In 2020, One More Game decided to embrace fully remote work — forever. I wanted to share a little bit about how we came to that decision, what we’ve learned about building a distributed game studio, and how we’ve adapted the way we work to maximize developer happiness in our new remote reality.
We founded One More Game in 2019, and by the time we’d raised some money, spun up a small team and begun work on our debut game in earnest (along with all of the other legwork involved with starting a new game studio from scratch), it was early 2020.
We had only just leased our first office space in Seattle when that pesky little pandemic began to rear its ugly head. We sent our team home in early March ahead of the first stay-at-home order issued by Washington state, and the rest is history (painful, annoying, somehow-still-happening history).
At first, we assumed the disruption would last for a month, maybe two. We left our desktops in the office and connected back to them from our home machines through a VPN that I had just finished configuring a week or so prior [pictured above]. To keep the team connected, we set up a shared schedule including a daily stand-up, a weekly company play test, a socialization hour every Thursday, and a weekly end of day game session every Friday (turns out lying to your colleagues in Among Us is great for team-building!).
By the summer, we’d canceled our lease. Remote work had been so effective for us that we decided to never look back. OMG was now a fully remote game studio.
It wasn’t the first time we had weighed the idea of a fully remote model. In the earliest of OMG’s days, Pat and I gave the notion serious consideration. I’d seen remote teams work fantastically myself: I spent some time at a fully remote late-stage startup where I led a third of their engineering team before founding OMG, so I was ready to give it a try.
COVID was a forcing function. The imposed experiment with fully remote game development gave us the evidence we needed to join “Team Let’s Be Fully Remote” and make the leap. Here are some of the reasons why we believe it’s better:
- Better collaboration. This runs against what some remote work skeptics might argue, but I truly believe that collaboration is enhanced when working together digitally. People don’t interrupt each other on Zoom as frequently as they do in person. By using shared, digital, real-time tools, we’re building a permanent record together — not a dry-erasable whiteboard, or a fleeting conversation. We have recorded footage of our game dating back to March 25, 2020 that we wouldn’t have otherwise had because we embraced this approach.
- Better culture. In-person offices can tend towards cliques and unhealthy practices. Drinking culture at the studio? Good luck getting your ideas heard if you aren’t interested in partaking. Introverted? The loudest folks in the room often get unequal input over how decisions are made. This isn’t to say remote work is immune to these practices, but remote work has many aspects that demand us to be thoughtful about this – instead of water cooler conversations and other casual interactions more prone to unconscious bias in meatspace, every interaction requires an active consideration about who you’re inviting to the conversation, and that step should serve as a reminder of inclusivity.
- Better talent. By hiring team members living within time zones which wouldn’t prohibit real-time collaboration, we’re greatly increasing our pool of prospective talent. This one might seem obvious, but it’s hard to overstate how much of a massive advantage this gives us as a startup studio competing to recruit smart, capable, caring developers. It’s true that some folks strongly prefer in-person work, and so we’re losing the opportunity for them to join the team, but we feel the overall talent pool is much, much larger.
- Happier people. No commute? Nice. More control over your work schedule? Heck yes. More time to spend with family and the things I care about? Sign me up. Surveys show that the majority of people would prefer to work remotely permanently, and our experience suggests that’s because remote work means our team feels empowered and entrusted with freedom, and we’re all happier for it. We believe that happier developers make better games (and happier players!), so it’s really a no-brainer for us.
Just like running a company with a shared physical office, running a remote company requires significant infrastructure, care and attention — it just looks a little bit different. A physical company needs someone responsible for ensuring the office runs smoothly with the facilities maintained, the kitchen fully stocked and making sure that everyone holds up their end of the deal with regards to the dishwashing rotation. A remote organization must have someone responsible for ensuring the team has the tools, practices and support they need to thrive.
Here are some of the best practices I can recommend for anyone considering embracing a fully remote studio culture:
- Real-time collaboration tools: make sure the tools you’ve chosen allow for real-time collaboration, such as a wiki which allows teammates to simultaneously edit the same document or a digital whiteboard that let’s you visualize your ideas with text, markers, and sticky notes — I guarantee there’s a digital analog (heh) for each tool or process that you leveraged for in-person collaboration. We use Slack, Discord, Zoom, Miro, Confluence, Jira, Google Docs, and email.
- Communications principles: educate your team about the strengths and weaknesses of the communication tools you use and what sorts of conversations might need to be ‘elevated’ from email to video chat. Email is a great tool for broadcasting and record keeping, but is typically written in a more formal manner, and tends not be great for conversation. Text messaging apps (e.g., Slack) is less formal and great for quick collaboration, but not great for record keeping. More difficult conversations should be escalated to audio and/or video chat. On that subject:
- Meetings: Video conferencing is nearly a true replacement for in-person meetings, and while it’s true that most meetings “could’ve been an email,” it’s important to get see each other on a regular basis. Seeing each others’ reactions in real-time, knowing that we’re engaged — it’s invaluable.
- It’s all-or-nothing: One last recommendation about remote work — ‘Hybrid’ workplaces, in my view, are much more difficult to operate successfully than a homogeneous solution. The team members collocated in-person can have an advantage over their remote peers – especially if they’re close in proximity to decision makers – and the typical problems of physical offices (cliques, bias, lack of record) are exacerbated to the detriment of everyone (especially folks working remotely).
Now, for a big caveat: we’re still a smaller team, and I don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t have proof that our approach scales effectively, but we don’t see something on the horizon that would suggest it doesn’t scale any better than growing a team in a physical office past Dunbar’s number. Here are a few of the questions we’re still grappling with:
- "What happens when the team’s too big to fit in a single Zoom standup?" We expect modes of communication will shift from discussion to broadcast as the studio grows, with meetings growing out of necessity for creating alignment and sharing context as teams become more compartmentalized.
- "How can we accommodate folks who prefer a separate office space that’s outside of their home?" While "more time with family" is one edge of the sword, the other means distraction and lack of focus. We’re looking at offering desks at coworking spaces for folks who just prefer a separate office space.
- "How do we ensure people are exposed to colleagues who aren’t immediately in their circle of collaborators?" This is a problem for physical organizations, too, but we’ll need to figure out a remote-compatible solution.
- "In a post-pandemic world, how can we still get some in-person time together?" Our current plans are for a recurring “One More Game Rally” where we’ll fly the whole team to a single location for a few days to be together.
We’re confident in our overall conviction that fully remote teams are better at making games and keeping players happy, but there are plenty of questions about how we make that happen. Come help us figure it out — we’re hiring!