David Rose has been in the games industry since he joined Liverpool-based developer Psygnosis in 1993, where he was later appointed studio head.
Throughout his career at Psygnosis and the likes of Eidos and Emote Games, Rose has worked in the traditional brick and mortar studio environment, always at arms length or just a few rooms away from all his colleagues.
At Inspired Gaming, which acquired his studio We R Interactive in January and was subsequently rebranded, Rose is trying something different entirely. He’s done away with the office the team used to occupy in Vine Hill in London, and is now running the developer as a virtual studio, with staff all working from their own homes. It’s a world away from the previous setup.
“That was really traditional, it served us really well, and we built out a publishing organisation of probably about 40 people,” says Rose.
“But you face that reality one day where you realise that actually over half the people you employ aren’t physically making the product.”
As part of a studio-wide review, Rose decided to look for investment or a strategic partner, which included games such as I Am PlayR, Lyroke and now We R Football. He wanted to focus back on development and technology, so made the difficult decision to downscale the publishing side of the business.
As part of the restructuring, the team then looked at how the studio works, and began challenging some of the typical beliefs about how studios work and teams collaborate together.
“Our lease was coming to and end, so we made the decision that we’d trial a virtual set-up for three months,” says Rose. “We invested six weeks in a lot of research about communication tools, how we could virtualise the studio, with everyone working from the home, or their own location, but put in place systems to mean that we could replicate the type of conversation that would happen in an office pretty routinely.
“We trialled it for three months, still with an open mind as to whether we would take another lease on another office. And at the end of that period, and canvassing the staff, everyone wanted to remain working virtually.”
Tools for the job
To make it work, the team had to seek out the right tools for the job. Rose says the studio was one of the first adopters of team collaboration software Slack, which is at the heart of its new set-up.
Into that the team has customised its tools to work within Slack’s channels, to give them project groups, project digest, automated links to version control, project management tools and video conferencing. Every project and sub-project has a full digest of what’s happening, meaning there’s full transparency on how each part of the project is progressing.
“Things don’t get missed because woven into that timeline are key code commits and key analytics reports,” explains Rose. “So you end up with a sort of annotated journal which everyone can see. So if you take a week’s holiday, you come back, you spend 20 minutes reading up and you’re back up to speed.
“I raise a question on a project, and rather than just probably turn to my lead, it’s out there immediately to the team and someone will step in with an immediate answer.”
Rose is adamant that all the fears studio heads and staff could have about a virtual set-up, such as a lack of creativity and lessening of productivity, have all been unfounded.
He admits however the team is still able to take advantage of Inspired’s central London office, should it need to induct a new staff member or come together for some “heavy creative sessions”. But for the majority of work, he says the set-up is super efficient.
“In structuring any studio now, that would be my default,” Rose states.
A few things of note for those considering attempting a virtual studio however are that Rose’s team have worked together for a number of years. The team currently employs around 12 staff, but Rose is confident the virtual studio the set-up can scale as the team grows significantly over the next year.
“With a less experienced team I don’t think it would be as simple,” says Rose. “And we’ll find out over the next 12 months as we grow significantly how that will scale. I’m confident it will scale, although, just as there is in running a traditional studio, I’m sure there will be limits and points where we have to once again review the whole process."