GamesBeat: Are studios prepared to operate remotely for a long time?
Wilson: Going into this, for a studio of our size and given the scale of the projects we work on, we were not initially sure it was possible to be prepared enough. Some of that is the speed at which the situation escalated, but we’re a few weeks in now and it’s actually quite incredible how quickly the team has hit its stride. We’re even seeing some people report that they are faster and more efficient, but this depends on individual circumstances of course. We’re also seeing communication go through the roof and we see ways in which this situation will end up improving and strengthening our studio in the long run. It’s a strange new world, but for as long as it lasts, we intend to embrace it.
GamesBeat: How do you set up studios to be ready for that? How do you advise other studios on how to make this happen?
Wilson: There were three phases, at least initially: preparing and planning, triage after the initial transition and then fine-tuning to get as close to business as usual as possible. For us, we put a lot of planning upfront into the transition from in-studio to work-from-home. Things like timetabling the flow of people and equipment out of the studio, making sure we had clear lists of requirements on a per-person basis and so on. We were hit by a very sudden escalation in the Bay Area when the shelter-in-place mandate was put in place. We were about a quarter of the way done getting people out of the studio when the call came, so we had to increase our speed significantly. Luckily our IT and Ops teams were flawless in their rollout, and they got the job done so effectively that we were all situated at home 24 hours later having our first ever remote playtest. I did not think that we would be able to get on our feet so quickly and I’m very glad to be working with such an effective team of people.
In terms of the triage phase, we surveyed the entire team after about two days to find out where all the pain points were and then just started working through them methodically. Once we got people unblocked, we decided to keep a daily triage call on the books to make sure that we were responding to issues as close to ‘live’ as possible. We’re now just down to a few issues a week where people experience isolated problems that we’re able to get on top of pretty quickly.
For the “fine tuning phase,” there are some things we’re doing that I would recommend for mid-size and larger teams in particular. We’ve moved our weekly team meetings onto an events-based video conferencing app capable of streaming hi-def video. Our IT director sits as “master of ceremonies,” switching mics and cameras on and off remotely for each presenter, and increasingly we try to show game content and progress updates via video, so that we simulate our real team meetings as closely as possible. [Studio head] Aaron Halon and I also hold a weekly AMA-style Slack Q&A, where we encourage the team to ask anything and everything on their minds. We’ve seen some really interesting things come of that. Firstly, way more people are engaging with us and with each other than at regular “in-person” team meetings. Some of the feedback we’ve had is that the social introverts on the team find it a far less intimidating way to interact and certainly over the weeks it has evolved into something really fun, a mixture of serious questions and general banter. We also had one question where a member of our team had been struggling recently with the isolation of being at home, so they used it as an opportunity to speak up and to ask for advice. The response from people on the thread was overwhelmingly supportive and so we’re also seeing it as a way to keep a sense of community. It was a really heartwarming moment and a reminder that we’re all fundamentally vulnerable but also very resilient. The summary point is that communication is paramount and we’re finding some great ways to not only establish new forms to suit this strange new situation we find ourselves in, but also improve on what we had before.
GamesBeat: How do you hire someone without the physical meeting?
Wilson: I would almost turn that question round and ask, “In this day and age, why do you have to meet someone in-person in order to make a hiring decision?” The only real difference in terms of getting to the fundamentals comes from the fact that it can be a little awkward to have conversations with people for the first time over video. We’re getting a great deal more used to it though! There are certainly some things from the candidate perspective that it’s harder to simulate, such as seeing the physical space you’ll ultimately be working in, grabbing lunch for a more casual conversation mid-interview etc. That said, thanks to the great work our internal Brand team has done showcasing our people through our SHG Developer Profiles, there are plenty of assets we can use to reveal the studio and team to prospective hires.
GamesBeat: Where does diversity come in?
Wilson: So many teams talk about diversity and just drop it in as a buzzword or write flashy blog posts that sit and gather dust. If you truly believe in diversity being positive to your team and studio, then it’s a lot of hard work to do it properly. First there’s the “why.” That one is pretty simple. We make games for global audiences across boundaries of culture, ethnicity, gender and sexuality so our development teams are stronger if they reflect that. I’ve said this in a previous life while working on a title with a very sensitive narrative, but the risk we add to our games being tone deaf is amplified if we all look and sound the same.
Then there’s the talent pool itself. We want to hire the best of the best wherever they are and whatever their background is. I don’t believe percentage targets are helpful, I believe they are a symptom of the fact your outreach and public face is failing in some way, so the best approach is to do things to prove you are open and welcoming and then find ways to speak directly to all of those different groups. For example, we are building strong university outreach programs to help proactively mentor and grow the next generation – university students are a naturally more diverse bunch to begin with. We’re also building partnerships with various groups representing different aspects of the development community, some of which you’ll start to see us shouting more about in the coming months. The net result of all of this is that by focusing on tangible action, you can organically build a bigger and more diverse talent pool, leading to a stronger overall team. Throwing around buzzwords doesn’t cut it.
GamesBeat: Does a Call of Duty game require a diverse staff to make it the best it can be? Why?
Wilson: I think any game or franchise with a global audience will be stronger if it is built by a team that reflects multiple aspects of that audience in its makeup. There are so many subtleties to building games, small touches and flourishes that can potentially generate affection and loyalty towards your game from a wide variety of people. We’re not here to make games for a very narrow section of society. Diverse development teams are stronger because all of those different perspectives and backgrounds generate thought and conversation that would not otherwise occur.
GamesBeat: How do you do things that were physical, like mocap?
Wilson: With mocap specifically there is a big challenge as stages are closed and acting talent can’t travel. There are some creative solutions, such as looking at facilities in countries who are in a different stage of restriction to us, but obviously the phase of development you are currently in is going to play a part as well. Ultimately, this is where we really lean on our production teams and our partners at the publisher to come up with creative solutions to these problems and so far, we’ve not been disappointed by the results.
GamesBeat: How long can you work remotely?
Wilson: We are ready and prepared to work this way indefinitely if we have to as the safety of our team is our highest priority. Obviously, we are keen to get back to our studios in Foster City and Melbourne as soon as possible as we miss seeing each other every day, but we’ve resolved a lot of the bigger problems that make working from home tough. We will continue our push to optimize everything. We’re only going to get better at this from here on in.
GamesBeat: For those working at home, I know that rendering art and uploading it can’t be that easy. Is that still a challenge, or has technology moved forward? I know that AWS enables people to use cloud-based tools where the rendering is all in the cloud. Is that a staple for the work flow now?
Wilson: Certainly data requirements for modern triple-A development are high and so working from home does present additional challenges, as most people don’t have access to the kind of bandwidth we can get from our studio locations. More than anything it requires a bit more discipline around things like the times of day you pull builds or submit changes, but our experience so far has been pretty good overall. We’ve worked at the individual team-member level to assess their specific situations and done things like pay for internet plan upgrades and provide bespoke equipment where it would be helpful. Our IT and Ops teams did a frankly phenomenal job in getting the team up and running so quickly. There are also many things both Sledgehammer Games and Activision have done on the back end to improve and optimize our own infrastructure to better serve the teams. We have a solid pipeline of improvements that will help us to work more effectively both at home, and eventually back in the studio.
GamesBeat: I heard that mo-cap and performance capture are much harder to do now, as you can’t gather people in a capture studio so easily. Have you figured out a work-from-home solution for this?
Wilson: We’re actually attacking this problem from two different angles. First, we are fortunate to have a Sledgehammer director who is currently based in a country where there is no Shelter in Place order in place. This allowed us to gain access to a local mocap stage locally, where we were able to get some really great work done, while adhering to social distancing guidance. Additionally, we do have a portable mocap suit that we were able to get out of the studio along with all the other equipment we provided the team with, so with that we’re also able to do a lot of rapid data gathering.