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Is It Time For The Bivouac Game Studio?

As big studios continue to encounter difficulties with production cycles, and outsourcing models create new challenges even as they solve problems, Tim Carter takes a look at an entirely different possibility for how teams can come together -- and disperse.

[As big studios continue to encounter difficulties with production cycles, and outsourcing models create new challenges even as they solve problems, Tim Carter takes a look at an entirely different possibility for how teams can come together -- and disperse.]

A bivouac is a camp. A place people come together, physically, to live for a short duration. Often when out in the wilderness doing frontier work, such as prospecting or pioneering. A bivouac is not a permanent home to a community -- like a town or village -- but a temporary one.

Is it time now that game production, physically, be done in this way? Is it time for the temporary production studio -- the game development bivouac?

The Assumption of Remoteness

Recently I found myself in a discussion with some game developers over the core team / outsourcing model of game development.

I realized there is a fundamental assumption developers have regarding what contracting external developers must mean in terms of how people are physically situated in regard to each other. This article is to challenge that assumption -- that misassumption.

We all know what the core team / outsourcing development model means by now. (At least I hope we do.) A small team of core creators -- the leads and so forth -- live together while planning a game. They design, build the early prototype, and then get financing to bring it into production.

When the production phase is begun, external developers -- freelancers or production companies -- are contracted to do most of the bulk work, such as art and QA. These parties work remotely, in this assumption. Because of this, everything needs to be tightly coordinated -- and here is where this model runs into the greatest resistance.

There is a gigantic belief around this model. The belief everything needs to be done in a distributed fashion: that the core team stays in its office, the external contractors stay in their office(s), all these entities physically distant from each other.

Why?

The Problems of Remoteness & Closeness

The problems of remote development are well known by now. People working remotely don't work well together -- no matter how much emailing, messaging, Skyping they do. Distributed work just doesn't compare to in-person work. You communicate much more effectively face-to-face than remotely. Some communication means that technical people might dismiss -- namely body language, eye contact, and so on -- are very valuable, and vastly increase the ability of a team to coordinate activities. This is why good development companies want their people onsite.

However, the all-in-person close-development model tends to have a big box game studio connotation. It reminds one of cage-like, factory farm production -- giant studios full of hundreds or even thousands of people who crunch for half the year, running at a burn-out pace, unable to pursue their dream projects and so forth, without time between projects, and so on. Possibly laid off between releases when they are not needed. Well-known grievances.

So these are the two conventional pictures of these models -- core team / outsourcing versus close-development.

But is it not possible to combine core-team / outsourcing with close-development?

Another Example: From Film

The answer is yes: it is possible!

And we already have a well-established example to look at: film and television production. (Yes, I know I'll get in trouble as you'll say games aren't film -- but bear with me for a moment...)

There was a time, in the '50s and earlier, the film industry ran exclusively in a close-development, big factory model. But years have passed, and models have matured. The film industry now runs in a core talent / outsourcing model, in terms of business (and the support of core talent via that business) -- yet production is still done in tight physical proximity.

The writers, directors, producers, production managers, stars and so on, plan out their work in small offices. When done planning, they enter production proper, hiring many contracted entities -- such as camera, lighting, rigging, art department, costuming, and other external companies -- who work temporarily on this single production. But they don't do production remotely. Instead they rent a temporary studio space, move all the external parties into it, and do production together.

A good film/TV studio space will have many facilities specifically tailored for all of the various departmental needs (here is an example of such as space, in Toronto).

In the film/TV studio space, crews will build large sets and so on, and here most production work will be done. (A lot will be done on location too, out of the studio, but that's not really relevant here.) These companies may live in said space for several months, possibly even several years (during a TV series or major film franchise).

But the space is nevertheless temporary: eventually production will wrap and the contractors go their respective ways (on to new projects), freeing the production company of its overhead burden; free the core talent of its obligation to remain married to one studio regardless of its wishes.

As you may imagine this is something of a nomadic or gypsy-like existence. But it still can make for a very strong community. If you've worked on a film set for several intense months on a project you will develop contacts. And friends. These relationships won't be lost once production is over, despite the seemingly "wandering existence".

Furthermore, this embracing of the nomadic makes it possible for the film and television community to pursue a vastly diverse range of artistic projects -- allowing motion pictures to be an artistic medium that has commanded mainstream attention and respect.


So why can't the game industry do this?

The question raises itself: why can't we do this in the game industry? Why do we assume that if we work all together we must be part of a single, fixed-location, permanent studio -- factory-like (with all the horrible things that entails)? Or, that if we use external contractors everyone has to stay separate and we can't bring all these entities together in a temporary studio space to work in close coordination? Why can't we bring our contracted parties together for a time to make a game in close coordination while we remain contractually and creatively flexible?

Certainly, you might look at the experience of the various game jams as being essentially this: game development bivouacs? The Toronto Game Jam here has many stories of setting up spaces to house several dozen game developers at once.

How would you set up a game studio bivouac?

At its simplest, a game dev bivouac is simply an office space occupied for a temporary duration. Perhaps it's this idea that requires the most acceptance and adjustment. The idea of moving in to a new space. I can hear it now. "OMG, we have to move between games now?" (Well, for many of you, don't you already?)

Yet from a physical perspective is it really that difficult? So you have to clear out your desk at the end of a year, or whatever. I've been to movie sets where tons of equipment was moved in to a space in just a few days, or moved out.

The idea that it's prohibitively difficult to transporting a few computers and some desks and so on is a stretch to believe. Not if it means you can bring the best companies and talent, custom cast for a specific game, together in close quarters for the time you need them.

I'm certain IT infrastructure wouldn't a problem. There would be mundane issues such as insurance and so on -- all of which are easily doable thanks to existing precedent.

Here in Toronto, the city's film office has gone out of its way to find space for many films and television series. Warehouses, abandoned breweries, old factories, military bases and so on, that had been sitting empty, were easily converted into quite large, very adequate film studios for a temporary duration. And the rent was dirt cheap. Just turn on the power and water, and do some basic physical maintenance and these shows had a studio for two or three years (or longer if the series continued).

Hundreds of millions of dollars of film/TV production was done this way. Why can't these kind of municipal or regional film/TV offices help with finding space for game bivouacs? A temporary studio doesn't have to look pretty -- besides the "camping" feel of an old brewery or automotive building would gel quite well with the whole youthful college culture element of game development. Plus, such a space might feel like being in a Counter-Strike level, too.

One can even see a time when companies emerge that do nothing but specialize in building game studio spaces specifically to rent out for temporary productions. Spaces tailor-designed to suit the needs of these single-project development initiatives -- with the optimal physical and office layout, infrastructure, amenities, code pits, art pits, rooms for tabletop design prototyping, and so on.

You need only look to film as an example of the equivalent (and certainly the physical footprint doesn't need to anywhere near as large as it is in film -- which often requires huge, soundproof buildings the size of airport hangars).

One can even imagine sections of such a permanent game bivouacking studio set up to look, frankly, fun to work in : with medieval, sci-fi, WWII or other themes.

(One of the funnest times I had working on a TV series was walking into an old warehouse and suddenly into the midst of the "Amazon jungle" -- complete with tribal villages, a small river and so on... During lunch break you could catch a few minutes rest in a hammock in a full-size tree fort -- connected to similar structures via catwalks. But I digress.)

Anyway, if you can't have fun in the game industry -- an industry about fun -- you're in trouble.


When would game bivouacking work? When would it not work?

Game bivouacking, in the way I speak, wouldn't be useful to small game productions. A small two- to five-person game dev company probably doesn't need such a solution. Their overhead is low enough; they're doing their own thing; and so on. Unless they were working in coordination with some kind of "co-op" of similar-sized entities, they wouldn't need this. Likewise, any company intending to stay permanently into a franchise of small games probably wouldn't need this. They make their games slowly, and don't have the production overhead.

However, this practice would have overwhelming advantages for large game projects that need to be done according to a tight, well-planned schedule. The flexibility and low-burn of core team / outsourcing, combined with the close integration of having all (or most) personnel onsite.

Next, you could only realistically set up such a bivouac in a game cluster: a city or municipal region with a fairly high concentration of game development talent in close physical commuting distance.

From the development talent's standpoint as soon as one production ends and its temp studio shut down, you'd want to be able to move onto the next bivouac / temp studio being set up, nearby. (Ideally, you would form a company of like-minded developers, and you would move as a unit. This too happens in film/TV.)

From the producer's standpoint, you could only set up a temporary game production space in an area with a large pool of game dev talent close by. So this practice could likely take root only in a true game development cluster: a place where existing studios are already in close proximity.

Being in the same state or province likely doesn't quality: this talent has to be co-located within daily commute distance. This is the only way you, as producer, could access the kind of fluid but deep talent-base you'd need at your disposal.

As many projects would appear and then disappear, followed by other projects appearing, this close-cluster footprint would be the only way talent would be attracted to what are, essentially, temporary gigs. But, again, if the flexibility of core team / outsourcing means the "gigs" are for games that will be truly mind-blowing, then it's worth it to function this way.

Strong core talent would benefit here. It would have the freedom to move between projects at its own pace -- unhinged from the need to maintain overhead of the ongoing concern of a development studio. While its development partners went elsewhere for the duration, it could take a break and dream up its next project. But when a bivouac went up, the excitement and tangible novelty of things would create a truly creative hothouse.

Let's make a scene

So this can be another way to further modularize and standardize the production of videogames -- to integrate the advantages of some different ways of doing things, and bring more flexibility to gamemaking. It's been done already for many decades in a similar entertainment industry. If we can combine the strengths of the close physical coordination of onsite development with the flexible production business practices of core team / outsourcing we can bring about a whole new way of building games.

But, honestly, that's a dry way of putting it.

Essentially, this idea is to provide a tool to help create a scene, in the same spirit of an avant garde art movement. This taps into an ancient phenomenon. When you look at instances of true art or innovation movements in history, from punk rock to new wave cinema to indie filmmaking, you see that what emerges are these scenes: these hothouses of creativity where people not only work in close coordination, but have a flexible existence that incubates things in a spontaneous way.

Creators see each other at parties, cinemas, art galleries, coffee shops, and so on. They meet and talk about "setting something up". There is cross-pollination. There is community. And it's caused because everyone is physically close together -- in the same temporary studio, but in the same area. And a new idea can set up as a serious but temporary studio at a short notice.

Many in the game industry, on the other hand, dismiss these largely qualitative but vitally important things -- these things that foster a flame of creativity -- in favour of short-term, quantitative elements such as "cheap rent", or what not. I never cease to wonder why.

The best talent wants to go to a cluster where things are happening -- to push the envelope; to live on the pulse of change. The idea of a game development bivouac is a way to help make this desire real.

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