Tag Archives: pixar

On Strike Teams, Design Councils, and Braintrusts

Philip Kollar, Polygon:

Though Blizzard had split into multiple teams working on different games, part of Metzen’s approach to keep the culture together was to ensure that those teams still worked together in some ways. To accomplish this, the developer came up with the idea of “strike teams.”

“A bunch of people who are specifically not on the team for a game, who don’t have any sort of connection to the game, come in and look at your game,” says StarCraft 2 director Dustin Browder. “They go, ‘Wow, that’s dumb! I hate it!’ They’re not nice. We don’t want them to be nice. At some point, these games are going to go into the wild, and you’re going to ask people for real money for them. Strike teams are supposed to come in and go, ‘This is really good! This is really bad! I’m not going to tell you how to fix it, but you’ve got to do something.’ And then they walk off.”

In addition to strike teams, games frequently appear before Blizzard’s “design council,” a gathering of all of the game directors and lead designers throughout the company. Between strike teams and appearances before the design council, one thing regarding Titan became clear: It wasn’t shaping up.

If Blizzard’s cancellation of Titan reminded me of how Pixar handles things, “strike teams” and the “design council” certainly sound like a Pixar Braintrust.

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.:

The Braintrust, which meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making, is our primary delivery system for straight talk. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another. People who would feel obligated to be honest somehow feel freer when asked for their candor; they have a choice about whether to give it, and thus, when they do give it, it tends to be genuine. The Braintrust is one of the most important traditions at Pixar. It’s not foolproof—sometimes its interactions only serve to highlight the difficulties of achieving candor—but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal. The Braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.

In many ways, it is no different than any other group of creative people—within it, you will find humility and ego, openness and generosity. It varies in size and purpose, depending on what it has been called upon to examine. But always, its most essential element is candor. This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea—without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.

I’m sure most successful companies have strike teams/design councils/Braintrusts of their own. It’s just not every day you get to hear about it from the best of the best.

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Sacrifice in the name of quality: Blizzard cancels Titan

Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime, as quoted by Polygon:

It’s always really, really hard to make those kind of decisions. It was hard when we canceled Warcraft Adventures. It was hard when we canceled StarCraft Ghost. But it has always resulted in better-quality work.

I have a new found appreciation for calling it quits on high-stakes, heavily invested projects. Apple, Nintendo, Pixar — companies I deeply admire — share a singular characteristic: Sacrifice in the name of quality. The iPod OS came from Pixo, a company founded by two ex-Apple Newton developers. The history of the Animal Crossing franchise is rooted in the short-lived Nintendo 64DD. Even Pixar knows a thing or two about canceling huge investments.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc., on the cancellation of Newt:

There are some who will read this and conclude that putting this film into production in the first place was a mistake. An untested director, an unfinished script—it’s easy to look back, after the shutdown, and say that those factors alone should have dissuaded us at the outset. But I disagree. While it cost us time and money to pursue, to my mind it was worth the investment. We learned better how to balance new ideas with old ideas, and we learned that we had made a mistake in not getting very explicit buy-in from all of Pixar’s leaders about the nature of what we were trying to do. These are lessons that would serve us very well later as we adopted new software and changed some of our technical processes. While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance. Probably more companies hit the skids for this reason than because they dared to push boundaries and take risks—and, yes, to fail.

To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.

While Titan is (sadly) added to the list of cancelled Blizzard projects (it still pains me to think of StarCraft: Ghost), I commend the company for sacrificing in the name of quality. I have always deeply admired Blizzard.

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Ed Catmull on Icons and Story in Games

I had the fortunate opportunity of seeing Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, DisneyToon Studios, in a moderated conversation today.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked Catmull if there exists a current icon who fills the roll of Walt Disney, a man known as a figure who focused on the impact of technology on human experience and story and delivered his message to the public via TV broadcast. While my head went straight to Neil deGrasse Tyson as a viable figure, Cutmull’s answer was quite interesting.

A bit of Catmull’s reply, paraphrased by yours truly:

You can’t make another Walt or another Steve or another John. I think this is a problem the games industry faces. They make great experiences but have a hard time telling great stories. I think we have yet to see who will make that happen.

He deliberately went out of his way to focus on the games industry. He had also made reference to the games industry earlier in the discussion; however, the context is now escaping me.

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