The Beauty And Puzzle Of Remote Development

The Beauty And Puzzle Of Remote Development
Golf Story, one of the biggest indie games in the Switch's earliest years, was produced by a two person team in north Queensland.
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Golf Story. Hollow Knight. Damsel. Ticket to Earth. Untitled Goose Game. Crossy Road. Florence. Paperbark. Australia’s got a pretty good track record in games when it comes to our size, especially when you consider the lack of infrastructural support compared to countries like Canada or Sweden.

But Australia’s also a massive country geographically. So to get access to the necessary talent, and for individual Australian artists, designers, writers and programmers to get more experience on bigger projects, the solution is often remote. And while remote working opens a world of talent and experience that would ordinarily never be available, it takes some skill to manage it well.

This story was originally published last year.

If you go to any game industry conference, you’ll often hear a lot of talks about the less sexier side of development: scheduling, pipelines, taskflow management, the bits and pieces necessary to keep the cog of game development going. Managing creativity amongst that is especially important, particularly for Australian developers that are outsourcing their work to the world — or Australian teams that are bringing talent into the country, by way of Skype, Discord, Microsoft Teams, and so on.

Having a good grasp on remote management — and being able to work remotely effectively — is essential, and it takes some skill to get the most out of the situation.

The Forgotten City is fascinating for all sorts of reasons, least of all the game’s genesis coming from a punch to the face. But since its evolution from a Skyrim mod to a standalone game, creator Nick Pearce has had to grow his studio, Modern Storyteller, with remote talent.

“When I started the studio 3 years ago, I didn’t have the capital to rent a physical studio and set it up with equipment and utilities, and in any case, there were only two of us, and we lived in different parts of Melbourne,” Pearce told Kotaku Australia over email. “So we’ve both worked from home.”

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The team currently has 5 members: Pearce and the team’s UI specialist in inner Melbourne, a technical lead in the state’s outer east, a senior environment artist in Brisbane, and an audio specialist in regional Victoria. It was necessary to spread the net as far as possible, Pearce explained, because the talent simply wouldn’t have been available if it was based around an office. “I wasn’t willing to trade ‘exceptional’ for ‘close enough’,” they said.

And even though most of the team is in the same state, the productivity benefits from cutting out the daily commute are enormous. “Most of my team members save about 3 – 4 hours each day by not commuting, which of course means they get to live wherever they want and spend all their energy creating awesome things,” Pearce said. For him, being untethered from the office means staff are more creative, which means they’re happier and ultimately more productive.

The team also works with an editor in Los Angeles, Laura Michet, who Pearce explained was necessary for the project because of her background with ancient Rome. “That’s quite important for us because The Forgotten City is set in an authentic, well-researched ancient Roman city. Being in a different timezone is actually helpful for relationships like that, because you can tag team; I can send something for review in the evening, go to sleep, and wake up to a detailed response in my inbox.”

The overheads not spent on a day-to-day office means people can be flown in for key milestone meetings and other important events, which is key for ensuring teams have that bit of face-to-face time that humans instinctively miss. And it’s also creatively essential for Pearce, who used the flexibility to go on holiday with his wife — or to be more precise, his wife went on holiday, while he worked from his laptop. “Last year my wife wanted to take a holiday to Europe, but I was too busy to stop work, and didn’t want to because I make video games for a living. So I went anyway, and for two months I spent every second day working on my laptop from Airbnbs all over Europe,” Pearce said.

Airbnbs are increasingly becoming a work-oriented option for for studios and staff who need spaces and homes for remote work, either because traditional hotels and bookings just don’t have the space or the amenities, or good fibre internet. And sometimes, particularly at the backend of a long conference like GDC, E3, Gamescom or other week-long industry shows, it’s nicer to return to a space that has a stove so you can make a quick homecooked meal.

“The time zone difference made it more challenging to communicate with my Australian colleagues, but it was fine. I only got to experience that extraordinary trip because we have ‘remoteness’ built into the DNA of our studio.”

Pearce even uses the flexibility to occasionally have a lunchtime nap, which often results in a spark of creativity. “I find if I take a quick nap at lunch time, I usually wake up with fresh ideas. That’s because your brain is an idea factory when it’s on the brink of sleep. This isn’t just a zany theory; it’s backed up by science. There’s a good round-up of some research. I’m not sure how I could do that if I worked in an office.”

That ability to quickly and creatively change your space is something Amanda Schofield, the co-founder of Studio Drydock and a former EA Firemonkeys developer, praised as well. “I utilise parts of the house that make the most sense for what I’m doing,” they explained over email. “If I’m playtesting a build, I’ll jump on the couch or if I’m trying to solve a problem I might take my laptop into the garden for a change of scenery to contemplate on.”

Chorus, the debut title from Summerfall Studios.

Chorus is the first game from Summerfall Studios, the Melbourne developer founded by Liam Esler and former BioWare lead writer David Gaider, and it’s already a record breaker: the game successfully raised over $1.01 million, the most of any Australian video game on Kickstarter, Fig, or any crowdfunding platform to date.

But the studio also has an extra channel. Summerfall’s staff are “distributed”, as Esler explained over email. One of those remote workers includes Gaider, who will be working on Chorus for a period from his homeland in Canada. So it’s helpful that Esler has plenty of experience managing remote teams, although he explained “diligent project management and tracking” was essential.

“For some teams across wildly disparate timezones, it means you can have rolling development — lots of AAA studios take advantage of this in various ways, and we can as indies as well,” Esler explained. You do lose out on the social currency you get from regular face-to-face meetings with staff, but Esler says regular face-to-face calls, disseminating decisions properly across timezones, having a good producer and overcommunicating helps.

A key bonus Esler noted was accessibility — by supporting remote workers and a “distributed” structure, Summerfall can employ talent with have particular environmental needs. “It means those who physically can’t leave home are able to work with you, a huge advantage,” they said. “There are so many good reasons to have people working remotely.”

Image: Tavern Keeper

Besides the projects in development, Australia has plenty of examples of remote development. Matt Hall, one of the co-founders of Hipster Whale and main programmers behind Crossy Road, famously developed the game from his home farm in Ballarat. Another great example: Game Dev Tycoon, a Brisbane-made game that went viral after the developer uploaded a special version to torrent sites, only for pirates to discover that their studio would suddenly go bankrupt after everyone “suddenly started pirating everything I made”.

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Game Dev Tycoon‘s studio, Greenheart Games, is in Brisbane. But as the founder Patrick Klug explained to me in an interview, most of the team works overseas, with Klug simply managing the development from his home. There’s also the story behind Geneshift, the indie game from Aussie developer Ben Johnson, who left Australia to finish developing his game in Peru, where the cost of living was substantially lower.

Studio Drydock, a game co-founded by Schofield and fellow EA Firemonkeys alumni Alex Holkner, also relies on distributed development. The company has seven staff across Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and recruiting internationally meant they could access a level of talent that wasn’t available just in Melbourne. But Hokner and Schofield found that regular offices tended to rely upon meetings as a core method of communicating, which was an inefficient way of getting input from everyone, wasn’t useful for those who didn’t speak English as their native tongue, and a lot of what is said is often lost.

“At our studio, most of our review work is done through Slack, which gives people in different timezones a chance to contribute asynchronously, gives people a bit of extra time to ponder before commenting if they need it and it captures the conversation for later,” Schofield said over email. “It even means that if we hire in people where English is not their primary language, they have more time to process and form their response, without dealing with the fast-talking rapid-fire of the average creative meeting.”

Focusing on remote workers also creates a more efficient environment for those who needed time and space to work through challenges or complete tasks, like artists, lead writers, composers, and so on.

Other staffers on Studio Drydock, who asked to remain anonymous for various reasons, said that while they missed some of the daily interactions you have with people in the office, the freedom to move around your own space and ability to control what distractions you do and don’t have in your environment outweighed the negatives. “For me, as a mom who has been living a kind of nomadic lifestyle for the past two years, remote work is the best,” a Studio Drydock developer said.

“I find that I am more productive in the time that I set aside to work because there are fewer interruptions than you would have in a typical office setting … not having to commute on the NYC subway at rush hour is truly wonderful for one’s mental health.”

That ability to retain a lifestyle — or location — was something Jason Imms, founder of QA studio The Machine and now the head of QA at Hobart-based software firm LiveTiles, said was crucial. “The benefits of being remote for me was that Tasmania is my home, I didn’t want to move, and we live in the future,” they said. “All our technological advancements should mean we can work remotely (given the privilege of the right kind of role) and be just as effective as if we were in the office with others.”

Founding a company that serviced a particular need for clients also meant Imms didn’t lose out on the social capital that you often need in an office environment. “For most of my clients my expertise filled a huge gap for them, so I didn’t need social capital to be heard. I was heard because I was the expert in the room.”

But most importantly, it meant he could be there for his family without having to leave the industry, or take work elsewhere. “Being remote meant I was at home and much more present for my family. I was there during lunch breaks, and as soon as knock-off time rolled around, I was there. No transit necessary.”

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A shot of developer Ben Johnson's living space during his time in Peru, where he lived for two years while working on Geneshift.

Of course, all of this comes with a huge challenge. Every studio and developer that spoke to Kotaku Australia for this story mentioned the necessity of having thorough process and check-ins to account for the lack of physical facetime that you get with an office environment.

Managing isolation, Schofield explained, was one of the biggest factors to consider. “For a lot of people – especially in games – there is a social component to work that is important to maintain through communication, so you have to make sure it’s not always about getting to the point in a meeting or making time for small talk in chat,” they said. Summerfall’s Esler added that it’s complicated for managers, particularly since you don’t have the ability to read body language and gauge team morale the same way you would in an office.

“There’s time-zone differences, making communication and meeting times hard; and there’s the social element, making it difficult to establish ongoing friendships and relationships,” they said.

Maintaining balance between work and life can be hard, too. “It can be difficult to switch between work mode and life mode,” Modern Storyteller’s Pearce said. “This happens automatically when you commute, so when you cut out the commute, you need to find another way to transition. That can be as simple as taking the dog for a walk.”

Imms added that remote meetings also took a little more planning than normal, particularly if you’re the remote person in a meeting while almost everyone else is in the room. “It’s much harder to interject when you’re remote, so you have to be much more mindful,” they said. “It’s not enough to just connect someone on a conference phone and expect them to be an equal member of the meeting.”

For those who have figured the puzzle out — or grappled with the realities long enough — remote work can be a wonderfully creative experience. It frees you up from the grind of bumper to bumper daily commutes, removes the hassles of open-plan offices, the stress of managers and staff randomly appearing behind your shoulder and interjecting mid-thought, and just generally gives you more control over your life. All of those things are generally a massive plus for anyone in any creative industry, not just game development.

But getting to that blissful state takes work. While a study from Gallup found that engagement at work was highest among staff who spend three to four days a week working remotely, the firm also found performance fell if managers didn’t manage workplace isolation. Harvard Business Study found a similar problem, noting the best managers combated the downsides with regular, consistent check-ins, overcommunication and a willingness to respond to pressing concerns irrespective of the timezone.

Having the right culture and experience with remote working — or distributed teams — is essential, especially for Australian studios that already have world-class talent, but don’t have the same infrastructural support from major publishers, or certain governments. Being able to lean on an artist, coders, designers and producers from all around the world makes that more possible, although like everything in life, there’s a few tricks to doing it well.


This story was produced over the course of Melbourne International Games Week and PAX Australia, at which the author’s accommodation was covered for by Airbnb for Work.

Comments

  • ALL remote working requires some skill to manage effectively. It requires a dedicated focus to communication – so much productivity is tied up in agenda-free, casual conversations, third party input into overheard conversations, 30sec soundbite knowledge-sharing, ambient awareness of other team members’ progress, not to mention non-verbal components of all more deliberate communication.

    A focus on that, though… That’s top-tier advanced management.
    So many managers haven’t got past the untrained, unskilled point of measuring productivity by the visible appearance of effort/nothing catching on fire, and have no concrete, measurable way of assessing progress and roadblocks.

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