THE 2+3 TEAM: ORGANIZING FOR CATEGORY-AGNOSTIC CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT

From Disney and their recently acquired Marvel Entertainment to Microsoft’s freshly-minted Halo-centric 343 Industries, more and more media companies are coming to recognize the power of the global intellectual property, and are no longer limiting their thinking to a single product expression. No more is a video game just a video game, a novel just a novel, a movie just a movie. And you don’t have to be as big and vertically-integrated as Disney or Microsoft. The days where any company can afford to service only one marketplace are long since passed. Unless you act as a technical service bureau, cherry-picking from bigger IP studios, it’s time to get your creative team together and start thinking big.

Gathering and nurturing the right creative team, people who can work beyond the limits of the initial expression of the brand, can be a difficult process. You’re working in subjective territory, with people whose natural tendencies rarely fit within traditional corporate structures, and who are disinclined to think in terms of action items and SMART goals. Add to that aggressive milestones and a long daily to do list primarily dedicated to getting the game shipped, and it’s easy for everyone to fall into a single-product box.

But with a little care, and a whole lot of respect for their rare and precious talents, a group of people can and should be empowered to create not just the next cool video game, but the next Star Wars. And that kind of success doesn’t have to be an accident.

Enter the 2+3 Team, a five-person group that can be gathered from and dropped into any existing organization to centralize efforts not on one particular product but on an integrated, cross-category property designed to blossom out into the full spectrum of transmedia expressions.

We’ll start with the 2, the co-leaders of the team.

category-agnostic creative director

When I say “category” I mean a particular product or product group. A console video game is a category. Publishing is a category. Toys is a category, and so on. It’s unlikely, unless you’re coming from a very big organization, that more than a small handful of categories will actually be produced in-house. It might be only one—and the day of the IP Development House is on its way, too, in which the initial expression is a set of brand guides that are then farmed out on a licensing basis to category partners: a video game studio, a publisher, a film/television production company, and so, and the developer manages those licenses without creating any manufacturing capacity at all.

Still, chances are you’ll be coming from the perspective of a category-specific organization—all the more reason the leader of the creative development team be category-agnostic. That means the 2+3 Team is led by someone who is more interested in the creation of a unified brand, and less concerned with the technical and content needs of a specific category, but is still familiar with and as protective of as many of those possible categories as humanly possible. The point here isn’t to create a big expansive creative property that doesn’t work well for any one category, but a big expansive creative property that works equally well for every category.

The category-agnostic creative director acts as the focal point for the team, the final decision maker and tie-breaker in terms of creative content. This person should be a detail-minded communicator, someone with a real record of positive teamwork. This is not a job for a “my way or the highway” type, but someone who’s not only willing to accommodate the needs of each category, however subjective, but actually welcomes collaboration from “outside.” This role requires considerable maturity and intellectual rigor. Most of all it requires a deep respect for everyone else’s creative talents and vision. The creative director does not need to be fully conversant in the peculiarities of each category, but he or she does need to know where the limits of his or her knowledge lie and be open to advice and help from those who are.

project manager

This is the most likely position to already be on hand in any organization. In the 2+3 Team, the project manager functions in all the same capacities—general administrator, budget minder, resource manager, scheduler—as project managers usually function. But in this case, that person is truly on the team. There is never a meeting that doesn’t include all five of the members of a 2+3 Team, including the project manager.

Too often the creative and administrative roles in any organization are strictly siloed, protected from each other in ways that tend to foster resentment. Why? Creative people often balk at the idea of having to be creative on demand, having to work within budgets, having to be answerable in any way. This is most often the result of a breakdown in communication between the team that creates stuff and the team that figures out how to pay for it.

The truth is, if you’re actually in business to make a profit, to keep the lights on, make the payroll, and actually have something to sell at the end of the day (or at least at the end of a development cycle), creative work will have to be properly directed. It’s not only unnecessary to keep these people from each other but unhealthy. People respond to being part of a team, and the longer that team works together the greater sense of empathy each team member will have for their team mates and they will quickly and effectively spread that empathy to the rest of the organization, but if you keep people apart, they’ll spread the schism just as quickly and effectively.

Having sat the two team leaders, you have three more team members to scare up.

+3: category-specific creative, editor, and art director

The nature of the category-specific creative will depend entirely on your initial release plans. Even a giant global transmedia brand needs to start somewhere. If you’re starting at a video game developer and the initial expression of the brand will be a console game, then the category-specific creative will come from your development team, probably a lead game designer or executive/senior producer. This should be someone steeped in the technical requirements of the category, but who also has some story development sense.

If you don’t have a full-time editor, get one. Every 2+3 Team requires someone with that very specific skill-set. Recruit someone who’s got a real resume working in a hands-on way with writers and the written word. Ultimately no matter what you create it will begin with some set of written documents. A good editor will help you create a style guide and a detailed creative bible—two documents you simply can not do without.

The final member of the team is an art director. The art director will do everything the editor does, but with visual assets rather than text. The style guide will include direction for use of logos, font choices, image banks, and so on that will define a coherent, consistent look and feel for the entire brand from product through to packaging. But beyond those technical requirements, a good creative art director will contribute enormously to the development of the setting, story, and characters.

Regardless of the relative size of the teams that the +3 people lead, it’s essential that you avoid any temptation to weigh efforts by category profit projections. You may certainly expect that the video game will be your first product to market, but always put the brand first, category follows.

Always.

STYLE GUIDES

A style guide is a single shared repository for all the brand-specific information, from how to spell a character’s name to where exactly to set the registered trademark symbol next to or within a logo. This document should be written for the widest conceivable audience, short of the general public. This is not a document that should be sold or posted in the open, and it’s entirely appropriate to ask for reasonable non-disclosure agreements from anyone you share it with, but share it you must. This is what will keep outside licensees and in-house teams on the same page.

CREATIVE BIBLES

Creative bibles are a little more fun to read and create, but are no less important. The creative bible tells your story, creates a consistent and fully-realized world, and ideally, leaves open spaces to be filled (under the supervision of the 2+3 Team) by everyone who might touch the brand from publishers to movie studios.

STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT

The 2+3 Team will remain active across three stages in the development of a brand beginning with the Concept Stage. This is when the parameters of the brand are first formed. What is this thing? Is it a fully-created fantasy world in the vein of The Lord of the Rings or World of Warcraft, or a science fiction space opera landscape like Halo or Star Wars—or literally any genre from Grand Theft Auto to General Hospital, Strawberry Shortcake to Bioshock. The 2+3 Team should meet daily during this phase, keeping most of the work and most of the information they generate within the team. Only after the basic parameters are laid down can the 2+3 Team members go back to their category groups and begin with marching orders like: “We’re going to create the next big fantasy world, something like Gone With the Wind meets Godzilla.” The 2+3 Team creates the first draft of the style guide and creative bible at this stage.

Those intensive daily meetings can move to weekly once the brand enters the second stage, Implementation. This is where the real work is done, fleshing out the style guide, working with category teams and prospective licensees to craft the property in a detailed way, adding muscle to the skeleton assembled in the Concept Stage. The style guide and creative bibles are continuously updated and revised by the 2+3 Team at this stage and freely shared with the category groups. The category-specific creative, editor, and art director will then run report-back meetings with their teams on a regular basis, and gather assets from their people. Any changes requested to either document has to be channeled through and approved by the 2+3 Team. It has but be made clear at the highest level that those documents are to be followed in detail, and only revised by the 2+3 Team.

Usually beginning with the release of the first category expression, and the inking of the first round of licensing agreements, the brand enters its adulthood, or Maintenance Stage. The 2+3 Team should continue to meet, but can move that to a monthly rotation, especially since those same people are now free to be assigned to a new 2+3 Team to start again at a fresh Concept Stage. The style guide and creative bible must continue to evolve, adding new characters, concepts, etc. from the hopefully ever-widening portfolio of brand expressions to follow.

Debrief meetings

Separate from the regular team meetings, a series of debriefings are an essential component to the learning process for 2+3 Teams. The team should convene to examine the status of the property one month after the ship date of the initial category expression, again one full quarter (three months) after initial ship, and finally one calendar year after first ship. The purpose of the debrief is to identify failures and successes across the full spectrum of the brand and learn how to do it better next time. These meetings should result in documentation that can be used to inform the next 2+3 Team: “This is what we did, this is what worked, this is what didn’t, this is why, and here are some suggestions for doing it differently.”

The 2+3 Team is a simple and practical strategy for getting the most of your creative people as you avoid category limitations: “This is a video game that might also eventually spin off to books, a movie, etc.” I’d rather begin with the statement: “This is a global transmedia intellectual property expressed across an ever-evolving range of product categories.”

Of course the reality is that most new video games, for instance, live a short life in that category and the fickle marketplace quickly moves on to the next release. Licensees don’t bang on your door, Hollywood opts for another 70s TV series remake, and you’re left to move on to the next idea. Considering that, I can understand the temptation to concentrate just on that one product. After all, if that sells well, all the rest of it will just kinda fall into place. Or will it?

What if publishing, Hollywood, and other potential licensees pass on your brand over this little detail or the other—little details your 2+3 Team could have identified and taken into account early so that when that first product is a success, the brand has been prepped from the very beginning to be attractive across the broadest possible set of products?

Think small and you will be small, think big and you might be big.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to THE 2+3 TEAM: ORGANIZING FOR CATEGORY-AGNOSTIC CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT

  1. Nate says:

    I love this article.

    Philip you’ve basically outlined in detail the kind of team I’d love to work in, but never been quite sure how to structure or assemble such a team (never name finance it).

    Do you think the 2+3 team could work for a small indie team or does it work best in companies that have either a large budget/team or the ability to outsource?

    The concept of developing global transmedia intellectual property is something that really fascinates me. I believe it is the key way to allow fans to interact with the story world.

    The way I see it is that someone becomes a fanatical fan not just because they like the film, book or game but because they want to live in the world the designer has created. That should be our goal as writers, designers and world builders – to create a place people want to live in.

    Do you have any suggestions or advice for creatives who are interested in setting their own 2+3 team up?

    I hope you’re well.

    Nate Smith
    The World Building School

    • Philip Athans says:

      Honestly, as long as your organization has at least five people in it, including freelancers, contractors, and consultants, you can set up a 2+3 Team. Obviously, the smaller the organization the more each member will be involved in broader picture subjects. As the organization gets bigger it not only tends to get more specialized but can benefit greatly from that specialization. The video game business in particular suffers greatly from a feeling that anyone can be a storyteller, and it’s strange and disconcerting reading job descriptions that demand very detailed technical training then add writing/storytelling as an afterthought. That’s just disrespectful. If you wouldn’t hire a science fiction author to write code, you shouldn’t hire a programmer to write science fiction. That’s really the key to the whole thing: Respect each others talents and specialties and work together toward a common goal.

      • Nate says:

        I’ve also seen alot of game jobs that add story telling on as an after thought. I definitely agree with not making pogrammers writers, although there are expections to the rule. They’re brilliant when it comes to programming and creating software but ask them to be creative through story telling and they would freeze.

        I’ve been reading the Bioware blog recently and I admire the way they have a team of writers that set the pace and tone for each game. Also they have some good articles with regards to interactive story telling. They are one games company that seems to be doing well in multiple mediums.

        I take it from your previous work that you work under the editor/creative director role?

        Nate Smith
        The World Building School

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