How Local Developers Are Coping With The Coronavirus Pandemic

games developers coronavirusImage: Starcolt/Alliance

Coronavirus has changed the way that we live. Many are working from home and telecommuting for team meetings. Effective communication has become a challenge, as has maintaining creativity and motivation. Staying mentally safe and healthy is also a major obstacle.

For local game developers in Australia and New Zealand, these challenges have been amplified by economic uncertainty but even in a time of great change, the industry is banding together.

Creating Games In The Coronavirus Era

Image: Fanclub

Coronavirus has forced several local developers to pivot their work on planned game releases, change how they interact with their team and build stronger relationships with technology.

One highly anticipated title that's likely to see a significant delay due to coronavirus is stylish road adventure Dead Static Drive. Developer Mike Blackney told Kotaku Australia he expected a definite impact on the game's final release due to coronavirus despite the team's best efforts to maintain productivity. He noted that while the game was financially shielded by interest from Xbox, the wider effects of coronavirus still impacts the entire team.

"We're looking right now at what that might look like and I think it's likely to be a minor delay," he said. "I really don't want to compromise anything - but that means we need to have conversations about how we can do that without the budget or people's hours and work being affected."

Dead Static Drive is currently being developed by a core five-person team that Blackney describes as a "garage band". They've worked together for over a year both remotely and in-office at Melbourne's Arcade game developer hub. While their workplace was previously flexible, coronavirus hasn't just affected workflow.

"What I've been seeing is that everyone from a purely logistical viewpoint is probably running at 50-80 percent," Blackney told Kotaku Australia. "But there's also the psychological impact, where we're throwing our diets, our exercise, our routine out ... We're finding that there are some days where our moods are out or our brains don't work and we just can't do anything."

It's a challenge that's being tackled by multiple studios across the local games industry.

Drop Bear Bytes is an Australian developer currently creating the post-apocalyptic RPG Broken Roads. Game director Craig Ritchie spoke to Kotaku Australia about the immense challenges of wrangling a multi-studio team in the time of coronavirus.

"It started back in late January and throughout February as our environment art team are based in Chengdu and Shanghai," he said. The art studio, known as Mighty Vertex, were extremely restricted as the coronavirus pandemic developed. Paired with a difficult transition to working from home, it meant that much of the Broken Roads environment art was being delayed.

Image: Drop Bear Bytes

While work on Broken Roads takes place across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, it requires every cog to function correctly for smooth development. "We've reduced scope and made a lot of changes to current plans to accommodate [everyone's respective situations]," Ritchie explained.

New Zealand studio Starcolt, currently working on wholesome dating simulator Best Friend Forever, also suffered production and development delays as their team transitioned to working from home.

"We gave ourselves lots of turnaround time for review processes and stuff like that, but with the pandemic that's kind of delaying all the platform holders as well," Calliope Ryder, Gamerunner of Best Friend Forever told Kotaku Australia. "There are frustrations that are coming up that are nobody's fault in particular ... it's not something we could've predicted. It's putting even more pressure on hitting deadlines when there's a lot of things out of our control due to COVID."

Despite these challenges, local developers are pushing forward and making the most out of an unpredictable situation.

Integrating Flexibility Into The Workplace

Image: SMG Studio/Team17

With teams forced to work remotely, the greatest challenge is communication. Collaboration is key to the development process and lacking face-to-face meetings, the games industry has adopted new flexibility.

A recent report from industry body IGEA indicated just how resilient developers have become, with 84 per cent of games companies not planning on cutting back staff in Australia.

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44 per cent of game developers in the country reported stable or increased sales revenue in the wake of the pandemic. Given the massive changes across Australian businesses in the last few months and the steady rise of unemployment as one million Australians lose work, it's an achievement worthy of mention.

58 per cent of respondents to IGEA's survey said their operations have become more difficult, but local developers are meeting these complications head on.

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While several of the developers that spoke to Kotaku Australia did expect significant delays to their projects due to coronavirus, many of them have found unique and agile ways to navigate our new working landscape.

"It was particularly hard for us because we had just gotten a programmer over from Australia and just after he moved here we went into lockdown," Calliope Ryder explained of working on Best Friend Forever. "It's [been about] acclimatising to working from home and getting set up with the right equipment but also it's hard because you can't just turn around and talk to each other like you do in the office. It's been a learning curve."

While it's been a difficult process, Starcolt has focused on online collaboration and communication, with tools like Zoom and Discord becoming essential to keep the team connected and in good spirits. They've also stayed accountantable with the Best Friend Forever Discord server, which connects them with their eager and passionate community.

Work on post-apocalyptic adventure Broken Roads has also continued, albeit with a slightly truncated workflow. As Craig Ritchie told Kotaku Australia, the project's Chinese studio is currently under severe restrictions and their South African contingent are also completely housebound outside of purchasing groceries. It's meant readjusting their production processes, creating flexibility with deliverables and ensuring people look after themselves both professionally and personally.

"We're ... encouraging the team to just take care of themselves and do whatever they have to to put themselves and their families first at the moment," he told Kotaku Australia. "Game dev on its own is stressful, having a major external deadline even more so, and having this all during a worldwide pandemic throws massive spanners into already challenging situations."

How Games Developers Are Keeping Sane

Image: Jacob Janerka, Twice Different

Focusing on mental health in times of crisis is key. Well-being impacts creativity, communication skills and overall health — while stressors brought on by the financial and emotional toll of the coronavirus pandemic can cause major anxiety, depression and other health issues.

For developers Jacob Janerka and Simon Boxer, currently working on weird narrative adventure The Dungeon Experience, remote development conditions have been normal for some time — but a separate, mounting challenge has been maintaining creativity and productive routine.

"The biggest impact is not being able to go to the gym, which I used as a place to 'escape' from the home office and awkwardly wait for my time on the machine," Janerka said. "Very mild on the first world problems, but it does effect my feeling of being shut in working."

Boxer has been experiencing similar difficulties in organising his work day. "I don't know if my days can be distinguished any more," he said. "It's more like one long day of creation. Time as a concept no longer exists."

Janerka jokingly noted that he'd booked himself more crying time than usual. This took place at 8 am and 9 pm respectively in his daily planner. Boxer had yet to integrate crying into his schedule.

Both developers have turned to tools like Discord to maintain their motivation and connect with their teams as the coronavirus epidemic continues. Boxer noted that he likes to jump into Discord's voice channel options for non-thinking tasks like painting. For him, it's a relaxing way to stay connected to his development teams. (Boxer is also currently working on dungeon crawler Ring of Pain with Twice Different.)

For Mike Blackney and the team working on Dead Static Drive, what was most important was ensuring that everyone felt comfortable and healthy enough to continue working. "We've been trying to business-as-usual but I told the team about a month ago that if anyone can't do work that they should just invoice me for whatever hours they would have been doing anyway, while we're in lockdown," he told Kotaku Australia.

Blackney said while development on the game has been impacted by coronavirus, the more pressing concern was his team's mental health. "Isolation and distancing is also bringing a bit of distance between team members in a relationship sense," he said. To combat this, Blackney has turned to a variety of creative methods.

"I'm eating too much, and doing lots of cooking. The last fortnight I've been exercising and kind of forcing myself to do more walking," he said. Watching videos on YouTube, playing Animal Crossing and keeping in touch with the team online were also some of his choice activities for keeping a level head.

SMG Studio, who recently released whacky moving simulator Moving Out is also focusing on the individual and professional wellbeing of its staff. SMG has three offices — in Sydney, Victoria and Los Angeles. Founder Ashley Ringrose described-company wide initiatives to connect these three locations on a personal level, including sending out hampers, hosting paid-for local lunches and offering days off for focusing on mental health.

"I think in some ways we’re now more connected to all of [our global studios]," Ringrose told Kotaku Australia. Projects the team are currently working on like Risk and No Way Home still have good momentum according to Rose and are supported by a flexible timeline for delivery and company initiatives that offer mental health support.

Developers at SMG noted walking, taking tea breaks, spending time with their families, stretching, doing science experiments and cooking food have all helped them cope with the restrictions of the coronavirus era.

While methods for coping with coronavirus vary between developers, chatting with these teams showcased the enduring resilience and flexibility of the local games industry. The coronavirus pandemic is a novel event and one that couldn't have been planned for. Despite this, local games developers are making the most of a tough situation and innovating to continue their work. Teams are undergoing structural and technological change on large scales to make sure nobody gets left behind — and mental health has become an important focus.

The impact of coronavirus on every industry around the world is undeniable. It's reshaping the ways that we work and live even as restrictions begin lifting across Australia and New Zealand. As businesses continue dealing with the ongoing impact of the virus, it's fantastic to see just how tough the local games industry can be.


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