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How Blizzard, Ubisoft, and other studios went remote in the time of COVID-19

How Blizzard, Ubisoft, and other studios went remote in the time of COVID-19
April 24, 2020 | By Bryant Francis




It's April 2020 and COVID-19 has begun to reshape the video game industry. While game studios are not suffering the damage afflicting the travel, live sports, or concert businesses, convention cancellations and retail limitations have begun to rewrite how the industry does business.

But while the future lies uncertain, what’s become clear early in the crisis is that video game studios and publishers have been remarkably successful at moving their workforces to remote operations. This has occurred both in conjunction with government lockdowns of businesses and large gatherings and sometimes, in advance of them.

Though game developers all over the world are now working at their home desks, learning more about their coworkers’ cats and kids over video calls, there is still a long road ahead for studios organized around remote work. Here are the stories of a few studios that made the transition, what went well for them, and what they’re looking at going forward.

The Move

According to available reports, the SARS-CoV-2 virus made landfall in the United States and in South Korea on January 20. Its rapid progression from there shaped how companies all around the world began their remote work responses.

First, its regional spread in Asia began influencing companies based in or those with heavy ties in the region. Of the studios we spoke to, Blizzard Entertainment, Ubisoft, Netmarble, Hyper Hippo Games, and others began taking formative steps to move their companies to remote setups.

According to Blizzard Entertainment’s VP of HR Jesse Meschuk, along with chief information and security officer Mark Adams and chief legal officer Claire Hart, the company began organizing an internal task force as part of a drive to help its Asian offices move to remote work. Ubisoft Toronto managing director Alex Parizeau and Netmarble USA president Simon Sim said their parent companies did the same. These developers relied on their task forces to create remote work practices that could benefit all their audiences, and adapt to local laws, regulations, and needs.

The virus’ spread in China had bigger ripples too. Hyper Hippo CEO Sam Fisher said that word from the company’s Asian partners began shaping their decision-making ahead of other companies. Tequila Works CEO Raul Rubio said COVID-19’s impact was apparent at the Las Vegas D.I.C.E. Summit in February.

From there, these largely Western developers began to ready precautionary remote work strategies, hoping that the “test days” they were planning wouldn’t be necessary. For some, those test days became day zero of their employees’ work-from-home transition.

According to Phoenix Labs VP of operations Jeanne-Marie Owens, the Dauntless developer, which has offices in Seattle among other locations, began taking action after Washington State implemented its stay-at-home order on February 29, but its remote work practices became the norm for the rest of the company a few weeks later. Moving the company remote branch-by-branch had the benefit of helping Phoenix Labs figure out exactly what needed to be done, and in Owens’ words, the staggered move over the course of a week was “enough time” to move the mid-sized company.

Across the Atlantic, Failbetter Games and Tequila Works joined their Canadian cousins at Hyper Hippo Studios in going full work-from-home on Friday the 13. En Masse Entertainment’s Stefan Ramirez confirmed their studio acted around the same time. Of the studios we spoke to, South African developer 24 Bit Games was the one to act the slowest, but per CEO Luke Lamothe, the company began implementing its remote work protocols on March 16, 11 days before a nationwide lockdown would begin on the 27. (For context, the country’s first case appeared on March 1).

Though the Northern Hemisphere was exiting winter during this transition, tales of these transitions sound a lot like preparations for a snowstorm. Blizzard Entertainment sent its employees home with a slew of goods like toilet paper and paper towels that were flying off the supermarket shelves, while Ubisoft, GameHouse, and other companies sent home basic office supplies like chairs, headsets, and plants under the expectation they wouldn't return to the studio for some time. ​

Once employees returned to their home offices, IT administrators and system admins had to ensure the next step--that employees could work as effectively from home as they could in the studio.

The Technical Challenges

While most of the studios we spoke with didn’t describe the remove to remote work as overly arduous, the transition did expose unique inadequacies normally managed by an office environment. While many studios have had practices in place for years to support occasional employees doing work from home, moving every employee to that status was another story.

Different developers have discussed different remote work setups that adapt to their team’s needs. Blizzard and Ubisoft discussed two of the more complicated setups we heard. Blizzard has implemented multiple layers of remote work strategy, ranging from cloud applications that can be used on personal machines to advanced graphics-accelerated desktop infrastructure to handle frame rate- and latency-sensitive tools.

Parizeau says Ubisoft Toronto has largely favored a VPN remote desktop workflow supplied by Citrix. Instead of moving more devices home, this approach means that studio employees are interacting with their work machines over a long distance. 

Phoenix Labs’ Owens said the immediate challenges revolved around build-syncing, devkits, and software licenses for remote work tools. Syncing builds in particular was still a thorn in the studio’s side when we spoke with her.

“The way that we do our builds, we use a piece of software that allows to use the PCs across the office to distribute the load of building faster,” she explained. “So if you were in the office and you were thinking to build it was able to use all of the other computers in the office to do that faster.

“That doesn't work well in a remote distributed environment and having to use PCs from other people's homes or back in the office.”

Since Phoenix Labs ships Dauntless on all major platforms, Owens said the company had to reach out to its partners at Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo to ensure developers could access devkits from home. And after its Seattle office began the transition, the company realized it didn’t have enough individual licenses secured for its VPN software and other tools.

At Hyper Hippo, Fisher reported that the studio had to adapt its patching and update cycle for games like AdVenture Capitalist to deal with Apple and Google’s sudden changes to their build review process. According to him, both companies let developers know that it would be adjusting staffing and moving their review teams to remote work, a process which would delay some patches.

Fisher said, this meant moving AdVenture Capitalist’s weekend-structured events to be midweek-structured, though this occurred in conjunction with feedback from their players that this would support their new lifestyles too.

Above: Even Hyper Hippo Games' promotional images for AdVenture Capitalist have adapted to life under quarantine.

Failbetter Games producer Stuart Young said that while his company’s transition was fairly smooth, they’ve been surprised by changes to the tools they use that have emerged as part of the outbreak. Though video chat service Zoom has been soaring in popularity, the much-needed security changes the platform had to implement in the wake of “Zoom bombings” became a slight roadblock for a studio used to just hopping on calls with one another.

Though cloud computing software has reduced the number of physical components needed for a studio on-site, some developers we spoke to discussed the need to keep some staff in the office (at least initially) to help everyone at home. At Tequila Works, Rubio volunteered for the task himself, helping grapple with a surge to Madrid’s power grid that took the company’s desktops online. “There was a power peak during the night that disabled an entire wing of the building,” he explained.

“Even if UPS [systems] kicked in and the automatic switch-off protocol worked, I had to restart the power switches because that’s how power panels work!”

During 24 Bit Games’ transition, Lamothe said the company needed to keep some staff on site—the plan was to have four engineers on staff, with two “floating” team members on call if need by. With an empty office, they were able to keep three meters apart and support developers who needed access to dev kits, test PCs, etc. These engineers would join their comrades at home after South Africa’s lockdown order went into effect.

All of these changes have put a large burden on different information technology teams, who’ve had to implement the new procedures conceived of by COVID-19 task forces and company leadership. At ProbablyMonsters, the new studio from former Bungie boss Harold Ryan, system administrator Alex Zimmerman described how the transition hit his team.

“This endeavor was pretty heavy workload-wise,” he said. “Basically you do support through the day. Then as things start to dwindle off in the evenings, that's when you can actually make progress on improving the processes or improving the experience for employees for the next morning. Then you rinse and repeat."

"I would say the first week was pretty brutal in the sense of starting early before everyone got online, making sure everything was in working order from the changes you made the night before and all of it later in the evening. Now I think we're in a pretty good state."

Zimmerman added that during this time, Ryan himself jumped into the trenches with the IT team and helped respond to individual work tickets. 

Though these various developers' tech teams have worked frantically to ensure a sense of "normalcy" to working from home, many studio heads have begun to recognize that mandated long-term remote work had created a new kind of normal, with its own unique challenges. Even with many of the tech solutions under control, the impact of COVID-19's spread goes beyond the physical relocation.

And for some, those challenges are only just beginning. 

The Human Condition

Universally, every company that spoke to Gamasutra said their company’s productivity was “about the same or better” with everyone working at home. This pattern led to two obvious conclusions:

  1. Game developers are incredibly talented and able to adapt to incredibly difficult circumstances.
  2. No one, especially publicly traded companies, is going to tell Gamasutra that their productivity is down.

But we also learned much more about what remote development has done to developers used to working in-house together.

Blizzard's Jesse Meschuk, Mark Adams, and Claire Hart discussed how the company is trying to monitor employees’ mental health alongside their productivity. “We can’t look at productivity without looking at preventing burnout,” they explained. “Working from home in times like these can make people feel undue pressure, and we’re working to ensure our teams don’t feel that way.

“Many of our folks have children who are also having to stay at home, and we want those employees to feel supported and that they have flexibility.”

Hyper Hippo Games head of studio Tristan Rattink was frank about how the remote move has changed his team’s development practices. While he said that live development hasn’t changed in the last month, the move has drastically impacted work on new games. There are no whiteboards to gather around. Concept art and gameplay prototypes need to be exported, uploaded, downloaded, and reviewed before a developer can even respond with “oh that’s not quite what I meant.” In the office, that interaction would have taken mere seconds.

“At the creative level, everything takes a little bit longer to connect. I'm sure there is more wasted work, because, you know, you're doing more handovers instead of collaboration," Rattink said. He also pointed out that everything from looking at the news to families that are always home is impacting how his team gets things done.

Netmarble's Simon Sim says this reality has been part of his company’s top-down view of the COVID-19 crisis. He explained that part of Netmarble’s strategy has not only been to think of the company as a family but to expand that view to reflect the reality that people’s families are now part of Netmarble’s business.

In one example, he described a conference call he was having with one of his colleagues that gained an unexpected addition: his coworker’s daughter. “I gave an assignment to his daughter,” he explained, “asking, ‘hey, could you draw something and show me to help your father?’ And she gave something and ‘helped our decision-making.’”

“It’s not actually helping our decision-making,” he said with a laugh. “But Emily, my team member, wants to participate in this conference call so she’s not thinking she’s alone. The kids want to help their parents.”

Above, a different "team member" shows off her art to Netmarble CEO Simon Sim

Sim said the transition to remote work has led to him scheduling far more calls with his employees than he would have in the office since incidental chatter just isn’t possible anymore. “Communication is not easy,” he explained. “As a leader, we need to put more effort in communication with team members, because when we work together, it’s easy. We just casually talk. But now we can’t see each other!”

Javier Martinez, studio director of the multinational European company GameHouse, said his company took extra steps to send “equipment” home with developers as lockdowns began. Keyboards, Cintiq pads, monitors, chairs, even coffee mugs and plants became part of the inventory that employees could requisition. And when some team members couldn’t make it to the office, they began ordering new equipment for them.

“One of our artists was visiting her boyfriend in the UK when all flights got canceled,” he said. “She is now stranded there, and GameHouse bought her locally all the equipment she needed to be able to draw again.”

This approach mimics how Ubisoft Toronto managing director Alex Parizeau said the company has supported its employees. Not only have developers been allowed to take home equipment from the office, but they’ve established a reimbursement program to help employees stock up their home workspaces.  

At Failbetter, Stuart Young was one of many who said their company has begun hosting after-hours Zoom meetups. "I can think about ways that you could address the social-psychological impacts, as opposed to just the practical ones,” he said. “And I think with modern technology, the practical limitations are comparatively easy to overcome. It's the constant isolation and feeling of being split up and separated. It's tricky to address."

Blizzard also was thinking about its employee’s home life and began paying attention to the growing international shortages of toilet paper, paper towels, and beyond. That shortage had already begun to surface in Irvine, California early in the year. Meschuk told Gamasutra that the company’s Facilities team confirmed the developer could still get a bulk order in from its office supplier, enough to support the Irvine HQ.

From there, the Facilities, HR, and Security teams collaborated to build an improvised drive-through in the company parking garage. To avoid a rush, they implemented a sign-up system that used time slots to schedule pickups, and employees who distributed the supplies were given masks and gloves during the process.

According to Meschuk, this led to Blizzard’s Austin, South Korea, and Chinese offices to begin a care package delivery process, converting their office supply process to one that could support individual employees. As has been written elsewhere, the global shortage is in part due to the fact that paper product manufacturers are usually splitting their production between office environments and home environments.

Impromptu hacks like Blizzard’s, at least in small part, help bridge those two supply chains in a way that even grocery stores sometimes can’t.

Looking Ahead

The storm has rolled in, developers have hunkered down, and while game development proceeds apace, they, like everyone else, can only wait for what comes next.

“What comes next” covers a lot of territories. How will developers market their games as conventions postpone event after event? How will a global economic shift impact their players? And most importantly, what if COVID-19 begins striking their workforce?

Hyper Hippo Games CEO Sam Fisher is wary of much of the data he’s looking at right now. Not because it’s bad for the company, but the opposite—it’s very good. KPIs, revenue, all of these numbers are normal, even as the world undergoes a dramatic shift. He’s worried other studios looking at the studio could be lulled into “a really messy trap.”

“We’re doing a lot of things now that we weren’t doing before,” he said. “We have to focus on a lot of issues like ‘what are the government programs?’ We have to talk to stakeholders in a different way that we didn’t have to talk to before. We have to figure out which ones are solid, which ones aren’t.”

He added, “There’s a lot of people that are gonna be three months down the road, realize those are things they should have been dealing with before, and they didn’t, and now they have to deal with them urgently, and it’ll be too late.”

Fisher urged other developers to begin talking to their financial partners ASAP, to build bridges that may be necessary for the coming months.  

Phoenix Labs VP of operations Jeanne-Marie Owens said the company has been preparing for the possibility of employees becoming critically ill, and like many other studios, said they want employees to take off if they’re sick in any capacity, even though they’re safe at home. But that means a lot of preparation has to take place. She’s been pushing Phoenix Labs developers to begin thinking about documentation, file organization, and anything else another employee would need to pick up the slack if they need to take off sick.

“On a really personal level, there are things that I do for the company that I don’t have backup for. There are permissions only my account can grant…so literally this week, I’ve written a giant document around how to run payroll in case I get sick and end up in the hospital.”  

And lastly—though this is in some ways, far less consequential than the disease itself, some developers have begun thinking about how COVID-19, quarantine, and social distancing will impact the content and design of their games. At Failbetter, Young says this is “absolutely” impacting content for Fallen London and the studio’s other games.

“This is pretty inevitable that the mood will seep into the work of the writers and artists, the things we make will some way reflect this,” he explained. For a company that’s long lounged in images of dread, disease, and death, reality has finally caught up.

These stories and more are just the tip of the iceberg on how the spread of COVID-19 is hitting the video game industry. If you have a story you’d like to share about what’s changed in your life, feel free to share your story at [email protected].  



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