Late last year, Disney’s UK studio Black Rock downed tools on its scheduled projects for one week, instead starting an ambitious team-building exercise that asked the staff to build minigames in a seriously protracted five-day dev-cycle. We grilled studio head Tony Beckwith about the benefits of the unique event…
Where did the idea for ‘minigame week’ come from?
It was an idea that came from inside the studio, but there’s a similar practice at Pixar, where people make mini movies as a team- building exercise. So we thought it would be great to spend some time making minigames. We realised that we’d really need a whole week if we were going to set people the task of making one game quickly and We had to get permission from the top, though, as it’s a bold move.
And the Disney bosses didn’t mind you all downing tools for a week?
Not at all – they were really supportive. Disney always says innovation is at the heart of the company and they knew that this kind of thing can keep people creative.
How was the idea put into practice?
We split the studio into 17 teams consisting of six to eight people each and mixing people up with those they hadn’t worked with before – different departments, different floor.
We made sure sure that we had two coders, two artists on each time and that the other slots were filled with designers, admin people, directors, our recruiter. And then everyone stopped their duties for one week and were set about making minigames. The Monday morning was fairly chaotic as everyone had to move desks, but everyone had got through that quickly. Afterwards everyone went off site, to the pub, Starbucks, to work on their idea, and got stuck into it from the afternoon.
How did you make sure the teams completed their ideas?
I told all the teams that on the Friday they had to be done through Alpha by 10am, Beta at midday and gold master 1pm ready for a 15 minute presentation to the rest of the company after lunch. We gave out awards, but there was no winner as such because it was a collaborative event and designed to get people thinking creatively as groups rather than compete.
What did you learn from the week?
A lot of companies do teambuilding events, that isn’t new – they’re great for making people bond – but this is much more relevant to our work and industry than sending everyone out into the middle of the woods.
Plus, a lot of the staff ended up working with people they hadn’t worked with before. We’re almost 120 people in size now, and for many there might be people across the office or on another floor they’d never speak to. After the minigame week, friendships and bonds have been made and you’ve got people talking and sharing ideas.
It’s also helped us find leaders we didn’t know existed before. Each team had to choose a team leader – but directors and managers weren’t allowed to take those roles, the leaders had to be those who don’t usually get to lead. So from that we’ve found some leadership talent that’s bubbled up through the process.
And it also reinvigorated people creatively. Change is as good as a rest as they say – and people plugging away at big things like AI systems or physics models were allowed the opportunity to take their mind off it, guilt free, for a week, and just apply their skills to something else.
Were any of the ideas that came out of it usable at all – perhaps you could polish them and release them on Xbox Live Arcade?
That was never a goal – we told people not to try and make a game they had always been planning to make or what have you, because it’s all about fun and there didn’t need to be a commercial output.
That said, we sent all the ideas through to the other studios in the company and there is one Disney project being worked on which contains lots of minigames so who knows one or two might be a good fit for that and get through. Plus, we’re looking at hiding a few of the games in our upcoming projects as Easter Eggs or unlockables.
In a bigger sense across all the studios they all know about minigame week now, and they’re evaluating the possibility of doing it, too.
It took a week out of the studio’s schedule – will you do it again?
Absolutely. We are thinking of making it an annual event for the studio.
Would you recommend that other studios, not just those at Disney, try this kind of exercise?
Definitely – it really was fun and helped us, and you see similar projects such as Dare to be Digital following a similar template and they’ve encouraged plenty of creativity.