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Successfully working without managers in a distributed studio

Scattered Entertainment, formed of veterans from studios like Crytek and DICE, is spread across the globe and is a manager-free environment. Senta Jakobsen talked at GDC Europe about making that work.
Veterans from studios like DICE and Crytek formed Scattered Entertainment -- but, as its name suggests, many of them worked remotely, all across the globe. After shipping its first game, The Drowning earlier this year, Scattered's senior development director Senta Jakobsen spoke at GDC Europe to share her team's experiences. The original idea she and the team had when they formed in late 2011 was that distributed working would be "really difficult" but working without managers would be "easy-peasy." By and large, the inverse turned out to be true. At the outset, Jakobsen worried about issues such as collaboration, communication, a loss of innovation due to a loss in face-to-face communication, and whether the staff would become lonely and thus demotivated, working remotely. At the same time, since Scattered was formed from senior staff, she expected the team to be able to function without management at all.

Collaborating from Afar

It turns out that distributed work is easy: there are plenty of workable online tools (Scattered centered on Google's suite) and the main thing to keep in mind is being proactive about changing things that don't work -- meetings, tools and the like. The key is "continually addressing the issues we see -- and addressing them rather than sweeping them under the rug," says Jakobsen. "It didn't matter what tech we picked, it mattered the people's attitude toward the tech they were using," said Jakobsen. People preferred software they were comfortable with, in other words. The team has an on-site every three months so people get used to each other's quirks in real life. One thing to keep in mind, she says, is that "you should assume the best from people." One of the biggest barriers to a distributed work environment is trust, it turns out -- people expect their peers to not pull their weight without supervision. That mindset has to change. And being more understanding is important too. "You don't all speak the same language, so give them a break," says Jakobsen. If disagreements arise, just remember that everyone is "trying to make the product better" and they're much easier to sort out. "At first we over-communicated," says Jakobsen -- the team shared "way too much information," which she thinks is probably "related to the trust thing." "As soon as people realized they had access to all of the information they stopped reading it," she says. The thing about information sharing is to realize that "different team members require different information," and that "different stages of development require different information," and to make sure that info is available when needed. The team keeps a backlog in a Google spreadsheet where anybody can leave comments -- and everyone checks to see if they can provide answers. This is important, as the team is spread across many time zones, and this allows them to collaborate asynchronously.

Working without Management

A lack of management was a stickier issue. "Really, you want to know two things: What are you doing, and who is doing what?" she says. While there are ways to track what people are working on, says Jakobsen, the most important indicator is the game itself. "You look at the game see if somebody has done their job or not," says Jakobsen. "I don't need to look at any graph or chart. I'm a project manager, I like graphs and charts, but I don't need to look at them because I can grab the game and play. The very thing that we make allows you to see what people are doing." To solve the "who is doing what" problem, the team devised a solution where the first person to start working in the day starts a daily mail thread: as soon as they start, they say what their task is for the day. Those who follow add to the thread. Knowing what tasks everyone is working on fosters collaboration, as people who have solutions to problems or related tasks jump in. The team was manager-less -- in fact, "'management' was a bad word," says Jakobsen. It turns out this was a handicap, as it kept the issue from even being discussed. Everyone was afraid that "somebody as going to tell somebody what to do, and that felt very wrong." Talking about the issue became difficult until she realized that leadership was what was required -- not management. Leadership is "not a hierarchical thing, it's something that needs to be done." Essentially, people need to own tasks, features, or problems. Suddenly, when the team realized that taking leadership on something was itself a job -- like taking on a design or art task -- "people started leading organically," says Jakobsen. Who got to lead a task? Someone whose mindset is "because I really care about this topic, we're going to go this way, and because this way is aligned with the vision of the game, and so there we go!" Essentially, when the team could not arrive at consensus, a natural leader was born for a task. "This worked really well and it continues to be refined," she says. Leaders "rotate organically."

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