Op-ed: Critical Mass

The complex interplay between talent, environment, common vision, and synergy means lasting creative communities don’t come together very often. In the 1500s, Europe experienced a renaissance; in the late 19th century, mathematics and science exploded. Today, we’re watching telecommunications change how we live, work, and relate.

Creating conditions in which developers flourish does not represent an elusive, foolhardy quest leading to certain doom. Teamwork is no trove of secrets. It is not magic.

Creativity presents itself to open minds when circumstances require it, and this isn’t some New Age biz; with long winters, an educated populace, and high levels of access to technology, Fargo is becoming the jewel at the edge of the plains. It’s about like-minded people working together. It’s about narratives that blow people’s minds.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this list of start-ups.

It takes a village.

The San Francisco Bay Area has less than 1,000,000 people yet tops the list of U.S. metropolitan areas when it comes to areas hosting companies developing videogames (with more than 100 studios; check out gamejobhunter.com). That’s way more than New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago.

I reiterate: land is cheap in North Dakota, and the relative level of education is high. Just saying.

Let’s think for a moment on the roles within teams. Some people become moles, digging deeply into problems and with extremely developed skill sets in specific areas. Conversely, other folks come to a team with a spectrum of abilities, none of which involve focused levels of mastery, like foxes skimming the surface of a prairie. For projects to get off the ground, the foxes and the moles have to connect, to have enough common goals and contributions to make the effort worthwhile.

If we can think of project managers as prairie dogs (to extend the animal metaphor), progress comes with the ability to unite both a wide range of skill sets and deep problem solving, because games present challenges that require novel solutions.  While some indie games come about as the result of one or two dedicated people, most involve separate roles in coding, asset creation, design, writing, and so on, and direction by team members capable of understanding both the range of tasks a game requires and the nuances of the different roles becomes necessary in translating and unifying efforts.

A cursory look at the team members necessary for development includes designers, artists, programmers, level designers, sound engineers, and testers, not to mention sales and marketing folks.

As systems gain complexity and scope, they require energy to maintain the additional infrastructure. It’s easy to communicate when one person does everything, but working with three or four people means everyone has to dedicate time to the (often deceptively simple) task of knowing what everyone else is up to.

Remember how working in groups in middle school always failed?

Now try it with something harder than a report on your favorite U.S. state.

Still, with MSUM, NDSU, Concordia, and M State (to name a few) within 10 miles of each other, the gamer and dev communities continue to grow.

Basic questions come to mind:

What’s it going to take for Fargo to reach critical mass?

How long until the local indie game community becomes a self-sustaining network of start-ups supporting one another by consistently producing quality games and working together?

What kinds of projects are ideal for teaching teams to learn and grow?

How can we remove any obstacles to progress?  What are some good ways to organize?

To what extent is the ball already rolling?

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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