidiaries as well.

The People

Neither the last or least important factor when choosing projects, understanding the people you'll be working with and trusting them; not just individuals on the team, but all the people supporting the team, who are invested in its efforts. Over the course of my career, I've formed the belief that truly effective and sustainable teams have bonds that more closely resemble friendships than pure office/cubicle mates. This is largely what inspired me to join the crew at Reel FX.

Conclusion

While all of the aforementioned areas (challenge, impact, and people) serve as primary factors for my decision making process on what projects/initiatives I choose to work on, there is always an x-factor - a certain je ne sais quoi - that also contributes to the final calculation of whether or not a new opportunity is worth pursuing. I hope this breakdown has provided you with a glimpse into my process, but I'd love to hear your thoughts! Drop a note in the comments with how you choose your next endeavors.

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