On Strike Teams, Design Councils, and Braintrusts

Philip Kollar, Polygon:

Though Blizzard had split into multiple teams working on different games, part of Metzen’s approach to keep the culture together was to ensure that those teams still worked together in some ways. To accomplish this, the developer came up with the idea of “strike teams.”

“A bunch of people who are specifically not on the team for a game, who don’t have any sort of connection to the game, come in and look at your game,” says StarCraft 2 director Dustin Browder. “They go, ‘Wow, that’s dumb! I hate it!’ They’re not nice. We don’t want them to be nice. At some point, these games are going to go into the wild, and you’re going to ask people for real money for them. Strike teams are supposed to come in and go, ‘This is really good! This is really bad! I’m not going to tell you how to fix it, but you’ve got to do something.’ And then they walk off.”

In addition to strike teams, games frequently appear before Blizzard’s “design council,” a gathering of all of the game directors and lead designers throughout the company. Between strike teams and appearances before the design council, one thing regarding Titan became clear: It wasn’t shaping up.

If Blizzard’s cancellation of Titan reminded me of how Pixar handles things, “strike teams” and the “design council” certainly sound like a Pixar Braintrust.

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.:

The Braintrust, which meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making, is our primary delivery system for straight talk. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another. People who would feel obligated to be honest somehow feel freer when asked for their candor; they have a choice about whether to give it, and thus, when they do give it, it tends to be genuine. The Braintrust is one of the most important traditions at Pixar. It’s not foolproof—sometimes its interactions only serve to highlight the difficulties of achieving candor—but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal. The Braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.

In many ways, it is no different than any other group of creative people—within it, you will find humility and ego, openness and generosity. It varies in size and purpose, depending on what it has been called upon to examine. But always, its most essential element is candor. This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea—without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.

I’m sure most successful companies have strike teams/design councils/Braintrusts of their own. It’s just not every day you get to hear about it from the best of the best.