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Best practices learned in virtual game development in a Covid-19 world

Spons. As game development teams around the world attempted to figure out how to work amidst unexpected shifts caused by the pandemic, these student teams overcame--and excelled. Here's what they learned.

Presented by SMU Guildhall

When the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown hit in Spring 2020, SMU Guildhall had to fully shift our teaching methodologies to online learning on an unexpected one-week notice—all while maintaining the essential requirement of no loss in learning outcomes. This was no small feat, especially with content deeply oriented in collaborative teamwork.

Amongst the many adjustments were changes to the way research and senior cohort students' thesis projects proceeded as project deadlines loomed, as well as critical events that impact student success such as graduation and career fairs.

Perhaps our greatest challenge was adapting our classroom teaching techniques, especially in Team Game Production—which was roughly half-way through teaching junior cohort students how to develop their first major large-scale game… now unexpectedly by fully virtual means.

This particular point in our curriculum is always designed to be challenging. The game must be designed and shipped in an insanely short 16-week schedule, with students working together on a new team of 60 people for the first time. They must learn how to communicate and adapt rapidly in a large team environment, and come out of the process with ample shared experiential knowledge to set them up for a successful senior Capstone game run the following semester. The game is in service to those learning outcomes, so finishing with commercial release-quality is a rare, massive accomplishment. It's a unicorn.

Well, these students are unicorn riders.

That team went on to complete their project with such high quality that SMU Guildhall published their arcade racing game, Haberdashers, on Steam in Summer 2020. This marked a major program milestone: the first time SMU Guildhall has ever published a junior cohort game in its history. (Spoiler: we did it again in 2021 with Snowpainters.)

Since then, SMU Guildhall students finished and shipped 10 games during the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking at AAA games that have largely slipped their 2020-2022 release dates, you would be correct in assuming this is special.

Here's how they did it.

Keeping Teammates Connected

Succeeding in a fully virtual environment requires technology for sure. However, we quickly discovered that paying equal attention to the psychological wellness of the team was just as important as the technology.

Hallmarks of the lockdown meant solving technical problems while simultaneously managing the stress, fear, and isolation that comes from lockdown. This depended on staying connected with your teams.

  • We quickly adapted to Zoom rooms dedicated to work groups.
  • We developed team norms requiring that everyone work in full camera view so Zoom’s gallery view was always populated.
  • Psychological safety was augmented by buddy systems, wellness checks, and a lot of listening.

Everyone had a team—a family—to rely on. Having a unified purpose and a clarity of vision helped as well. They were all pulling together to accomplish a goal.

As the students later headed into pre-production on their subsequent Capstone games, the teams relied on shared work spaces and tools such as Google Docs and Miro where teammates could collaborate together in real-time. The presence of cursors and avatars as they were talking over Zoom meant they were working together—a subtle but impactful thing that helped keep teammates connected and reduced feelings of isolation.

Students and instructors meet over platforms like Zoom to ensure team members stay focused and productive.

Accountability & Team Norms Are Key

Anyone who has worked from home knows how difficult it is to stay focused and productive. Without the eyes of teammates and managers on you, time management becomes fluid and lax. Keeping cameras on and being in full view at all times did much of the heavy lifting, but we also found that we had to adapt team norms to include accountability rituals that weren't required in-person. Each team adopted norms—such as default-on cameras, showing yourself fully in frame, and being present in gallery view—to keep teammates accountable without punishment or embarrassment, and which also continued a sense of continuity and community.

Making Modality Irrelevant

Because some team members were fully virtual for the entire production, and SMU Guildhall maintained strict protocols with a bias toward staying home safe if anyone on the team was symptomatic, the team had to get creative on how to facilitate development and testing.

One best practice we discovered was taking advantage of large-screen TVs and Intel NUC mini-PCs. Coupled with special 360-degree cameras, conference room grade microphones, and high-fidelity webcams, teammates had visual telepresence in the room and could have a discussion with remote teammates as if they were together. This seamless integration made modality irrelevant, and importantly, kept remote students connected and engaged with their classmates. This was a lifeline for some, and a practical tool for all, which will surely become standard practice post-pandemic.

With teammates and testers spread nationwide, the team looked for ways to virtualize development without having to provision source control or lock down development environments. This is where Steam SDK came in. Through a special arrangement with Valve, we were able to set up teams virtually and distribute and test even though it wasn't a guarantee that we would publish the games through the platform. Steam deployment allowed the team to always have a playable version of the game for any teammate regardless of their location and also meant they could conduct user testing and research safely wherever the testers happened to be. This ended up being a massive production advantage as they were able to tap into hundreds of external testers thanks to a collaborative effort with SMU's undergraduate eSports and GameDev clubs as well as SMU Guildhall's extensive alumni network. As a result, the Fall 2020 Capstone game Crystal Call, along with the other 2020-21 Capstone games, has had more eyes on it and has been enjoyed by more gamers than any Capstone game ever before.

Members of a game development team meet both on campus and virtually over Zoom.

Flipping the Ratio

As the pandemic dragged on, seasons changed as did our policies. Biases shifted back to in-person instruction and development, but we never did away with the overabundance of caution, which meant that on any given day, some portion of the team would be virtual. Fortunately, all of our investment in communication tech paid off here. We continued with gallery view and team practices that kept people connected to the room. It became second nature to see one or more heads on the TV working away with their teammates in the room. For those working from home, they saw a gallery view of their teammates and could ask questions, share work, and communicate with everyone as if they were sitting there next to everyone. It truly became a seamless experience.

Adapting SCRUM

One thing we adapted to quickly was the use of our eMeet teleconference speaker "pucks" as our SCRUM charms (you might know them as "totems" in original Agile parlance). So instead of passing around a sword or wearing the silly hat, the team would pass the speakerphone mic, announce their name, wave at the room camera, and give their SCRUM updates. Anyone remote would be able to hear everything clearly, and follow along with the room camera as if they were standing in that part of the room.

Snowpocalypse '21: Stressing the Modalities, Again

As if the pandemic wasn't challenging enough, “Snowpocalypse” froze Texas and shut everything down… again. So while this presented logistical challenges, from a teamwork standpoint, we simply adapted instantly to an online modality. Unfortunately, the hallmark challenge of Snowpocalypse was the hours-long (sometimes even days-long) power outages, but for those able to work, they were able to meet using the same tools and best-practices we set up during the pandemic. The conclusion is that you don't need a worldwide pandemic to move to a mixed modality.

Pandemic Era Accomplishments

The same cohort of students went on to further their achievements, launching and shipping five senior Capstone games in Fall 2020.

Spring-Fall 2021 saw equal success. The next cohort followed in their footsteps to become the second in Guildhall history to launch a junior cohort game on Steam, with the aptly named Snowpainters. They then greenlit each of their three senior Capstone creations for Steam in Fall 2021, which are set to be published on the platform in Spring 2022.

The full list of SMU Guildhall student games shipped during the pandemic is as follows: Haberdashers, Crystal Call, Curse That Magic Cat, Space Smack!, Puzzle Box Palace, Trikaya, Snowpainters — and coming soon to Steam, Kibbi Keeper (and Kibbi Keeper VR), Legend of the Outlaw Mage, and AGRYOS: Recovering Eden.

Shipping a single game is one of the most challenging endeavors a team can undertake. The students of SMU Guildhall managed to ship ten, each a massive accomplishment amidst formidable challenges. Undoubtedly, they will take these experiences and best practices working adaptably under adversity out into the gaming industry and create the next round of hits.

About SMU Guildhall

SMU Guildhall is one of the world’s longest-running, ever-leading master’s-level programs for Game Development Education. Located in Dallas, Texas, the two-year program admits students every Fall. You can learn more about SMU Guildhall and its admissions process, and access links to its many student games at smu.edu/guildhall.

About the Author

Steve Stringer is a 25-year veteran of the software industry. With a unique background blending fine arts, software engineering, and business, Steve is able to tackle almost any creative software project.

Steve started his career producing video games in 1995. He has worked for Activision, Electronic Arts, and Atari on dozens of titles, as well as many original IP and third-party titles.

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