Earlier this year, the sudden shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders brought about in response to COVID-19 forced major shifts in how a number of games studios worked on a day-to-day basis -- perhaps most dramatically shifting the daily production plans of larger studios, such as Sledgehammer.
But in an interview with GamesBeat, COO Andrew Wilson said that now that they've transitioned the Activision-owned studio to fully work-from-home, Sledgehammer is "ready and prepared to work this way indefinitely if we have to."
"There are some things we're doing that I would recommend for mid-size and larger teams in particular," Wilson said. "We've moved our weekly team meetings onto an events-based video conferencing app capable of streaming hi-def video. Our IT director sits as 'master of ceremonies,' switching mics and cameras on and off remotely for each presenter, and increasingly we try to show game content and progress updates via video, so that we simulate our real team meetings as closely as possible.
"[Studio head] Aaron Halon and I also hold a weekly AMA-style Slack Q&A, where we encourage the team to ask anything and everything on their minds. We've seen some really interesting things come of that. Firstly, way more people are engaging with us and with each other than at regular in-person team meetings. Some of the feedback we've had is that the social introverts on the team find it a far less intimidating way to interact and certainly over the weeks it has evolved into something really fun, a mixture of serious questions and general banter.
"We also had one question where a member of our team had been struggling recently with the isolation of being at home, so they used it as an opportunity to speak up and to ask for advice. The response from people on the thread was overwhelmingly supportive and so we're also seeing it as a way to keep a sense of community."
As for challenges, Wilson delineated what issues are actual problems, and which are only perceived problems. For instance, he said that there had been minimal impact to hiring at Sledgehammer, and that the team of over 200 people planned to add around 100 more in the coming years.
"The only real difference in terms of getting to the fundamentals [when interviewing a candidate] comes from the fact that it can be a little awkward to have conversations with people for the first time over video," he said. "We're getting a great deal more used to it though. There are certainly some things from the candidate perspective that it's harder to simulate, such as seeing the physical space you'll ultimately be working in, grabbing lunch for a more casual conversation mid-interview, etc."
Technically, moving that large a studio to remote work was challenging, but Wilson said that things have smoothed out since. Some of the company's employees already worked from home, and for those that didn't, he said the company was prepared to support the transition with long-term technical assistance.
"Certainly data requirements for modern AAA development are high and so working from home does present additional challenges, as most people don't have access to the kind of bandwidth we can get from our studio locations," he said. "More than anything it requires a bit more discipline around things like the times of day you pull builds or submit changes, but our experience so far has been pretty good overall. We've worked at the individual team-member level to assess their specific situations and done things like pay for internet plan upgrades and provide bespoke equipment where it would be helpful."
Finally, Wilson addressed an issue he said was more important than technical hurdles: mental health. He said that Sledgehammer was doing what it could to support especially those parents with kids who might have additional emotional and logistical issues to overcome while working from home, including allowing non-typical work hours and being supportive when employees had to step away for a period of time or had a kid appear unannounced in the backdrop of a team meeting.
"We're putting a lot of time into reaching out across the team and making sure that we speak to people directly," he said. "In addition to one-to-one meetings, Aaron and I use our team-wide Slack Q&A to talk to team members, and we've also seen people across the studio helping out teammates who need to interact and talk.
"The most important thing we can do is make ourselves available, as sometimes people feel better just by having the chance to talk things through. Everyone has different situations at home and on top of that this whole situation is so unprecedented that even people with great situations at home are having occasional down days. The lack of social contact and simple everyday routines is tough, so we're encouraging everyone to take a deep breath, take it day-by-day and focus on their health and well-being above all else."