Tim Heaton on why interior design can positively impact a dev team's energy
One of the perennial discussions that go on within development studios is how to lay them out. Games development’s fairly unique needs of big teams, vastly different creative disciplines, ad-hoc communication routes and changing requirements through the lifecycle of a game create a weird set of particular problems.
The multitude of solutions often goes to the heart of what the developer is about, and it’s always telling to see how a developer has set up. From Valve’s fully moveable desks (so you can reposition yourself wherever you want, to go along with the ability to work on anything you want), through to individual offices for all, it’s an important message you give to your teams about how you think work should be done. Anyone whose seen Notch’s cosy new offices in Stockholm can see he’s made a bob or two out of Minecraft.
Fairly recently we fitted out a whole new floor at CA towers, and we’re starting phase two of that expansion now.
The floor we took was completely bare, so we had a completely blank plan to work from. That was our first problem.
We contracted an office design company to come and help us, and the first few meetings were interesting. Being no experts we had the attitude, ‘we don’t know what we want but we’ll know when we see it’. That’s a pretty poor way to start any project, and understandably the gurus of office design started to get a bit frustrated.
When confronted with an aged copper door design we’d launch into ‘copper’s nice but it’s not just us… or maybe it is’ freeform discussions.
Hugely patient, the design company eventually asked if we’d like to go for a day out in London to see contemporary furniture design shops and examples of state-of-the-art offices. This was a real eye-opener, being able to point at things and go ‘yes, that,’ was really helpful.
It also showed how similar to the clothing fashion industry the office fit-out industry is. There are clear trends and having the latest designs is seen, by some, as important. The latest chairs by Herman Miller et al are beautiful design objects, and everyone’s seen a start-up splurge some of its venture capital on the excellent – but so last season – Aeron chairs.
The key decision to make is between open-plan, cubicles, offices or hybrids of those ideas. In my experience software engineers tend to like the idea of offices – giving them peace and quiet – whereas the designers like the cut and thrust of being surrounded by people who can hear and appreciate their brilliant jokes.
But it’s not as clear-cut as that, and the needs of the team are more than any individual. For European developers it’s usual to see open-plan offices. The key factors in making that successful are controlling background noise – usually people laughing at the designer’s brilliant jokes – and allowing space for people to escape for ad-hoc meetings or just to sit and relax.
Break-out areas are vital – we found some great sound killing high-backed sofas to scatter around the office, which I now see in every photo of every rich internet company, and arguably less rich social games developers.
We certainly favour the open-plan approach, and so once we’d tentatively picked the fixtures and fitting the implementation started. It was interesting to watch the project management process. It seemed a massive cheat to me that you could actually, physically see pretty much where everything was up to.
Contrast that to discussions with a tech team: ‘where are we up to on the animation system’. ’80 per cent done’. ‘Really? Is it really? Because there is nothing on the screen’. It enforces the view that it’s a good assumption that nothing is close to done until its visually there.
The fit-out team used Microsoft Project. I wanted to tell them that was ‘so 2003’, but really, physically building rooms is the perfect example of what waterfall project management is there for.
It was a really interesting project. We’re proud of the results and very happy we had a bit of guidance.
Now, back to making the games.