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Virtual Game Dev - How I Learned to Love Remote Workers

Developers large and small are leaving undiscovered talent on the table. Why? How do you make it work? Here are some guidelines learned from twenty years of experience on both sides of the line.

Dennis Piatkowski, Blogger

May 1, 2015

6 Min Read

Office Space

In this day and age, making games is more accessible than ever. Top notch tools are available cheaply (or free!) to just about anyone who wants them. That said, it takes significantly more than just tools to make great games. It takes talent, money, and time. What we don't need is offices. Even big AAA game studios could improve their bottom line with this concept. Here is a proposition for why game builders, big and small, should seriously consider making games with remote workers as a deliberate choice. 

The most obvious difference is cost. When you are already paying for a safe place to sleep, why let that space go to waste while you are away at work eight or nine hours a day? While it is still true that a dedicated space for work is required, the additional square footage cost is far below the cost of a completely separate space. This also takes into account the shared space of multiple people in one office. 

My Home Office SetupEven the concept of a typical modern office is difficult to understand for a creative person. At some point in the the last decade someone suggested that the "open office" plan promoted collaboration. While us game makers are all about trying new ideas, it has been proven through multiple studies that open offices only end up creating more distraction. While distraction can be an issue at home as well, there are ways to minimize it. Home offices are not a good strategy for parents of young children, for example. However, once they are school-age you will have a house that is quiet and filled with the love of your family, ready for creativity to flow.

This suggests another point about our office environment. At places like IBM in the late 70's, They had a job to do, and wanted to look good doing it. So it was no concern at all to put on a suit and a tie. Therefore the dress code was less about a form of control by the corporation, and more of a concession to what the people working in that company wanted. Why should that be any different today? And this extends to decorating our working space to any degree we like, without fear of offending anyone. 

Game developers typically have two modes: they are at the keyboard making stuff happen, or they are thinking about what they will do the next time they are at the keyboard. Working at home allows us to make things happen when we think of them, not have to wait until the next morning. By then, we've already forgotten the idea! 

This is one of the many myths about working at home: that it reduces productivity. It is true that it takes a certain kind of mindset to not take advantage of the situation. But one of the things that defines us as developers is that this is what we want to be doing, more than anything else. This isn't "work" to us. It is freedom, a kind that is so much more rewarding when you get to escape to that place any time we like.

Setec Astronomy

In the interest of full disclosure, let me tell you a little about myself. In the five years I've worked for my last company, I have walked into the office twice. Technically I was based out of the San Francisco office, but I live and work from my home in Kansas City, Missouri. Before that, I worked remotely for people all over the world including New York and London since 2003.

For most of my last project, I was the sole programmer creating the entire user interface experience outside of the core gameplay itself. Clearly I was a necessary and valued member of the team. Unfortunately me and the other two remote workers in the company in other cities were recently laid off. At the time of the layoff, all of us were working on critical path features of a newly released game. Less than a month ago our company entered into an agreement with a company well-known for extreme secrecy. 

It is my opinion that this is a direct result of one of the myths of remote workers: that they are more likely to reveal company or investor secrets, that we are somehow less secure because our computers are allowed to leave the office for extended periods of time. Yet the three of us worked for the last 12 months on a project owned by very big name intellectual property owners, without a single incident of leaked information or stolen equipment.

It could be argued that houses are more secure than an office. Every person in a household knows every other person, intimately. Every unusual face sticks out like a sore thumb. In an office's business hours, who can pay attention to all the people who must come and go in a normal day? Sure, you could hire guards or install cameras. But all of that is quite expensive compared to the built-in security of a household. And if something ever does happen, you've lost only one machine, instead of having twenty machines available to a thief all in one place.

Make it Work

For those of you who have never attempted such an adventure, here are a few easy guidelines that have proven extremely useful over the years.

Treat every email, every instant message, every phone call as though you were standing in front of that person. Be respectful, don't interrupt, and remember that this isn't like the internet: these people do know who you are.

Team gatherings are just as important for remote workers as it is in an office. When starting a major milestone on a project, we gather the team to hash things out. Start projects by bringing everyone to a central location for a week to get as much on paper as you can. That way as we follow up with weekly online meetings there is a basis of understanding. Not to mention it breeds the camaraderie needed to get through the hard times.

Video conferencing is not as necessary as it used to be, with the advent of things like Google's online presentation and document editing software. It's not perfect, but it is a huge step in the right direction. On the other hand, quality audio conferencing is a must. Do not underestimate the importance of being able to interrupt someone to make a supporting comment. Unfortunately there is not much good software that can both keep a solid connection and also allow people to interrupt each other. Whatever you do, use headsets. The built-in computer microphones and speakers add a lot of unnecessary noise.

Have work accounts for email and instant messengers separate from personal ones. This way you can "tune out" work or personal life at appropriate times. A major point is reducing distractions, and having your inbox ping at you 20 times a day is the opposite of intended.

You might think there is more to it, but in truth there is not. It is as simple as π. Therefore I bid you great game-making!


Dennis has been writing up his thoughts on game development for a while now. You can see more of his thoughts at DWulf.com

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