Using Text and Chat Services to Facilitate Studio Culture Across Distances
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where your team, or company is spread across a city, country, or the world, then you’ve probably been in a situation where you’ve not really felt part of something or felt left out of the company’s culture. Maybe you haven’t worked in a separated team, but you’re part of a small team, and just feel like it’s a bunch of individuals, or are part of a large team but felt like everyone is just there to do the work and then fade out at the end of the day to their lives, without a feeling of connecting to the people you’re working with.
If the above feels applicable to you, and even more so if you are in a position where you could or should be leading the company culture, keep reading!
First, a little background; I’ve been working primarily in the Mobile and Social game markets, and I’ve worked in a branch of a large company, as part of a few teams at a moderately sized company and now as part of a very small independent studio. Some of these experiences have had teams in the same room of the same building, but in other cases I’ve worked where a team or company was split across different parts of the same building or entirely working remotely. When it comes to studio culture, I’ve had the benefit of working places that really cared about its culture and tried many things to keep the studio culture thriving. Conversely, I’ve worked in situations where culture was rarely discussed which lead to situations where people were unsure if they fit with the culture and created some challenging situations.
What are some things that worked in these companies?
Some of the stronger things that helped bring people together were:
- Lunch and Learns, an event where the company buys lunch for the studio and has a time allotted for announcements and teaching new things like tools or pipelines
- Food/drinks brought in on Fridays a few hours before the end of day, and encouragement to play games with others in the company if nothing is pressing
- Space in the office with comfortable seating and a TV with game consoles for anyone to use during breaks or before and after work; snacks and coffee/water available in a designated spot in the office where chat can occur
- Company policies with an environment of openness.
Not all of these were present at each company, but many of these things existed in some form, and though they all can help foster a studio culture, the culture may still fail without people’s active participation. Now, something you might’ve noticed, is that all those things only work when everyone is working in the same location.
What happens when you have distance between people?
This is the tougher type of situation when talking about fostering a studio or company culture, and where tools like Slack or Discord can really help. I’m going to focus on these two tools, but this information should apply to others as well.
A quick overview of Slack and Discord:
- Slack is a messaging application that can be downloaded or run in browser and is primarily business oriented. It has features that allow you to integrate some pipeline and business-related services, that can be quite powerful when used correctly.
- Discord, on the other hand, is primarily community focused, and is centered more around the idea of chat servers for games. It has the ability to add and create bots that can do things like adding music to a voice channel, or moderate for you.
Although these two tools focus on different areas, they also have a similar structure, whereby you can create separate channels and servers as well as direct messaging. The one advantage Discord has in this area is how it integrates voice chat.
Alright, so now you have a rough idea of what the tools are...
How can we use these tools to help maintain or create a culture?
One of the best ways to promote a strong culture is to give members the ability to create, and have fun, particularly with things that are part of the studio’s IP or internal culture. A great feature of both platforms that can help with this is the ability to customize your own emojis. This is a quick and easy way to add a little flavor and fun to your chat that can be uniquely yours and gives members of your chat the ability to express themselves in a fun way. To see some good examples of this, you can check out some of the Discord servers of indie game companies like Finji and Crows Crows Crows. Discord has a particularly interesting integration of emojis, in that you can create a type of channel that allow people to post emoji reactions but not respond with text usually used for announcements, so the emojis on their system have a bit of extra power behind them. In both Slack and Discord, emojis are a useful tool in that it can show that people have read something important without requiring them to respond in text (which can bury the message or in some cases send out notifications to everyone).
Another way to help foster community and culture through these tools is by effectively using their channels to promote it. If your team or company only has very business-related channels like: General, Announcements, Builds, etc., then the first thing to do is create a random, off-topic, or watercooler channel for people to be able to post about non-business-related topics. For these channels it is important to not moderate them, or at least very lightly moderate them, and make them an opt-in/out channel, so that those who don’t want to participate don’t have to. The objective of these channels is to allow team members to share things they find interesting and allow conversations to form that occur when people share their interests. In many cases C level executives and other such positions usually choose to remain out of, but I’d encourage inclusion, so that everyone feels like they’re part of the same team. Another type of channel that you should have set up, once your studio or team is large enough, is to have department specific channels, to create a community between members of the same department, even on different teams. This helps to make sure that communication is occurring across teams, as well as ensuring that people who generally have similar interests, or at least similar skills, have a place to share information that can help each-other or help other teams out. If one team runs into a problem with a certain issue and find a solution, chances are, that another team will be happy to have that solution at some point in the future. With all these channels it is important that you make sure that the rules of these channels are clear. If you want to have a channel that is unmoderated, make sure people understand that, and likewise, if you have a channel that should only be about important information as it pertains to a specific team or the company, make sure that is clear. One thing that is important to pay attention to, is that some people will tend to rely on text chat for discussing issues or solving problems, whether personal or project related. In most situations a quick verbal dialogue is much more effective and sincerer than a text discussion, which leads into my next suggestion: Voice Channels.
For teams that are really spread out, where each member of the team or most members of the team are in another location, I highly suggest the use of Voice Channels. With Discord, a good habit to get into would be to set up a voice channel and make yourself available on a day to day basis. Just jump on the voice channel whenever you’re online and aren’t requiring full focus to show you are available to the team. When there’s a healthy and open dialogue, people feel more included and part of something, not to mention the speed at which you can solve problems over voice versus text, and far fewer instances where people can misinterpret a statement. Slack can use voice as well, though it’s not as large of a focus of the platform and is mainly a premium feature. Of course, if you can just get up and walk to someone’s desk, that’s always a better solution.
Try finding and using the features of the tools you have to allow people to express themselves in productive ways. Using things like custom emojis and dedicated channels for expressing ideas and opinions can be an effective way to facilitate studio culture if maintained and curated effectively.
Many of the above solutions should work in whatever chat program your team uses, but if yours doesn’t, you can always look for a service that will better suit your needs. For whatever your situation, I hope that these suggestions will help you in fostering a positive and successful culture on your team.