Office Space: The Dos and Don'ts of Game Development Workplace Design

Office Space: The Dos and Don'ts of Game Development Workplace Design

June 12, 2019 29 By Bernardo Ryan



hi everybody I'm Dimitri I've been in game development for about 15 years now and I've done stop play design casual games produce casual games design mobile games start a game company that makes mobile games be the GM of a company that makes social games to the GMs thing in New York and work on a giant console franchise which shall remain nameless before all of that stuff so I went to grad school and studied architectural history so that weird combination of backgrounds is why I wanted to talk about something we rarely talk about in this business which is not the games that we make but the places in which we make them so before we start looking at some of those let's take a super brief look at some history the office you work in didn't spring fully formed out of Ralph Baer's head or his garage the like the games themselves commercial office forms have a long history which I'm going to go through in about three slides the first serious influence on game development offices starts with the modern Factory this is one of the first times that we see a need to put a lot of people in a limited space to perform repetitive tasks without moving very much pretty soon that an industry springs up around trying to make these movements even more efficient and between that the desire to have employees under something like a constant surveillance and the growing costs of commercial real estate you wind up with something like this just to get this out of the way this is an open office every 20 years this gets reinvented and every 10 years as everybody decides that it's horrible and there's a bunch of pushback against it and for the reasons that you see here surveillance paternalism and cost especially cost open offices are not going away sorry so instead of starting another debate about studies show off open offices suck let's take them as a given for just a few minutes and talk about how we can make this better rather than pretending we'll be able to abolish it completely anytime soon and so besides factories turned into open offices another ancestor of the modern game development space is this the art studio these spaces started out as places that were optimized for light great big giant windows and ease of access to supplies but starting about the mid 20th century the idea of the studio is a social space and eventually as an art object itself starts to gather some steam so signifying that you are creative through your work space is an old idea but we also have Andy Warhol's factory to thank for a lot of what we expect for some place that's called a studio today and the third major branch in the ancestry of game development spaces is the science lab these are utilitarian spaces that also have great big giant windows and are devoted to experimentation laboratories are where computers first started to show up in the work place and the total takeover of the desktop by computer equipment was very much birthed in the lab this is what yeah you see there's like sort of timeline of what an engineering space looks like this is what an engineering space looks like right now and this is also what every other space looks like right now so what you've probably started to notice in these last three slides is that despite starting down three very different paths these workplace types wound up at a really familiar destination rows of desks so the key differentiator is not what the rows of desks are but what you surround them with and how you arrange them because the rows of desks themselves are really the nucleus of the commercial workspace so in an industry famously on a cutting edge is technology and culture what have we done with all those rows of desks unfortunately the first answer is a bunch of that nobody likes last year this guy the amazing Kyle Drexel of wargaming helped me to run a survey about game industry workplaces and I guess this is already kind of spoiled by the effect at the top of this slide but one of the big takes of takeaways from that survey is that most game developers don't really like their workspace here's why there's sort of a bunch of reasons reasons number one which haven't kind of surprised me was it's just too noisy it's too noisy about 30 odd percent of game developers thought their workspace was too noisy and this you know obviously has to do with the fact that when engineers want word to design a perfect workspace they're going to come up with some place that allows them to to get into that flow state that that that everyone is after when designers design a perfect workspace they're going to design a space that allows them to collaborate and talk to each other and artists fall somewhere in between marketers fall somewhere on the phone this this obviously has a lot of different applications so personal space this is a little bit more out of folks control but it was the number two thing that people talked about we're we're on top of each other there's no privacy at all and that doesn't necessarily have to mean you know our desks are packed in next to each other or you know we wish we were madmen and had giant offices and just going to drink booze all day long but it does have something to do with how the space is laid out and how people perceive this space importantly because these are you know this is survey results here so whether or not you can do anything about it this is what people are thinking about the space that you've created for them to work in so even though everything is super tight and super crowded this is like dichotomy number one in this in this list we're still never near the people that we need to be near we're you know we have to walk all the way across the office to get to HR we have to walk all the way across across the office to get from one end part of the engineering department to another the bathrooms are at the far side of Mars this is a consistent problem and of course the the classic there's never a meeting room there's never a meeting room when you need one there's never one when you don't need one there are too many for people that always get all the meeting rooms they want this I have some more slides about this later on in the deck but just know that meeting space and collaboration space in general even if it's not a private meeting room is very important to folks this you know this list is is seven or eight items but this is you know these are the tops out of 200 different things that people wind about in the survey where I asked them to line visual privacy is surprisingly important to folks this isn't just hey I don't want to feel like my boss is looking at my monitor all the time but all so just the capacity to be looking out at your monitor and at your workspace and not seeing chaos right behind it so everyone can see everything sure but also the fact that you can see everything is really distracting it's a lot of different a lot of different approaches in the case studies that I'd take a look at to to kind of try and figure out that problem this one actually came up more often than I thought it would and I guess that's down to game developers being game developers but yeah a lot of people don't just think their office is just our shitty looking they're ugly they're boring they don't have any games in them that that was a stunningly high frequency complaint there's no place for us to actually play games that there's a there's a fine line which you'll see a little bit later on between there's no place and you're trying to turn this place into some kind of a weird fun prison but but that came up a lot and then the the you know the like level issue this is very simple very basic but programmers need different amount of light than artists than designers then you know people who have to look at giant lists of stuff all day long the people that are testing your game etc etc so one crucial factor in work-life satisfaction they came up again and again and again in the survey and my individual interviews was the organizing principle behind how these rows of deaths are laid out there are two main schools of thought about how this ought to be done and most respondents offices use either one or the other and almost exactly equal proportion in a game team layout everyone working on a specific project is clustered together regardless of what they do on that project in the departmental layout are to sit with artists producers sit with producers design sits over there and denier sit over there even if there are two or three different games that they're working on it's pretty clear what the advantages and issues with these approaches are if everyone working on a game is sitting together you don't have to go too far to find and collaborate with the other devs who are working on the same problems as you are as we know from those factory studies 100 years ago the less you have to physically move to get your job done the more efficient you're going to be at doing it of course the main drawback here is the very reason why the departmental seating model exists it's very easy for people to get siloed when they're only thinking about their own problems we quickly lose the advantage of having 30 engineers who are the top class you know guys and gals working together if only ten of them ever talk to each other another ten are like sequestered over some place so they never talk to each other and that's you know the knowledge sharing gap becomes very very huge so as a result of that you get this this kind of third approach some workplaces but usually but not only those with large or flexible physical spaces to work with have adopted a hybrid model in which the group's most likely to work across all games sit with one another and as central location as possible and the devs working on a single game primarily or only sit together on the periphery now typically these Central Services departments include groups like marketing most business functions some artists some QA and very often a tools or a game engine group now to be clear none of these approaches are the right way to layout an office space I'm not trying to claim that first you have to actually fit your staff into the physical space that you've got so some of these approaches might not be appropriate and none of these abroke might might be appropriate for your office in theory you could design some kind of crazy four dimensional model where everything perfectly overlaps at acute angles but it's very rare that you can actually implement something like that in the space you've got although I will mention one at the end of this talk that that a giant company that everybody loves to be named never has worked out and a lot of people actually like it so that's in the tweetable takeaways portion so let's let's take things out of the realm of theory for a minute and then look at a few examples of how some game companies of varying sizes and with varying science Scrooge McDuck piles of cash deal with these issues the first one is everybody's favorite companies Zynga these guys had a building that they that existed already that they needed to work with but it was basically a giant open shell the keyword is gigantic Zynga was only a bit more than half of this office but we're talking about 12 NFL regulation football fields or nine World Cup football pitches for you people that like the right kind of football each employee has a lot of space in in a workspace this size so I don't you know none of you might know what you know square foot per kind of feels like but trust me 140 is is you know in New York you're like forget it you want to that's heaven heaven good sorry so the model that Zynga tried to follow with this was a version of the of the hybrid plan where the game teams sit together and the central team stood together and each of them had an open seating area that that surrounded a small core of collaboration spaces of various sizes the problem that they had tried to address in the most obvious way was that ugly or boring issue that we talked about so like a lot of Silicon Valley startups made good these guys bought into the office as playground model that has come to prominence in the last 20 years seriously Zynga when absolutely goddamn bananas making their office into a twelve-year-old boys dream and we'll come back in a few minutes to what influence that had on on their employees in their and their outlook so once you left the common areas of Zynga the offices don't look that much different from any other corporate workspace they have more knickknacks both employee and company supplied but other than that it looks kind of familiar to anyone who's built software here's how they try to deal with the key issues that we identified a few slides ago so noise they had it a little bit easy they just had a lot of square feet so they could give each employee a lot of square feet and that you know dramatically reproduces the noise because of physics visual privacy you see a lot of the time they tried to they didn't use a particularly intense methodology for this but but did what a lot of companies that have prefab office furniture do which is to get these angles esque pods that that you can see here this is not a perfect solution as you can see because we're from where the photographer is standing you can see everybody's monitor and it also looks like pure chaos in the background but it is a lot better than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory stuff that you see a lot of other people do where it's just a sweatshop rows and rows and rows of monitors collaboration space they had a ton of space so they could have a lot of collaboration space and here again they tried this hybrid layout where each game team has a physically distinct area as through the Central Services folks and but crucially within that area the arrangement was non standardized and was driven by the folks at the top it gives the general managers of those games that make sure that you know that was driven by leadership's because that that will come back in a minute so what was the overall approach basically doing is trying very very hard to make everything fun and playful the idea of course is at the if the employees are having fun that will be easier for them to make more fun games for the customers and sometimes it's worked and sometimes it resulted in cognitive dissonance and forced fun and lots of hate so this can be actual absolute cultural poison but it wasn't the only challenge that singer faced with the approach that they chose um it's really expensive to do things like this and when you know and when revenues turned down you know the ball pit starts to look goofy um scalability you know there's only a certain number of people that can fit on the waterslide didn't when you get more people but you can't make the waterslide any bigger and importantly as we were saying before about about management being able to call the shots on how things moved around this interferes with humans messing impulse people want to have some degree of agency over their space we see this over and over again and this is actually pretty common commonly mentioned issue in white papers and studies people want to have some control over their space when you take that away from them it it just sort of increases their degree of nervousness so a lot of a lot of the sort of hips are ad agencies or it's like well you don't even have computer you just you know take a notepad and draw on it and sit in the corner and lie on the face grass or whatever it is that we've got that doesn't often work out if you're particularly interested there's a white paper by guys called Fleming and sturdy which is called being yourself in the electronic sweatshop do two forms of normative control that's in human relations which is a which is a academic journal I'll give you more information on that if you want it at some point but so let's take a look at a second space space number two is three rings if you've never been to a meeting or a party there this place is really unique the studio is owned by Sega now but when they oak when they open this office it was in Indy and they started to take a really dramatic approach to one of these classic small developer problems of how to build out a white box they had a they had a giant Class B loft really common you probably have one if you have worked at a small developer it's just an empty white box it was about it gets a 1/10 of a football pitch so not huge and key to this is that what you're about to see here this this steampunk submarine thing is the is half of their office the the back half which was completely redesigned the front half stayed very similar to its original build this is intentionally cozy so they actually had quite a bit more space and they wound up slicing up and giving to the employees on purpose trying to sort of increase the the effort for collaboration by packing everybody into smaller spaces so that's quite intentional and they divided their space up into these small group work rims little pods with four or five folks in them that would be a department working on a game but not giant one giant team of 35 people so even small companies especially in San Francisco wound up in this park arms race according to three rings however it was practically impossible to hire engineers at this point and the office actually was a key marketing tool for them so despite super some similarities this is really a very different use of architectural playfulness than what we saw with singer it's also important to note that though the steampunk aesthetic was completely pervasive in the front half of the office this was definitely the party in the back portion of these three rings office mullet there's a much more straightforward space on the other side of a wall that you can't see here and that has largely become home to the business type functions versus the design in the artwork which are going on in the submarine and that's maybe the most literal case of architectural determinism that I have ever seen and it does affect the employees and we'll see how in a slide or two so here's how three rings approach those big game development workspace issues very different to what Zynga did and they did a couple of things that a giant corporation really can't do well for example they knew that they were going to have a huge noise problem because they had a relatively good-sized space and very few employees that's one way to solve that problem but not a call you can necessarily make for visual privacy they actually partitioned up their workspace and face the desks towards walls and partitions in order to avoid the problem of having you looking out at you know a sea of monitors with visual chaos behind them their collaboration spaces actually as you can see on their on their layout here practically all of the office space in this area is designed as a sort of small informal collaborative space and then they also have a a secret library room that you enter through a bookcase that was a conference that really this office space is tremendous so it you know pardon me if I'm just like goofy about it the light level was was very clever here they have they have these big curtains that you can see over there over there large loft windows and they have custom-made light fixture covers that use the fluorescent lights so you can kind of adjust the lights in a much more granular way than you saw in a space-like thing or in a lot of Class B office space and here they have their teams in separate spaces but they kind of have a sort of miniature version of the hybrid with individual groups inside teams together to encourage collaboration with them unfortunately they actually only had one private collaborative space but a lot of this space was was available for public collaboration so that the TLDR is that through salesmanship and smart design and luck three rings was able to give themselves a completely unique environment that functioned as a calling card that explained how the company works and how they think of themselves as you walk through it as a visitor or an employee the major issues that arose there was something you probably have already guessed once you have a steampunk submarine in your office your company is kind of like about having a steampunk steampunk submarine in your office and that introduces a bunch of risks around changing tastes for example not you know maybe not always going to want a steampunk submarine tacking all of these people into tight spaces on purpose can obviously introduce some issues as well and the fact that you're sort of basically stuck with what you've got Tom Schofield who is one of the principals of three rings told me the way we thought of it was anything works in here as long as it fits in a steampunk submarine so it's a little bit deterministic but obviously there's there's some big upside so the final case study that I'm going to take a look at looks at a totally different type of space this is a very different space a very different budget and a totally different set of requirements this is New York's Wacka Wacka which is a game development co-working space and incubator in the trendy Lower East Side located in a former storefront tattoo parlor this space was inherited and tweaked but in a lot of ways it's the same type of space that it was when it was an art gallery a few tenants ago it's a small open room and it's long and narrow which rules out a lot of the desk layouts that we talked about before so without any real permanent walls it's quite flexible and it has a second story and a tight little yard that can be configured in a few different ways so check us out even a 2,000 square foot office makes an amenity play in its own way so that maybe tells us something people like to say that they don't care about perks that much like this cool little backyard but again we see a significant effort to maximize the available resources wacka-wacka doesn't have much furniture in it at all but what is there is high-quality and extremely stylish flexibility and minimalist chic are just overflowing here and this sort of underscores the aspirational aspect of workspace design we is it showing two different things there's nothing ah all right cool so we don't actually really design a workspace around our employees so much as we create a space that looks like it's already home to the type of people that we want working in it and whether that's you know whether that's a feature or a bug we kind of lets up to us to figure out so how did Wacka Wacka address the big issues it's harder for them than for three rings or saying it because they couldn't really choose much about how their space is laid out about what materials it's made out of it's really noisy if there are a lot of people in there the whole the whole thing is made out of polished concrete now they've done what they can about that as you can see even the desk is made out of noise baffling material and they've gotten a bunch of noise baffles hanging on the wall so they are smart about it as far as visual privacy goes there's really only two options you could have everybody facing directly into a white wall oh not great or you could have everyone sort of looking at a maximum of one other person and that's what they did for collaboration space this is kind of tricky and the studio amenities and infrastructure are shared between everyone that's in there it's kind of a big open space they have a little area in the back that you can sort of see there that that has a couch and there the back yard is also sort of an ad-hoc collaboration space as is their downstairs but ultimately there aren't very many walls so there's a limit to what you can do now the layout of course can change other than getting new giant desk they can switch things up but at the end of the day there there's not much solitude that's possible so what the core of waka waka is workspace approach is about allowing small independent teams to work in close proximity to each other and share facilities that they could otherwise never afford this office signifies the potential co-workers into those visiting that the people who work here understand the indie game aesthetic through and through it's sparse but precise and above all else it's elegant in both functional and visual design so this works to attract like-minded collaborators and it immediately tells a compelling story to for example visiting publishers who are attending meetings with the developers that are based here this approach definitely comes with some real challenges however the space is small and it's in – there's no real layout choices so the various privacy concerns are magnified tremendously there's also the question of scale if you succeed here you kind of have to leave so this randomizes a balance of the people in this space and that can be a huge issue in a workspace that's only got about a dozen other folks in there the materials we talked about it you know it's all polished concrete so they couldn't really do too much with that but they kind of ran with it rather than trying to fight against it it's TBD how well that works out and then on top of the challenge of people scaling out of the office you really have to trust the curation instinct of of the people that run this space now this particular workspace is run by a game business veteran but if that's not always the case then you know you could wind up in here with whoever they were able to get to fill the seats in order to pay the rent so at last here are the tweetable takeaways I'm going to put them up there one by one so maybe wait till the end if you want to take a picture and also make this whole deck available digitally if you want it as well so let's try to distill some of the most significant findings from my research and the survey and the interviews and and these case studies so we'll continue this conversation with each other and the rest of our discipline and maybe for some of you with the people you work with as you contemplate the design or redesign of your own development space first disciplines differ now this is huge engineers do not have the same requirements as designers or artists or artists or marketers if you have one type of space for all of these different types of folks you're setting yourself up for a big challenge even a small studio you have to do what you can to make sure that there's quiet space and collaboration space available and that there is distinct and distant physically from each other as possible the privacy too much noise as I mentioned was the number one thing that people mentioned in the in the survey but close behind it were a few different types of issues around privacy physical privacy and visual privacy are separate and they're both very important gain developers like everybody else don't want to feel like they're being monitored in a time and motion study by their bosses all day long so if we're already going out of our way to provide jellybean foot baths delivered fresh daily by uber it's irresponsible not to contemplate providing phone booths or arranging your monitors so that people can read Kotaku when they're burned out for a few minutes without worrying that they're going to get fired and there are better ways to find out if your employees are shirking their responsibilities than by facing all their screens towards the boss collaboration is an important and enormous part of what we do about 1/3 of the folks we spoke to said that their offices needed more meeting rooms when we change the phrasing to talk about general collaborative space that number shot through the roof so people are are empathetic because they don't want to disturb their colleagues a lot of times folks just flat-out won't talk to people that they would benefit by talking to because there's nowhere to do it without disturbing somebody else there are a lot of innovative ideas about how to make this work even in a really low square footage space like the backyard at Wacka Wacka or some others so if you're interested in going into greater depth on this particular issue drop me a line I'll give you my contact information or you can come up to me afterwards and and I can offer some concepts for you as I was researching this topic and speaking with interior designers and architects I kept hearing over and over again how important it is to consult with the people that are going to use the office during your design process the impact of coming in on a Monday morning and having everything be in a totally different spot or of seeing people roam around with measuring tapes and lasers taking measurements and jotting things down without knowing why they're there or what's going to happen to your workplace is huge that's that nesting instinct that we talked about before and we know this you know this is community management this is usability testing and we do this in our games if you're designing a space take some time and talk to the people that are going to be using it although a game can sometimes be a passion project and a work of you know one geniuses singular vision it would be pretty unique to imagine an office space that way so don't do it a personal space we've mentioned this a lot and this is something that you probably have less control over in your space just down to raw square footage concern but even in really small areas remember to do what you can to you know just alter the layout make it possible for people to feel like there's a little bit of personal space even if that just means in a couple of places I've seen literal actual phone booths put up in the corner so that people don't have to you know hover over by the kitchen to make a phone call this helps people feel like they have some control so about that that super scheme that I mentioned before there so a hybrid layout so this is you know one of these very popular companies that everybody loves design this the system where there are pods of about four to six people with desks each one of those pods is self assembled but it's always from the same game team and sometimes within the same discipline each pod has a separate meeting room and a small separate private collaboration area as well as being located around a central space that everyone can just kind of rotate their desks into in case you happen to have a jillion dollars and can build out a space that works like this the people that work in that space gave tremendously good reviews so that's something to think about and then lastly perks I have a lot of data from the survey about this but here's the bottom line have to have something the lack of space to play games in I mentioned before was mentioned about a fifth of our respondents people notice when the office is super square but there is definitely definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing about 33% of our survey respondents said that the reason they think their companies provide them with these fun perks was to keep them at their doctor there at their desks for longer hours so even if this is not true in your office you have to take into account that some people are going to think that it's true so remember that before the guys show up delivering your three story waterslide so we probably don't have any time for any questions at all but this is my contact information if you can't see it just walk up I'll give you a business card and there's also a room that I can go to or I'll just stand outside and talk to you it's what did you say it was 3:00 2002 so maybe I'll go there hey give me a good rating those people will email you stuff and it'll say give me a good rating so give me a good rating thanks everybody [Applause]