PMing and Gaming

The thing about being a good project manager is that you know how to design a framework which will allow a project to move from conception to completion efficiently and effectively. In short, an idea becomes a reality.

When I started to work as a project manager, I would never have thought about the possibility that this skill set could be applied to game design and development. Even though my entire career has been built on the idea of developing and maintaining a set of transferable skills, which would allow any idea – whether a film or a school curriculum or an advertising campaign or a singing contest or software deployment or city infrastructure improvement  – to come to fruition, I never considered the way that project management skills would assist in game production.

That’s on me. Because in my mind, games were play and work was not-play.

It turns out that work and play can intersect. Align, even.

This might not necessarily be a skillset which every developer believes is worth an investment. In much the same way that not every writer will choose to invest in an editor’s expertise. And, perhaps for a writer who has a keenly developed editorial eye, an editor’s contribution is not essential for a manuscript’s publication. But for a writer to have not just another set of eyes on their project but a set of eyes with experience in the sector, the rewards are multiplied. A draft is more professional and better prepared to market, so it’s bound and published faster, reaching an audience rather than stuck in a folder unrealised.

In game production, a project manager with experience in the gaming industry and community can shorten your timelines significantly. (Shorter timelines on a successful project mean a shorter wait to recoup your investment. In other words, you see a pay-off sooner.)

An experienced PM will identify risks and pitfalls in advance and arrange the timeline to accommodate solutions. (Anticipating problems rather than reacting to them means you make the deadlines to which you’ve committed. You build your credibility rather than fumble with it.)

A team member with unflagging communication and negotiation skills can help resolve conflicts before projects are derailed and can mitigate even unexpected disruptions before they spiral into unmanageable situations. (Passionate creators can have passionate disagreements, but tact and discretion can keep a project on track: everyone can focus on pitching new work, not pitching a tantrum.)

I’ve never been one for drawing boundaries and borders. I think we create the life we live every day, whether that’s time spent at work or at play. And I’m suspicious of professional organizers who can’t keep their personal appointments, who seem to function adequately in the workplace but can’t schedule their everyday existence. But I didn’t understand how seamlessly my business career could fit with my off-hours passions.

I’ve also enjoyed seeing a project come to fruition, always been excited by a process design which was successful and profitable, but I’m truly passionate about managing game development projects. No more borders: I’m bringing every part of myself to the table now.

The Game I Want to Play

You hear writers talk about it sometimes. About that point at which they stopped being simply readers and recognized that they were readers who also wanted to be writers. Many of them speak of realizing that they wanted to read a particular kind of story that they weren’t finding on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. And a new sense of wanting to create intertwined with that familiar desire to consume.

For me, the idea of not only wanting to play games but also create them was not entirely new.

As a kid, I made up my own card games. Out of boredom as much as it was out of a creative urge. As a teenager, I imagined my own video games. As an adult, in the ad world, I worked on projects revolving around contests and competitions. Occasionally meet-ups with other gamers led to discussion of concepts and possibilities for PC and mobile platforms. Once or twice, these conversations translated into action.

What was new about the idea of designing a tabletop game was a sense of simultaneously being inspired by what was present and what was lacking.

Over the past three years I have logged just under two thousand hours of tabletop gameplay as a casual player. A player with a passion, yes. But a player who had to be skilled at playing grown-up too, with that set of unshakeable responsibilities that claimed the bulk of my waking hours. And, still, a bulging log of gameplay hours.

Building on a history of classic board and card games as a kid, video and RPG experience as a teen and adult, I was adopting a new set of vocabulary, spending evenings and weekends with ‘worker-placement’ and ‘light strategy’ and ‘4X’ entertainments, with family and friends and small groups dedicated to the pastime.

I’ve discovered so many awesome games. So many talented and dedicated designers and creators. If time stopped right now, in the tabletop world, I’d be entertained for the remainder of my days.

Simultaneously, with all these new experiences, I am also keenly aware of having something to contribute myself. Of recognizing where there are possibilities and combinations which have not yet been boxed and sold.

From my experience in the ad world, I know that personnel are often divided into creatives and non-creatives. But in these environments I’ve met many problem-solvers and managers who exhibit creativity in their problem-solving and team management daily: a lot of creative thinking for ‘non-creatives’. And I’ve met a lot of folks working in ‘creative’ departments who are skilled at mimicry and patterning: not much innovation for these ‘creatives’.

Tabletop gaming has corrected my binary thinking. The line between players and creators is blurred. And I’m ready to give back. Ready to work. Ready to put all those games I’ve been playing to work.

Abundance and Possibility

When I was a kid, I always checked out the boardgames in any store. Toy stores, of course. (Although there were plenty of other distractions there too, but we weren’t at toy stores very often to begin with.) But even, say, at Canadian Tire stores.

“More than just tires” as the saying goes. Which is only a saying for a certain clientele, to start with. A certain kind of clientele that probably called it ‘Crappy Tire’ not ‘Canadian Tire’ too. Anyhoo. (Clientele that use the word ‘anyhoo’ also.)

Especially around the holidays, there was always an aisle of games and toys at Canadian Tire. They weren’t necessarily all that desirable (but more so, certainly, than tires or air freshener, garden hoses or TV trays).

There were boxes of checkers and chess sets with plastic pieces (sometimes, too, fancier sets, but never as fancy as the sets for sale in stores like “Den for Men”). And there were some other games too, more interesting games. Maybe not a lot of them, but something to look at.

So, maybe it started there. Because now, no matter what mood I’m in, but especially when I’m not in a great mood, I love to browse games. Not on my phone, not on the computer –    Okay, that’s not true, any kind of browsing for games is fun. But virtual game browsing is second-best: nothing compares to being in an actual store, picking up the game boxes and turning them over in my hands, reading the sides and backs of packaging, picturing the boxes on my shelves at home, imagining them nestled in with my well-loved favourites.

For a lot of people, I know the pleasure is inherently connected with the idea of (and the reality of) collecting. But my browsing expeditions have a special quality which I have discovered is separate from the idea of collection-building. (I do my share of that too.)

It’s partly to do with a sense of belonging. Even when I was a kid, back to browsing those Canadian Tire shelves, I felt like there was a space for me in that store. My parents or grandparents were buying car wax or fasteners, and basically the entire store was built around the things that they wanted to (or needed to) buy. But I had a section too.

Now, in a boardgame store, the entire store feels like it’s a place for me, a place where I fit. (Were I to bring an older family member here, they would probably hover in the doorway.)

But it’s not just that. It’s a sense of there being more ways to have fun than I could possibly experience. A sense of fun on every shelf in every aisle. From front-to-back, from top-to-bottom: a sense of seemingly endless possibility.

My kind of place. No more than just games.

Three and Twenty

Shortly after I began to realise just how much the world of games had changed since I was a kid, I recognized that feeling I used to get when a new console appeared in the arcade, a simmering but non-specific excitement and anticipation.

I didn’t necessarily know anything about that new game, but I had fun playing on the machine next to it and this new one might be that much fun too. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. It was simply the idea of ‘more fun’.

The idea of board games being something worth knowing, worth exploring was still new to me, even five years ago. By then, I had started collecting new family games sold in independent toy shops in Toronto and our family collectively and immediately stopped playing almost all of the classic games that we had been playing.

“Bonkers” and “Horse-o-poly” had been tiresome; keeping moose out of houses and memorizing food-chain order was much more entertaining. It was still a parenting pursuit, however, not a personal passion. When I was a kid, I played games with my family; playing games was something I naturally did as a father.

Soon, family events became an excuse to gather at the board game café and we tried something new each time, each game more fun than the last. But board game cafes were not common and their retail stock was limited; not one of the games we played was simultaneously available for purchase. Subsequently, when we returned, stock had either been replenished and sold out again or I had forgotten the name of the games we had enjoyed.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I passed a new board game café and was inspired to browse their stock to see if I could recognize any of the family games we had played, thinking about the holidays approaching, about the hours in pyjamas and cozy socks that could be filled with games.

By now I knew what I didn’t want (any game that I remembered playing as a child, despite their having been reissued to match current taste in television shows or fresher colour palettes). But I still didn’t know what I did want.

Which is how I made a truly ridiculous decision, based on my newbie experience level; buying the boardgame “Munchkin Quest” seemed like a “fun” thing to do. Despite the playtime on the box of 3 hours and the mention of a 20-page instruction book in the list of box contents.

If you’re new to boardgames, I recommend a 4-6 page instruction booklet and a 30-45 minute playtime. But, as it turns out, Munchkin Quest is a tonne of fun and it’s still a favourite on the holidays. And what can I say: I was an ambitious and enthusiastic newbie.

 

After Scrabble and Monopoly

The conversation begins out of small-talk. Someone in the workplace asks what I did the night before or over a weekend. That kind of thing. Ordinary chat.

It’s a version of “what do you like to do for fun?” You know the question. And, I can’t help but feel like, after a few years of knowing the answer, that I should have perfected the response.

But, no. Instead, I find myself fielding the same awkwardness every time. And my attempts to change the trajectory of the misunderstanding have been ineffective. I inject more enthusiasm in my reply (as if sheer energy can catapult me across the misconception). I pad the answer with details (details which mean absolutely nothing to the listener because were it otherwise I wouldn’t be feeling awkward to start with).

Because when I say ‘boardgames’ to someone, chances are that the words ‘Scrabble’ and ‘Monopoly’ are going to be a part of their response to me.

And somehow I have to explain that I haven’t willingly played either since I was about twelve years old without sounding disparaging. Because usually they have begun their reply by attempting to connect something they enjoy with this activity I have named.

Telling me that you love Scrabble has as much to do with the boardgame world I know and love as telling a videogamer that you love Space Invaders. Yes, two boardgames and two videogames: two different generations. If you were to offer a ten-year-old kid today a game of Pong (which I loved, like every other kid in the ‘70s) they would not see any relationship to the latest release of Fallout or Grand Theft Auto.

Opting for the word ‘tabletop’ over ‘boardgames’ seems like a place to start, but, no. If someone knows what that means, they are not likely to use the word ‘Scrabble’ in their reply anyway. That just leads to an ever greater sense of unfamiliarity and swerves toward some vague idea of wargames or RPGs. No place to connect there either.

And even though some of the games I enjoy, like Clank! and Mystic Vale, are technically card games, saying ‘card games’ can lead to talk of Euchre and Go Fish, which feels almost as far away as Scrabble and Monopoly from what I was trying to describe to begin with.

I do remember what it was like to discover how much the world of board games had changed, since my Scrabble-and-Monopoly-playing days. But trying to find a way to sum up that changing landscape when you’re having an around-the-water-cooler conversation is harder than it seems.

Thirty-One

Growing up, my family wasn’t the sort that bought the kids sets of workbooks and flashcards to study in the summer. When there was stuff to be done, the kids in the family shadowed the adults; from the youngest age, each kid had their own chores and we learned by working alongside, cooking and setting snares, sewing and building fires, chopping wood and feeding the animals. But when the work was done, we played.

A deck of cards was at the heart of our games. My grandmother loved cribbage most, and I played countless games with her, but when there were more than two people to play she opted for Hearts. My grandfather and I played Thirty-One and I have memories of our spending hours at the game. When extended family visited, we unfolded the Rummoli board and played for chips until the kids were sent to bed and the coins came out.

Of course we kids were learning plenty and developing skills while we were playing cards. The things you would expect and maybe some things you wouldn’t. Mathematics was key; if you couldn’t keep track, you couldn’t play. Social skills were necessary in any game with bidding and trumping. Deduction was crucial for strategy.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned throughout the course of all those games was about being a loser. Nobody in my family simply allowed a kid to win. The adults who played with us were interested in teaching us how to play, in watching us improve, in participating in our quest to participate equally. They were waiting for us to gain the knowledge and skill and experience which would allow us to win.

In the meantime, I got good at losing. (For a short interval, I was also good at whining and bemoaning my plight. That left me alone with my deck of cards. And I was never much for solitaire.)

If my choice was between playing and losing or not playing, I was bent on playing (and, hence, losing). For some time, I believed it would be impossible to win against anyone in my family, all older than I. So choosing to play and lose was not in an effort to become a player who could play and win; it was simply the choice to play.

Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand, sometimes you make an error in judgement, sometimes you have all the aces and the game ends before you can lay them down: if you don’t know how to lose, winning is not as sweet.