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Death to meetings: Rethinking teamwork in remote game development

NDreams Elevation's Glenn Brace shares tips on establishing a fully remote studio

For decades, game development was done by groups in shared physical spaces. How we interact is ingrained in our psyches and partly defined by the physical spaces we inhabit, as we've seen in the array of weird, wonderful, and playful office designs that are commonplace in the industry.

After the COVID-19 pandemic closed offices, some corporations are now trying to get employees back to the office, or even mandating it, as Activision Blizzard did earlier this year. But will it work? Will it end the missed deadlines that have been blamed on an increasingly distributed workforce, or the productivity losses that can sometimes occur?

The data suggests not, with Fortune reporting that "US productivity jumped in the second quarter of 2020 as offices closed [due to the pandemic], and stayed at a heightened level through 2021." The subsequent drop in productivity has coincided with many being returned to office work.

All these discussions got me returning to our vision for nDreams Elevation. We believe a fully 'virtual' team can scale effectively in creativity and delivery, without compromising collaboration, quality or efficiency. Here's how we've attempted to establish this in our studio, and some approaches that we think others can learn from.

Don't virtually rebuild the office

Establishing a fully remote studio is an opportunity that really demands to be seized. A real study into what you want to achieve and an analytical approach to processes that either help or restrict those goals is essential.

Take meetings. When handled wrongly, these can be divisive, calendar-eating time sinks. What is a meeting? Broadly, it's a gathering of people in a shared space to discuss a particular topic. For years, that shared space was a physical one – a meeting room – and the very concept of what a meeting is has been formed around this.

Only some people will be invited to a meeting, which in most cases works just fine, but this can allow for blind spots and people missing important information. They are also inherently time-bound. So, those who are present in the shared space at the allotted time are part of the conversation, and everyone outside those walls is not.

The typical online meetings, as most companies define them, are a legacy of this and recreate the entrenched social constructs and boundaries in a virtual space – for no good reason.

It's not easy to undo years of training and entrenched behaviour, but the following steps are a good starting point.

Make the vision clear

Successful teams thrive on clarity in what they are working towards every day, and this is no different for teams working remotely. In fact, they need to focus on this area even more.

Before anything else, put into writing the key priorities that meaningfully feed into how you work. A shared vision should emerge.

This, essentially, points to a very clear and concise studio goal, a specific mission with the 'What' and the 'Why' stated for all. In the place of indecision, it becomes a refuge, your north star.

'We make great games' may be a fine ambition, but it's not a particularly useful statement for team members to return to when they need guidance. The statement must stand up to a good grilling. It's critical to establish this as early as possible so that everyone understands it.

Simply being specific about what these terms mean will give your vision plenty of weight and authority as a guiding principle for the whole team.

Successful teams thrive on clarity in what they are working towards every day, and this is no different for teams working remotely. In fact, they need to focus on this area even more

When team members from top to bottom don't understand the 'Why', it can lead to pauses in production from members who need more clarity, or worse, apathy if team members feel confused or in the dark. With more clarity of vision, people are empowered to decide what is and what is not good for the project, which helps eliminate the need for many traditional meetings and reduces production pauses.

Consider taking steps to avoid such dependency, along with team members' expectations that they will be told what to do. No game director role exists on our team for this reason, to show a commitment to giving the team the empowerment and responsibility to innovate, discover and serve the vision.

'Evidence in software' should be a key metric for what's working and what isn't in your team, and you need to be confident enough in how well the vision is understood that anyone at the studio should be able to detect this evidence – or lack thereof – by regularly and critically playing the latest build of your game.

Every studio will have its own vision and ways of achieving their vision. What's important is to establish your 'What and Why', and to break it down for all team members so they know how to be guardians of it.

Make knowledge accessible and persistent

Embracing virtual tools to move towards persistent channels of information and collaboration is a game changer. We use the Miro and Microsoft Teams combo to ensure fluid communication and team transparency, though there are myriad other options available, some of which you might already be using.

Miro is an online whiteboard tool, naturally suited to creative collaboration and planning. When used in a disciplined and consistent manner, all team members updating diligently, it offers transparent access to real-time development information and updates across the team. Agreed statements and ideas can be published there forever, while everyone is notified as progress happens.

This, in effect, is the opposite of meetings; even if you're not there as they are discussed, the ideas are shared and there to be engaged with.

An example Miro board

Microsoft Teams, then, becomes an ideal counterpart with its capacity to host feature-specific, 24/7, drop-in/drop-out channels (though similar can be achieved with other software such as Discord or Slack; what's more important is how you use them).

Generally, a good recommendation would be to have one application for project documentation and works-in-progress, and another as your go-to for live, ad-hoc discussion where needed.

Between the two, all team information and communication can be covered: ideation, discussion, feedback, mentoring, review, and even general studio vibes. The pairing is essential to almost every aspect of our collaborative workflow, and if you truly value collaboration, all team members should have access to all channels.

When everything is out in the open, decisions are live, visible, explained, and understood

This approach is scalable in a way that collaboration in a typical office space cannot be, with the onus on every individual to put themselves in the place of knowledge. It's that ability that will empower everyone across your team to act on their responsibility, manage their time, to put themselves into the right place to collaborate effectively. When everything is out in the open, decisions are live, visible, explained, and understood. And no scheduled meetings are needed.

It takes discipline. If a conversation begins in the wrong place, it must be moved. This means feedback is in the open, so senior team members must be articulate and concise in their review style. There should be no going away into a room to review in small selective groups. The feedback must happen in a channel, where all team members are able to participate and understand and document the take-aways and next steps.

Senior team members of your team with office backgrounds may struggle to adapt. Junior members, however, should gravitate to it more naturally. It takes a little time to shift mindsets, but mentoring, impromptu workshops, and studio camaraderie are all significant organic benefits.

Not to mention free calendars.

Give team members a stake in the journey

Being this open unavoidably causes a shift in demands on all your team members. It creates an obligation to articulate an honest opinion to the whole team, regardless of your level.

This isn't about making games by committee, nor is it even about democratising development; expertise and experience are important and absolutely not to be disregarded. It is also important, though, to ensure that everyone has their say and is aligned on the way forward at the sprint planning phase and thereafter.

At key points in a project's development – for us, it's at sprint shut-down – consider giving your entire team the chance to vote on the most important issues facing the latest build. If you've followed step two and have built that confidence in the vision throughout your team, the results will be powerful.

Aim to mandate that the most popularly highlighted issues MUST be addressed in the next phase of development. If there is some consensus on what is going wrong, it will be much easier to motivate the team to collaborate on solutions.

It should be actively encouraged that any idea or requested feature can be seriously quizzed by the rest of the team, with zero hierarchical considerations

Naturally, this doesn't mean everyone will immediately agree on what these solutions are. It should be actively encouraged that any idea or requested feature can be seriously quizzed by the rest of the team, with zero hierarchical considerations. In order for it to work meaningfully, this also means offering real opportunities to safely offer feedback in different ways, such as submitting a written note on a Miro board. Not everyone will want to speak up in a crowd, however welcoming you make it.

This process has many benefits. Seniors not only learn more about team attitudes, but they're forced to meet potential scrutiny with more thoroughly developed ideas. Junior members thrive from the opportunity to learn. Most importantly, it confirms that all parties are completely aligned on expectations, approach, and delivery.

Crucially, this thoroughness in airing concerns and raising questions, before progressing any development, means that everyone on your team can move forward with clarity and focus. Less re-work, more alignment, with stronger results in the right direction.

Safeguard your team

We have all seen or heard stories about remote workers feeling more prone to isolation or stress than their office-based equivalents. The very word 'remote' suggests separation from other individuals, which is why we tend to prefer the term 'virtual' to describe our studio, which better fits with how we see ourselves.

In a virtual studio, you need to be very conscious of tracking team health. Some stresses on individuals can be less obvious, and people appearing perfectly content with their work on the surface before quietly handing in their notice is exactly the kind of scenario that's important to avoid.

A great start is to plan work that is actually possible to complete on time and to a high standard. Sounds simple, but we all know this is not always a given.

Don't set teams or individuals up to fail. Speak to your team about how achievable your development goals are, or better yet, formalise a way to get their input every time an objective is set.

A great tip from our experience of objective-setting is to have your entire team vote on how achievable each aim is and to what level of quality, using the Fibonacci scale.

This will ensure you get different perspectives, helping account for possible blind spots, while also educating others on unforeseen complexity and closing knowledge gaps between disciplines. What you should begin to see is a pattern: people broadly agree on what is complex and what is not. This helps to show that alignment is becoming established within the team, which in turn means that there is a significantly lower chance of individuals suffering in silence.

Don't set teams or individuals up to fail. Speak to your team about how achievable your development goals are, or better yet, formalise a way to get their input every time an objective is set

On the topic of communication more broadly, when it comes to encouraging the team to talk more, one option to consider is to actually reduce the number of communication channels. While it feels counter-intuitive, having fewer channels helps individuals engage at deeper levels and increases the likelihood of sharing space and therefore socialising as they would in a shared physical space.

What we long knew as functioning models are now being questioned; one of those things is the whole notion of an office and how it works. There are many reasons to choose a virtual studio over a physical one, from talent attraction and reach to the added comfort (for many) of working from home, but it makes little sense to do so without full and proper consideration of how things can be different.

You have the opportunity to question everything, including those things we've taken for granted for so long, like the idea of a "meeting."

Of course, this structure may not be for all teams – even within nDreams, our different teams have their own ways of doing things – but we've already seen enough to believe this is a structure that can work across our industry.

The important message: with no legacy physical constructs, do not simply replicate the known models. Really commit some time and effort to establishing what you want to achieve, before almost anything else. Craft and iterate what works for your team and your projects.

As we all collectively learn more about what works and what doesn't in this (relatively) new world, it will only improve the industry for all of us.

Glenn Brace is head of studio at nDreams Elevation. Established in January 2022, Elevation is a fully remote studio focusing on creating AAA and core VR gaming experiences. Previously, he served as an art director at Climax Studios.

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