Leading Game Development Teams During Lockdown
Leading Game Development Teams During Lockdown
No single industry has escaped the impact of COVID-19 and the disruption it has brought to almost every aspect of life. But as these industries change the way they operate, new and exciting opportunities present themselves.
The Gaming industry is no exception and has seen massive growth during the pandemic.
Footballers have picked up the controller to play in their ‘quarranteams’ and IndyCar drivers have moved to iRacing platforms. Gaming is an industry that has captured the people’s passions and, coupled with powerful streaming technology, has been able to pivot quickly to cater to audiences who can no longer enjoy their favourite activities in the flesh and, in some cases, have a lot more free time to spare.
We spoke to leaders and developers from the Gaming Sector in the Nordics to get a measure of the industry, how it’s responding to the challenges presented by COVID and how it’s poised to take the next step in it’s evolution as a powerhouse industry.
We Started Our Game Development Company in December
Robert Wasser is the CEO at Wild Games, A new mobile game development company based in Stockholm made up of a small group of Ex-DICE developers. Bursting on to the game development scene early December last year, Wild Games has already garnered the attention of Supercell to the tune of €1 million ($1.1 million).
“I’ve been in the games industry for 15 years this Summer. I’ve always played lots of games so getting to work in games was a dream come true.”
Robert started as a localisation tester in June 2005 up until January 2006 when he finished his masters thesis at DICE. That secured him a position at DICE that would see him stay at the company for 14 years, a period that will have seen DICE evolve from being a small studio to being acquired by EA and launching major franchises like Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront.
“In my last years at DICE I was Head of development, looking after all development of all games. The How was always my focus. How do we deliver new games and features at scale in a good way.”
Team at Wild Games
Now at Wild Games, Robert heads up a team of 6 people, 5 of which have come from DICE and with all of them having extensive experience in game development on triple A games. Starting in December and securing funding right at the end of 2019 has enabled them to ride the first wave of challenges COVID has brought.
“DICE have been super supportive. The Studio GM got back in touch with us when COVID hit and offered support if we needed it.”
Wild Games, being a start-up, have a certain set of challenges. One of the biggest is making the right decisions around budget quickly and efficiently. One of the first decisions they made was to move into an office and start to establish how they would work as a team.
“When we first started out we were all working remote, once we got funding we got an office across the street from DICE. We started working from the office primarily with some days working from home and that was working really well for us. So we had a process already set up to enable us to work remotely.”
But now when the team is working remotely every single day there is an increased emphasis on being structured with time and being transparent with how they’re spending it.
The tool kit Wild Games uses will be familiar to most technical teams with a mix of Trello, Slack, Onedrive brought together with agile methodologies. Meetings changed too, with them becoming more drilled than they had been in an office setting.
“When we were in the office meetings were quite ad-hoc. It was rare we would all be gathered at 9am, because of commute times and things. Now, while we’re working remote every day, we’re incredibly structured. Everyone is available at the same time, everything is communicated in our morning meeting , within that we’ve found the rhythm.”
Making Your First Hire During Lock-down
Wild Games, wanting to enter a soft-launch with their first game early next year, have been busy acquiring talent. The first acquisition being made recently, during lock-down.
“Before this kicked off we knew we wanted this candidate. He had great skills and would be a great team fit. I asked him in January if he’d like to meet in the office. He came down, everyone chatted to him so we had basically done this interview process before lock-down had begun.”
One of the benefits of working in such a tightly woven team is that each decision, including hiring a new member of the team, is scrutinised. To that effect, Robert and the team at Wild Games had to do that extra level due diligence with their hire which made bringing them into the team during lock-down a positive experience despite the barriers and it’s this smaller, more streamline structure that Robert believes is going to be more common in the game development industry in a post-lock-down world.
“When I was at DICE we used the Frostbite engine and to access that we had to go through VPN, and sometimes use a desktop in the office. Now everyone has Unity set up on their personal PCs just like they would in the office.”
“The Gaming industry needs to work more like start-ups and we might see a shift away from massive 100-200 teams and towards ‘super-cells’ of a handful of people.”
Leading With Values
Jane Skullman is the Engineering Manager and Product Owner at Star Stable Entertainment, we spoke to her and Star Stable’s HR Business Partner, Viktoria Petersson.
Star Stable Entertainment is most commonly known for the development of the massively multiplayer online game Star Stable. Being a well established franchise with an existing subscribership that stretches across 180 different countries, their experiences of lockdown have been largely positive from a business continuity perspective.
“During April we had a 90% increase in daily players and this consists of returning players and new players. It’s going very, very well.”
For Jane and Viktoria, this success is down to their unflinching commitment to their core value of kindness which has seen their teams come together more productive than ever in very difficult circumstances.
Now, More Than Ever, We Need Kindness
One of the most recent game updates released on Star Stable was the introduction of new western area in the game. This update, being one of the first released during isolation and lockdown, would be the first update the team at Star Stable couldn’t celebrate in the office.
“Our Office Manager sent everyone cowboy hats and everyone got together on a video call and celebrated the success of the launch of this addition to the game.”
This is just a small insight into the way Star Stable are maintaining the team spirit that they attribute so much of their success to, through lockdown. Jane, who has extensive experience in leading technology teams and stress management, knows that at times like these people are looking for something to rally under. For Star Stable, it’s the company values.
“I would say dedication is a big part of our company. People contributing with ideas and the exploration of different tools has been amazing. We’ve even talked about meeting in VR. We’re making the most of what we’ve got and explored it as much as possible - it’s fun!”
The Gaming industry is arguably one of the industries that won’t see as much disruption from COVID-19 due to the fact it’s largely a digital native industry. As a result, it presents a rather attractive proposition for newly available talent. This is driving competition for roles across the Gaming Industry, something Star Stable is witnessing first-hand.
“We are seeing a lot more candidates applying for all of our roles. We’ve had an amazing number of applicants to the Product Owner role I’m currently covering. This is of course an awesome situation to be in.”
With an almost unaffected talent pool, and a need to continue hiring, Star Stable have been running onboarding during the COVID-19 lockdown for sometime now and, as such, have perfected a process that works for them.
Star Stable’s Onboarding Process
“Our onboarding of new employees now involves meeting on Hangouts with all relevant team members and HR. The objective is to make the process as easy as possible."
From there, Star Stable are asking new talent if they’re able to pick up their computer and the hardware from their offices, giving them the opportunity to meet the internal IT team. If that isn’t possible, Star Stable arrange a courier to deliver screens, chairs and other hardware needed.
For the short term, what new hires do miss out on is the ethos of the company. The buzz you get when you join a new, exciting team. That, for the large part, is something that Star Stable is still working on translating into something that would work in the fractured situation we have before us.
“For the short-term, regular communication is incredibly important. Just checking in and making sure everything is going okay. We want new team members to feel a sense of belonging despite working remotely.”
Maintaining Productivity During Isolation
In software it’s hard to measure productivity and during COVID, when the lines between work and life are blurred, it becomes even harder.
“This is one of the challenges of having a distributed workforce, after a while it gets quite blurry. Am I working? Am I now on spare time? I’m still on the same computer.”
It’s here where another governing principle of Star Stable’s comes into play. Work smarter, not harder. If you see more people being more efficient, and the outcome has not decreased then that’s surely all you can ask for.
“I’ve worked in software for a long time and I’ve found there’s more value in studying the results than what people are doing in any one moment.”
Managing Remote Development Teams
James Trunk is Head of Engineering at Znipe Esports. Znipe is a premium subscription service, which gives esports fans an exclusive platform to experience esports tournaments online.
With a background in leading software teams for more than a decade, James is well placed to talk about leadership challenges.
“I started as a developer, but gravitated towards trying to understand human issues, as well as technical ones, which led me into agile leadership.”
James has 15 direct reports in the engineering team at Znipe, a team that traditionally operated fully from the office with only the odd instances of remote working prior to this outbreak. Like most technical teams, however, the infrastructure and tooling was all in place to enable a swift shift to remote working.
“We didn’t work remotely before the crisis, the whole dev team sat together in the office, but we did already use Slack and Discord. We also had a knowledge-sharing platform called Notion, which is where we transformed our physical kanban board into digital, when we started working from home. Kanban with retrospectives is our way of focusing on throughput and cycle time and trying to become more effective as a team.”
Many teams have been stretched and tested by the sudden loss of agency and control over so many different aspects of their lives. This goes all the way through structures, affecting team leaders as much as everyone else. James, puts emphasis on a manager’s responsibility to look after themselves before they can effectively look after others.
“You know what they say about airplanes, when the oxygen mask drops down you should put yours on first. I think this is an important consideration for Leadership. When you’re not looking after yourself and causing a risk to your mental health, that can have a knock on effect on a lot of people. You have even more responsibility to look after yourself so you can be the best leader you can be.”
To help with this, James recommends practicing work journaling to help decompress from the day and focus on outcomes.
“Something that I have found to be very useful and something I’ve done for a long time now is to keep a work diary. It’s like a mini-retrospective of the day, what did we decide, what insights did we gain, what challenges presented themselves. Summarising your day like this focusses your thinking and helps to clarify potential next steps. Getting it onto the page allows you to draw a line under that day, and then you can look back on it the next day to get off to a flying start.”
Game Development Talent Acquisition During Covid-19
Mark McDaid is a Talent Acquisition Specialist at mobile gaming giant King. Famous for their casual mobile game Candy Crush Saga, King have shown no signs of slowing down with live title content delivery, requiring new skills and talent. Naturally, Mark is still very busy despite the restrictions in place during lockdown.
“Overall it’s business as usual. If anything we’ve seen an uplift in talent acquisition actions with a lot of hard to fill roles with new IP in the pipeline too. We need these new skills and we can’t really slow down in this area.”
This extends to the interview process which hasn’t seen much disruption since it moved to fully digital. The only changes come in the form of adding extra time to regular sessions.
“We’ve put in a bit of extra time with the interviewers, and in some cases added an extra meeting, just so candidates can have a more casual conversation. That’s to make up for the loss of the time spent in the office or at a coffee shop just getting to know each other.”
Another key step for Mark and the talent acquisition team at King was to, very early on in the process, set expectations around how long this new form of hiring might go on for. This came in the form of clear and consistent communication to complement the interview training that already goes out to hiring managers.
“Every hiring manager at King has training in unconscious bias.”
“Our Tolerance to Remote Working Will Change”
With such a wide portfolio of projects and a need for such a diverse range of skills, King accesses a worldwide talent pool. As such, flying candidates to different locations wasn’t a rare occurrence.
But, with this period of isolation proving that you can still hire and interview with confidence while remote, Mark expects to see changes.
“We will never favour 100% remote working but I do think that our tolerance to it, having been in this situation, will be more flexible. I think we’ll de-prioritise flying people in for interviews. I think this shows that you can continue to hire and do 100% remote interviews.”
Finding A Game Dev Position During Covid-19
Andreas Jirenius has just started a new position as the Game Developer at MAG Interactive after a period of job searching during lockdown.
Having been in the gaming industry for around 8 years now working on a variety of different IPs, Andreas is an attractive proposition for any game development team. Regardless, the current climate has made finding new positions hard.
“I don’t think it’s as easy as it was for me. Looking in Stockholm, it’s quite a small pond. Lots of successful game development companies in such a small area so lots of people are fighting for that talent. Developers are jumping around in Stockholm.”
For Andreas, success in the job hunt lies in networking, connections and having the initiative to reach out to those you’ve worked with in the past.
“I was reaching out to old colleagues and seeing where they’re at. I was going into Facebook groups and looking who was hiring.”
The Facebook group Andreas is referring to is a popular destination for game developers in Stockholm and one that is regularly visited by job seekers and hiring managers alike.
But finding a job isn’t always the hard part, it’s finding the right job. And in times like these, where everyone is stretched, making the right decision now is more important than ever.
“It’s hard in these times. I did make a mistake. I heard about this new company starting up that’s backed by a larger company, so I thought lets go for it. Half of the people in there were people I had worked with before.”
Before securing his position at MAG Interactive, Andreas joined a start-up game developer. Despite a promising start, the cracks started to emerge during onboarding.
“Everyone was caught by this virus, add that to the fact that you’re working in a start-up. Somethings you just can’t control and unfortunately, they weren’t prepared.”
For those in similar positions, who may be looking for a new position during COVID-19 and isolation, Andreas has one key bit of advice.
“Smaller teams are looking for broad competencies so you can wear different hats during this time. Try and leverage that. Use the colleagues that you’ve had in the past. Everyone has someone they know.”