My programming career began in the finance industry, but I always knew that my true dreams lay in creating games. When I took the plunge to create my company Robotic Potato, I knew I would need a diverse team to create the best product possible. For that, I needed to leave the comfort zone of a traditional office environment. My team has been recruited from across the country.
Working remotely is a growing trend. That is especially true in the game development industry. Many of my team members are located in different time zones, so it can be difficult to manage them accordingly. In this highly competitive field, a team needs to be dynamic and adaptable in order to succeed, so I knew I chose the right team members.
The benefits of a remote team are numerous. Obviously, the pool of talent is larger when you’re reaching outside of a single region. You are able to attract passionate people who are as excited by the vision as you are. As the owner and lead programmer, I’m saving money on office space and equipment. My employees don’t need to waste time commuting back and forth. This allows us to work lean and mean.
Unfortunately, with a remote company, everything has the potential to be slower. Every time there is a debate on an issue, it can cause up to a day of delay. That’s why it’s imperative that we reach a decision each time we meet as a group. A lot of time is wasted interpreting and communicating between people, time that could be better spent programming. In these situations, like in any business, it’s important to have a strong voice. In this case, the team leader needs to be the be-all end-all in delegation.
Usually this involves major project management decisions. When we’re deciding what game we do next, I make the ultimate decision based on technical feasibility and manpower calculations.
During game development, this can mean making the decision to change up things completely. In our current project, Mother Goose Demolition Company, I had to make the decision to significantly alter our trailer because we simply lacked the manpower to do a full gameplay trailer. Instead, I had to make the decision to make a more ‘storybook’ style animatic trailer to meet our deadlines while still providing a compelling representation of the final product.
Many members of my team have never even met in person. This can cause a lack of “team culture” that needs to be overcome. As the leader, I make sure to line up tasks at the beginning of each week for a group meeting. Discussing these tasks on video meetings via Google Hangout has been a godsend. It provides a surrogate office experience, for our environment. Like most of my team, I’m almost always available at the touch of a button. Plus, I never sleep, so the West Coast members don’t need to worry about me disappearing by 9pm! As in any startup business, keeping a flexible schedule is critical.
Our regularly scheduled catch-ups and conference calls each week keep the team focused on deadlines. Everyone knows exactly what he or she is supposed to be doing.
We live and die using applications like JIRA. The easy collaboration tools really help here. We can communicate at a rapid-fire pace and get back to work. During our weekly meetings, we delegate important tasks and estimate a timeframe for completion. This helps us accurately assess what can be accomplished during the week. It also keeps everyone honest. When each task is laid out in front of the board, it creates accountability.
While professional programmers are used to this process, our artists — at least initially — were not used to showing off unfinished work or estimating completion time.
Working on a game is not very different from working on any other project. It’s all about execution and results. Here are a few of the tips I’ve learned that I’d like to share with other remote team leaders:
- Outside of programming and game engines, it is critical to be able to communicate clearly — to the user, your customers, and your team members.
- Familiarize yourself with project management and collaborative tools. I personally recommend JIRA, Atlassian and Todoist.
- Learn how to set deadlines and create schedules and do so on a consistent basis.
The most important lesson I’ve learned is to set realistic goals. Task and time management may seem boring, but they can make the difference between a game that ships on time and one that never ships at all… especially if your company is spread out across the globe.
Once you find the right people, you’ll need to work together as a single functional entity. A “Voltron” of a company, if you will… linked by the power of Google Hangout windows!
Alex Lau has spent 8 years programming in both the financial industry and social media. He holds a BA in Computer Science and East Asian Studies from NYU. He is currently the CEO of Queens based gaming company Robotic Potato, which just launched a Kickstarter project on Monday morning.