Game developers have left their offices behind and returned to where many of them started out—making games in their homes. It's not been through choice, of course, but the pandemic has taught us that a lot of companies are capable of carrying on without making their employees work in a single location.
It's not been a big transformation for every company. Nightdive Studios, the developer behind the System Shock remake and a multitude of remasters, has always worked this way. While things may eventually return to some degree of normalcy, CEO Stephen Kick and business development director Larry Kuperman see working from home as a realistic model for future developers.
Kick founded Nightdive in 2012 to bring System Shock 2 to modern PCs after acquiring the rights from an insurance company, of all things. From the outset, he tells me, it was a distributed company.
"I just didn't think to myself at the time, 'Well, if there's a pandemic and civil unrest and ecological disasters in 2020, we'll be perfectly positioned.' You know, it wasn't part of the plan, but here we are. Among the many unexpected things that have happened this past year, Nightdive's working model has become almost a universally accepted working model. Before 2020, that really wasn't the case."
It's a decision that's made the developer more accessible, in keeping with its goal to bring back classic games for old fans and new players. Kick hunted down the rights to System Shock 2 when he realised there was nowhere for him to get a copy, and starting out he wanted to find games he used to play with his father, games that had perhaps been forgotten, and bring them to a wider audience.
"We grew up playing these games, and when it was first discovered that there was a lack of interest in making sure that they even remained playable and available to even a general audience, that was really the impetus for starting Nightdive and making sure that this medium that I consider to be an art form is treated with the respect that it deserves."
That all its workers are remote has become an integral part of the company, and Kuperman has found himself having to explain to people that it doesn't want to change and move into an office—that it's by choice—which also meant it had to turn down an acquisition offer.
"We were kind of the outlier," he says, "and we had to tell people all the time, 'No, no, we're not looking to move into a headquarters; this is the way we want to operate.' A couple of years ago, we were approached by a company that offered us a partnership—I guess really an acquisition—opportunity. And it was not a trivial offering that was being made, but one of the requirements was that we'd have to open up an office, so we declined that offer, and in hindsight I think we're very happy that we did."
For Nightdive, one of the most noteworthy benefits is that it doesn't restrict its hiring pool by location or time zone. Kuperman mentions a pair of developers that work closely who live in New Zealand and Sweden, a gulf that could hardly be larger. "Their times align at certain points," he says, "but it's just different days." Nightdive also hires from within its games' communities, something that would be trickier if it came with a requirement that they'd have to relocate.
Kuperman acknowledges, however, that it's not something that works for every potential employee. He recalls a "really good candidate" who ended up not being able to take the job because their spouse didn't want them at home all the time. Some people find working from home distracting, while others find that they need more separation between work and home. I've worked remotely for a decade, and even I have my days where I'd kill for a face-to-face chat or for someone to ask if I fancy a cup of tea.
Even before the pandemic, meetings and conversations were already taking place via Slack, Discord and other apps, while getting rid of relocation stress and awful commutes can improve the work-life balance. Making sure that balance is maintained, however, requires companies to be proactive. This is an industry that often exploits passion, allowing, encouraging and sometimes mandating that workers give up their weekends and evenings to crunch.
Kuperman says sometimes Nightdive has to check in with its devs to make sure they're not overworking, and there are systems to track these things, so managers know when someone is putting in too many hours. Remote working doesn't make that easier, but he says it doesn't make it harder either; it's up to the company to make sure its employees aren't risking their health.
"If you say that is something that is important for you to know, if that balance is something that is critical for you, you can do that," he says. "We're still at that golden stage where we're big enough that we are recognised as a—and feel free to put quotes around this—real company, but we're still small enough that we interact with all of the team members on a daily basis."
In its Video Games in the 21st Century report, the ESA put the number of videogame companies in the US alone at 2,457 in 2015, which directly employed more than 65,000 people. And it's constantly growing. Among them, there isn't a 'typical developer' because, thanks to increasingly accessible tools, anyone can make games, and the distinction between indies and devs with the backing of big publishers becomes muddier with every year. While working from home has traditionally been a lot more common with smaller teams, Kick and Kuperman believe it can work regardless of size.
Nightdive has around 40 people working on its games, so it's not a large developer, making it more nimble and perhaps more capable of succeeding at the distributed route than a studio with hundreds. But Nightdive is also an unusual case. As well as having a team working on the full remake of System Shock, there's another team working on a number of remasters in different genres and with different requirements, like Blade Runner and Shadow Man. The obstacles it faces are not worlds apart from what much larger studios also have to deal with when working from home.
"Some of the same companies that thought we were outliers a couple of years ago now turn to us for advice on best practices," says Kuperman. "I also think that there isn't going to be a transition where everyone has to work at a location to everyone working distributed. I think what you're going to see is a lot more gradual, where people have some form of hybrid where maybe they'll work home for certain days. I think that what's going to happen is that people are going to find that when you grant somebody time to work from home there isn't a drop in efficiency, that you actually find that you have somebody that's happier and still doing the same or more work."