By: Steve Stringer
Read an updated article from 2022 here: "BEST PRACTICES LEARNED IN VIRTUAL GAME DEVELOPMENT IN A COVID-19 WORLD"
As game dev teams around the world figure out how to work remotely in a pandemic, I thought I would share a few best practices we've discovered in the past two weeks in the hope that it helps other teams out there.
Like everyone around the world, we at SMU Guildhall have been forced to learn how to team in a virtual world. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we were roughly half-way through our "Middle TGP" course in which our 2nd semester students are making an arcade racing game on a single, cohort-wide team.
For those not familiar with our Team Game Production (TGP) curriculum, "middle tgp" means the training wheels are still very much on. For the vast majority of our student developers, this is their first time working on a big team. All of our agile practices are still analog and in-person as we work through all the communication and fundamental development challenges you'd expect from working on one big team. This is to say, we transitioned from a world where every wall and whiteboard in Studio 134 and the Gamelab was filled with sticky notes and kanban boards to a completely virtual studio in a matter of days. This was no small feat, and the students did a truly amazing job of adapting.
We got official word that we were going to go virtual on a Friday. By the following Wednesday, our group of 6 very talented producers had converted the analog boards scrum boards to monday.com. Two days later, we were doing dry-runs of our daily scrums on Zoom and moving tasks on virtual boards. By the following Monday, we were meeting in Zoom's gallery view.
In those first few days, production expectedly slowed to a crawl as we tripped over communication issues. However, by applying agile on a daily retro scale, we quickly figured out what worked and what didn't rapidly. This post isn't meant as a post mortem since we've only been doing this for two weeks, but we learned some lessons that may be useful to your teams out there.
What went right:
- Zoom and Slack: our first day back, we had a 60-person meeting (that remarkable moment is captured in the picture above). You would think it would be utter chaos, but it actually worked.
- Daily production retros, a global embrace of experimentation, and an open sharing of best practices led to incredibly agile improvement on a hourly basis. I can't say we're at 100% velocity, but we got up to speed within a week. The team was able to hit their 1st P/VS milestone today, and lost only 1 week to getting up to speed in virtual.
- A deep bench of support and a whatever-it-takes attitude by our technical team meant we could shift the entirety of SMU--not just Guildhall--to virtual within days. I can't thank our tech team enough for their support, flexibility, and patience.
- In TGP, we preach patience and grace: have patience and grace with each other as we make mistakes and continually improve. The students have exercised this philosophy more than i could have imagined in this past month. I can't think of a single time someone has lost their cool or gotten mad since we've gone virtual. This is remarkable, considering the stress and chaos this pandemic has caused.
What went wrong:
- For me, my co-faculty, and the project leadership team, situational awareness was completely cut off. We went from gathering a ton of signals from the room simply by listening and observing to seeing the project through a single straw. In the before times, we could listen to multiple conversations, pick up on emotional flareups, and generally read body Language around the room to maintain an innate understanding of how the team was doing. In a zoomed-out world, all of those signals are cut off. It's getting better, but it's still a big problem.
- What was implied and understood is now missed. By now, we're all familiar with Zoom's gallery view. In our first days working remotely, there were a lot of open-ended questions ("what do y'all think? ") that were met with crickets. People didn't realize you were talking to them. Misunderstandings abounded.
- Be wary of accidental Zoom meeting attendees. There's a middle school teacher out there somewhere that has mistyped my personal Zoom link for their class in their syllabus. So several times this week, we've had very confused kids pop into our meetings. It hasn't been a problem and we just laugh, but be aware this might happen to you. The alternative is to password protect your Zoom meetings which introduces some overhead. Your mileage may vary.
Learned best practices:
Here's the good stuff. We've collected a set of best practices we learned in the past two weeks. Hopefully this helps you, too.
- Call and response: our 6 producers have their sub-teams check in two or three times a day, depending. Each person Slacks what they're working on and sends a screenshot of their work. This keeps folks accountable, and it also lets those of us at the exec-level graze the information passively to keep up on what's going on.
- Assume nothing. Be explicit in your Zoom meetings. If you're talking to/or about someone, use their name. Over-use reflective listening to ensure you understood what people are saying. Also be explicit about action items: Who is responsible? Who is following up? What are the deliverables? How will we know it's done?
- Be super-, extra-, triple-explicit about your definitions of done. It is almost a given that two people to have a conversation in Zoom or Slack and be coming from two completely different sets of understanding without realizing it. Again, reflective listening and explicit coverage of action plans helps.
- It's a requirement that all cameras are on in Zoom meetings. This keeps people accountable and present. We also require they wear pants. Really. This helps maintain a sense of professionalism and literal hygiene on the team.
- Pin daily schedules in your team's Slack channel with embedded links. Giving everyone on the team an idea of the times and virtual places they needed to be in is critical.
- Get in the habit of providing links to Zoom meetings frequently and redundantly. In other words, don't make people dig. Instead of "meeting's starting, y'all" (we're in Texas), be explicit: "Team meeting now: https://smu.zoom.us/j/1234512356"
- Record and share everything. Relevant to not having situational awareness and not being able to attend multiple meetings at once, reviewing recorded meetings is the next best thing we found. Zoom's cloud recording feature is a godsend here.
- Check in often. This isn't on the team level (though we check in often there too). I'm talking about personal wellness checks for everyone. We're in this together, and it's a scary time for many. The power of simply checking in and letting people vent goes a long way to keeping overall morale up and staying positive as a team.
- Provide a way for teammates to commune and just "be" together. To facilitate this, we encourage team members who aren't bouncing from meeting to meeting to host a Zoom meeting of their own where their coworkers can join. This approximates what it was like to work together at a table or in a workgroup. It's not perfect, but it provides a little bit of a psychological safety net, especially for those who are living alone.
Still to be sorted out:
We still haven't found a good way to do multiplayer testing or playtest sessions. We're exploring Zoom's shared screens, but it's hard to talk and play and control the game volume in Zoom. Introducing Twitch and Discord might seem like a natural solution, but then you get away from the group aspect afforded by Zoom. We're figuring it out still.
So there you go. I hope this helps. Stay safe, and be well.