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Tentacle Zone and the benefits of a shared development space | GI Live Online

Sarah Burns, Chris Dawson and Andrew Smith joined Payload Studio's Vincent Scheurer to discuss co-working spaces

Sharing ideas and collaborating has gradually become a much bigger part of game development in today's world. Yet the idea of setting up and running a shared office or business space is still a relative rarity -- especially for independent studios.

UK developer Payload Studios decided to open its doors in 2019 to fellow developers and create a co-working space in its office complex in Farringdon, London. It's known as the Tentacle Zone.

At GI Live earlier this year, Payload's co-founder Vincent Scheurer, and three fellow game developers from their co-working space, spoke about what Tentacle Zone has done for them, and why others could benefit from seeking, or starting, their own shared development spaces.

Why choose a specialised co-working space?

Scheurer was joined by Spilt Milk Studios CEO Andrew Smith, Robot Squid co-founder and creative director Chris Dawson, and Marvelous Europe's head of production and operations Sarah Burns to discuss the Tentacle Zone. He started by asking his guests what they felt has been the biggest benefit to being part of the co-working space and development network.

"It's the accidental bonuses of being in a space with other devs: conversations over coffee, problems that [can be solved] when someone asks 'what's up?' when you're looking gloomy"

Andrew Smith, Spilt Milk Studios

"I'm old enough to have a company, but young enough to remember when it was really hard to figure out how to even skill-up and get into the games industry," said Smith. "So it's always been a thing of sharing knowledge, and improving the industry by sharing. The whole Tentacle Zone thing was something we've been waiting to happen.

"Payload themselves are incredibly experienced and talented developers, and everyone else just adding to that. And I think it's easy to list some of the structure stuff... but for us it's the unstructured and almost accidental bonuses of being in a space with other developers: the conversations over coffee, the problems that [can be solved] when someone asks 'what's up?' to you when you're looking gloomy in the morning. It's that kind of thing."

Sarah Burns said that the positive atmosphere and inclusive culture they found is what drew the European publishing arm of Marvelous to the Tentacle Zone.

"Previously, we were based at Tunbridge Wells. We were looking to make that next step in 2019. We decided we wished to grow our team, our ambition, and our products," she said. "We looked around at [other UK game hotspots, including] Leamington Spa and Scotland, but we joined the Tentacle Zone because we thought we really gelled with the culture and people there, and what everyone wanted to achieve."

Burns said the move has also helped connect them with contacts in finance and HR, and given the Marvelous team a greater connection with fellow developers, thanks to talks by other members of Tentacle Zone, which she said has been "really helpful for growing as a team, getting to see different aspects and disciplines."

For Chris Dawson of Robot Squid, being among a larger group of game development peers -- the ad hoc conversations and breaks from the pressures of start-up life -- was the biggest attraction.

"When you're a start-up, you're often one, two, maybe four people. Hiring an office for a start is a massive headache. Organising it all, signing leases, getting air conditioning installed, all that. You don't want that when you're a start-up. You need to focus on getting product out," said Dawson.

"But the main thing for us is that when you're a small company with just a few people it can feel very isolating. And you spend a lot of time with those people, and it's just nice working in an environment where you can mix with other people, a bit like you might get with a bigger organisation.

"I think that helps you mentally. As opposed to being in a tiny, little office, with two or three other people, hammering work out, 24 hours a day."

Conversation leads to collaboration

Fostering a space for likeminded and understanding game creators is no mean feat. It takes more than an open plan canteen and lounge area (which Payload has also provided). But conversations between Tentacle Zone's members have led to real collaborations with impressive results, such as Spilt Milk Studios and Robot Squid.

Smith remembers a Christmas party where he praised Dawson and his team for their mobile game, King of Crabs. Together with one of his colleagues, he convinced Dawson that a PC version could be made, and volunteered to take on the project.

"It's so important to get people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and diverse spaces into the teams in order for us to make better games"

Sarah Burns

Dawson said: "Because we're so mobile-focused, it was hard for us to think outside of mobile. This is another reason why it's good to mix with different companies working on different platforms.

"We had talked about it in the past, but not seriously. So after chatting with Spilt Milk about the technicalities of porting to Steam -- the ins and outs of it, which was all alien to us -- it was maybe a 20-minute discussion over a bottle of beer, [and] the deal was sealed.

"At the time, it felt like a small, risky bet, but it's turned out to be transformational. It's led us to become a full cross-platform company from now on, instead of just mobile-focused. So, these kinds of sparks can happen when you're in a casual environment with other start-ups."

Casual conversations are something we've all missed this past year due to the pandemic. While their office space was closed, the Tentacle Zone collective have done their best to keep each other motived, as Burns describes.

"It's a real shame that we lost that meeting up in the kitchen situations. But Tentacle Zone has kept that spirit going with the [virtual] coffee breaks that we have among all the companies. We just take some time out of a week to just have a chat about anything. I think that's been great for our mental health and getting away from work... I've definitely played a few games of Among Us that have been a lot of fun. We have the Slack channel and the Discord. It's just sort of keeps that spirit going, even though we're all apart at the moment."

Share and share alike

Alongside the all-important breaktimes, Payload and many of its Tentacle Zone family have encouraged an attitude of openness. This can be seen with the events and discussions they've hosted, which the panel said have been helpful for solving problems they've faced as independent creators and small businesses.

Since opening its doors, Tentacle Zone has hosted discussions on the art and design of games, as well as marketing, monetization, pitching advice, and other topics.

Smith noted that what he's found most valuable has been advice or connections who can help with "business wrangling." For instance, when his studio, or a fellow studio, needs to understand more about how they can hire a potential recruit from overseas.

"And even down to informal business advice when things are going wrong," Smith added. "You know, it's not even when things are going right, necessarily, that the values there... the sort of unplanned support network is tremendous.

"We've had people come in from our extended network. We have a friendly games lawyer who does right by us, and we're happy to introduce him to the right people, and that sort of thing. And it's just expanding that network... It's explosive in how much it affects the opportunities you've got, the support you've got, the things you can do, and the ambitions you can have."

The Tentacle Zone incubator

Speaking of raising ambitions, Payload has big plans to make use of the Tentacle Zone and its collective to help new people gain access into the games industry. Earlier this year, it announced the Tentacle Zone incubator with a focus on specificgetting underrepresented groups involved in the games sector.

"It was maybe a 20-minute discussion over a bottle of beer, [and] the deal was sealed. It felt like a risk, but it's turned out to be transformational"

Chris Dawson, Robot Squid

Part of the catalyst for this was Spilt Milk Studios' eagerness to offer work placements and Payload's assistance in accommodating and supporting their needs.

Speaking about their pre-lockdown placements, Smith said: "Up to that point, we were in a position to offer placements and internships, and it's been something that we just wouldn't have been able to do if we weren't at the Tentacle Zone. You know, 'Oh, hey, Vincent, I know it's short notice, but can we get two extra desks?' And it's just done. And there's been three or four little projects that have come out of it.

"We're quite motivated about trying to make some change in how kids get into the industry and where they come from. And that's been something that we wouldn't have been able to think about doing if it wasn't for being part of the Zone. And the fact that everyone's so supportive and it's such a wonderful place to be... Those people who've come in have got more out of it than if we'd run it in our own offices. On every level it's been better as a result."

This feeling was shared by Scheurer, who added: "You guys [Spilt Milk] are very advanced at working with interns and bringing people into the industry who are just starting out their careers. We've learnt a lot, because you guys have been doing it for a long time. It's been brilliant to see it."

All of the panel members are involved in the Tentacle Zone incubator, through mentoring, contributing to events, offering guidance, and so on. Scheurer was interested to know what his guests felt about the incubator programme.

"We're deeply passionate about it. I think it's an incredible initiative that Payload is undertaking. I'm really proud to be involved even on the periphery, let alone as a mentor," said Smith. "And I think it's an opportunity the bigger companies just don't see because they're so set in the ways that make sense for them. And that's not a criticism, necessarily. But this thing wouldn't happen anywhere else. It's the fact that it's in London and it's the group of devs in the Tentacle Zone, and the ways that we think about business... It's culminated in this thing that's going to meaningfully impact the industry and the routes into it.

"We all, as companies, are aware that we should be pushing for as diverse a workforce as the global population. But to make meaningful change you need those people coming in at the top. So, to have [this incubator] directed at companies founded by these underrepresented groups is phenomenal. There's maybe one or two things a bit like in the world right now, but to be seeing this happen right here, right now, and to be a small part of it is tremendous."

"I think that helps you mentally. As opposed to being in a tiny, little office, with two or three other people, hammering work out, 24 hours a day"

Chris Dawson, Robot Squid

Burns added: "I couldn't agree more. I think it's so important to get people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and diverse spaces into the teams in order for us to make better games at the end of the day. Having people with different views is really important."

And Dawson added: "It's a great initiative. I think we're going to have some very interesting ideas coming out from those groups... if we get fresh new people coming through who wouldn't traditionally join the industry, you're going to get different types of thinking. Especially as the types of people who play games has widened so much."

Originally, there were eight placements for Tentacles Zone's first incubator intake, and 60 applicants applied. After reviewing the applicants, the team added another four places in order to accommodate as many newcomers as they could this time round.

"It does show that there's definitely a lot of demand for it," said Scheurer, speaking about Tentacle Zone's initial incubator intake. "And as long as we can perform our side of the bargain and do something that's really good, then I expect that this is something that we'll be able to keep on running and running, and make a definite contribution. But we get something out of it as well... it's always a two-way street."

There are many options for renting office space nowadays. And as the world slowly recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, it's clear that our relationship with workplaces has changed dramatically.

A co-working space could be the place to foster new talent, grow your team, and even develop new skills and opportunities for you and your team. While that may not be possible immediately, Burns believe that other physical spaces will be formed from some of the virtual communities that Covid has sparked.

As you can see, these devs are big fans of the concept. If you're in a position to give a co-working space a go, Smith says: "Join one or, if you can't, make one. Give it a go. The rewards are there."

You can watch the full panel discussion in the video below:

Cover image for YouTube video