Auteurs Versus Teams

Having just taken pot shots at the notion of Hollywood envy, I’d now like to reverse direction and take advantage of an issue that Hollywood has struggled with. It might roughly be described under the phrase "auteur theory", a French notion concerned with the nature of the creative process in filmmaking. Movies are made by studios, and this leads to the question, "Who creates movies?" Who provides the artistic heart and soul of a movie?

Quite a few creative talents contribute to the overall product. The actors, of course, present us with obvious focal points for the artistic effort. But there’s also the director; we all know that such great directors as Chaplin, Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola were the real moving forces behind their films. And who can deny the artistic contribution of the editors, the cinematographers, and the sound people?

There are two basic models here: the team model and the auteur model. In the team model, the movie is the creation of a team of highly talented individuals. One person perhaps the director, perhaps the producer may be responsible for holding the team together, but the real goal is to optimize the creative output of many people. The most important job is that of team leader, and the team leader’s task is to motivate and energize all those creative people.

The other model is the auteur model. It postulates that any truly creative effort must be the child of a single creative force. No committee (team) can ever hope to rival the output of a talented individual. Accordingly, in this model, the director is held to be the creative force behind the movie and all the other creative talents exist solely to assist the director’s efforts.

The essential difference between the auteur model and the team model is the egalitarianism of each approach. The auteur model is autocratic in style, where the team model is more egalitarian. However, these are not absolutes; the auteur can still value highly the talents of his/her underling and the team can still have a leader.

At this point I’d like to widen the scope of this discussion, to move away from cinema and examine how other fields cope with similar problems. One such field is programming. I refer you to Frederick Brooks’ excellent book, The Mythical Man-Month. Brooks was the project leader for a huge operating system project for IBM, a project that very nearly collapsed under its own weight. Brooks’ conclusion was that his approach was fundamentally flawed. Good programming does not come from big teams. Good programming is necessarily the output of a few talented individuals. He reconciled this truth with the demand for large amounts of software by recommending a "surgical team" approach to programming. Each software project should have a single highly talented programmer in charge of the overall effort, writing much of the software directly, while other specialists assist the lead programmer. However, the surgical team concept has not caught on among programmers.

This directly leads us to the real surgical team itself. Note that a surgical team operates under the dictatorial control of the lead surgeon. There are other doctors and specialists present, but the heavy responsibilities of surgery have led doctors to evolve a functional model very close to the auteur model.

The most extreme example of the auteur model is writing. Writers are individuals; literature is never written by teams. Occasionally we see collaborative efforts between authors, but these are experiments, deviations from the norm. Even today, in this huge, bureaucratic world with millions of dollars hanging on hitting the best-seller list, nobody has come up with an effective team model for writing. It remains a bastion of the auteur model.

Well, then, where does the team model work well? The best example is a sports team, which divides up the labor and gives each player a certain amount of independence on the field. The team players still answer to their captain, but in the rough-and-tumble of actual play, each one exercises great autonomy.

An example that will surely surprise you is the organization of a military unit. Many civilians think of military organizations as the antithesis of egalitarianism, but in fact military efficiency demands not just freedom but even initiative from the individual. The best example of this comes from, believe it or not, the Wehrmacht of World War II, which placed great emphasis on individual initiative and rapidly promoted men who could handle such responsibility.

There are some patterns here. It would seem that there are a variety of factors that push us one way or the other. Thus, where individuals are expected to operate in greater isolation (such as on the playing field or the battlefield), we need to give them more freedom to operate, and this argues for the team approach. Similarly, where events unfold quickly and fast response is critical, we again see stronger reasons for the team approach. On the other hand, situations demanding great judgement and expertise (e.g., surgery) call for the auteur model.

What does this suggest about game design? Will (should) game design be more of a team effort or will it work best in a more centralized, auteurial model? Let’s apply the three rules I derived above:

First, to what extent must the members of a game design group operate in isolation from each other? Answer: very little indeed. The only argument for isolation is the cost of communications overhead. It’s nice to separate them, so they don’t waste their lives in endless meetings but it’s not necessary.

Second, to what extent is game design a high-speed task requiring lightning-fast response to changing circumstances? Answer: again, very little. Game design projects stretch over many months and there is always time to correct a problem before you ship product.

Third, to what extent does game design demand great judgement and expertise? I would answer, to a very great extent. Game design is hard, and few people have the experience to do it well.

The answers to these three questions suggest that game design is best carried out in a more auteurial atmosphere. Here we encounter an apparent dilemma. Most programmers have strong egalitarian tendencies; they resent centralized control. How can we reconcile the egalitarianism of the programmer with the auteurial requirements of game design?

I think that the answer lies in the changing nature of our profession. Let’s face it, microcomputer programmers have always been loners and have glorified the loner lifestyle. But as our projects have grown larger, more and more people have gotten sucked into them. We’ve gotten more crowded, and when you’re crowded, you need somebody to keep everyone off each other’s toes. Strict egalitarianism works well in the Wild West, where individuals are miles apart. In the crowded cities, it’s not so good a fit. As game design becomes less and less like the Wild West and more and more like the crowded cities, expect the historical egalitarianism of programmers to be edged aside for more pragmatic styles.