In this tutorial TechExcelâ??s Alex Potier looks at things to keep in mind when managing distributed game development teamsâ?¦

Building a virtual office

The ecosystem for game development is, as ever, in a dramatic state of growth and change. With technologies like XNA and Steam lowering the bar of entry and the emergence of vibrant social networks, it is possible to build a successful title with a fully distributed team. The distributed model provides many benefits. For example, artists in Germany can collaborate with programmers in China who can interact with production teams in the UK. This can lower the costs of a project significantly together with the benefits of utilising best of breed skills.

Bu this model also poses new challenges. The biggest of these is communication and management control. Managing a distributed team means making sure everyone is productive and meeting deliverables over a 24 hour period. When someone is in the same building, it is easy to get a status update. When your team is in multiple locations, across many time zones, getting a simple update can be a painful experience. It is up to the manager of the distributed efforts to coordinate activities and effortlessly see the current status of the project. This is the first communication problem to solve. Tools can be put into place to build a virtual office: a centralised point of communication for the entire team and this is one of the conundrums that TechExcel’s DevSuite is seeking to solve.

The key to communicating ideas across distributed teams is providing a common space for the team members to interact. This can be through a knowledge system, a wiki, or an integrated game lifecycle toolset. Within the virtual office, you need a way to highlight the work to be done and gain visibility into the work that is complete or in progress.

The task tracking system is the heart of a virtual office. It should allow for a producer to communicate their deadlines while allowing leads to manage the day to day tasks and work breakdown of the title. The task tracking system is the core of the virtual office – global studios such as EA Games and SCE already have them in place.

Also, the task tracking system must keep everyone working towards the same goals while not being a hindrance to productivity. Tight integration with other tool sets (from graphics applications to source code libraries) means that the team can do their work with minimal interruptions. Workflow from the task tracking system ensures that processes are followed. Messaging and reporting make sure items don’t fall through the cracks.

It is also important to bridge cultural gaps in your virtual office. Not everyone will understand a word in the same way – different regions and teams might interpret words and symbols in their own way. For this reason, communication in the virtual office is augmented by clear diagrams, images, requirements and specifications.

This requires additional functionality in the task management system. Artists should be able to see the concept art that is inspiring their work items. Developers need to understand how a certain piece of code will need to work in order to meet the designer’s goals. Producers need to understand the impact that a change to certain functionality will have on the rest of the project. But, overall, be clear about what it trying to be achieved.

Once you have task tracking and clear visibility in requirements governing those tasks, the team can work independently on their respective areas. Since the task tracking system communicates deadlines as tasks are completed, they can go through a test plan. Because the requirements are clearly defined, testing is the process of verifying that what was delivered matches what was designed.

Alex Potier is TechExcel’s business manager for EMEA game markets. TechExcel recently released DevSuite 7.0.

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