It's really hard to diversify. Both your workforce and your output. Especially so if you're a tiny developer in the middle of sunsetting an MMO you've been making for three years. But that's just what we found ourselves doing, and we think successfully!
In the summer of 2019, we found ourselves in a really strange and unique position, with an unexpectedly brand new team and a time-limited opportunity to make something new... but to understand everything about the situation I think we need to go back even farther.
In January 2019 we moved into the Tentacle Zone. You might've heard of it? It's run by Payload Studios who make the excellent Terratech. One of the original and early kickstarter successes (and now out on consoles as well as PC!), they've been quietly making a success of themselves... and part of that is down to their attitude to building a community around developers and game development. They have been running the Tentacle Stand at games expos across the UK for years, where they give indies nice and cheap space to show their games, on a stand that looks like a cartoon Kraken is trying to play everything at once. It stands out like nothing else, and has become a part of the fabric of the UK industry.
For years previously we've been working out of wherever we can, and directly previous to moving in with these wonderful people, we were working from a loft, a bedroom and occasionally the UKIE offices. We knew the same bunch had been offering shared workspace out of their office in central London, and they'd been courting us for a while, so we ended up deciding to take the plunge. The usual thought is that London offices are prohibitively expensive, but the combination of fair price and being in a shared space with 4 other game developers and all of the bonuses that naturally brings (networking, knowledge sharing, problem solving, free coffee) really swung the vote.
Anyway, both the space and the team that run it are amazing, and we moved in with them as soon as we could. Fast forward a few months and we get two phone calls. One from CAPA, and the other from ELAM.
CAPA place students into work all around the world, from all kinds of courses and into all kinds of industries. I answered the call with a pretty skeptical mindset, but once they'd sent over Connor's portfolio and explained a few things, I figure 'why not'. An extra artist to help out with some Lazarus work, plus the ability to give him a credit on a Real Game seemed like a good opportunity for both sides. In addition we would get more experience managing an artist, not to mention someone at pre-graduation level, something we'd not done before - one of the dangers of working with known contractors as we and many indies do is that you're unaware of the work required to manage juniors should the need surface. Most contractors are mid- or senior- level, so you could easily find yourself ill-equipped to adapt when the time comes for more junior workers.
Of course we could never have done this, nor what came next, from our loft/bedroom combo office. Connor sat next to me the whole 9 weeks, and I think he had a great time. We worked on a variety of 2D branding for image factions, plus emotes associated with them, but sadly Lazarus was cancelled after he left. Bad timing, but fate would see to it that another opportunity was more fruitful.
ELAM's call was pretty different. They needed/wanted to place students aged 17-19, before they head off to University. The placement was supposed to be around 1 week, and they wanted to know if we had any requirements. Now, I'm fully aware of how straight, white and male both myself and CTO Andrew Roper are, and frequently refer to us as 'Default Player Characters'. ELAM operated by offering the placements they find to their students, and then making a match based on interest in the role, company and projects defined therein. I identified this as a great opportunity to push our agenda to diversify again (one we'd succeeded with on a previous short term project) and so I indicated we'd love to find any students that were... not the same as us.
Ellie Vong and Raiyana Haque came as a pair, and for a fortnight, and so we suddenly had a team of 5, 2 of whom were BAME, 2 of whom were not male! This was great for us - as I'm sure you can tell learning what we can from everything we do is a key focus and so the experience was fantastic for us, and for them. We know that because someone interviewed them about it (you can read the full thing here)!
(From left to right: Andrew Roper, Connor Walls, Ellie Vong, Andrew Smith, Raiyana Haque)
And yup, you guessed it, we couldn't have done this without the Tentacle Zone. "Oh hi in 3 week's time we need three more desks, one for nine weeks, two for two weeks, both overlapping k thx bai". You can imagine how that'd go down in most managed offices, but it was so easy here.
So how did we run the team and the project? We'd had enough warning about the overlap so were ahead of the curve a touch - we had decided on the game, with a very lightweight scope and specification document, accompanied by a Trello board for managing the fortnight. We ran daily standups (nothing too strict re: scrum methodology) and made sure that they all used git for version control, no matter how much time it cost. This was probably the biggest learning curve for them and us, seeing as version control is not widely taught.
This combined with the usual lack of confidence you'd expect in such a fresh-faced bunch of youths meant we spent a fair amount of time on what we might assume as 'the basics', or at least more than we expected. For a non-technical example, defining the deliverables required from a 2D Artist to give the 3D modeller enough to work with was something we'd not really had to engage with when working with our normal ex-AAA contractors. A silly assumption on our part for sure, and certainly doesn't cast any shadow on our interns and their raw abilities. Both Connor and Ellie reported directly to me as Creative Director, while Raiyana reported to and worked with Andrew Roper as Technical Director.
We wanted to have them feel comfortable and excited to be working with us, and knew that such a small dev teams like ours can fall into traps like shorthand communication and other shortcuts that would feel impenetrable to newcomers, so we made sure to have 'welcome' and 'goodbye' meals for everyone, plus as luck would have it SGDQ took place during the second week and we were able to show that lie on a spare screen. It added some fun talking points to the days as these tiny younglings tried to parse what they were seeing. The occasional exclamation of "what the hell is that?!" at a classic N64 game made us feel old, but it made them feel at ease.
The scope we prepared defined the game as a 'single screen' arcade game based on the behaviours of Sand Pipers (yes the Pixar short was an influence for the art team, but not for the original design. That falls to a holiday in Goa in January!). A highscore chaser where you collect food for points and bank them by feeding your hungry chicks, all while avoiding the waves that splash their way up the beach - and the various obstacles the tide deposits - that will cause you to drop your mouthful and the points it contained. The art style was to be colourful and have a broad appeal, with cute elements tempered by a sense of humour that wasn't entirely childish, with the grumpily squawking chicks being a case in point.
The project went incredibly smoothly, with the workload spread really evenly across the team - we had really lucked out with all three interns as they were autonomous and skilled enough that we could comfortably get on with Lazarus-related work for the duration, confident in the knowledge they were smashing out work on Peck N Run... though back then it was known simply as Bird Game. they were happy to interrupt us, at least after some early encouragement and nudging when they looked a bit lost or stuck, and we can't wait for an opportunity to work with them again, with any luck!
The entire thing was a huge success. We managed to give all three interns credits on a game that has actually launched, we managed three junior-level developers across 3 disciplines, and correctly scoped and delivered on a small game in under 3 weeks.
We can't wait to do it all again!
Thanks for reading!
Peck N Run, an arcade action game, was made in a fortnight by Spilt Milk Studios and their interns, and you can play it here: spiltmilkstudios.itch.io/peck-n-run
The interview article is posted on the Tentacle Zone website here.
If you want to read about the label we launched with the release of Peck N Run, called Spilt Milk Shake, there's an interview available here.