The following article is the translation of interview to some developers written for PC Gamer by Wes Fenlon.
"I thought I was an introvert before all this happened," he says Kirk Williford, developer of Guild Wars 2. The largest development houses in the world are facing three dramatic changes due to COVID-19. Closed offices with no prospect of reopening and teams of dozens or hundreds of people trying to figure out how to work through Zoom or Slack.
After a few months of working from home on the latest big update of Guild Wars 2 with the only pastime left to play other video games in the evening, Williford realized he was much more outgoing than he thought. Daily human contact, albeit casual, is one of those things that are taken for granted while working in an office, but even after months without it, developers have to find new ways to create video games.
Working from home is certainly not new for independent developers, but the pandemic meant a radical change for studies at work on triple A qualifications. What does it mean to rely only on remote work for houses like ArenaNet, which must make sure that Guild Wars 2 do you keep working while working on new updates? Or for Bungie or Digital Extremes, whose hundreds of employees are always working on Destiny or Warframe?
The basic answer is that meetings need to be increased to keep everyone coordinated, even if it is difficult to replace small daily interactions, such as turning the chair to peek at what the designer is doing at the desk next to yours. But mostly everyone has been able to overcome these difficulties and keep the game on track.
The invisible heroes behind each game that will be released in 2020 are the computer scientists who have managed to find a way to fix hundreds of computers so that they could be brought to the developers' home or set up to be controlled remotely. They made the developers' work possible and at least in the case of ArenaNet, they did it very quickly. "It was like a corporate restructuring in two days," said Guild Wars 2 producer Kyle Harris.
A Bungie plans for this change had started when everyone was still working in the development house, but "There has been a continuous change in mechanisms" according to Carrie Gouskos, director of development. This advance allowed employees to know what to give before leaving their office and starting to work from home; later they were allowed to go to the office to fix some setup details, but as the pandemic progressed, this attitude could not continue.
"We realized that so we exposed employees to the same number of contacts, only more slowly. If all the computer scientists still work in the office, and each person comes to the office and comes in contact with them one at a time ... then [we preferred] a contactless delivery of the material by courier, "he said.
The transition has not always been smooth, but given that the coronavirus looms large, everyone imagined that players would understand that some things could go wrong every now and then, especially for big online games. This is at least in part the reason why some development companies wanted to meet deadlines rather than delay games.
Digital Extremes, developers of Warframe, posted an update, Operation: Scarlet Spear, in March, and definitely presents problems. Despite this, the study continued decided with some corrections and new updates for Warframe as scheduled.
Megan Everett, Digital Extremes community manager said:
“We don't look at our timeline resigned not to make it. It seems almost normal in a way. I understand that we no longer share the same physical space. But when I look at our Slack channel and all the discussions that take place and our programs, I notice that we are doing exactly what we set out to do before all this happened. And I don't mean to say that we won't go through any deadlines. Things are not perfect, but it seems to me that we are moving at a regular pace and trying to carry out the bulk of the work without making us afraid. Operation Scarlet Spear wasn't perfect, and it was tough. But I'm still proud of how we behaved given the situation we are in. And I think everyone understood that. "
Ironically, working on a game like Destiny 2 prepared Bungie for the move to work from home.
“For people working on seasonal releases, not much has changed. In fact, the teams that deal with that part of the job were ready to work from home, as they have to be prepared to resolve emergencies at all times. Nobody wants employees to work outside the established hours, but this is the reality of a live service. If something happens in the middle of the night, someone has to wake up. It works like this. Those teams were actually ready and paved the way for us. They replied saying 'of course I can work from home. Do you have any questions about it? '”
Making big budget games at home means not only readjusting the development process, but also the game itself to the reality of the moment. The latest episode of Guild Wars 2, The Icebrood Saga: No Quarter was published on March 26th without dubbing, because it was not possible to get all the voice actors' recordings before Hollywood closed. The team thought about delaying the release, as ArenaNet is very proud of its work on dubbing and its episodes have a long history behind it.
Williford said in this regard: "Guild Wars 2 was a fully voiced MMO. It's an important aspect for us. " But despite this they decided to respect the scheduled exit even without the rumors. "It was important. Our players wanted something new. "
No Quarter uses "guttural" sounds instead of complete dialogues (similar to the mote that many Nintendo games still use), and designers have had to find a new way of communicating information through the UI and sound effects instead of using voices. But there is also a positive side: Wilford's team was forced to think about what the Guild Wars 2 game experience was for deaf players. Many events and some parts of the background were communicated only via voiceover or through dialogues with the NPCs, tools that this time the developers did not have at their disposal. The developers are still planning on voicing No Quarter in the future, but some of these alternative ways of communicating information will return in future episodes.
Remote work has also had other benefits. Gouskos and Williford have noticed that more introverted people are facilitated to talk in video chats rather than in a chaotic meeting room. Nate Simpson, creative director of Kerbal Space Program 2, said that this experience made him understand what it means to be an off-site worker and that in the future he will be "a more careful boss" thanks to this. "We are all on the same level now, we are all off-site," he said.
It can be difficult to focus on anything during a pandemic, and working from home adds distractions like children, pets, and being so close to the bed makes things even more difficult. The developers I spoke to gave a mostly positive opinion, saying that both the company and their teams had helped them overcome distractions and stress.
The Guild Wars team praised a video tour of a California goat farm that the company organized for all employees. They were skeptical at first, but the experience proved to be a very fun distraction. Bungie offered each employee extraordinary vacation, in addition to the normal paid vacation, and an unlimited salary to spend on anything that would make the home-based work experience better.
Carrie Gouskos summed up a mood that, at least in Bungie, kept the team motivated in these tough times.
"If what we do is a distraction for people, a leisure, a consolation, if it is something we can do to help even marginally ... then I think we can make this effort. People are at home, tired, frustrated, sad. For those of us who make video games, it is easy to think how important these games are to us. But now we have a new purpose, we are aware that what we do can be important. I don't want to give the idea that it is fundamental, but it has its own importance."