Nimble Game Development: Another Kind Of Agile

In my last post I wondered why Agile emerged in the software business, rather than in another field. I still wonder about this, but in the meantime, something happened that made me think that “we’re not the only ones”.

The new field? Video games.

And I’m not talking about the production side, which is obviously software. I’m talking about the creative process.

You probably know by now that I’m a proud gamer, and as such, I listen to gaming podcasts. Among them: Irrational Interviews. The latest featured an interview with gaming greats Ken Levine and Amy Hennig. Both creative directors of ground breaking games that were financially successful as well. If you’re a gamer, and don’t listen to this, do.

Anyway, both Ken and Amy talked about the creative and writing processes. It was less about the software development itself. Yet, without mentioning the word, I kept hearing in my head “agile”.

Here are a couple of examples (I’m not using direct quotes, tried and failed).

Collaboration and teams

  • Ken said he realizes he doesn’t have good project management skills, for example, so he has other people on the team who do.
  • They recognize that the work of a creative director is for far more than one person. The team helps. It's a group effort, and the game story is tempered by everyone on the team. (not just the product owner)
  • Working in a team is not about control, it’s about humility. Nobody wants to work with a dictator. (whole team)
  • Always think: How can we do our job better?

Embracing uncertainty

  • Amy said you have to be “Nimble”. (Get it?)
  • The most easy thing to change is the story that hasn't been written yet. Everything that was recorded or created is done. It may not be relevant as we progress. You flesh out the roadmap as you go, based on what the team can accomplish. (
  • Creating the game, throughout production is working without a net.
  • You got to have faith in yourself, even if you’re not sure how you’re going to get to that scene, or the one after it.
  • I want the feedback, but gamers don't know what they want until we see it. Until people don't experience the game, they tend to want the thing they've seen before (customers are like this everywhere, I guess)

Planning and execution

  • Coming up with a great game idea is very small piece of the process, execution is key.
  • The whole game story (sometimes up to 20 hours) is in your head, you cannot plan anything that large in details. (No big design up front)
  • The process includes inventing and adaption. It’s “experimentation engineering”.  The story creation process is iterative, adapting the story and figuring the game mechanics  over time. The whole story forms very late. There’s no point in putting a milestone of "story complete" on the Gantt chart.
  • You’re in production from day one until the end. The team cannot wait for “the plan”, otherwise you burn salaries and moral sinks.
  • I never write anything unless it's going in the game. I don’t write backstories. (read: documentation).

When I asked why agile evolved in software, Lior Friedman answered “Pain”. But if we look at this example, the pain exists not just in our field. And the people developed their own flavor of agile (or “nimble”) for their pain.

I’m still holding my verdict until I find out what the accountants do.

Or until I find out they are immune to pain.

Why Did Agile Originate In Software?

I was reading Lior Friedman’s post about the agile research. He raises an interesting question:

Why are agile studies coming from the exact science fields? After all, we don’t see groups of accountants doing a stand-up meeting every morning.

The easy answer of course, that’s where they practiced mostly. We tend to look under the flashlight. But the more important question is what chain of events brought us to this point? Even Forbes says the next management revolution is coming from software.

Why didn’t it come from sociology? The study of how groups of people behave should have predicted how agile practices benefit the organization. However, sociologists and organizations don’t see eye-to-eye. After all, who are these socio-geeks to tell us how to run our organization? Sociologists usually don’t have access to teams inside organizations, where they can study their behavior. And therefore they did not observe and studied and produced reports.  Psychology had the same fate.

Management studies? We’d expect it to come from there, right? The problem with management is that it has become such a low risk-taking occupation. Managers are afraid to take risks in the form of organization change. So, if it’s not done, why teach it?

By the way: MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. With a name carrying so much “tradition” would you expect otherwise?

Let’s move closer to exact-science land. I would expect agile practices to emerge from industrial process engineering. This is the science of improving processes.  Lean practices have evolved from production and manufacturing. But in Toyota they got something right, that wasn’t discussed in the university: The human worker. So process engineering left out the most important thing that agile recognized: The human element. Turns out, without it, life becomes simpler. Well, academic life.

The fact that we have agile today can be a miracle.

So why did it appear in software, of all places?

Here’s my guess: Software is such a huge field. You need to recognize the fact that you can’t know everything about it. Not to mention, keep up with all the new stuff.

Accepting that makes you humble and eager to try and learn new stuff. Then you feel human, and think about other humans in that respect, not as resources. When that door opened, now we could think about new ways of organizing people, focusing on tasks and showing results.

What do you think? How come we’re lucky to be the first citizens in agile-land?

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