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Common issues faced during COVID work from home order

The Human Condition

Universally, every company that spoke to people said their company’s productivity was “about the same or better” with everyone working at home. This pattern led to two obvious conclusions:

  1. Game developers are incredibly talented and able to adapt to incredibly difficult circumstances.
  2. No one, especially publicly traded companies, is going to tell anyone else that their productivity is down.

But we also learned much more about what remote development has done to developers used to working in-house together.

Blizzard’s Jesse Meschuk, Mark Adams, and Claire Hart discussed how the company is trying to monitor employees’ mental health alongside their productivity. “We can’t look at productivity without looking at preventing burnout,” they explained. “Working from home in times like these can make people feel undue pressure, and we’re working to ensure our teams don’t feel that way.

“Many of our folks have children who are also having to stay at home, and we want those employees to feel supported and that they have flexibility.”

Hyper Hippo Games head of studio Tristain Rattink was frank about how the remote move has changed his team’s development practices. While he said that live development hasn’t changed in the last month, the move has drastically impacted work on new games. There are no whiteboards to gather around. Concept art and gameplay prototypes need to be exported, uploaded, downloaded, and reviewed before a developer can even respond with “oh that’s not quite what I meant.” In the office, that interaction would have taken mere seconds.

“At the creative level, everything takes a little bit longer to connect. I’m sure there is more wasted work, because, you know, you’re doing more handovers instead of collaboration,” Rattink said. He also pointed out that everything from looking at the news to families that are always home is impacting how his team gets things done.

Netmarble’s Simon Sim says this reality has been part of his company’s top-down view of the COVID-19 crisis. He explained that part of Netmarble’s strategy has not only been to think of the company as a family but to expand that view to reflect the reality that people’s families are now part of Netmarble’s business.

In one example, he described a conference call he was having with one of his colleagues that gained an unexpected addition: his coworker’s daughter. “I gave an assignment to his daughter,” he explained, “asking, ‘hey, could you draw something and show me to help your father?’ And she gave something and ‘helped our decision-making.’”

“It’s not actually helping our decision-making,” he said with a laugh. “But Emily, my team member, wants to participate in this conference call so she’s not thinking she’s alone. The kids want to help their parents.”

Above, a different “team member” shows off her art to Netmarble CEO Simon Sim

Sim said the transition to remote work has led to him scheduling far more calls with his employees than he would have in the office since incidental chatter just isn’t possible anymore. “Communication is not easy,” he explained. “As a leader, we need to put more effort in communication with team members, because when we work together, it’s easy. We just casually talk. But now we can’t see each other!”

Javier Martinez, CEO of the multinational European company GameHouse, said his company took extra steps to send “equipment” home with developers as lockdowns began. Keyboards, Cintiq pads, monitors, chairs, even coffee mugs and plants became part of the inventory that employees could requisition. And when some team members couldn’t make it to the office, they began ordering new equipment for them.

“One of our artists was visiting her boyfriend in the UK when all flights got canceled,” he said. “She is now stranded there, and GameHouse bought her locally all the equipment she needed to be able to draw again.”

This approach mimics how Ubisoft Toronto managing director Alex Parizeau said the company has supported its employees. Not only have developers been allowed to take home equipment from the office, but they’ve established a reimbursement program to help employees stock up their home workspaces.

At Failbetter, Stuart Young was one of many who said their company has begun hosting after-hours Zoom meetups. “I can think about ways that you could address the social-psychological impacts, as opposed to just the practical ones,” he said. “And I think with modern technology, the practical limitations are comparatively easy to overcome. It’s the constant isolation and feeling of being split up and separated. It’s tricky to address.”

Blizzard also was thinking about its employee’s home life and began paying attention to the growing international shortages of toilet paper, paper towels, and beyond. That shortage had already begun to surface in Irvine, California early in the year. Meschuk told people that the company’s Facilities team confirmed the developer could still get a bulk order in from its office supplier, enough to support the Irvine HQ.

From there, the Facilities, HR, and Security teams collaborated to build an improvised drive-through in the company parking garage. To avoid a rush, they implemented a sign-up system that used time slots to schedule pickups, and employees who distributed the supplies were given masks and gloves during the process.

According to Meschuk, this led to Blizzard’s Austin, South Korea, and Chinese offices to begin a care package delivery process, converting their office supply process to one that could support individual employees. As has been written elsewhere, the global shortage is in part due to the fact that paper product manufacturers are usually splitting their production between office environments and home environments.

Impromptu hacks like Blizzard’s, at least in small part, help bridge those two supply chains in a way that even grocery stores sometimes can’t.

Looking Ahead

The storm has rolled in, developers have hunkered down, and while game development proceeds apace, they, like everyone else, can only wait for what comes next.

“What comes next” covers a lot of territories. How will developers market their games as conventions postpone event after event? How will a global economic shift impact their players? And most importantly, what if COVID-19 begins striking their workforce?

Hyper Hippo Games CEO Sam Fisher is wary of much of the data he’s looking at right now. Not because it’s bad for the company, but the opposite—it’s very good. KPIs, revenue, all of these numbers are normal, even as the world undergoes a dramatic shift. He’s worried other studios looking at the studio could be lulled into “a really messy trap.”

“We’re doing a lot of things now that we weren’t doing before,” he said. “We have to focus on a lot of issues like ‘what are the government programs?’ We have to talk to stakeholders in a different way that we didn’t have to talk to before. We have to figure out which ones are solid, which ones aren’t.”

He added, “There’s a lot of people that are gonna be three months down the road, realize those are things they should have been dealing with before, and they didn’t, and now they have to deal with them urgently, and it’ll be too late.”

Fisher urged other developers to begin talking to their financial partners ASAP, to build bridges that may be necessary for the coming months.

Phoenix Labs VP of operations Jeanne-Marie Owens said the company has been preparing for the possibility of employees becoming critically ill, and like many other studios, said they want employees to take off if they’re sick in any capacity, even though they’re safe at home. But that means a lot of preparation has to take place. She’s been pushing Phoenix Labs developers to begin thinking about documentation, file organization, and anything else another employee would need to pick up the slack if they need to take off sick.

“On a really personal level, there are things that I do for the company that I don’t have backup for. There are permissions only my account can grant…so literally this week, I’ve written a giant document around how to run payroll in case I get sick and end up in the hospital.”

And lastly—though this is in some ways, far less consequential than the disease itself, some developers have begun thinking about how COVID-19, quarantine, and social distancing will impact the content and design of their games. At Failbetter, Young says this is “absolutely” impacting content for Fallen London and the studio’s other games.

“This is pretty inevitable that the mood will seep into the work of the writers and artists, the things we make will some way reflect this,” he explained. For a company that’s long lounged in images of dread, disease, and death, reality has finally caught up.

As for now, the zoom meetings that happen on the regular it is a livable nightmare, but as for the long-term there will be problems should the platform not improve.

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