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  • Best Practices Learned In Virtual Development At SMU Guildhall

    [04.21.20]
    - Steve Stringer
  • As game dev teams around the world figure out how to work remotely in a pandemic, I thought I would share a few best practices we've discovered in the past two weeks in the hope that it helps other teams out there.

    If you just need the TL;DR, jump to Learned Best Practices on the next page.

    Like everyone around the world, we at SMU Guildhall have been forced to learn how to team in a virtual world. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we were roughly half-way through our "Middle TGP" course in which our 2nd semester students are making an arcade racing game on a single, cohort-wide team.

    For those not familiar with our Team Game Production (TGP) curriculum, "Middle TGP" means the training wheels are still very much on. For the vast majority of our student developers, this is their first time working on a big team. All of our Agile practices are still analog and in-person as we work through all the communication and fundamental development challenges you'd expect from working on one big team. This is to say, we transitioned from a world where every wall and whiteboard in Studio 134 and the GameLab was filled with sticky notes and kanban boards to a completely virtual studio in a matter of days. This was no small feat, and the students did a truly amazing job of adapting.

    We got official word that we were going to go virtual on a Friday. By the following Wednesday, our group of 6 very talented producers had converted the analog boards scrum boards to Monday.com. Two days later, we were doing dry-runs of our daily scrums on Zoom and moving tasks on virtual boards. By the following Monday, we were meeting in Zoom's Gallery View.

    In those first few days, production expectedly slowed to a crawl as we tripped over communication issues. However, by applying Agile on a daily retro scale, we quickly figured out what worked and what didn't rapidly. This post isn't meant as a post mortem since we've only been doing this for two weeks, but we learned some lessons that may be useful to your teams out there.

    What Went Right:

    • Zoom and Slack: Our first day back, we had a 60-person meeting (that remarkable moment is captured in the picture above). You would think it would be utter chaos, but it actually worked.
    • Daily production retros, a global embrace of experimentation, and an open sharing of best practices led to incredibly agile improvement on a hourly basis. I can't say we're at 100% velocity, but we got up to speed within a week. The team was able to hit their 1stP/VS milestone today, and lost only 1 week to getting up to speed in virtual.
    • A deep bench of support and a whatever-it-takes attitude by our technical team meant we could shift the entirety of SMU--not just Guildhall--to virtual within days. I can't thank our tech team enough for their support, flexibility, and patience.
    • In TGP, we preach Patience and Grace: have patience and grace with each other as we make mistakes and continually improve. The students have exercised this philosophy more than I could have imagined in this past month. I can't think of a single time someone has lost their cool or gotten mad since we've gone virtual. This is remarkable, considering the stress and chaos this pandemic has caused.

    What Went Wrong:

    • For me, my co-faculty, and the project leadership team, situational awareness was completely cut off. We went from gathering a ton of signals from the room simply by listening and observing to seeing the project through a single straw. In the Before Times, we could listen to multiple conversations, pick up on emotional flareups, and generally read body language around the room to maintain an innate understanding of how the team was doing. In a Zoomed-out world, all of those signals are cut off. It's getting better, but it's still a big problem.
    • What was implied and understood is now missed. By now, we're all familiar with Zoom's gallery view. In our first days working remotely, there were a lot of open-ended questions ("What do y'all think?") that were met with crickets. People didn't realize you were talking to them. Misunderstandings abounded.
    • Be wary of accidental Zoom meeting attendees. There's a middle school teacher out there somewhere that has mistyped my personal Zoom link for their class in their syllabus. So several times this week, we've had very confused kids pop into our meetings. It hasn't been a problem and we just laugh, but be aware this might happen to you. The alternative is to password protect your Zoom meetings which introduces some overhead. Your mileage may vary.

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