To say that the past year has been unprecedented and overwhelming is simultaneously a colossal understatement and a very tired cliché at this point.
We all had a difficult 2020 – and not to be a pessimist, but 2021 is going to remain difficult for the foreseeable future. Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and those of us who can work at home have largely gotten used to doing so.
Though I’m sure there’s plenty of us still waiting for the days of office banter, after work drinks and industry events to return. For the more experienced members of our industry, the past year has, I’m sure, felt like an odd pause – without the usual major events that act as checkpoints throughout the year.
But what of us newcomers? We’re almost at the one-year mark since the first UK lockdown, meaning there will be people across the industry celebrating their anniversary without ever having stepped foot in their office or a games event.
It’s a topic close to my heart. I joined MCV/DEVELOP, my first job in the games industry, in October 2019. So I was lucky enough to be able to attend a few UK events – stepping bleary-eyed around EGX at the end of my first week, heading up to Yorkshire for my first (and only) event outside of London for the Yorkshire Games Festival, and of course: The MCV/DEVELOP Awards back in March 2019.
Still, my experience in the games industry is best described by that scene in Community: walking optimistically through the door, pizza in hand, only to find everything on fire. My first overseas trip, to San Francisco for GDC, predictably did not go ahead. My second, to attend Gamescom for MCV/DEVELOP was similarly cancelled.
While I certainly feel fortunate to be here, it feels as if I’ve joined the industry in secret: smuggled in under cover of night. My Twitter feed is full of industry veterans looking back nostalgically on an industry I’ve yet to experience. I’ve been here for over a year now, and by the time I’m attending a major event again, I’ll likely be into my second year – and suddenly dealing with a very different job than the one I’ve grown accustomed to.
But I at least had that 5 month period in the office. I’ve had the (dubious) honour of meeting MCV/DEVELOP editor Seth Barton, and our colleagues at other magazines. But there’s a whole host of people out there about to celebrate their one-year anniversary, having never physically worked with their colleagues.
We talk a lot about the ‘new normal’, but what about people for whom this is the only normal they’ve ever known in the industry? How does this match up with their initial expectations for their careers?
“Before joining, I think I expected to hit the ground running at work a bit more easily,” says Nikky Armstrong, who joined Ubisoft Reflections a senior gameplay programmer in March 2020. “I was excited about making friends in the wider industry and attending conferences and events.
“I’ve really had to step back and prioritise my mental health, followed by being able to do my job, which has meant being less involved with communities and online events because I don’t have a lot of energy left over. I have discovered what my new level of productivity is and a huge learning curve was understanding and being OK with not being able to be as effective as I was pre-COVID.
“This has been particularly difficult because the people that I work with now don’t have first-hand experience of working with me pre-COVID, so I did at first put a lot of pressure on myself to excel in my new industry and role. My manager and Ubisoft in general have been very supportive and understanding of my (and everyone’s) situation though, so with that support I have learned to go a little easier on myself.”
PART OF THE TEAM
Everyone I spoke to was keen to stress that their companies have been supportive during this time – a good sign, given the initial concerns about onboarding during this crisis. Despite many people quoted here having never physically worked with their colleagues, they nonetheless all reported feeling a valued member of the company.
“I absolutely feel a part of the team,” says Winona Sharpe, who joined Double Eleven as a junior release associate in May 2020. “Our channels of communication are very open and always getting better as time goes on. I’ve been made to feel very welcome. Working from home is new to most of us in the business so in that way I haven’t felt like I’m alone going through this.”
“Marmalade is really good for this,” adds Emily Inkpen, who joined Marmalade Game Studios as a copywriter in April 2020. “Or, at least, the marketing team is. We have daily catch-ups and video is always on. We still have creative brainstorms together for every campaign and release.
“The company has a second office in Lisbon, which is where my design partners are (copywriters and designers generally form ‘teams’ and work closely together). We’ll be working remotely even when we are in the office, so video chat will be a thing even when (if) things get back to normal.”
What seemed to be a theme, though not a universal one, is that building connections at work has been more or less uninterrupted. But when it comes to making connections outside of the company, things become a lot more complicated when working remotely.
“I definitely think making connections in the wider industry has been much more challenging in the current circumstances,” says Venezia Georgieva, who joined Mojiworks as a junior game designer in October 2019.
“Going to a new place for a talk or conference used to be an event in itself for me as it broadened my horizons not only to what the speakers had to say, but also to all of the other developers and professionals in the audience. It was a great way to meet people of all walks of life and be surrounded by healthy discussion.
“Under the current circumstances working almost exclusively in front of the monitor, it can be difficult to attend extra events due to screen fatigue. I have attended a few online events since the first lockdown and have enjoyed my time on the UK Game Industry Slack, but they don’t quite fill the gap.”
Online events and communities are welcome for a number of reasons. Not only are they safe during these troubled times, but they’re infinitely more accessible than physical events – without any of the costs associated with travelling and attending events, not to mention much more approachable for people with disabilities.
But while we hope online events are here to stay, for many, they simply aren’t the same experience. Many struggle to make meaningful connections from behind a screen, making networking an even more hellish experience than it ever was.
“My ability to make connections in the wider industry has been hampered in a way, yes” says Matthew Denny, who joined Codemasters as a development QA engineer a few days before the first lockdown in March 2020. “Although I’ve been able to attend online seminars from software companies, I do feel it’s harder to make connections over online events than in person ones.”
“The main reason why online events are not as enticing to me is because it’s largely impossible to facilitate them without the screen,” adds Mojiworks’ Georgieva. “I often find myself a bit drained after hours of work in front of the monitor, which can make it difficult to get excited about what would otherwise be a wonderful event.
“Nonetheless, I am very interested in online events which feature an interactive activity or a Q&A segment. Ideally I don’t want it to feel like another meeting, but like a fun social event or an educational activity. Something to do together with other people is quite appealing to me.”
But all that isn’t to say that, should the pandemic be over tomorrow, that returning to large-scale events won’t be an emotionally complicated experience. While the people I spoke to remained optimistic about adjusting back to the old normal when the time comes, there’s certainly a risk of a culture shock once this is all over.
“I am a bit worried I will be wary of going to events,” notes Ubisoft Reflections’ Armstrong. “Even when they are up and running again, I may miss out on opportunities through being overly cautious, but I imagine that will get better with time”
Though as Marmalade’s Inkpen notes, these fears will hardly be unique to those new to the games industry:
“I think the whole country is going to be a bit agoraphobic. I’ve got a really good sense of the team remotely and I actually can’t wait to be in the office with them all in person! Perhaps I’ll be easily overwhelmed by the crowds in London at first, and I imagine a lot of headphone time in the office, but that was always the case. It’s hard to do words when everyone is talking around you.”
The limitations on social interaction is one thing, but what of the potentially more long-lasting consequences of spending your entire career working remotely? Do our new starters feel that this pandemic has hindered their career development?
“I think it may have hampered my ability to be as impactful at work as I would like,” says Ubisoft Reflections’ Armstrong. “Both in terms of reduced capacity and not being able to create relationships with a wider range of team members as easily.
“I think it has been more difficult to demonstrate the value that I bring with me from outside the industry when I’m concentrating so hard on staying afloat. I also have put a lot of my study and personal projects aside because I want to shut the door on my work area at home at the end of the day.”
The pandemic has been awful in many ways – and while they don’t even come close to counteracting the negative aspects, there are positives to be found if you look for them.
“Personally I don’t feel that the pandemic has hampered my career development,” says Double Eleven’s Sharpe. “If anything, joining the games industry when I did meant that I had the opportunity to start a new career while at the same time prioritising my mental and physical wellbeing. I’m not spending several hours every day commuting, resorting to fast food, and coming home exhausted after a long day at work.”
On the note of benefits, one thing I’ve personally found liberating about the past year is the move to remote work. While there’s certainly a few elements of office life that I miss, no longer having to factor in the costs (and misery) of an early morning London commute was one of the few perks of 2020, and one I hope to be able to hang on to in some form going forward.
Is this a desire we can expect to see spread across the industry?
“This is really tough to say,” says Ubisoft Reflections’ Armstrong. “I enjoy not having a commute, and as difficult as it has been to write code with my dog sat on my lap, it is very nice to take him for a walk when it’s still light out, and he will have severe separation anxiety issues for us to work through if I do go back to the office. I also don’t miss catching every cold that anyone brings in with them.
“But I miss the atmosphere and friendship of an office, and I haven’t been able to experience going to work at Ubisoft with the logos and memorabilia and things on the walls. That’s a superficial thing, but it was something I was looking forward to!”
“Ideally I would love a mixed option,” adds Mojiworks’ Georgieva, “with some days spent working from home and some days spent in the studio. Even though countless game professionals have proven that we can do outstanding work remotely, I believe it is important to nurture the relationships within the team and to get to know each other on a personal level.”
With all that said – this has hardly been the first year any of us had hoped for, I’m sure. If people had known their first year in the industry would be like this, would they still have joined?
“Yes definitely,” says Codemasters’ Denny. “The industry is very hard to break into and I would recommend anyone looking to join the industry to not be put off by remote working. There are even some perks through remote working like being able to be around family, but also some disadvantages like higher energy bills!”
“Yes!” says Marmalade’s Inkpen, emphatically. “Hands down, I’m home.”