Tobias Dahl is lead animator at Dice and read The Medici Effect about a year ago. Since he works in a typically creative field it was easy for him to link the examples in the book to his job. One thing that struck him was that the concept of mixed teams had the potential of improving innovation in their own studio; closer interaction between professionals from different fields simply made a lot of sense. At least it was worth trying.
At Dice (EA Digital Illusions CE), most well-known for the Battlefield series, innovation is an absolute necessity. “The success of this company is built on its IP and if we are not constantly creative we will not survive in this business” says Tobias. Therefore it is natural for them to try different methods that stimulate ideas and when he suggested a change that he thought would heighten creativity he was immediately allowed to implement it.
In the original organization the animators and the programmers were sitting apart and handed each other specifications and requests via e-mail or sheets of paper. It worked just fine. But what would happen, he thought, if they were forced to work closely together?
His team had started working on a game called Mirror’s Edge when he put the programmers and the animators in the same room. Right next to each other. Not unproblematic. “To some extent a mix of animators and programmers will be a mix of artists and engineers and for a while I thought that the friction would put an end to this experiment.” Tobias says. However, as time went by the close collaboration between these two groups turned out to be extremely fruitful and quite soon the conflicts were just a minor problem. The advantages became too obvious for people to want to go back to the way they had worked before.
The difference is that now the animators can tell the programmers directly what they need and show them why. The programmers, in their turn, can explain why they can’t do certain things but also what they can do instead. “The fact that they get a thorough understanding of each other’s working processes makes things a lot easier”, says Tobias. The possibilities and the limitations of the two respective fields are now known to everyone and we solve problems not only at meetings but throughout the process in constant dialogue and cooperation. All this has had tremendous impact on the innovative performance of the team - the atmosphere has become highly creative. It is not like we are doing crazy things like playing with Lego to produce unexpected ideas - we are, after all, Swedish – but the ability to generate many ideas and higher quality ideas has increased dramatically.
This has given the team confidence. The phrase “How hard can it be” has become a mantra with which they attack problems and challenges that arise. For instance, the project has required many advanced technical solutions that simply didn’t exist before and had to be created from scratch. Sometimes it seemed impossible but with input from the animators the programmers did it. “These processes helped us achieve truly new and original things in movement and animation which are the most important parts of Mirror’s Edge and we are sure that is what will set it apart from other games.” Tobias even believes it has the capacity to break the stagnation that has prevailed in game design for years. “Whatever people will think about it they are going to have to admit that it is unlike anything else. I am convinced that the mix of people has been instrumental for our ability to generate and develop these groundbreaking ideas”.
Considering the advantages that were gained it is interesting that there were no costs involved. “All we needed was a room. And then, after a while, a bigger room when more people wanted to join the team that seemed to have such a flow”. He hopes that they will be able to work in the same way on new projects and he thinks that other teams will follow.
After this glimpse behind the scenes it will be interesting see how Mirror’s Edge is received when it is released next year. I will surely find reasons to revisit the team at Dice before that, however, and report about it here.