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Developing Educational Games Remotely

Hello, faithful friends of Filament! Have you ever wondered how we operate as a (mostly) remote game studio? We have the answer for you and more, courtesy of our RoboCo devblog and RoboCo’s producer, Kenny Green – read on to learn more about what it’s like to dev in 2022! 

For those of you who don’t know, Kenny started working on RoboCo in 2020 after joining us at Filament in 2019. Since then, he’s helped lead the team through a global pandemic, an international robotics competition, and numerous gameplay revisions. When Kenny’s not working on RoboCo, you can usually find him playing Dungeons and Dragons, hanging out with his wife and dog, or out on the water skiing, wakeboarding, or just plain chilling!

Nicole: Hello, Kenny! I’m so glad you could join us today to talk about what it’s like to be a producer on RoboCo! 

Kenny: Hey, Nicole! Happy to be here!

Nicole: So I guess the first question I have for you is, what is a video game producer? 

Kenny: It’s a lot of things, but at the end of the day, a producer’s job is to get stuff done. There’s a common saying amongst the community: “Great games would be made all the time without producers, but they would never ship.” My job is to remind the team that we are trying to finish the project and get it to a point where we can put it out in the world and let people enjoy this thing that we’ve poured our hearts and souls into.

Nicole: What do you spend the majority of your workday doing then?

Kenny: Meetings. A lot of meetings. Especially at the start of the pandemic, I had days where I’d have four-hour-long meetings. I also spend a lot of time making sure that the roadmap for RoboCo is up-to-date, legible, and accessible, so that people both within and outside the project understand what’s going on and what’s happening in the future, especially if we have something come up that might shift the timeline a bit. 

Nicole: What was it like translating those activities from an in-person environment to a remote environment? 

Kenny: As a producer, it was quite difficult at first, especially since a lot of my job is managing communication overhead. It’s not as easy to communicate when you’re no longer able to just lean over and talk to the person sitting next to you or walk over to their desk and point at their screen. The process of setting up a Zoom meeting, for example, made things seem very formal, which is not the vibe my team and I generally go for. 

Additionally, because people needed to adapt their communication styles to new remote circumstances, we ended up noticing bugs or glitches in the game later, which caused more problems down the line and made the overall development process of RoboCo much slower. 

Nicole: That sounds difficult. How did you and the team overcome those challenges?

Kenny: Filament was a really big help. Once we centralized Slack and the ability to create huddles, developers felt much more comfortable with communicating issues to each other, especially when I encouraged them to think that you’re not interrupting anyone or being seen as bothersome by setting one up. 

I also came up with work agreements, almost like a contract for what we wanted the communication between team members to be like. The great thing about work agreements is that nothing was added to the agreement unless the whole team agreed upon it. That way, people would feel less uncomfortable and more like their opinions were being valued. 

Once we implemented both those things, communication got a lot easier. Instead of waiting to report on bugs or glitches, we started communicating them when we saw them, meaning we got to work fixing them a lot more quickly. Members of the team also felt a lot more empowered to set up meetings and talk amongst themselves on their own, which was encouraging to see. 

Nicole: That’s awesome! How did you make sure that communication stayed open to people outside of the RoboCo Team? 

Kenny: Filament has a Show & Tell every month, which is a cool way for producers to promote internally what projects are going on. We also, at the end of every sprint, send review and retro notes out to company management. That way, management can see what we’re working on, how things are going, what roadblocks there are, etc. Not only is this avenue of communication beneficial for people like Dan White, who doesn’t work on RoboCo every day, but it’s also beneficial to us because it helps boost the team’s morale and makes us feel like we’re getting stuff done. 

Nicole: What about adding new individuals to the team? I’m sure that’s been a unique challenge. 

Kenny: Absolutely. We’ve brought on several people since the project started, most of which I’ve never met in person. When you’re in an office, it’s pretty easy to be like, “All right, you’re going to look over this person’s shoulder while they’re programming, or while they’re doing this piece of art, or while they’re working in the scene in Unity.” To replicate that remotely, I’ll stick them both in all the same meetings or set up a several-hour-long call for them to chat. 

Another thing I love to do with new RoboCo developers specifically is give them a piece of code to take ownership of. That way, they get to poke around and find solutions to defects we may have found in the code while still learning more about the game. I also encourage new people to reach out to more seasoned developers with questions so that they get used to working together more. 

Nicole: Are there any ways you try to inject fun and lightheartedness into the team’s structure?

Kenny: I love starting meetings with a little bit of small talk. When someone comes into a meeting with me, I usually ask how their day is going, what games they’re playing, stuff like that. I also encourage that discourse amongst team members to hammer home the idea that we’re all just people and that, no matter how different we may be, we’re all on the same team working to produce an incredible game. 

Nicole: Is there anything you miss about being in the office versus being remote or vice versa? 

Kenny: I miss interacting with my team the most. I’m an inherently social person, so one of the things I did before I left the office every day was check in on all my team members. I would stop by their desk and ask how their day was going, if they needed my help, or if they had any questions or concerns. That ability to see what’s going on through their facial expressions or body language is something I miss out on working remotely. 

I don’t, however, miss taking meetings in the office. My chair at home is much comfier than the one at my work desk. Plus, when working from home, I can get up for 10 minutes to pet my dog for some extra dopamine. 

Nicole: What have been some personal highlights of yours when working on RoboCo?

Kenny: Our eventual collaboration with FIRST Global was one of the bigger ones. When we originally applied for the NSF grant with RoboCo, we cited FIRST as one of our biggest inspirations. Collaborating with them on The FIRST Global RoboCo Challenge was awesome because it allowed us to test and showcase the game in front of thousands of kids while working hand-in-hand with one of our biggest idols. It also led us to think more about what cooperative and competitive elements we might want to bring to RoboCo in the future. 

Nicole: Final question for you, what’s been your favorite thing about working on RoboCo? 

Kenny: I love helping insanely talented and creative people do their jobs as effectively as possible while still having the chance to contribute to the project myself. I also have this dream for RoboCo where I imagine a kid who previously didn’t have the opportunity to participate in real-world robotics become enamored with engineering and eventually go on to work at NASA, where they’ll help us colonize Mars. Is it a little bit of a pipe dream? Maybe. But I do feel like RoboCo has that kind of power and I love that I get the opportunity to have such a positive impact on the world. 

Nicole: I couldn’t agree more, Kenny! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day to chat with us. 

Kenny: No problem! Always happy to talk about RoboCo!

Did you enjoy learning more about Kenny and what it’s like being a game producer in 2022? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter! For the latest news on our upcoming sandbox robotics game, follow RoboCo on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok! You can also connect with other community members by joining RoboCo’s official Discord and Reddit.

Last but not least – don’t forget to add RoboCo to your Steam Wishlist!

More on RoboCo and digital robotics:

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