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Game design: Stubborn teammate - Advice?

Hi all,

I need guidance. A friend and I are working on developing a game which we hope to sell. He is 25-30 and I am 30-35. We met over an online game when we were both in our teens, and we were both modders for that game. I went to college for C/C++, he did not go to college but is self-taught in scripting languages like python. Since C++ is a little faster than scripting languages, we decided on that.

He is in a very bad living situation, his family is poor and dysfunctional and he has some problems as a result, some social awkwardness, and he is a "proudly" (?) self-proclaimed pessimist. He hopes to escape that environment though, by coming into at least a little bit of money by making this game. I'm not exactly thrilled where I am in my life, but I'm not completely miserable - Thus he benefits more from this game succeeding than I do.

The problem that keeps happening is he never seems to be happy with any ideas. I've proposed somewhere around 25-30 ideas (not exaggerating) for LLC names, with logos, too, so he could fully envision them, and he disliked them all, while offering no ideas of his own, or so very few that I don't even remember them. I've proposed many ideas for the game itself, but he is only happy with an extremely precise theme/setting/gameplay combination, and that is: Scavenging for survival after the world ended due to some disaster or apocalypse, via your ruggedness in a Chernobyl/STALKER/Fallout/Metro2033 world where you're the last person alive.

I'm a big fan of Fallout and STALKER, but those are really huge, ambitious games, but if we make you the only survivor in the game, there are a few points I bring up on why that idea doesn't work in a box by itself:

1. "How is it that you survived and nobody else did? (It is unlikely that you were the only Bad-Enough-Dude to survive.)"
2. "However, if there are other people (like in STALKER, Fallout, Metro) then we have to add trading, and conversing with NPCS and so on, etc, and the game then becomes large and ambitious. We need something smaller."
3. "More importantly, how does the game end? If the world ended and that's it, what's the resolution to the story? From the moment a player starts playing in a game he needs to have a goal to shoot for. (Even in cases where the character has amnesia and knows nothing, that's still true)"

What I bring these up, he admits he's not a good writer and can't think of any answers or any story, so he doesn't offer me any ideas. In Fallout there is always a clear goal or McGuffin, like the water-chip that leads you to a different plot (mutant domination). But making a huge world of towns and NPCs (like Fallout) is too much for us, but, having a lone, solitary survivor guy in an abstract Chernobyl environment scavenging for food endlessly without context or a purpose doesn't work as a game either. There needs to be an end goal - unless it's a sandbox game, or a "See how long you can hold out" game, both of which we agreed we both don't want. We both want some sort of actual adventure.

So we've kept changing the game idea, on his behalf - more than three times actually - for over two years now. What I keep trying to do is come up with an idea that incorporates all the things he likes about the rugged scavenging overgrown abandoned theme, but into a setting/environment where a story and resolution are still feasible. The game right now is at the point where about 90% of the gameplay and design are from HIS Chernobyl-type ideas. I barely have anything left in the game that I feel is truly mine -- except that I get to streamline the code itself because he isn't comfortable writing in C++. Whoopee!

(He's not incompetent though - he can, and has, designed tools in Python and GameMaker, etc.)

But compromising isn't good enough for him, because every so often he will insert comments into our brainstorming conversations like: "It's not what I had in mind" "It's not what I envisioned at all" "Not my style" "Not my preference" "Not my thing"

As in: "Yeah that's true, that would work. Then we'd be able to do this and this and that. Not my preference though."

To me, it comes across as being passive-aggressive, and when I tell him I would like him to not do that, and that I want this to be a game we can both have a passion for, he just repeats himself and/or says he's "just being me" and it becomes pointless. If I ever say something like, "Well what don't you like about it? The other game we played co-op and beat together had 'X' in it, so why don't you like it if we use 'X' in ours?" he'll get pedantic and say, "Never said I didn't like it, just said not my preference. Not my thing. Never said that game was bad, just not my style." And then I have to explain why -- in the context of a discussion about developing and agreeing upon game ideas -- that saying something is "not your preference" is the same as saying "I don't like that idea" and overall, derailing in this manner is not helpful, or is a waste of time. And then he'll argue me on that, too, and say things like, "It's not a waste of time, nothing's a waste of time. Just how you look at it."

I'm not making this stuff up.

He also uses a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole, which I also find very disrespectful. If I try to tell him that constantly using exaggeration is disrespectful, he will say, "I'm exaggerating to make a point" (to prove me wrong) but, I personally find that if one needs to exaggerate all the time, then that means their point isn't strong enough to stand on its own. Maybe that's just my opinion, I don't know. This is an example of the exaggeration: if I were to suggest adding a modest Not-over-the-top energy pistol (like in Fallout!), he might say something like, "I don't want any laser light show disco ball star trek phasers, might as well add light sabers and ewoks. lol." It really is EXACTLY as disrespectful as that. With the "lol." with the period like that and everything - no joke. If I tell him he's being disrespectful he'll use "Well I don't know how to talk to people! I'm socially awkward!" as a justification.

I just don't know how to make him stop making these comments. Both the passive-aggressive ones and the exaggeration, but I assume if he was happy with the game then he would never need to exaggerate to mock my points. I feel like the game could've been completed a year ago, but I don't want to force him to work on something his heart is not in because I feel that is cruel, but I also at least want a FRACTION of the creative design. I feel like I've been shoved further and further to the side and meanwhile, he hasn't budged one inch in his viewpoint - even with the majority of the ideas in the current game being his. One thing I considered is I could just ignore him whenever he makes the passive-aggressive comments (or just say like, "Okay, well sorry, I don't know what to tell you man - Let's move on.") but I know that when people make passive-aggressive comments, what they really mean is "I'm really uncomfortable with this and I really wish this particular thing was addressed; please address it."

I could just drop him and try to make the game myself (being careful not to use anything of his), but I also feel bad for him because he is in such a bad living situation and as his friend, I would like to see him get out of that, so it's like a moral dilemma for me, but I'm becoming increasingly stressed out and exhausted mentally and emotionally. I feel that he is making things difficult for both of us by being selfish, and I don't have the management skills/tactics to deal with it. I do have a hard time maintaining my cool after some of his rude comments because of how over-the-top and insensitive they can get.

I'm an empathetic person; I try to treat others how I want to be treated and I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt up to a point, even when they're being nasty. Normally I can counsel people about their problems, make them feel better, talk them out of making bad decisions, etc, but I'm really struggling here.

Has anyone experienced anything like this and have any advice?
Two years is a long time to put up with that. What I'm going to say is direct and you won't like it.

I would say finish it any way you can and ship it. E.A. it if you have to. If you have to make it the way he wants it, than fine! Get it done so you can start working on your passion. On a resume, just refer to him as the designer and team lead, and you are the coder. Then never work on another project with him. Yes you want to help him out, but to give up your happiness and future is not worth it.

Some people in bad environments will not speak up or even try because they get verbally or physically beaten, it's a self defence thing ... which makes teamwork impossible.

I had a best friend just like that, and he dragged me down until my spirit and motivation was broken. I wish I never tried to help him, it never worked out and I wasted time and money. Wanting to help is very noble of you, but remember sometimes the best way for people to grow is to let them fall. It's harsh, but at least you have time to get out before you break. What you need to learn from this is that you can't work with him, but you still can be friends.

Skill to make tools in Python is good to have. Tools are actually needed from day one.
As for this project, find a way to wrap it up, let it be "his" and get it out the door as soon as possible. Take this as a learning experience and move on.
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This is a GDC's video on youtube about:

Managing Conflict on Small Teams

I hope this helps. I would highly recommend watching any topic on game development, there are a few good channels.
I chuckled when I read the light sabers and ewoks part when you stated he was that disrespectful. That is tame as I've been part of many failing teams with leads like that whom flat out tell you "you are a f*cking moron" if they don't like your idea. Obvious why they failed, no one wants to work with or for a person that insults them or ignores their ideas. I would follow DTM256's advice and get out of that situation fast!
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I chuckled when I read the light sabers and ewoks part when you stated he was that disrespectful. That is tame as I've been part of many failing teams with leads like that whom flat out tell you "you are a f*cking moron" if they don't like your idea.

Yeah, that's much worse, but we're supposed to be friends, too. Believe it or not I highly value helpful criticism, and I have even accidentally upset a couple of my friends in the past when I tried to give helpful criticism -- delivered in the nicest, most non-aggressive way possible.

But having said that, I would never outright mock my friends in the manner I described (unless I was just joking around, and they knew that I was joking). This is not joking around though; it's using exaggeration to assert "That's ridiculous!" instead of having a conversation of pros and cons etc.

But anyways, I agree with both of you in that I should try and just get out of the situation ASAP. Generally I prefer to acknowledge / discuss / solve problems, pretty much in all scenarios and in all contexts, but I'm coming to realize that preference can be a flaw itself. -Thank you.
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When the game is done, keep us posted!

With someone who is "used to" a bad situation - as you say, he has it tough - sometimes it's scary to imagine the possibility of not being in that situation, and they will struggle against success so as to maintain the validity of their picture of the world.

I think in the psych literature this is referred to as life stories or "life scripts" - there's a paper on the idea here: https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/docs/publications/430816076490a3ddfc3fe1.pdf

You're not his psychologist, but it may be valuable to know that as you get closer to succeeding, he gets closer to something terrifying - the possibility that all the things he has told himself to justify his bad situation may suddenly be shown to be false.

Imagine if your reason for doing things was suddenly taken away - for a farcical example, imagine you've been feeding your cat every morning for 10 years only to discover there never was a cat and there's a huge pile of uneaten cat food sitting in the middle of your kitchen floor. Your mind would do everything it could to protect you from finding this out.

It's a silly example but that's the idea - people tell themselves things like "I'm a pessimist" and then they MUST maintain that persona. In the case of a dysfunctional family, pessimism is a way of protecting yourself from continual disappointment.

I would guess that's the driver behind his behavior, that he is avoiding success because it would risk yet more disappointment.

Strategically then, if you are going to manage him, what you want to do is insulate him from disappointment. You take the risks - don't tell him that you're shopping the game, but sell it, and when you have the contract, present it to him. Or something like that.

Be aware that it's likely he will continue to make stronger and stronger attempts to return to his life story, including sabotaging meetings, putting bad code in the game, etc. This kind of crap doesn't go away overnight.

However, you may get lucky and the dough might help him get out of his shithole, so maybe it's worth a shot.

It isn't your job though - if you need to move on and sell the game, you should do that and he'll have to work through his own problems.

good luck.
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