It seems like the majority of people working in or with small and middle-sized game studios and teams use the cloud-based chat app these days. Put a call out to game developers asking which of them use Slack and you will get a lot of responses.
This is perhaps to be expected given that Slack was conceived within the context of game development. Stewart Butterfield originally created Slack as a way to organize the multiple online conversations between the people he led while working on the now-defunct MMO Glitch. Unlike other chat services, Slack (an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge) splits the conversation across multiple channels, each of which can be given a designated topic. It also allows people to directly message each other privately and bring in others to that conversation if they choose.
Butterfield also intended for Slack to be integrated with a team’s favorite services, like GitHub and Dropbox. Source code and files from either can be imported to Slack so the whole team has easy access to them, can keep track of any changes, and collaborate on their development in the same online space. This integration remains to this day, years after Butterfield released Slack to the public, and has in fact grown to include many more services, such as Google Drive and Trello.
The ubiquity of Slack has us wondering about its impact on game development teams and how they work in recent years. Adventure game pioneer Ron Gilbert, recently tweeted that he considers Slack to be the “most useful tool [he’s] seen in game development over the past 30 years.”
Speaking to Gilbert, he reveals the reason he made this statement is due to how Slack has changed how he works within game development teams. Before Slack, he used an instant messaging service, which only allowed for one-to-one conversations. With Slack’s multiple channels and group conversations he’s found a way to not only converse better, but to build a sense of community among his team, despite the distance between them.
"I like the way that even the team members not directly involved with a particular aspect of the game can see the conversation developing."
“What Slack has allowed is building a tight team in a way that in the past would have required an office and everyone to be local,” Gilbert says. “Slack is more about building your team’s community than just communications. I can now go out and hire the best person and not have to worry about them being in Seattle, or moving them here.”
Even once a person’s work is done on a project, Gilbert lets them remain in the Slack group, where they can continue to be involved in the game if they wish, and also keep up with the team as friends. “I also really appreciate Slack’s billing,” adds Gilbert, “they automatically drop people from your bill if they don’t log in, and add them back when they do.”
It’s the accessibility of Slack that allows Gilbert to so easily add and remove people from his group. This is something that prolific game maker and member of six Slack groups, Alex Bethke, speaks about as well.
“Most developers who use it do so for its accessibility - it’s just so easy to bring new team members on board,” says Bethke. “The barrier to entry is super low, which is very important for the adoption of any tool, especially across multidisciplinary fields like game development. The search features seem pretty clean and equally easy to use, which makes finding details a lot easier than something like email threads or Google Hangouts.”
As Bethke says, central to Slack’s accessibility is its channel-based setup, which many developers use to split up what were unwieldy conversations in other chat apps. That’s what Ricky Haggett of Hollow Ponds found especially useful when using Slack for the first time recently, while creating his roguelike Loot Rascals.
“We ended up keeping the number of channels quite small, so as not to spread the conversation over too many places - especially for a game where so many of the systems interlock and overlap, but it was great to be able to have specialized ones, e.g. for audio + music,” says Haggett.
“I like the way that even the team members not directly involved with a particular aspect of the game can see the conversation developing, and therefore have a good handle on the wider issues around the specific part they're working on. And sometimes those people chime in with a really good idea.”
Helping distributed teams and non-native speakers
The idea that Slack helps to bring a team together as they collaborate is brought up by a lot of the game developers that use it. It seems to be an increasingly important goal for teams that are spread across the world, especially as governments introduce policies that make it harder to physically cross borders.
"Almost every game studio I know uses it. I don't have to worry about managing multiple communication apps on my desktop, I can just confine it all to Slack."
Toronto-based Gabby DaRienzo is one of many people who has been working on a more international level since she started using Slack. She’s currently a member of 21 different Slack groups: one for her own studio Laundry Bear Games, others for the freelance game projects she works on remotely (Graceful Explosion Machine, Parkitect, Celeste), and many more for specific community groups she contributes to.
“Before, we primarily worked with local folks because it was easier,” says DaRienzo, “but Slack's ease of use allows us to collaborate with anyone from anywhere, which opens up a lot of options for us that we wouldn't have considered before.”
It’s the fact that all these different teams and communities are using Slack that makes it possible for DaRienzo to participate in all of them. “It's a very convenient tool because almost every game studio I know uses it,” she says. “I don't have to worry about managing multiple communication apps on my desktop, I can just confine it all to Slack.” DaRienzo says she’s able to jump between the different teams with ease and manage multiple projects at once.
Another way that Slack has helped to unite team members from different countries is seen at Danish studio Bedtime Digital. The team is currently split across several ongoing projects that are made up of people with various nationalities: Danish, French, German, and Ukrainian. Many of them are based in the studio’s office in Denmark, so distance isn’t the problem that Slack solves, it is instead translation.
“As we communicate almost exclusively in English, and it is not the mother tongue of any of us, communicating [in Slack] allows people to look up translation for some words before sending messages,” says producer Emilie Mavel. “It helps make discussion less stressful and more efficient.”
While Slack has helped to bridge people across countries and encourages them to collaborate across long distances, it is also used, perhaps even more commonly, to improve local office spaces. There are a number of ways in which Slack is used for this purpose.
“Slack serves as the communication tool for everything that needs to be noted down somewhere,” says Simon Wallner, of four-person team Lost in the Garden. “Pasting links to the occasional Google Doc, festival entry form, or dropping stack traces and error messages. It's a bit like a large shared whiteboard that also supports copy/paste.”
As the team at Lost in the Garden is based in an office, they enjoy a lot of face-to-face communication. But Slack’s accessibility and its integration with many important development tools and programs have made it the perfect medium for anything that needs to be written down or that needs multiple eyes and hands on.
Tanya Short of Kitfox Games agrees with this sentiment. She says that, even in her team of six people, they might be discussing three projects at once, with some members involved in all of them. For her, Slack’s multiple channels, “where infodumps or files or questions can happen without breaking anyone's flow is valuable.”
"It has definitely allowed for fewer interruptions, fewer meetings, and a quieter workplace."
However, one complaint Short has with Slack is that it’s “tempting to use it for file sharing or archiving, which is way too messy and weird compared to ACTUAL file sharing solutions otherwise implemented (Dropbox, Google Drive, SVN, etc).”
Something else that she touches upon, and which is brought up by many game developers who use Slack, is that it helps to keep noise down in offices. “It has definitely allowed for fewer interruptions, fewer official meetings, and a quieter workplace, even though we have an open floor plan,” she says.
What coders like (and don't like) about Slack
Paul Lawitzki, a coder at seven-person team Chasing Carrots, builds upon what Short says on Slack’s ability to keep noise down and allow for fewer interruptions. The biggest advantage of communication through Slack from Lawitzki’s coder perspective is that you don’t have to respond to requests immediately. Its multiple channels help to break up the conversation so he can skim them and prioritize based on what he sees. But he adds that, when he’s “in the zone,” he can ignore the requests completely and come back to them later, whereas verbal communication used to completely interrupt his flow.
“This is actually a big issue in programming,” Lawitzki says. “If you're in the middle of something, even the shortest interruption might basically reset your entire chain of thoughts.” He brings up a cartoon made famous around coders as it speaks to this common issue.
Jason Heeris's comic illustrates the interruptions that Slack can help to minimize
He also points to a thread on StackExchange that saw coders discussing how to explain to people why they shouldn’t be interrupted while they’re deep into their work.
“Slack definitely had an impact on our team’s communication,” Lawitzki continues. “Unless there is something urgent to discuss directly or to showcase, most of the talking moved from the office space over to the kitchen and lunch area.”
"It's a double-edged sword. If I need to concentrate on a specific piece of coding or writing, I may have to go off chat for a while — but that in turn impacts other team members."
However, Robert Zubek, coder at SomaSim, hasn't had such a positive experience with Slack. He calls it a double-edged sword.
“The awesome immediacy also means that team members end up interrupting each other, and that can be acceptable or it can be damaging, depending on what people are working on,” says Zubek. “If I'm doing easy tasks I don't mind being interrupted, but if I need to concentrate on a specific piece of coding or writing, I may have to go off chat for a while — but that in turn impacts other team members.”
“It feels like we're recapitulating the same kind of interruption-related problems that people used to complain about with Outlook or Crackberries a decade ago — we've ended up with the same expectations that people will reply right away, and you have to carefully manage your participation,” continues Zubek. “I wish there was a one-click way to say, ‘enable do-not-disturb mode for all channels, except for these important ones.’ That would go a long way towards reducing interruptions.”
Adding a third coder’s perspective, Wallner has experimented with Slack’s custom integrations feature and found that it can also have a positive effect on the programming process. His team at Lost in the Garden initially tried out a Bitbucket repo with commit notifications that posted to a Slack channel. But this was quickly swapped out for a self-hosted repo. What’s been more effective for them is having their build pipeline and upload tools posted to a Slack channel.
“Our build pipeline allows us to create a large number of different builds in one batch. It runs on our work computers and also has the option to shutdown the computer afterwards,” says Wallner. “Before I go home, I start the build and can still monitor the progress from home. We also integrated notification into our upload script in a similar way. All very easy with a single line of bash script.”
Coders aren’t the only people who find it useful to customize Slack. Marketers and producers also tailor it to help them out with managing their teams and acquiring any assets they need.
"My favorite feature is being able to set up bots to automatically notify the entire team about mentions and daily reports, instead of having to look up Google Analytics, Google Trends, Tweetdeck, Facebook, Tumblr, etc."
“As someone who is in charge of marketing, my favorite feature is being able to set up bots to automatically notify the entire team about mentions and daily reports, instead of having to look up Google Analytics, Google Trends, Tweetdeck, Facebook, Tumblr, etc, one by one,” says Camila Gomaz, business developer and artist at Chile-based studio Bura.
London-based developer Steven Yau has also seen marketing people use Slack and HipChat in a similar way but his experience is part of a team in a much larger company. “There would be one or several channels for notifications from JIRA, GitHub, Trello, Jenkins, etc to give a timeline on what is happening on the project at any point in time especially for non-developers,” he says.
“An example would be Jenkins sending notifications to HipChat/Slack for every incremental build and detailing the changelog so Producers and QA know what features and/or bugfixes have made it into each build,” continues Yau.
He says that, as the team was in a single building, a lot of communication was done verbally, so these chat apps were customized so external people who, for example, might want to request game assets for marketing purposes, could quickly get hold of the person they needed.
Fun and games
The other reason to customize Slack comes from something Bethke picks out as one of its most unexpectedly important features. “The #random channel you get by default also seems to be a powerful but subtle concept,” he says. “This gives a dedicated place for people to talk and clutter up separate from topic-themed channels. People like to chatter, that's just a fact of life, so giving them a place to do that keeps it out of the places it would otherwise show up.”
"People like to chatter, that's just a fact of life. So giving them a place to do that keeps it out of the places it would otherwise show up."
It’s things like the #random channel that, as Gilbert mentioned earlier, allows Slack to help with building a community. One way towards doing this is creating custom channels that help a team discuss certain subjects or issues. This is something Joon Van Hove, one of three members of game collective Glitchnap, found to be a key feature of Slack.
“Something I learned from working remote, as well as from working on multiple projects simultaneously, is that there often isn't a good way to talk about small issues or friction that happens between colleagues,” he says. “Within a few months of using [Slack], we started a channel called #notimpressed. It was a way for us to vent on small things that others did that annoyed us, or when we are annoyed with ourselves, without having to go into conversation.”
Van Hove says most issues were dealt with in a lightweight or comedic fashion, and included bugs in codes, typos in pitch documents. But that channel was also used to notify each other if they were running late or would miss a deadline.
“It removes some pressure, because without a separate space for it, these frictions would enter other conversations where they can only function as distractions,” he says. “Similarly we have #impressed (for shoulder patting and encouragement) and #puppets where we made emoji faces of each of us and have mock-conversations or re-enactments of funny events.”
Glitchnap isn’t alone in embracing Slack’s custom emojis to find some relief from the workload. It seems nearly every game development team has jumped on this feature. “We added Sid Meier and Will Wright to our emoji collection, because somehow prominent gamedev personalities are part of some of our inside jokes,” says Lawitzki.
“One of our team mates even made it into the collection and are used very regularly. It adds a lot to our own internal little culture. Yes, we goof around a lot. But it also increases our productivity.” As with many other teams, Lawitzki’s infused Slack with their own personality, which makes it a better place to hang around and to get to know the team better.
Wallner and his Vienna-based team turned the “user icon for the build bot [into] Vienna's city mayor exclaiming ‘the cheap wine shall be brought in!’” As Vienna hosts the Sigmund Freud museum, the team also added his face as an emoji as he’s “always lurking behind every corner.” Other custom emojis in Wallner’s Slack group include Richard Nixon, Not Bad Obama, Grumpy Cat, and KHAN!. A few developers have said that communicating with custom emojis like this has helped to speed up communication as well as bring people closer over time.
Also mentioned a few times by developers as a treasured feature is the randomized GIF integration that Slack has with RightGIF and GIPHY. “You write ‘/gif anything-you-want’ and you get a terrible GIF which is NEVER right,” says game developer Pierre Corbinais, currently working on Bury me, my Love with an international team. “This is hilarious every time.” Not knowing what GIF will turn up when entering that shortcut into Slack has become a game for some teams that always results in a shared laugh. Again, it helps to establish a sense of community with long-running inside jokes.
By now, it should be easy to see that there are many reasons why so many people have started using Slack and stuck with it. But if you compare it to other tools and chat apps out there, there aren’t all that many differences between them and Slack. Why, then, did people switch over to Slack?
“We switched from Skype because Skype doesn't travel well - specifically, it had this annoying tendency to constantly call old messages new notifications ,even if they'd already been read on other computers,” says Short. “Skype also tried to do lots of background surveillance, aggressive forced updates, and we have a general distrust of Microsoft, so... we tried the switch and it worked. I think the only other similar communication tool would be email, which feels cumbersome by comparison.”
Australian game developer Jarrad Woods, aka Farbs, also compares Slack to Skype, and brings up one of the same grievances as Short. “Being server based, you no longer need to be online at the same time as someone else to receive messages,” he says. “Watching Skype barf up three hours of messages because someone else logged in, while you were halfway through a conversation with someone else, was super weird and disorienting.”
"Now we don't have to bother with the server administration anymore, and all the little integrations make our everyday life funnier and more enjoyable."
Mélanie Christin, co-founder at French studio Atelier 801, found Slack to be a better way to unite technical and non-technical people in her team. “We used to have a jammer server with Spark, then Pidgin, and it was a hassle to maintain, and not very user-friendly for the non-tech profiles,” she says. “Now we don't have to bother with the server administration anymore, and all the little integrations make our everyday life funnier and more enjoyable.”
Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games has been using text-based collaboration tools for game development since the late 1980s, “back when 2400 baud modems were all the rage.” Now he’s using Slack, which he sees as simply the next best thing for game studios to use in a long lineage of chat programs.
“In the late '90s, we used ICQ; during the '00s, we used Trillian; we eventually used group chats in Google Hangouts and Skype; and now, finally, Slack. In most cases, it was because the new tools gave us an incremental improvement over the previous method, and that's true here,” says Lambe.
“Slack's not the only game in town (IRC, Ryver, etc.), but it's pretty easy to get new team members set up, and it ties together nicely with other tools - I can easily pop into a Google Hangout, for instance. And it's extensible enough so that we can integrate some of our own stuff (e.g. we have an integration that squawks every time Steam launches a new game, via What’s On Steam and @MicroTrailers).”
Offering a completely different perspective, Andreas Zecher of Spaces of Play, doesn’t use Slack, but has been using something very similar to it for years. It’s called Campfire, which he describes as “the old-school version of Slack, from a time when web fonts and loud, happy colors were not the UI paradigm yet.” His team haven’t made the leap to Slack as they’re still quite happy using Campfire in tandem with the project management tool Basecamp, made by the same company.
“We've found that a chat system like Campfire or Slack works best for us to share news and updates between each other, but that important discussions need more structure and should best be done elsewhere: an email thread, a Skype call, or a Basecamp todo,” says Zecher.
Popular, but not perfect
One of the reasons that Slack is so popular is that it’s constantly being improved to address issues people have with it and to accommodate for the many different ways teams use it. With that in mind, some of the developers came up with their biggest complaints about Slack that they’d like to see improve in the future.
"The client is not the fastest, and it's very memory-hungry - if you participate in 10 Slack teams, it will consume almost 2GB of memory just sitting there waiting for messages."
Speaking the words of many developers, Zubek’s complaint is that “the client is not the fastest, and it's very memory-hungry - if you participate in 10 Slack teams, it will consume almost 2GB of memory just sitting there waiting for messages.”
Zubek adds that, in the past, he’s had to close Slack to free up memory for development tools so he could actually get on with work - not something he expects from a chat client. “I'm investigating alternatives to Slack for our team, because this is negatively impacting productivity,” he adds.
Lambe isn’t quite as jaded with Slack as Zubek but he has had similar issues that affect productivity. “I want it to act as a better note-taker. Current search is basic enough is that it's a hassle to find anything in its stacked list of keyword search results,” says Lambe.
“Given the recent fervor around AI (e.g. this), I think someone's eventually going to come up with a tool that helps us summarize the sprawling conversations we have about design, or can intelligently collect and categorize the reference images and video we post for art. I could see a Slack bot becoming a project manager/historian for our team in the not-too-distant future.”
Yau has a similar request to Lambe, saying that he’d like the ability to archive or export messages in chat. “If a conversation about a feature occurs, for example, a link to that particular conversation could be generated and used as reference in a design document.” Yau would also like a way to manage access and viewing permissions on a per channel basis, similar to standard forums. “We could potentially create client accounts without having to expose other projects or company communications,” he says.
Damian Sommer of Gloam Collective has actually abandoned using Slack for the reason that Yau brings up, now instead using Discord for his current multiplayer game project. “The main reason we switched is because [Discord is] a much stronger community-building tool. It pulls a lot more from IRC in that you can have users with different ranks, which allow us to assign moderation powers and roles that can gain access to specific channels,” says Sommer.
“We figured we're going to need to build a community for our multiplayer game, and if you look online now, most people playing games on PC have heard of or are using Discord. A private Slack group wouldn't gain as much traction. We could have technically used Discord for the Gloam Collective's public-facing stuff, and Slack for its private communications, but we wanted to reduce the amount of programs we'd need to keep track of.”
Sommer also notes that another big problem with Slack is that its price is far too high for small businesses. The current pricing model sees the Standard version costing $6.67 for each user per month, so long as you pay the bill annually. If you pay it monthly then it shifts to $8 per user. The Plus version moves the price up to $12.50 per user each month if you pay annually, or $15 per user if you pay monthly.
Millidge also found the pricing of the premium versions of Slack too high while being disappointed with what’s on offer in the free version. “The 10k post limit for free users does give a big disadvantage when searching for content that has fallen beyond that limit,” he says. “And I can't afford to pay the premium for each member, so I'd hope for an alternative solution, something indies could afford.”
A tool for game dev
Even with these complaints, most of the people spoken to who use Slack have very positive experiences with it and find that it’s a surprisingly helpful tool for game development.
Looking at what Lambe says about the lineage of chat apps, with one replacing another as it brings in new improvements, it seems likely that Slack will one day fall out of popularity in favor of whatever comes next.
But, for now, Slack’s designs and ubiquity has managed to encourage more international collaborations, helped increase productivity for coders and marketers alike, keep offices quiet, and gave teams something to laugh about during breaks.
It’s even managed to serve the needs of Rami Ismail, from Dutch studio Vlambeer, as he flies frequently between countries giving talks and meeting developers. It’s his main method of communication between his team.
“A lot of things have become more like an 'online office', instead of a weekly Skype checkup,” Ismail says about using Slack. “The ability to drop throw-away remarks, easily share progress and things you're proud of, quickly grab something someone mentioned three months ago - it's all fast and seamless. It really changes the workflow for the better.”