[In this in-depth article, Slightly Mad Studios contractor Tomlinson explains how the firm completed highly-rated EA-published console racing game Need For Speed: Shift with a largely virtual team structure, with a personal perspective on how remote working can work even for larger game teams.]
I had wanted to become a contractor for my chosen profession -- video game programming -- for quite some time, but the vast majority of developers in the UK were hostile to the idea. So when I heard about Slightly Mad Studios, I couldn't believe my luck.
Not only is contracting encouraged, but working remotely is the norm. So how can a developer with staff spread over the globe possibly hope to produce a successful AAA project?
Slightly Mad's recent critically acclaimed release, Need for Speed: Shift, is proof positive that not only is a virtual development company possible, but that it can thrive. This article explains how.
The origins of Slightly Mad Studios lie in a modding group called SimBin who produced the much acclaimed GTR2 and GT Legends. The core of the development team, led by Ian Bell, broke away to form Blimey! Games, which led in turn to Slightly Mad Studios.
Thus the company always had a somewhat loose physical structure where geographical diversity was ingrained. By September 18, 2009, the first SMS product, Need For Speed Shift, was released worldwide by Electronic Arts to positive reviews -- the Xbox 360 version currently has an 83 on Metacritic.
Remote working in "virtual companies" is not a new idea; it has been discussed previously on Gamasutra by Jake Simpson, for example, who offers many useful tips. However, rarely has the idea been so completely embraced as it has at Slightly Mad Studios. Max Meltzer has also discussed at length the difficulties in managing a remote team. The set-up at SMS is somewhat different, however, in that it employs remote individuals rather than remote outsourcing teams.
Although some SMS staff choose to work at the small London head office, the vast majority work remotely. The UK is home for a large chunk of the team, about 50 percent, but many are based in various parts of Europe with others in North and South America, South Africa, Scandinavia, and Australia. One staff member's registered location is an Indian Ocean tropical island; as long as you can get a reliable broadband connection, geography is not an issue.
The team members' contractual arrangements with SMS are equally varied. Many work on short or longer fixed term contracts, although traditional employment is available if preferred. About half the team are full time employees, but all non-UK staff are consultants.
A small number of UK staff who own their own companies are also consultants. I personally work through my own limited company, S1m On Ltd, although my relationship is a little closer to SMS than perhaps would be usual for an outsourcing arrangement. Of course, intellectual property rights must be properly dealt with in any contract as must non-disclosure obligations, but this is straightforward.
Ian Bell's open minded attitude is rarely reflected in other game development companies. Before joining SMS I had tried and failed to persuade a number of companies that remote contracting was a workable proposition. The primary barrier to remote working quoted by most companies is communication. How could I possibly participate in the team if I wasn't physically present on the development floor?
Face-to-face meetings still occur at SMS, hosted either at the London office or some other mutually convenient location, but the primary day-to-day channels of communication are electronic. SMS uses two very simple systems -- instant messaging, and a well-structured online forum.
The forum is split into private company areas, and more public areas which are open to the client -- in this case, publisher Electronic Arts. The forum is further split by discipline (Code, Art, Design, QA), by project and down into specific threads to which an interested user can subscribe for notification of new posts.
It is the responsibility of members to stay up-to-date with the forum, and one quickly learns the critical threads; typically a review once an hour using a recent post search is adequate and acts as a natural break from coding.
IM is used where a more interactive discussion is required, sometimes with multiple participants, and usually with conclusions recorded on the forum. The translation issues encountered by Meltzer are avoided at SMS by defining the company language as English -- and all staff must be passably fluent. This might cut the available talent pool somewhat, but not, perhaps, by all that much.