COVID-19 is forcing video game companies to rethink remote working

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Jordan Lemos, video game writer, has lived in three different cities for the past five years. He moved from Los Angeles to Quebec City to Seattle – working on blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Ghost of Tsushima – because the jobs demanded it. So when he was looking for a new job last year, he told potential employers he wasn’t going to do it anymore. He would only work remotely.

Several big game companies were quick to say no when they heard his ultimatum. But Aspyr Media Inc., the Austin, Texas-based developer behind the highly anticipated Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic remake, agreed to the arrangement, offering a contract that will allow Lemos to work. from his apartment in Seattle even after the pandemic was over.

“Personally, any negatives that may exist from remote work are negligible compared to the massive amount of positives,” Lemos said. Game studios that refuse to be flexible will have to “see how many great talent they are missing by forcing people to completely uproot their lives,” he said.

Like many industries, especially in the creative and entertainment fields, video game production had a strong office culture before the pandemic, where artists, writers, and engineers collaborated in person to produce visually stunning content. The hours were often long and the lifestyle exhausting. People have complained, but that hasn’t changed much. Then the coronavirus-induced lockdowns forced an overhaul of the video game industry, which is slowly conceding that a lifestyle long considered sacrosanct could see some benefits with the change.

The pandemic initially hampered video game production significantly, with developers struggling to get used to substandard equipment and late VPNs at home, causing widespread delays in releases. But companies have adapted, buying new computers and improving their infrastructure so that creatives and programmers can transfer large files faster. Today, many video game makers say they are as productive as they were before the March 2020 global shutdown, even those who have yet to return to their desks.

Studies have shown that once companies can properly support their production pipelines, remote working makes people even more efficient.

With proof of success and the release of several highly publicized games this year, employees accustomed to the comfort of their home are now asking their companies to rethink traditional postures. Some say remote working has boosted morale and led to a healthier work-life balance, which has prompted game studios to be more flexible.

A survey this summer by the International Game Developers Association showed that more than half of developers said their employers would continue to offer some sort of work-from-home option, a reality that seemed unthinkable just two years ago. years.

The video game industry is unique in that it does not have a central hub like Hollywood or Silicon Valley. The big game companies are spread all over the world, from Canada to Japan to France, which has forced many developers like Lemos to relocate whenever they are made redundant or their contracts with a studio expire. A 2019 survey showed that gaming workers had an average of 2.2 employers in five years. The cycle has led to burnout, with many developers getting fed up with packing boxes and pulling their kids out of school every time they find a new job.

“There is only a limited number of moves you can do before you hit your limit,” Lemos said. “Keeping top executives in this industry is tough enough due to factors such as crunch and burnout. The last thing we need is more reasons for people to leave him. “

Many game companies are still finalizing their remote work plans after the pandemic. Some, like the French Ubisoft Entertainment SA, have adopted hybrid schedules, in which the majority of employees still have to go to the office at least part of the time, but are allowed to work from home two or three days a week, a routine which is likely to persist after the pandemic. But a growing number of big game studios are doing what was once thought to be impossible: hire people anywhere, without expecting them to come back to the office on a regular basis.

One of the biggest developers to make such a change is Insomniac Games from Sony Group Corp., based in Burbank, Calif., Which has hired dozens of employees remotely and has allowed most employees to work for almost. any state, according to two familiar people. with operations at the studio which asked not to be identified while discussing information about private companies. Mary Kenney, writer at Insomniac, was approved to work remotely and moved to Chicago earlier this year. She wrote on Twitter that the video game industry would be able to attract and retain so much more talent “if people didn’t have to uproot their lives and families for every new project / studio.”

Other companies, such as Los Angeles-based Respawn Entertainment, are asking each of their gaming teams to decide what best fits their approach, according to two people familiar with the studio. Some staff at Respawn, which is owned by Electronic Arts Inc., plan to work from home all the time. Others have already moved to new cities, such as Ryan Rigney, the communications director who said earlier this year he had received “full approval to work remotely” and moved from LA to Texas. EA did not respond to a request for comment.

French games company Dontnod Entertainment, which also has offices in Canada, said last month it offered permanent remote work to all of its 250 employees.

In an interview, CEO Oskar Guilbert said the company had learned positive lessons from the pandemic that prompted it to change its stance on office work. “We were able to ship two sets during the pandemic,” Guilbert said. “So we thought, ‘OK, this is working. Let’s try to continue like this. Looks like it’s a good balance between people’s personal and professional lives. ‘ “

Guilbert said 65% of Dontnod employees choose to work remotely in the future, and even those who stay primarily in the office will be able to work from home one or two days a week. “It makes the employees, I think, really happier,” he said. “It’s really important. If someone is happier, they are really effective.

Owlchemy Labs, a small Google-owned studio that makes virtual reality games like Vacation Simulator, also recently announced that it is switching to permanent remote work. COO Andrew Eiche said employees have benefited from not always having to come to the office and that “our results and the quality of our work have remained very high”. and exciting talent across the United States and Canada, ”he wrote in an email.

But not everyone wants to work from home. Some game developers have said they feel less productive when working from their bedrooms or kitchens, especially when surrounded by distractions such as pets and children. Others said they missed the social and creative benefits that come with working together in person.

Tina Sanchez, lead producer at new Los Angeles-based independent studio Gravity Well, said she enjoys going to the office one or two days a week to meet with her colleagues.

“There are times when I want to collaborate with my colleagues and we plan to be in the office at the same time,” she said. “What’s great is that we schedule meetings based on the quality of traffic in LA. “

Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said some companies won’t be switching to remote working anytime soon. She said she recently spoke to the management of a large video game studio who said this required office presence for most creative and executive roles and that he “hoped that a strong presence at the office after the end of the pandemic would attract potential employees. ”She declined to identify the studio.

Game developers who have joined businesses remotely “often don’t feel completely connected with their teams,” Gittins said. But the benefits, such as cutting commute time and being able to move to cheaper cities, have been tangible for many workers, she added.

“There are pros and cons to both remote working and the need for office support,” Gittens said. “I suspect that we will see a lot of studios providing support for remote work opportunities and many smaller studios will switch to working entirely remotely to save office space costs.”

Some game companies are taking a wait-and-see approach, such as hiring developers in other cities, and leaving ambiguity as to whether they will eventually have to relocate. And sometimes government oversight complicates plans.

In Quebec, which has attracted thousands of game developers by offering generous tax credits to companies that hire employees in the province, this means that publishers like Ubisoft must meet certain staffing thresholds in order to continue to enjoy the benefits. . But remote workers wouldn’t factor into those totals, making it harder for Montreal-based game studios to be so flexible.

Activision Blizzard Inc., America’s largest video game publisher, allows its individual divisions to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. A spokesperson said the company will offer either a full-time office arrangement, a full-time remote arrangement or a hybrid approach, depending on the employee and the team. “We have a range of options which we believe provide flexibility for our employees,” said the spokesperson.

The company may present a plethora of choices, but it also clearly states its preference. Activision recently emailed employees reviewing their immunization status and saying they hoped to “fully return to our offices by January 3, 2022”.

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