Studio W01 – Feedback and other core mechanics

A busy week and no signs of slowing down. As promised this week we’ll look at rituals, brainstorming, pitching, feedback mechanisms and a quick look at the response to studio orientation.

Orientation

Many of my students are already familiar with a lot of the basics and processes we will use in studio as they have been integrated into Production 1 and other previous trimester units. Specifically they already knew what KPIs were, and that we would use Google Drive for all work (WIP and final).

They had heard about LOs/Baseline but not really understood; they saw them as 23 (your number may vary) assessments that must be completed, this is entirely wrong. They are a minimum threshold of quantity and quality that must be met in a wide range of areas, they must be met before the end of trimester to be eligible for a higher grade than a pass concede but they are not themselves tasks or assignments. They can be met at any time and in any order, they just need to be observed by facilitator and evidenced by the student.

The idea that almost everything is group work but all marked individually had to be explained many times in different ways. The project may fail or do poorly, in many respects this does not matter, what does matter is the work that went into it. “How will you know what belongs to who” came up, we explained that Google Drive has track changes. We also keep track of what each person is working on in class, via their project management, task reporting and them posting evidence on their personal blog.

Holistic assessment for final grade seemed to daze them at first. Explaining what an HD required cleared this up. We discuss this topic in more detail at a later date on this blog.

We got all their blog addresses shared among them and gave them all their own Google Drive folder shared from us. We are the owner of all Google Drive folders and can see everything they are adding and working on.


Rituals

These will be an ongoing topic throughout the blog series, this week we’ve used;

  • Openers/Stand ups
    • Normally done only on the first session of the week, it’s a chance to identify any problems that have occurred between classes, and anything ahead or behind of schedule.
    • We also open this up to talk about what has been happening in industry recently, this could be a release or an interview or a company opening/closing, tech announced etc.
  • Close outs
    • The opposite of Openers, normally done at the end of the last session of the week
    • What is everyone working on between now and next session
    • Is there already something that they have realised they need help with or would like more info about need week
    • What are they blogging about this week, sometimes we assign them (more on this in week 2), sometimes they have to nominate something
  • Class room behaviour
    • Facilitators wear many hats, we are mentor, teacher, team lead, co-worker, producer, executive producer.
    • If anyone says a word or uses a phrase or we’re in a context you don’t understand you MUST let us know. It’s OK to not understand something, you’re here to learn, that’s kinda the point. What isn’t OK is to say nothing and reveal that you’ve been lost and doing nothing for weeks.

Feedback Mechanisms

We want to promote feedback from and to all involved. For pitches and presentations of any kind, we follow the following stages:

Clarifying 

A short question that has a short answer. Yes/No questions for sure. It is also intended to get small bits of information that were missed or needed a tiny bit more than was given during the presentation. The response should never be more than 1 short sentence. These are to fill in gaps of understanding that are missing in the person who listened to the presentation. If the answer is unknown that is fine, a simple, ‘I don’t know yet’ is fine, do NOT design on the spot. Similarly if you have an answer but it requires lots of explaining then note it down. This means the presentation needs work, the way that you explain the thing isn’t quite there yet, but you’ll get there next time. This section is purely about providing information to the questioner if it exists, if it does not exist then simply state that it not known yet. It is not a section for defending your current decision or explaining your process.

Probing

During presentations we write these down, these are deep questions that seek to prompt new thoughts or deeper understandings in a certain area.

Often during a presentation you have an idea pop into your head that you want to tell the presenter, so they can incorporate it. That’s good, it’s better than you tuning out. However, If you say ‘Hey, your game needs a double jump’, then it is easy for them to either dismiss it or take it on board without really considering it. That’s not how we make the concept stronger, especially when the 20 people in the room all want to add something. So instead you need to figure out why your brain said ‘it needs a double jump’, maybe you were thinking about the level layout they proposed and thought it could make more use of the height given the current proposed camera position. So you would write down a probing question about camera location as it relates to vertical movement or ‘how important is verticality to your game?’

I tend to think about probing questions as adding new nodes to the presenters mind map, it gives them a new thing to build off of and cross link with their existing ideas, both the ones they’ve put in the concept presented and the ones they’ve ruled out or not used yet. You need to be aware that you aren’t simply giving the presenter advice in disguise, don’t try to trick them into embedding your idea, that’s not what we want here.

Warm

Specific things about the concept, or whatever it was that was presented, that you liked. These are things that you are basically voting to stay in the concept. Could be things that you feel work well or suit or speak to you personally. The important part here is we want the why behind the positives;

  • so they can be considered in future projects
  • it can be reinforced for the presenter
  • all in attendance why that part works for you
  • it may not be for the reasons they intended, they may not have intended it at all.

Further, if it does turn out that the thing you like or something connected to it does need to change the reasoning behind it can be considered and hopefully integrated in some other way. These are normally a short 1 or 2 sentences. Make sure you don’t start telling the presenter what to do with it, at least not yet, just specifically what is it and why it works. 

We don’t tend to allow the presenter to respond during warm feedback, merely absorb and make notes.

Cool

This is the opposite of warm in that it should be specific things that:

  • you don’t feel sit right
  • are poor
  • need more attention or perhaps need to be dropped entirely.
  • Things that don’t mesh or seem irrelevant.

This will also include things that are entirely necessary but aren’t there yet, they need more attention in the next draft. Specifically what isn’t where it should be and why. It may not be that it needs to be changed or removed at all, but giving the feedback can allow the presenter to see they need to change the way they explain the thing, rather than need to change it.

We don’t tend to allow the presenter to respond during cool feedback, merely absorb and make notes. Even if there is cool feedback that is due to a misunderstanding they need to know that and acknowledge it, not fight the person giving the feedback. We’ve found that allowing the presenter to defend against cool feedback gives the wrong impression. It leads less people to want to give the feedback because they think they might be in for a fight. It also makes the presenter brush off the feedback if, in their mind they can argue for why it doesn’t matter.


Brainstorming

The conception phase doesn’t have any explicit LOs assigned to it but it is implicit in the process. You need ideas, lots of them and then you work them. Pull them apart put them back together in new ways, pitch concepts to others and use the feedback mechanisms. The intent is to get to a best/better version of the idea and to try to find the obvious realisations as soon as possible, rather than making it because you need to make something.

We recommend mind maps, word associations, and solo and group brainstorming. We also recommend separating pure generation of ideas/concepts/sub parts from determining if they are feasible, cohesive or any good at all in the first place. We don’t want to kill off a line of thought just because at that moment it seems like it doesn’t match the other ideas on the page. The things that spring from that idea might match or its siblings, further, the core idea may shift over time such that it ends up matching. We call these 2 phases expansion and contraction.

Contraction is where you start trying to join different parts of the mind map together to form a cohesive idea, it’s where you can start ruling things out for not fitting or being too large in scope for the time permitted. It is also where you start to see a version 2 list forming, this is a list of all the cool ideas that you wish you could implement but cannot due to time or cost or non-matching, etc.


Pitch limits

Pitching is a tough thing to do and very easy to do poorly. Aside from the limits there are a few pointers;

  • don’t be a snake oil salesman
  • don’t just read a prepared speech
  • be excited; if you aren’t excited about the concept then why should anyone else be.

We put limits on how pitches can be done to avoid some of the more obvious short falls.

  • Time limits
    • You can’t waffle on about every little detail you’ve constructed for your world lore in your Tetris clone in 3 minutes so you need to figure out what is core to your concept and how best to deliver it.
    • This also helps with concepting, if you can’t narrow the core down to a clear few minutes then it needs more time to bake; maybe you don’t know what the core actually is yet.
  • No text on slides, only a title
    • It’s too easy to put your dot point talking notes or entire paragraphs on a slide, this is terrible, it’s not a presentation anymore it’s a pamphlet that is in the wrong medium, it creates a disconnect between speaker and audience and is more often than not boring as you read faster than they speak.
    • Images, graphs, diagrams etc. to support or illustrate talking points are far more engaging (multimodal).
  • Limited number of slides
    • Further assists in cutting down on chaff.

 

Next week monitoring student progress, play testing, blogs and brief 2.

Studio W00 – Briefs and Processes Matter

In this blog series we’ll be discussing the studio units I run at SAE. Discussion will include:

  • interpretations
  • planning and executing
  • tips and tricks
  • anything else that comes up.

The plan is for a blog to go up each week. At times it may seem a bit cagey; as this is public and available to students I don’t want to spoil any of their surprises.

Let’s dive in.

At this point in time, the big milestones locked are in, we know:

  • when projects start and end
  • when they require testing, and
  • when they will have design interventions, etc.

Project structure

The Basic structure of any non trivial project we do, is:

  • Brief
    • Creative limitations and timelines
  • Primer
    • Class discussion planned around the key topics we expect them to tackle with the brief
  • Groups
    • If it’s group work we assign them into groups in accordance with our policy
  • Brainstorm
    • Fairly unstructured, beyond, there should be two phases
      • Expansion; get all ideas out of your head and onto the page. Doesn’t matter if they seem good or not, or too big or whatever, we want it all. Mind maps recommended
      • Contraction; which things mesh together which don’t which, which make sense, which are out of scope but what’s cool about them?
  • Concepting
    • These should be rough. The type will be dependent on the discipline, but might be:
      • Sketches
      • Thumbnails
      • Storyboards
      • Mock-ups
      • Rough high concept doc
  • Pitch
    • Feedback
  • Refine, take the feedback and use it to polish, add to and remove from the concept
  • Plan
    • HCD, GDD, TDD, Task Breakdown and schedule, Questionnaire, etc.
  • Design Intervention
    • Why have you done things the way you have, are they the best ways, the only ways?
  • Create
  • Playtest, getting the first complete draft of the thing in front of people who aren’t creating it and who aren’t already intimately aware of it’s development.
    • Questionnaires answered
  • Pivot
    • What is working, what isn’t, what is the project actually about now that it’s met the public, what can we cut?
  • Update Plan
  • Create
  • Present
    • Noting changes, probably with more playtesting to confirm their effects.
  • Wrap
  • Post-mortem

Project Briefs

Briefs are a tricky beast, they define the limits of what a project can become but not what it actually is. The team will determine what exactly the thing is. The creative limitations serve as the beginning of the mind map. The limits need enough ‘air’ in them so that teams don’t all end up in exactly the same place but not so much ‘air’ that the team spends time searching for the ‘right’ concept. We want teams to have individual ownership of the thing, to feel that their’s is a unique endeavour. There should not be an obvious ‘answer’. The brief should provide a challenge to be overcome by the team or the individual (humans naturally enjoy this), it’s a key part of why the projects succeed.

Elements of a brief:

  • Goal
  • Creative Limits
    • Could be limits in terms of time, style/genre, technology used, group size. It could even specify what part of the deliverable is, a mechanic or asset or scene. Eg. A 3d game, where no player or NPC can be injured or hurt. It must be set in an interior environment and use a third person camera set up. You can find more, simplified versions of previous briefs by checking the briefs section here.
  • Deliverables
  • Milestones

Shared learning experiences

The other big win for all the projects being different but also the same, is they can share the learning experiences that are all slightly different and with different areas of specific interest. It also allows for cross-pollination but doesn’t end up with all the projects homogenising. Here’s an example of our first brief.

We’ve also got a pretty good idea of what the 2 other briefs for the unit will be, to the same amount of detail as brief 1 but those will have to stay secret for now.

Orienting students to the Studio Model

Orienting students to the potentially vastly different environment of studio is part of what happens in week 1. We have to talk through a bunch of big things:

Students are far more responsible for their learning than ever before. Explain the following things:

  • We’re here to facilitate, we create the environment,the support and assistance so they can learn, but ultimately it’s far more up to them. We are not going to tell them facts and expect them to be repeated to us in a few weeks time.
  • We let them now that it’s okay to not know the answer to things, that’s kinda the whole point of education. If they don’t know a word or phrase or the context, they have to say something. If they stay silent then we assume they’ve got it and will move on to the next thing.
  • We do a LOT of things flipped, we want to spend time figuring out how to use things effectively and creatively not get stuck on basic concepts. We let them know that we expect them to do lots of basic knowledge research outside of class.

Explain how projects work:

  • They start from day 1, the structure isn’t learn a bunch of stuff then try to use it later in a project. We will be asking them to do and make things that are beyond their current skill.
  • Everything is marked individually though, it doesn’t matter how good the thing is at the end, it matters far more what they contributed to it and what they learned in the process.
  • They will exhibit to the public, in one if not many ways during and at the end of trimester.
    • For this unit, this also means play-testing each project, usually multiple times.

How grading works

  • Learning Outcomes are what they need to get, they describe the quantity and quality of a skill or aspect required by the unit. They can be met at any point, we need to see it, on the public facing blog.
  • We talk to them briefly about KPIs, hopefully these are being renamed soon. Basically it’s a collection of soft, hirability skills that we want students to be aware of and actively improve upon over the course of their degree.
    • We flag that they need to read these carefully and that there will be more info about the process in week 5.
  • Holisitc and final grade, is based on how far above the minimum amount of work in both quantity and quality over the trimester.
    • If all they’ve done is just met the baseline descriptors (not succeeded or tried to exceed them), done no extra work/projects, made no effort to do so and have not started executing a plan to improve soft skills then they will not get better than a Pass for the unit.

So the overall structure of Studio 1 is well understood by us at this point, has enough flexibility for us to move things around to suit the cohort and fit in structured content if needed. Students have a very clear picture of what the immediate schedule is for the current project. Beyond that they know that there about big things, like when projects are intended to start and end, but these are intentionally vague so there is slack built into the schedule.

Our projects

Project 1 is solo and only 1 week long, it’s a good framing device for acclimatising students to what studio workload is like. The content of the unit itself and gives them a chance to make a decent chunk of progress on a wide variety of LOs (Learning Outcomes). This also assists us with determining groups for the upcoming group projects, so we can take into account students strengths, preferences, existing relationships and areas of interest.

Project 2 will focus on dynamics will be in groups, last for 4-5 weeks with play testing in the middle. Project 3 the same but focus on aesthetics.

What’s next?

Next week we’ll talk about rituals, pitches, feedback mechanisms, brainstorming, and probably more.