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Working Remotely: Yes, It Sounds Good, But How Do You Actually Do It?
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Working Remotely: Yes, It Sounds Good, But How Do You Actually Do It?

July 24, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[Can the game industry make telecommuting work for its employees? Midway and Maxis veteran Simpson looks in detail at how game developers can set up a remote working-friendly ethos - and make better games along the way.]

It sounds like Nirvana, everyone working where they want to, being productive and happy in their personal environments. It's long been touted as the wave of the future, the way we will all work in the 2010s and 2020s.

Some companies even have it going on and working. Or do they? There's much talk about "telecommuting", but what, when it gets down to it, does it actually mean? And is it something you can set up too?

There are several things to consider when talking about setting this situation up, so let's ask some of those questions.

Why Even Work from Home?

The first thing to do is weigh up the pros and cons of this approach to development - why do you want to do it (beyond the cool factor of "being on the edge" and being in Wired)?

There are several reasons for - you may be cash-strapped and moving the talent you need from across the country may be beyond you. It's entirely possible that where you are physically based makes sense for some reasons, but not from the talent pool approach - building a game development studio in Oklahoma may make sense from an office overhead point of view, but in terms of local talent, less so. The games industry is full of specialization these days - finding that right rendering guy out in Idaho who can't move might be exactly what you need.

There's also the aspect of making your employees happy - making them take a day off because the cable guy is going to show up blows from the employee's point of view. Plus, there's the commute factor, which in big cities can add hours to your day.

Maybe you are just boot strapping a company and need people who are not local to you, and can't afford an office - or maybe you want to use contractors and this is the first step in setting up an environment where remote contractors can work for you.

Lastly the idea of working from home actually promotes extra work because people who work at home - if they are engaged - typically don't clock watch and you'll find you get way more out of them than otherwise, particularly if they are single. That's a bit of a cynical reason to decide to go with the remote option, but it is a reality.

There are many reasons why you might want to do this. However, there are as many cons as pros. You - as an employer - may just not believe in this approach, preferring to have your people present and correct day-in, day-out. You may be doing stuff that requires a high degree of constant and local collaboration - something being remote always makes much harder.

You may have other companies want to visit or send people in to help out, or you just might have a group of employees how just can't be trusted to get stuff done without immediate and physical oversight. Epic Games - of Unreal and Gears of War fame - started out as a virtual company back in the early 90's. Head Honcho Tim Sweeney had this to say about their experiments in being virtual:

"We were a "virtual company" with developers spread all over the world from 1992-1997. We started building Unreal that way. The initial core team was James Schmalz in Ontario, Cliff [Bleszinski] in California, me in Maryland. By 1997, the team was up to 18 or so people (including Steve Polge, writing the AI and gameplay code from North Carolina), and the coordination overhead was unworkably high.

What had worked for three people had proven unscalable, especially in regards to coordinating programmers and level designers. When we actually finished the game 12 months later, we realized we needed to set up shop somewhere permanently. "

So obviously it doesn't work for everyone, at least not back in the mid '90s, with their two-slice toasters!

But can it actually work? Tim Sweeney again -

"We've had good experience outsourcing artwork all around the world, so I have no doubt that some job functions work well remotely. Areas that require intense coordination among individuals are less efficient. Certainly, that could be mitigated somewhat by a combination of technology and company processes, which we markedly lacked back in 1997."

Linden Lab (Second Life) operates about 30% of its 200 people remotely, Introversion (Darwinia, Defcon) also operates a loose work-at-home program internally, and Wideload (Stubbs the Zombie, Hail to the Chimp) builds all content via remote contractors, so it's definitely possible.


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