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A Game Studio in the Clouds

October 19, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

How does an indie studio come together -- and ship games together -- if they're not located in the same city? Emeric Thoa, former Ubisoft developer and current creative director of The Game Bakers, explains what tech and techniques can make it work.

The last time I had a second of free time was over the Christmas holidays and I used that free time to write a paper about our experience making Squids and the realities of budget and profitability for an iPhone game. I wrote this postmortem because when I started as an indie, I would have loved to have such information, and I felt it was useful to share with other developers.

I was amazed by the attention it got, and I was very pleased to read all the nice comments about the article. And for those who asked: no, it didn't have a visible impact on Squids' sales, but it generated 24k unique visitors to our website in three days, which made the article more visible on Google and made the information more available to the industry, and that's always a good thing.

There's something else I would have loved to know more about before diving into indie game development: the tools and best practices for running a virtual indie game studio. By "virtual", I mean a game development studio that doesn't have an office.

This is a situation shared by many indies: you start your project from home and don't have the budget for renting an office, or maybe you're a programmer and you have an artist buddy who lives in a different place.

Lack of an office might have been a problem in 1995, but it shouldn't prevent you from making games anymore. The problem nowadays is that there are so many ways to do it, the idea of running a virtual studio can be overwhelming.

One thing I love about indie development is that it's not only about having people play our games, but also about developers freely exchanging ideas about our work and methods. So here is a bit of information about how we've tackled this issue at The Game Bakers, how we are organized, what tools we're using at the moment, and how much this stuff costs us.

The Global Game Bakery

When I think of a "real" game studio, I think of a traditional office with an open space shared by the development team. I call The Game Bakers a "virtual studio" because we are spread out around the world. The team works together all day, but remotely from different cities, countries, and even different continents.

When I was working at Ubisoft, of course I was working in real offices, but I also had a lot of experience working remotely with other studios. Splinter Cell Double Agent was made by three teams spread across three continents; Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter was made by four teams in the U.S., France, and China.

When we started The Game Bakers, we wanted to make smaller games with a smaller team than we had at Ubisoft, but we also wanted to create high quality games with good production values, like the console games we had worked on. One of the cornerstones of this ambition was to rely on a network of talented people whom we had worked with before on console games, but who were now spread out all across the world. (Even our initial members in France were not living close to each other.)

Working with these talented people we already knew and liked would guarantee better efficiency, higher quality, smoother communication, and it would make our work more fun on a daily basis. To set up a structure that would work for day-to-day operations, we had to draw upon our past experiences with remote collaboration.

Here is our team for Squids and Squids Wild West.

The core team is made up of six people spread out in six cities, in two different countries. The total team is 19 people, five countries, and almost as many workplaces as people on the team.

The core team, working full time on the games, includes:

  • 2 programmers
  • 1 technical manager / data manager
  • 1 artist
  • 1 game designer / level designer / producer
  • 1 level design intern
  • 1 studio manager (funding, legal, HR, marketing)

UI, story, audio, modeling, and PR were handled by part time coworkers. Most of the team is freelance contractors. Working with contractors instead of employees is convenient in that it saves a bit of money for the studio, but it's very uncertain, as anyone could leave the team at anytime. That's a huge risk for a project where everyone is responsible of a key aspect of the game. One way to reduce this risk is to keep the projects short (shorter than a year). Being extra nice to them also doesn't hurt. Managing trust is a much more important task in a virtual studio with distant contractors than in an office where everyone is an employee.

Even if you forget the part time people and just consider the core players, this is pretty big for an indie team, and a bit of work and effort is required to keep everyone moving in the same direction. The key word here is communication.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Michael K
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"When text-chatting on Skype about a feature, if the discussion takes more than two minutes,we move to a call."
somehow funny, in a studio you try to do exactly the opposite.
"if it's more than a 'yes' or 'no', write a mail, I'll go through all of them in on go and let me work without distraction as long as possible."
having to interrupt work every 15min is like not working at all, you cannot focus, you have to get back into your thoughts you had before etc. and in the end of the day, you feel like you just started and nothing you wanted to is actually done while the day passed in a blast.

Devin McCamey
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My experience with it has been that if it is something that is an important piece of documentation or something the team needs to know globally, it's a great idea to send a email to the whole team. If you're working with someone specific and need to talk to them directly about it.

Ex: Modeler needs another reference from concept for a prop.

This is a great time to give them a call so you can be specific about what you're going for. HOWEVER, I generally send a follow up email right after the call so there's a paper trail in case you need to bring another team member in on it later to help out.

Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Stephen Dick
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Great article. We are a decentralized studio as well here at Bravado Waffle. We've got team members in 3 different countries now. Skype works great for day to day communication, is a good resource for source control and task management, even has a wiki too. Dropbox and PBworks are also great tools for team and file management.

It's a bit harder not being in an office, but there are a lot of upsides as well! Less overhead being one of them...

Sun Moon Hwang
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Great article. Thank you for sharing.

Timo Heinapurola
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Great article indeed! We developed Bubbling Up with the same methodology. There's much, however, that we could have done better but one reason for that was our inexperience at the time and the lack of pretty much any budget :) When making games in a virtual office you should really get people motivated as you said. It must feel like a normal working team where everyone is committed to creating a great product. I do, however, recommend this as long as you give people the incentive to push for quality.

Eric McVinney
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Awesome article! I'm currently going through something like this with my indie team. It can be a bit of a pain trying to successfully communicate any idea across, though...

Tyler Yohe
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Our team for Broken Crown Games was created as a virtual studio for about a year now, and I didn't have any experience with this setup when starting. We are now a year in and have a variation of everything you listed here to nice to hear from an industry veteran that I didn't miss something!

Just adding my own two cents, my team has found Google Hangout to be much more reliable than Skype. And another thing I've found helpful is Google Drive. It allows for creation of readily accessable planning documents (such as the excel sheet you mentioned), as well as for adding ability to add scripts / storyboards that can get quick revisions as all team members work on the same documents at once!

You actually beat me to the punch on this article (as I am writing a similar one). Never the less, I wrote another post that details some more ways to keep a virtual team organized and on task that can be found here: .

I'd love to here everyone's thoughts.

Sun Moon Hwang
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I would love to see your article too!

Tyler Yohe
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The link was removed, but if you'd like to check it out, just click my profile, go to our site and navigate your way to our forums then just search them for 'Indie Organization'.

Bonny Morgan
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As a freelance, one-stop, full service audio studio, we've been working with more and more 'virtual studios', particularly in game development, looking to add a 'virtual audio dept.' to their globally scattered teams. It was this trend that emboldened us to relocate our studio from within a 45 minute drive of downtown Toronto (..Nowhere is within a 45min drive of T.O.! ...Traffic!) to the Atlantic Coast where we are connected to the web via fiber-optic, using many of the tools mentioned in this article, enjoying an inspiring and refreshing quality of life in a rural setting, 60min from the int'l airport with no traffic, ever. Great for techy, globetrotting, nature-loving, creative types like us! Thanks Internet! :)