Like many independent developers, the Sonderlust Studios team is scattered far and wide. The six-person team is split between major cities on opposite sides of North America, but as co-founder and art director Lyndsey Gallant made clear during a microtalk at an Eat Play Mingle event in Toronto last night, in many ways Sonderlust operates the same way a centralized studio would.
"We have normal project management," she said. "We have core business hours. We make games in the same way we would normally make games, which is squeezing lots of blood out of many stones, because how do games ever get made?"
"It's basically the same as working in an open office, but instead of going to your open office, you turn on your web cam"
The big difference is in the way the team communicates, an issue Gallant said has mostly been addressed by having the team participate in all-day video chats using a program called Zoom.
"It's basically the same as working in an open office, but instead of going to your open office, you turn on your web cam," Gallant said. "Some people are extremely creeped out by that because it's got this Big Brother vibe of 'your web cam is on all day.' As a person with social anxiety, I was very worried about that initially. But you get used to it and you don't even notice it after a while. It's totally fine."
Eventually she said it starts to feel very similar to a normal studio space, but it offers a number of advantages. For one, having the constant video presence facilitates quick communication.
"It's a lot easier to talk to someone with human voice than to annotate every single thing in Slack," she said. "I'm an art director. I do a lot of concept art. It takes a ton of time to work with a team who doesn't use video chat and have to annotate like, 'I made the colors this because of this reason...'"
Obviously, not having to rent a physical office location also keeps overhead down, and everyone working from home means no commuting. Or as Gallant put it, "You don't have to be butts-to-nuts with 10,000 other people on a crowded streetcar at 7:30 a.m. for 80% of the rest of your life, which I love."
Hiring is also easier, she said, as the only constraints are effectively what time zone are well suited to the core business hours the studio sets.
It also conveys some benefits over more traditional work-from-home set-ups. If Gallant is working at 7:30 p.m. in Toronto, a co-worker in Vancouver (where it's still just 4:30 p.m.) can shoo her away. And even if the West Coast workers don't have someone working Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time to chase them away, Gallant later said it helps build a studio culture that is "essentially the opposite" of studios that don't technically mandate crunch but pressure people into overwork regardless.
"I got so weird because I wouldn't leave my apartment. You have interactions and they're all weird and you know you are the common denominator"
"We all hate crunch," she said. "Everyone in our studio has experienced it in different ways. It sucks and it's bad and it makes the games worse and the people worse. We all feel this system enables us to not do that and hold each other accountable. Because I overwork even though I shouldn't, and it's great to have someone lovingly chide me about it."
Beyond that, the long-term video conferencing makes working from home a little less lonely. Gallant recalled missing basic social interactions while working as a freelance art director for studios who worked remotely only through Slack chats, emails, and calls.
"I got weird," she said. "I got so weird because I wouldn't leave my apartment. You have interactions and they're all weird and you know you are the common denominator. Your voice comes out and you go, 'Oh god, is that what my voice sounds like?' and it's really terrible."
Of course, this manner of working remotely still has significant drawbacks. For one, it can be distracting when something only requires a one-on-one discussion.
"The problem when your office audio feed is directly in everyone's headphones is that when you say, 'Hey David, let's talk about this one feature,' everyone gets to hear you talking to David about the feature," Gallant explained.
That's sort of mitigated by a standing rule that any discussion that will take more than a minute should be handled on a separate call, but not all of the downsides are so easily dealt with. For example, Sonderlust has essentially been unable to do any paper prototyping of gameplay ideas outside of the rare opportunity when they converge for the Game Developers Conference. On top of that, there's little opportunity for socializing with co-workers outside of work.
"You get a sense of unity and collaboration with your teams working on this kind of connected video chat in a way that you just don't get if you're only working on Slack..."
"The way we sadly try to cobble together some semblance of an after-work culture is that at 4 p.m. on Friday, we'll all drink martinis at our computers," Gallant said. "Oooh, the glamorous life of an indie game developer."
And while the video conferences give the opportunity for some normal social interactions, Gallant said it's still possible to "be a terrible indoor goblin."
"When you are forced to leave your home and go to a job and be a part of society, you don't have to put as much explicit maintenance into being a normal human being," she said. "Even with this system, even with talking to people with real voices, you still have to be like, 'Ok, I have to go to the gym' because otherwise you can just order food in and never leave your apartment and just be a gross weird person."
In spite of that, Gallant said remote working through video conferencing is still her favorite way of making games.
"I think you get a sense of unity and collaboration with your teams working on this kind of connected video chat in a way that you just don't get if you're only working on Slack or the occasional meeting call or whatever," she said. "There are upsides and downsides. It's sort of a strange beast, but I would never, ever work in any other way now that I've worked in this manner. I would never go back to doing just Slack or whatever.
"I think it's a perfect fit for indie studios, but I think it's also a perfect fit for individual freelancers, or even people who work in the same city. It's so much easier to just turn on video chat and quietly work so you can talk when you need to instead of going across town to the coffee shop. That takes more time you could be spending making a video game, or eating a sandwich, or doing literally anything else."