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In a self-isolated world, developers are learning to make games from home

How game makers are adapting in a pandemic, from mental health struggles to child care

When news of the novel coronavirus spreading abroad first began to surface, Alex* didn’t think much of it. As cases climbed, he started stocking up on supplies. It took weeks for the virus to hit the US, but its arrival was inevitable. As states began to shut down their cities, Alex, a writer for a large game company, was told to work from home along with millions of other Americans. His day used to begin with a flurry of morning activity: a late wake-up, a rush to get to the office before his morning meetings. Today, he still has those meetings. He just takes them from the table in his kitchen.

Across the games industry, developers from studios of all sizes are adjusting to a new work-from-home mandate. Some struggle to stay motivated as they grapple with isolation, the challenges of work-from-home setups, and looming deadlines. Their process can be slowed down exponentially, from communication to their ability to do their jobs efficiently. Others say their routines remain largely unchanged, or they’ve discovered newfound productivity from the quiet of home.

(*The Verge spoke with 10 developers in positions across the games industry. Some were granted pseudonyms or anonymity in order to speak freely.)

The total effects of the pandemic have not yet been felt in the games industry and will likely take months, if not years, to fully reveal themselves. Already, companies like Nintendo have had product delays; highly anticipated releases like The Last of Us Part II have been postponed indefinitely. In a post on Final Fantasy XIV’s blog, producer and director Naoki Yoshida warned of delays as shelter-in-place orders impacted everything from voice recording to QA. Even games not grappling with those specific issues have other problems to contend with. “For big games whose data repositories are huge, it’s 10x more efficient to be in the office with a direct connection to the data servers,” one developer tells The Verge. “So when they are uploading / downloading data remotely it can slow them down immensely.”

And then there’s a question of infrastructure: how do you move a team of hundreds to their homes and achieve workable results? Developers at many companies were instructed to take computers home and do their best to settle in.

At Destiny developer Bungie, the company made the call to start sending people home on March 1st. Principle producer Carrie Gouskos says that her first reaction to the phrase “social distancing” was to start work on an excel spreadsheet — a “very small piece of control in the chaos,” she says. “Turns out that’s what I do in a crisis, try to box everything into neat packages in Excel, creating small rows of order.”

Gouskos’ task was to examine the scope of someone’s work, figure out what tools they used, decide if they’d need a “beeftop or a coffee drinker’s laptop” to do their job — shorthand that separated someone in need of heavy equipment vs. a person who’s working on word processing and meetings. From there, the process moved on to software requests and connectivity problems as developers learned to troubleshoot from home. Employees banded together to help each other as everyone navigated new territory. “While you can create a structure for support, you still need to rely on the help of others to make any structure work,” says Gouskos.

Other developers faced more unique problems. Some had recently moved and were set up in apartments that didn’t even have furniture yet; there were those now grappling with the challenge of working from home with their significant others and kids. Gouskos says Bungie tried to ease those pains by offering an ergonomic budget of $350 per person, or fielding large requests themselves. “Everything got a policy,” she says. “Webcam – use your budget. Added internet usage to your cable bill – expense it. The first printer request broke my brain, but after we figured out how to handle it, I was ready for the next two.”

But the hardest part was yet to come. “It’s the emotional drain that this puts on people and their families,” says Gouskos. “It’s the stress of what’s going on in the world. It’s the lack of normalcy and watercooler conversations.” Bungie holds “e-lunches” and streams yoga and meditation classes in an effort to keep people together. “Yet it’s still hard to communicate, even harder to manage personal stress,” she says. “There’s no way to spreadsheet for that, so we have to rely back on helping each other.”

Davin Pavlas, director of insights at League of Legends developer Riot, says that work has been surprisingly business as usual for him. Getting out of bed is definitely harder, Pavlas tells The Verge, and he’s now in front of a screen more than ever as in-person meetings have shifted to online. It can be difficult to turn off at the end of the work day, as home is now also his workspace. Yet Pavlas says the most difficult part is everything that’s not work: watching friends lose jobs, concern for loved ones. “Worrying about the future is rough,” he says.

One developer from a large Sweden-based studio said that they, like many of their colleagues, are finding it hard to focus. “This is so unprecedented that really no one knows how to do it,” the developer tells The Verge. “No one has a reference. It’s not like we can say, ‘hey, how did we do this in the ‘97 pandemic?’ No, this is a historic moment, and it’s stressful in a deep way, in ways our minds can’t even capture yet because it was new and sudden and now our reality has changed. And we suspect things might not fully go back to the way they were even a few weeks ago. Maybe not for a long time. Maybe never.”

Some developers are balancing more than jobs or relationships. They also have to find a way to tend to children whose schools have been shut down. Many are left homeschooling their kids or struggling to find a way to make up for lost child care.

Jesse Snyder, creative director at a small independent studio, works from home with his family, including his eldest daughter who is — was — in kindergarten. Now he worries if she’ll be ready for first grade next year. “Being a parent during this time is extra stressful, but when we signed up to be parents we knew anything could happen,” he says. “Except no parent in the US is prepared [for] ‘School is canceled the rest of the year.’”

Snyder says that while his little ones seem to be adjusting well, that won’t necessarily be true for many others. “They’re pretty young so they really don’t understand what is going on and they’re not worried about how long any of this will last like the rest of us,” he says. “For them, this is just a thing that happens! That actually gives me a lot of strength in getting through the pandemic. They remind me that things will be okay and life will go on. Of course there will be some changes when this is all over, but this pandemic won’t be the end of the world, just the world as we know it.”

In many ways, Toronto-based developer Tru Luv was luckier than most. The creators of #SelfCare are a team of roughly a dozen people, most of which already work remotely. Many already work 20-30 hour weeks, says founder and CEO Brie Code. “Our team is already used to taking time for their own self-care, loved ones, and experimentation and play,” she says. “So nothing has needed to change there.” They added a Zoom channel to spend more time together and have enjoyed making animated backgrounds.

Code says she wasn’t able to safely quarantine in her home, so she moved into a temporary apartment with a few essentials to wait out the isolation period. She forgot to bring rubber bands for her hair; after a failed attempt with a twist tie, she settled for using a pair of underwear. She’s found herself spending more time talking with loved ones over the phone or Zoom. The same goes for the team as a whole as they work to teach themselves and others about connection.

“I think at first we were all in shock, but by prioritizing care for each other and choosing to reorient our work around care for others, we’ve been able to keep each others’ spirits up,” Code tells The Verge. “I think we each have a responsibility to contribute as best we can to iteratively moving towards a creative future that is healthy and kind. While we’ve paused some of our processes and systems globally during this crisis, we’ve seen some maybe unexpected outcomes such as the clear water in Italy. This can inspire us to dream of more efficient and healthy systems and know that we can work towards them — and must.”

Some developers, like Snyder, are learning about the importance of work-from-home setups. He also doesn’t consider it “some magical panacea” that game companies can use across the board. “Offices and centralized locations will still be important when this is over because many people’s social stations and living arrangements simply won’t provide for a productive environment,” Snyder says. “I think WFH options will forever leave their mark on company and office cultures for years to come though, that’s going to be unavoidable. Those options have proved to be a lifeline during times like these.”

Among nearly all of the developers The Verge spoke to, however, there is a common sentiment of uncertainty. “I have no idea what the future holds,” says one. “This could last for a month, or two years. And certainly things won’t be the same anymore, but I have no idea what they’ll look like.” Another comments on holes in the structures we’ve accepted as status quo: “The systems of capitalism we have today can’t support something like a pandemic — in many cases they are breaking right now, before our eyes.” Developers say they hold on to the idea that their jobs and projects they’re working on could still bring people joy. Many are looking forward to being able to see their colleagues and be together once more.

They pine for the small moments: playing games together, walking around the office, getting coffee, high-fives. “I miss the casual hallway conversations that I’m used to having with people,” said one developer. “A lot of connection happens in the brief moments at the coffee machine, or in the moments before and after meetings — the tiny casual social gestures and micro-interactions that help build trust and intimacy and communication among colleagues.”

The Verge is committed to telling stories about developers across the game industry as it continues to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. To get in touch, email megan@theverge.com.

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