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Managing An International Remote Development Team

July 15, 2003 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

3. Assigning tasks that resulted in visible successes. A basic tool used by businesses is that of motivation diagrams, which indicate that self-appreciation and realization are the pinnacle of personal success. So you should try to achieve these feelings with external teams, too.

Daniel Jeppsson of Southend Interactive believes that the way Ubi Soft handled the scheduling of XIII significantly improved his team's drive to succeed. He noticed on his team, and within himself, that the way development tasks had been scheduled enabled Southend employees to feel appreciated, even though they weren't publicly recognized for their work on the game. Jeppsson believes early preparation of a schedule that factors in the remote team not only improves the remote team's efficiency; it benefits the employee morale and financial picture of the client.

"I think it is important to have clearly defined, separate goals so the remote team can feel proud of their part of the job and can easily verify that the job is actually being done," Jeppsson says. It sounds simple, but it's an important reason why Southend Interactive is successful as a remote team.

Many companies contract remote teams to work on a variety of assets that make up a small percentage of the overall collection of assets of a single objective. For instance, on XIII, Southend had specific objectives like creating the multiplayer aspects for the Xbox version. Those tasks made Southend employees feel involved and recognized for their work. Obviously this is good for the remote team, and it also played a role in reducing bugs in the game. For instance, if there were any bugs related to the multiplayer aspects, Ubi Soft would contact Southend Interactive directly. Bug reports were easily assigned to the right people on the right team. This is much better than a situation in which a remote team is working on a variety of assets for separate objectives, which can make finding the right person to fix a problem a lengthy process. I caution you against calling in a remote team to work on random "bits and bobs".

Early on, when Ubi Soft's XIII design team decided the game would include multiplayer, the company quickly crafted a plan to use a remote team to work on these aspects, and chose a team that had the expertise to do so. With this schedule they clearly defined several objectives for the remote team, which was successful. Once again this underscores the importance of early and effective planning. Make yourself aware of the capabilities of the remote teams in the early stages of development - it will help you better prepare for the project and pave the way for a successful relationship with the remote team.

Sketch of races available to player in The Ire Sequence.

4. Proper risk assessment. With every project comes risks. During the development of The Ire Sequence we encountered several unexpected problems while working with a remote team. When analyzing the project after it had finished, I believe we had to follow the same course that Ted Price of Insomniac Games stated in his Ratchet & Clank postmortem: "We had to fail to succeed".

I cannot stress enough the importance of analyzing the basic, critical issues related to using remote teams. As a project manager, you must identify potential problems that could arise with the external team. The difficulty is determining whether the remote team, no matter how talented, can succeed at your project. For a remote team to work well, you must assess their talents carefully so that your workflow and communications succeed from the beginning.

When working with a team in a foreign-language country, naturally it's critical to have a bilingual project manager on the remote team that you can work with. But that person also needs to have technical skills and be proficient at project management, too. Finding someone who meets all of these requirements is hard, but setting goals for what you want in each remote employee is an ideal way of culling prospects. Indeed, setting individual goals for each remote employee will give the remote team's management the opportunity to select the best team members for your project. You'll also be able to quickly establish exactly what you want from the remote team. Once these basic objectives are identified, you'll be able to narrow your field of candidates based on their budget, project schedule and team skills.

5. Effective communication. Communication is a recurring subject. It cannot be understated how important good communication processes are when managing a remote team. Additionally, initiating communication in the right way can be just as important as sustaining it, and you must invest in the right equipment and resources as needed.

I'm a strong believer in the potential of virtual development, in which everyone works remotely, usually from home. Virtual development is a development method, which has been used to make several retail games, including Tactical Ops. But even in an extreme like this, production will suffer if face-to-face communication doesn't occur at some stage. Face-to-face communication is a good way of creating and sustaining a friendly and a creative work atmosphere, even over large distances.

Serge Hascoet, Executive Director of Worldwide Content Strategy at Ubi Soft recently wrote an article describing how the company's creative studios benefited from face-to-face conventions. Similar communication techniques can be implemented with remote teams. Hascoet explained that Ubi Soft occasionally held an event for developers known as the "Academy of Experts". The events let teams share experiences and learn more about the production process. The days help create a sense of communal belonging and provide creative inspiration for future games. This is the sort of event that should be considered when working with remote teams. Even a meeting at E3 can be enough to boost communication and provide a common experience that's needed to support a good working relationship.

Initiating work in a friendly environment is a great way to build a relationship. With regards to XIII, Ubi Soft's regular face-to-face interaction with Southend Interactive lead to a successful relationship between the two companies. In fact, none of the Southend employees never felt as close to a publisher as they did with Ubi Soft throughout the entire development process, which inspired them. Daniel Jeppsson of Southend explained that his team and Ubi Soft communicated "…mostly by mail, but also by phone and sometimes people flying back and forth. We have patience and respect for the other parties' work, I guess. Like always in a creative business, people have egos and feathers can easily be ruffled unless people get to know each other [face-to-face] beforehand."

Jeppsson said the regular meetings with Ubi Soft quickly established a mutual respect of the teams' creative and technical abilities. It created an atmosphere that allowed both teams to communicate effectively, even during the early critique stages of the project. It broke the ice between the developer and remote team and created synergy between them.

Inter-team communications can also be handled via the Internet, as mentioned earlier. In particular, online forums are can facilitate a sense of community between the primary developers and remote team, especially if you're low on resources. (Although it will never compete with verbal communication for building relationships.)

Integral Studios used forums to communicate worldwide during development of The Ire Sequence and Serge Hascoet (Ubi Soft) recently said that the company's worldwide development studios use forums to communicate technical problems and share ideas. So whatever the size of your project or company, there are many tools that can improve the communication between far-flung teams.

Real-time image of The Ire Sequence terrain environment.


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