GameDev Thoughts: How To Manage A Remote Game Development Team

Working side by side with your game development team in shared office quarters or in the comfort of your grandmother’s basement has been succeeded by technology that enables people to communicate across continents like never before. Much like flip phones, the prerequisite of physical proximity is a thing of the past. With so many communication devices, it is more convenient and accessible to work with and manage people all over the world. After all, the right designer or the right programmer may be thousands of miles away and you might not even know it. Yet, managing a remote team is easier said than done. Face to face communication is still the best way to gauge someone’s emotions or initial reactions, and while a message over your favorite instant messaging client may seem to foster real interaction between your team, it can still be difficult to know if everyone is really on the same page or not.

With remote teams, you may never really know if your team is fully aware of everything they should know, or if they truly understand why their idea was shot down due to time constraints. That is why it’s good to over-communicate. A lack of communication gives your team the ability to make excuses, miss important details about deadlines, and generally be disinterested in the project if they have no idea what is going on from all angles. However, there is a difference between over-communication and stalking. Simply put, over-communication is giving people many entryways to information so that it can be etched in their minds. It is not texting someone in Brazil at four a.m. in the morning letting them know that their new design was garbage and that they should quit their career. If everyone is aware of the deadlines and how it is impacted by each person, the workflow is much more efficient. Simply put, in order to make things run as smoothly as possible, every person needs to be able to visualize what each other person on the team is doing at any given time. Communicate with as much detail as possible, and do it often among the entire team.

Email has taken over the world in terms of communication. For managing your game dev team you will need to utilize a variety of communications channels to keep your team abreast of what is going on. By no means should you be repeating the same thing over and over in the same channel. But the same points should be briefly discussed in each channel to ensure that people do not miss what was communicated in an email in a Skype meeting. Just know, that people have their preferred method of communication and it is best to know how your team and how often they like to be contacted before you even get started working on the game. Back when I worked on SanctuaryRPG, my primary way of communication with the team was over Steam chat. This worked pretty well, but proved to be very inefficient, as it required myself to be the central hub of all communications between all team members. In retrospect, I should have used a chat client with better group chat and chat archive capabilities.

Communicating with a remote team can be quite daunting since it is so easy to miscommunicate goals and expectations. That is why, when you are managing a remote team you need to state your goals, expectations, and timeline upfront. A team member should have no confusion about what their role is, when and how meetings will be conducted, who they should contact if they have a question and when their tasks are due. By making consistent due dates (i.e. Level Design X is due the fifth of every month) and when meetings will take place (i.e. Skype calls are every Friday at 10 a.m.) and what their responsibilities are outside of their immediate tasks (i.e. each team member is required to post updates on their projects every Wednesday at 2 pm with relevant pictures and videos) will let your team members know what exactly is expected of them and when. The worst thing a team member who is working remotely can feel is complete abandonment. They may have no idea of what is going on and how their contributions impact the success of the game. Remote teams thrive on frequent communication and collaboration. Without it, teams can fall apart quite easily.

Another important note about managing a remote team... don't not be so quick to say no. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the timeline and the budget, but it is even more important to exhibit some humility and hear your team out. Just because an idea sounds like it is too much work or that it may take too much time does not mean that it is or that it will. Good ideas are the cornerstone of good games and being a Debbie Downer without really taking into consideration what your team is saying each and every time may harbor resentment amongst your team, and their work ethic may suffer because at the end of the day they just will not feel motivated. If the person with the idea has a strong argument for the idea, has tested the idea, and is willing to put in the legwork to set the idea into motion, the idea should be prototyped in some way in order to figure out if it’ll be a good fit for the project.

Important Takeaways: All in all, managing a remote team is all about consistency and communication. As long as your team members fully understand what they are getting themselves into, there should be less problems down the road. Do not beat yourself up too much if sometimes things do not go as planned or something took way longer than expected. This is normal in game development and should be treated as a learning experience. Make a note to iterate on the schedule as needed, while not pushing the ship date back too much. Managing a remote team may take a little more planning and research, but the flexibility of a remote team can’t be beat.