Like many of you, and like practically everyone on earth, I've been anxious lately. Occasionally, downright scared, and battling depression. I'm terrified that my wife, who's immunocompromised, will contract COVID-19. I'm terrified of anyone I love contracting it. Battling nerves when I shop for groceries is new to me, and I'm not sure how long that anxiety will last, or if it will ever go away.
I've worked in game development, and one of the first lessons I learned was that employees needed to be on-site to facilitate speedy and efficient communication. Game development has been forced to undergo a rapid shift in recent months; so have all industries. One of the ways I've put my mind at ease is by wondering how industries are pivoting to stay afloat. It's what I do: I ask questions, and I seek answers. Toward that end, I've interviewed a number of game developers from both indie and triple-A sectors about what they're doing to stay productive and stay sane while they're working from home. You'll be able to read that feature shortly. In addition to it, I had a conversation both related and adjacent to the subject, and wanted to share it.
Arthur Bruno, owner and lead designer at Grim Dawn studio Crate Entertainment, has been indirectly preparing for this scenario for years. Bruno worked at Iron Lore Entertainment on the action-RPG Titan Quest and its expansion, Immortal Throne, before financial troubles sunk the company and compelled him to found Crate Entertainment, a studio that has operated remotely since day one.
My thinking when I approached Bruno was that, as a veteran of working from home, he would provide invaluable insight into processes that work, processes that don't, and suggest best practices for his peers who are still finding their footing in our new reality. He did that, and more. As a fan of Titan Quest, I also talked to him about the end of Iron Lore, the beginning of Crate Entertainment, and the practices he and his team use to collaborate from wherever and whenever they're based.
David L. Craddock: I loved Titan Quest when it released, and remember it getting favorable reviews. However, Iron Lore shut down because, according to reports, the studio couldn't secure funding. When did you realize the funding might not come through? Or did the studio's downfall come as a surprise.
Arthur Bruno: Oh man, I could write a book about this, but I'll try to abridge it.
Things started to look troubling even before we got to release with Titan Quest. In 2005, publishers were all convinced PC gaming was dead and a new exec at THQ decided the publisher needed to dedicate all its resources toward console and multi-platform development. Even as they continued to pay us to finish Titan Quest, support for the game dried up and North American marketing was almost non-existent. I remember reading a comment online where someone asked "Where did this game come from? I only heard about it because it was the top download on BitTorrent."
This was in the age of physical retail, where if first-month sales weren't strong, games lost their placement on store shelves or disappeared altogether. THQ deemed the game a flop and predicted sales would fall off to nothing in another month. They only funded Immortal Throne because they had to as part of the original deal.
So during Immortal Throne's development, we knew we had to come up with something else before we finished it and money ran out. The owners were always pretty transparent about how long we had. Unfortunately, management at Iron Lore could not agree on the next game or how to develop it. It wasn't until halfway through Titan Quest: Immortal Throne development that I was pulled in to help work on the new concept and a lot of precious time was lost.
I actually pitched a MOBA internally based on a DotA inspired mod some of us created at work and had been playing during company game nights for a year. I was told DotA was too niche and hardcore to ever catch on; this was about two years before League of Legends came out. What we ended up with was a sort of action-RPG/MOBA hybrid where you controlled a hero leading AI-controlled forces toward victory on a dynamic battlefield with a third-person camera. Unfortunately, we had to throw it together pretty quickly using Titan Quest assets. It looked very Titan-Quest-like and publishers weren't very excited about it. THQ definitely told us they had no interest in another Titan Quest game.
That would have been the end but some supporters in THQ floated us the Dawn of War: Soulstorm game. With the additional time, we decided to shoot big and I was given mostly free reign to work on a new prototype, which evolved into a 3rd person RPG with some intense action combat and a PVP arena mode. It got a lot of interest from publishers and we made it through two rounds of green-lighting with Sega but the process was slow. Meanwhile, THQ decided they were sold but there was one thing: Could we rebrand it as Titan Quest II?
Apparently during all this time, Titan Quest had just continued to sell, surpassing a million copies and became one of THQ's more profitable games during that period, despite THQ making money, due to the terms of the contact, Iron Lore never got paid anything. They sent out project managers to work out milestones with us and things were looking great. Then suddenly they pulled the plug, telling us they'd just acquired Big Huge Games because Ken Rolston was onboard, and they were hoping to strike Oblivion gold. They didn't need two RPGs. Iron Lore scrambled to try to find some other last-minute solution, but nothing came about quickly enough.
After that, it was pretty clear the end had really finally come. The Iron Lore owners were very gracious in their handling of the closing though and they gave everyone two weeks additional pay and allowed people to come into the office to work on resumes and apply for jobs / get recommendations. Mistakes were made at Iron Lore but the way they handled the closing was really admirable.
Craddock: How did Crate Entertainment come about?
Bruno: I'd put seven years of my life into Iron Lore and after it closed, I basically sat around in my apartment depressed for a few days binge playing games, because I had no desire to go off and start over at another studio. Then I got to thinking about how I'd always thought about starting my own company someday. I didn't expect I'd be attempting it so soon, but I figured, hey, a lot of good people are all out of work, maybe we can do something. I called around and managed to work out a deal with Al Reed of Demiurge, whom I'd met previously, for a few of us to come on and provide art and design leadership on a project there.
Work dried up though when the recession hit toward the end of 2008 and they offered us full-time positions, otherwise we'd have to part ways. I left but worked out a deal for the rights to Black Legion from the Iron Lore owners and came up with a plan to pitch it as a joint project with Demiurge... publishers were again interested but dubious of two studios co-pitching a game and not willing to take a risk at such a financially uncertain time.
At this point, I was about ready to give up. I really had no desire to go start at another studio though and deal with the office politics and endless meetings and trying to get sign-off from execs, etc. Then it occurred to me that the Titan Quest engine was sitting in storage collecting dust. The Iron Lore owners had both gone off to do other things and no one was doing anything with the source code.
I worked out a deal for the source code and thus began "Zombie ARPG". It was quite a naive and daft undertaking. I sort of knew it, but I pressed ahead anyway. I really didn't know how I was going to ever finish it but something inside me felt like I had to try. I thought, Over a million people bought Titan Quest and THQ made a profit. No one is making another Titan Quest or any other ARPGs, so there is an audience out there that would buy another ARPG if I can just build it? I sort of imagined I'd create enough of a game that I could then get publisher funding to finish it. Of course, I ended up following a totally different path than I ever expected to complete Grim Dawn.
Craddock: Was Crate structured as a remote studio from the start?
Bruno: Early on we had no money other than my personal savings and so paying for an office was out of the question. I always assumed someday, when I had money, I'd open an office and then finally Crate would be a real company. Except, it took several years to reach that point and by then, we'd all gotten so used to working remotely, no one wanted to open an office and have to commute to work / put pants on.
Well, there was one guy who wanted an office, but he eventually went off to do something else. We were also all pretty scattered geographically, so even for the people in-state, I'm not sure where we could open an office that some people wouldn't end up with a horrible commute. Now we're so used to working remotely, we never think about it.
Craddock: Early on, where were some of the challenges in learning how to run a remote business?
Bruno: Early on it was easy because we were such a small team. We used Tencent's QQ chat program, which had the fantastic feature of allowing you to select part of your screen and paste it into chat, then draw on it. We used that for a few years until it became unsupported and we eventually changed over to discord. Now we use other tools to screen-grab and mark up images to explain things to one another / recommend changes. In both programs, we set up group chat rooms. Currently we have company chat, project chats, crate life chat, "Camelot chat" - tis a silly place. It provides different venues to separate work from the normal sort of socialization / dumb meme posting that goes on in an office.
One thing that was sort of unexpected and has been a bit of a headache is that we hired people in a bunch of different states when most people were treated as independent contracts early on. However, as I've tried to make everything more legit and by-the-books on the business end, as the company matures, I had to transition everyone to being full-time employees.
That created the need to register in various states where we have people, deal with payroll taxes, employee retraining fees, even public transit taxes in some places all due to having workers there. Washington state is the worst: I get two to three letters per month from them about stupid stuff, like employee rates changing, so now I've overpaid by $40 and I need to write them about how I want to receive the reimbursement (which I never got around to). It's not a big deal but it's an annoying distraction that wastes more of my time than I'd like. I've determined that I will not hire anyone else from a new state going forward, or any more people from the states that are particularly annoying to deal with.
Depending on how you sell your games, you also have to worry about a tax concept called "nexus" (not the Protoss kind unfortunately) where you could be liable to file a return and potentially pay income taxes in different states. This is mainly only an issue if you are doing direct selling/marketing and especially for physical products. Luckily, we've avoided that so far, but it's been difficult to sort out all the rules.
Craddock: Have you shored up most of those challenges? If so, how?
Yeah, things are pretty well sorted now, at least until the next thing pops up. The biggest issues were really resolving employment and tax concerns and, unfortunately, resolving those has mostly meant throwing money at accountants, HR companies and lawyers to ensure everything is in compliance.
Bruno: When you don't have much money, that isn't really an option and it's part of why we had to operate in kind of a gray area earlier on, where I mostly thought we could justify things or in some cases, knew we were not in compliance but had to just hope we'd fly under the radar for long enough. It is the unfortunate reality that laws and taxes can be so complex, you need professional help to navigate them beyond a certain point and it costs money you may not have as a bootstrapped startup.
Craddock: Early on, what were the advantages of running an atypical company, i.e. one not located in a building with most or all of the team on-site?
Bruno: An obvious one is lower operating cost. You aren't paying rent and utilities for an office. You don't have to buy office furniture or computers, etc., for everyone to work on. While the home environment can be distracting, you do gain some efficiencies from remote work, in that people aren't spending time commuting and can more easily put in extra hours at night or on the weekends when it's convenient for them since they already have all their work at home.
It works the other way too. It's much easier for people to take a break from work during the day to do yard work, hang out with their kids for a bit, go for a bike ride, etc. You need to have the right employees though, who are self-motivated and won't take advantage of the situation or inadvertently succumb to the lack of oversight and myriad distractions due to lack of self-discipline. A lot of game developers are obsessive about work they're interested in though, so as long as people are excited about what they're doing, that usually isn't a problem.
Craddock: Leading up to Grim Dawn's release, how did the studio handle everyday matters that would normally take place on-site? For example, did meetings--something relatively easy to coordinate in a traditional office/studio setting--take place often? Or were developers mostly left to do their work on their own time?
Bruno: I don't really believe in meetings, so we don't really have those, and I'd probably try to avoid them in a physical office too. While maybe you do sometimes need to get a group of people all talking about a problem, the vast majority of meetings waste more time than they solve problems. Chat works better here in my experience, since people usually don't immediately have solutions loaded up in their heads; it takes time to consider points that come up, for ideas to form and to mull over possibly solutions.
People can add to the conversation over time and go back to regular work when they don't have anything immediate to contribute. Occasionally a bunch of people will all end up actively debating about some contentious topic in chat but those are typically played out within 10-20 minutes. Since it is all preserved in the chat history, anyone who missed it can read up on the discussion later or add new points to it after the fact. Having a history of everything discussed is also useful for referencing decisions later on, where we've maybe forgotten where we'd left things off.
I think having a smaller team definitely makes remote work easier. Especially where we've always been totally independent and just wake up every day and think "what does this game need next" vs. having to work on a schedule and be accountable to investors and/or a publisher. I think a lot of people assume we're a bigger company than we are, but we only had eight people when we released Grim Dawn and now we're at 13 with the team split among a couple projects.
Craddock: The pandemic has caused many indie and AAA studios to pivot to remote work in accordance with recommendations for social distancing. As the pandemic began to affect your peers in the industry, what would you say the effect was on Crate's day-to-day business, if any?
Bruno: On one hand, not being able to leave the house, I imagine some of us have put in additional hours, so maybe we've even gotten more done. On the other hand, some people whose children would normally be in school or daycare now have to struggle to get work done amid the chaos of children and pets battling in the background. For me personally, not much has changed other than the kids are around all the time now, but I get most of my seriously dev work done at night when everyone is asleep.
Craddock: Earlier this week, key scenes from The Last of Us 2 leaked. This was problematic on two fronts: It potentially ruined the story for fans; and given that copies of the game are weeks away from being distributed to press and influencers, it all but guaranteed the leak was internal. This sort of security breach could happen to any studio during normal conditions, but I would think security would be harder to maintain with developers working remotely and in different time zones, rather than together under one roof. Could you comment on the ways Crate attempts to control access to and use of assets, without inhibiting workflow and without coming across as mistrustful of the devs working so hard on these projects?
Bruno: I'm not sure a physical office is any more secure in terms of preventing leaks. I mean, unless you prohibit people from bringing portable storage devices or even smartphones into work and have security checkpoints where you search them coming in and out, you can't really stop a determined employee from leaking information or content. In some ways, working remotely can be more secure since no one can physically access a computer they're not supposed to use, or overhear or see anything you don't want them to know. With a remote office, you're assured that people only have access to whatever you give their local machine access to.
We don't really do much to control access to assets at Crate. Partially, it is because I don't think a leak would hurt us much. I also feel that the best measure you can take to prevent a leak is to just keep employees happy and invested in the company. Consider why leaks happen. I imagine either a person is upset with the company or something happening with the development of a game and wants to draw attention to it. Maybe they feel overworked and underappreciated after months of crunch and resentment has built up to the point that they want to damage the company. That or maybe they just don't care about the company and feel like they have something to gain by leaking content and not that much to lose; which could be a higher risk if you have a lot of temporary workers who know they won't be staying on after the game ships.
At Crate, we work on fairly uncontroversial games, don't have much in the way of office politics, provide good benefits, have never had crunch (we actually don't even have a schedule) and everyone with access to content is a full-time employee. So I feel like there is little reason for anyone to want to leak content and too much risk of losing a good job and hurting sales of a game they could receive a big bonus from. So, whether the work is remote or in a physical office, I think keeping employees happy and ensuring that your team is invested in the company and your games, is probably the best way to maintain security.
Craddock: What advice do you have for teams now working remotely that might help them build a pipeline suited to remote work?
Bruno: I think just getting set up on some company chat program is the big thing. Beyond that, what has helped us be successful is just being a very streamlined company that doesn't waste a lot of time on extraneous activities outside of development. I think you can invest a lot of time on having meetings to plan things, documenting the plan, etc., then when you go to start actually building it, you realize it's all wrong.
We tend to just hash out some loose idea, then start making it and see how it feels. We spend minimal time on intermediary products like concept art, that isn't actually part of the finished product - it should be the bare minimum needed to convey the idea. We get core gameplay working early and just add to and refine it. I play our games constantly to get a feel for where they are and what they're missing. I think that's more important than following a design doc and checking off a milestone list; we don't actually have design documents or milestones.
While this isn't possible currently, if you stick to remote development after this pandemic ends, monthly meet ups for dinner and drinks at a restaurant are a good way to help people remember who's on the other side of the computer.
Hope this is helpful but probably each team needs to feel things out for themselves and find what works for them, given their situation and the personalities involved.