COVID 19 Game Developer Interview Nintendo Life

Most of you reading this will have encountered some sort of social restrictions over the past month or so due to the COVID-19 pandemic the world is currently experiencing. While security measures designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus vary on a per-country basis, necessary social restrictions and distancing are having a severe effect on people from nearly every walk of life.

The Nintendo Life team is incredibly fortunate to be able to work remotely with little disruption to our regular working life. The cancellation of certain events might mean having to reschedule or rethink certain features (our 'hands-off' demo of Sabotage's Sea of Stars, for example, owing to the cancellation of GDC), but digital distribution and communication means the majority of our reviews, features, interviews and the like are able to continue with little or no disruption.

We've seen disruption to the games industry already, and repercussions will likely become more evident as the year progresses as companies large and small are forced to delay projects. However, we were keen to find out the realities of the situation from a developer perspective, so we spoke to a handful of Switch developers from around the world to find out how coronavirus has changed their day-to-day over the past month or so, and find out how those changes will affect their projects going forward.

Isabelle Work From Home Animal Crossing New Horizons
Isabelle appears to live and work in Resident Services. Many more than ever before can now sympathise.

We spoke to: Studio Director and Co-Founder of Playtonic Games Gavin Price (Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair); Founder of SMG Studio Ashley Ringrose (Death Squared, Moving Out); Dotemu CEO Cyrille Imbert (Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, Streets of Rage 4) and Image & Form producer Petter Magnusson (SteamWorld series).

Nintendo Life: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your working day?

Gavin Price, Studio Director and Co-Founder Playtonic Games: Massively so and probably very similar to how people all over the globe are being affected. Mechanically, getting everyone in to a position to Work From Home was the simple part for us, we do allow staff to work from home already when it helps them with their work/life balance. However the extra steps required to communicate successfully, and critically for a game developer the ability to collaborate, is massively slowed down. Work can provide some temporary relief and focus away from the pandemic and working remotely we’ve learned how to communicate and express our ideas in new ways which is a small positive amidst these challenging times.

Ashley Ringrose, Founder SMG Studio: For me and many of the team who are parents we’re now dealing with the combination of work and home schooling/entertaining kids. Luckily we don’t have any huge deadlines, so can be much more flexible. So it’s a normal work day broken up by lots of parenting time. Moving Out is done and we’ve been working on polish and social content and minor fixes here and there. As a manager of people it’s going to be tough to keep everyone motivated in the long run.

SMG is in a good position and we’re doing some great work right now but I do miss the face to face interactions. I miss going to lunch with the team.

Cyrille Imbert, Dotemu CEO: As soon as we were alerted that the virus was more dangerous than initially thought, we decided to all leave the office. This was before the official lockdown. Since then, everybody (around 30 people) is working from home.

We’ve had lots of people working from home with the general strikes in December 2019 where public transport was gone [Ed. note: Dotemu is based in Paris], so we can say that we were all ready for it.

So our work seems to be generally unaffected by the situation so far. It’s just a bit weird but our team adapted very quickly.

Petter Magnusson, Producer Image & Form: We have implemented an encouraged but voluntary work-from-home-policy that most of us follow. Days at the office have been incredibly calm and focused for those that are still present, though.

CERO Shutdown
The temporary closure of Japanese ratings body CERO will have an effect on releases in the region, and likely beyond. — Image: Nintendo Life

What has been the biggest obstacle to getting work done on projects since you've been working from home?

Gavin Price: I think we’re missing the inability to spin up natural conversations about the subjective components of game development like we used to, “How does this feel to you?”, “What enemy would work well in this scenario”, “What animation best sells this type of move” etc… We’re having to pre-agree many more feature goals and principles up-front to help guide our ideas. I’d be lying if I wasn’t concerned about us missing some opportunistic brainstorming which has historically paid dividends in the past.

Ashley Ringrose: For me personally the slow internet. I’m running everything through my 4G on my phone as [I'm] staying in a new place and didn’t think it was an issue. Now with so many people at home [the network] is struggling. For others it’s the same thing. Keeping the kids entertained while also working.

I’d be lying if I wasn’t concerned about us missing some opportunistic brainstorming which has historically paid dividends

Cyrille Imbert: We did not see any particular obstacle. For me the only thing that I really miss is seeing the people in real life and having more human contact. I can really feel the isolation but thanks to Slack we really keep permanent contact with the whole team and everyone is super reactive.

Petter Magnusson: With many of us working from home there have been all kinds of practical issues with making sure everyone has headsets or equivalent equipment for voice com. Not everyone has a high end computer at home either and developing games tends to require some decent performance. All in all though I think that we have been managing quite well.

What tools/apps have you been using most to interact with the team?

Gavin Price: In the studio we have long used MS Teams to focus discussion and info-sharing on our games, disciplines, tasks and even ‘social chit-chat’ and that has continued as before.

Ashley Ringrose: We’re mainly on Slack, so this allows [Instant Messaging] between the team but also video calls and keeping the comms flowing.

Cyrille Imbert: Mainly Slack and Google Meet, along with the classic email.

Petter Magnusson: Our most trusted communications tool has been our usual Slack server. Both voice calls and screen sharing have been working well. We have had to complement Slack with some different tools though, such as Google Meet for meetings with more than 15 participants and Discord for more casual voice chats.

I have also been looking into Youtube streaming for higher quality private screen streaming. We would like to share footage of gameplay or video with the team but the regular screen sharing tools have a limited frame- and bitrate.

Slack was handy before, but the current situation has highlighted just how useful the app can be.
Image: Slack

How long do you think the effects of the lockdown will impact your projects? Months? Years?

Gavin Price: It’s very hard to tell and predict; best case is ‘months’ and worst case is ‘years’ and we’ll be somewhere in-between, hopefully closer to the ‘best case’ end of the scale. It’s scary not knowing but when certain things are out of your control I always think it helps you focus on what is in your control.

Ashley Ringrose: We wont see much impact. We’re lucky to have all our projects under our own deadlines. RISK and No Way Home we can be flexible on deadlines (we’ve pushed a few internal ones back to relive pressure) and Moving Out is done. We just need to be careful we don’t set a large deadline for ourselves. As the internet can go down at someone’s house for a day and totally mess up a build process. So we need to stay fluid.

We’re also not pitching right now for funding / support and that might be affected in the future if it all has to be done remotely.

the internet can go down at someone’s house for a day and totally mess up a build process

Cyrille Imbert: There was no significant impact so far, so I hope it’ll stay that way.

Petter Magnusson: I feel confident that this affects us only for a few months. Hopefully our situation will be back to a more normal state in time for the summer. That said, the situation as it is right now will have consequences for our current projects also in the long term.

Given this pretty unique experience, do you think your team/company would be better prepared for similar lockdown situations in the future? If so, how?

Gavin Price: Absolutely we’ll be better prepared, just the experience and knowledge of knowing ‘we can do this’ like any life-lesson better prepares you mentally in future

Ashley Ringrose: We had quite a few work from home regularly once or twice a week (for family reasons) so we were able to move to home “easily”. So I feel we’re good for now while we’re rolling on existing projects. It might be more of a struggle if we start working on a new game though. And we’re still at week 5 - or is it 6? - working from home. The vibe is good but who knows what week 15, 30, 50 (!?) would feel like. I think coming to the office and seeing people’s faces will be a welcomed reprieve from being at home 24/7. [smiles]

There are good chances that this situation will happen again in the future, on a regular basis

Cyrille Imbert: I’m actually currently setting up a full HR operation, with internal and external resources, to gather feedback from each member of the team on their work experience during the lockdown. The goal is to draw conclusions from those experiences, and setup an action plan to make working during lockdown more efficient and pleasant for everyone. We should get the results in two weeks.

There are good chances that this situation will happen again in the future, on a regular basis. I really hope it won’t but we prefer to be prepared, anticipate and actually learn from our own experience to make it easier to live.

Petter Magnusson: We are constantly learning how to adapt our process to work well with a distributed team. All that experience is valuable both for situations such as this one but also to improve our normal process.

Games like Dotemu's Streets of Rage 4 and SMG's Moving Out appear to be releasing just in time to miss the most disruptive effects of the pandemic - and arguably take advantage of a captive gaming audience.

Is there anything that has particularly surprised you about the situation (from a work perspective) – positive or negative?

Gavin Price: How we communicate has become 1000% more thoughtful. I just made that number up obviously but it’s really improved our communication skills and ability to analyse and focus on key information rather than doing so noisily as before. There’s also a sense of “we’re in this together” with the rest of the world, inside and outside of our industry. So many positive stories and acts of kindness have emerged and can provide much-needed inspiration to take a deep breath and know that no matter what you’re capable of, even if it is just staying home, you can contribute to helping beat this pandemic and save lives… literally save lives…

So many positive stories and acts of kindness have emerged and can provide much-needed inspiration

Ashley Ringrose: We had one staff member take his first Uber to the office to pick up equipment and I was like it’s 2020!! How have you NOT taken an uber before? I also wanted that referral credit too! We also got a really nice green wall and plants in the office! And without the AC on all the time the hot weather the plants are doing really well!! [laughs]

Cyrille Imbert: I really appreciate that we did not see any significant impact on our work. I’m surprised that this is working so well naturally, without any particular direction on how to handle this. There is always room for improvement so we’ll work on that, but I’m super proud of the team's ability to adapt.

Petter Magnusson: I am surprised at how well everyone has adapted, almost overnight, to working remotely. Although far from perfect, our projects also run surprisingly well.

Tom Nook Work From Home Animal Crossing New Horizons

Looking over those responses, it seems that the effect of lockdown really depends on team size and where in the project cycle a team happens to be. Small to mid-size teams are naturally more agile and may already have work-from-home schemes in place. Communication between a couple of dozen people who usually work under one roof will naturally be easier to coordinate, even if work progress is slowed by the added inconvenience.

It's arguably larger companies like Ubisoft, with development teams spread around the globe and unwieldy internal procedures and security systems in place, that will encounter the most difficulties. The idea that game devs will be largely unaffected feels fanciful and overly optimistic when the process of bringing a game to market involves so many factors and processes. The digital world enables developers to keep up-and-running to a certain extent, but not everything can be done sitting at home on a laptop with decent Wi-Fi, especially if the next step in the process relies on outside companies.

Throw in the added pressures of confinement, childcare and home schooling, and concern over the situation (whether at personal or global levels), and it's heartening that the people we spoke to our coping as well as they are. We hope this continues, and that developers in less fortunate positions are able to weather the weeks and months ahead.

If nothing else, there's perhaps one takeaway above all others from our interviewees: Thank goodness for Slack.

Our thanks to Gavin, Ashley, Cyrille and Petter for their time. How do you think other developers and gaming companies will cope with the continuing global situation? Are there games you are looking forward which you expect to be affected? Let us know your thoughts below and, above all, stay safe everyone.