Idioms of Collaboration

Kithia Verdon:

I’m currently involved in a game design collaboration with two dear friends of mine. This is a fantastic thing! I frequently feel the longing to team up with someone on a creative endeavor, yearning back to the glory days of collaborative writing on AOL’s Interactive Fiction forums or my own Galaxy Corps forum. It’s great to have the chance to do something along those lines again.

I’m grappling with a bit of culture shock, though. My approach to collaboration, my very mental model of what collaboration is, doesn’t quite click with the way the other two-thirds of the operation think about things. Creative differences, amirite? It’s not an insurmountable thing; it’s not going to doom the project or force me to drop out. But it does lead to weird moments of dissonance, a Twilight Zone episode about game design.

The short version: I want to go all scrummy with it, taking each other’s material and editing at will, tinkering and exchanging ideas uninhibited. The rest of the crew tends to more a sense of ownership, where if you make a thing, the others need to ask permission before adding to or changing it.

To an extent I can understand the feeling. I used to be that way about my writing; back in the Galaxy Corps days I remember quashing a couple of proposed plot threads because they interfered with my vision for the story as a whole. Today I regret that, and think the project suffered for it. As you might surmise from my posts on copyright, I’ve grown out of permission culture as a whole. The way I now see it, when I scribble some thought and let it loose in the wild, it’s yours as much as it is mine. You want to repost it and change it to express the exact opposite idea of what I originally wrote? Awesome, that’s some frickin’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coolness there. You want to put it into a book and sell it for moneys? Sweet, more people get to read a thing I wrote!

I acknowledge of course that this attitude doesn’t work well at all stages of a creative project. If we were in the home stretch, heavily playtested, the text polished and copy-edited (especially if laid out), tearing out or fiddling with things sans careful change control would be a sure-fire way to block your project from ever going out the door. But right now, when we’re still revising core ideas about the game…

It’s like this. I picture this phase of creative collaboration like people sitting around a sandbox full of wet clay. Each person’s sculpting as the feeling strikes them, looking at what the others are doing and taking inspiration from it, working together to make a whole cityscape. Sometimes somebody stops by to add water to the mixture to keep things from drying out, and you have to deal with the fact that can mess with your nascent sculpture in the process. And sometimes you look across at your neighbor’s thing and go, “ooh, what if you added something like this here?” and just tack on a gob of clay as a balcony or spire or whatever to their structure. Maybe their eyes light up and they go “Yeah!” Maybe they make a face and take your addition back off, saying “eh, I don’t think so,” and have to repair the damage, but it’s all part of the fun.

Whereas the hands-off perspective feels to me like making a jigsaw puzzle all backward. Instead of painting the picture and then carving it up, you cut a blank board into pieces, hand them to different people, and start painting on the individual bits, maintaining a careful dialogue along the way where you try to make sure each person’s bits are going to line up correctly with the rest when it all comes back together. Exhausting!

It’ll turn out all right in the end, I’m sure. But along the way, I have to keep reminding myself what world I’m in. “Why don’t I have edit access to this file? Oh, right, that’s NN’s thing.” “Why are we waiting around on this edit we all agreed to? Oh, right, I started this class design so I have to finalize everything.” Tch!

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One thought on “Idioms of Collaboration

  1. Willow says:

    I’m seeing some bottlenecks from me being away, so I’m certainly agreeing with that, so I’m opening up some documents.

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