Anyone who develops games (or carries on any kind of business) completely in the comfort of cyberspace can claim to be a "virtual company" or "virtual team." These groups are creating something together in a coordinated way, but are dispersed around the globe and communicate only through their internet connections. Some "physical" companies might have a website and even use the internet to augment normal lines of communication, but that is not a virtual company.
There are many hobbyist/amateur development groups working as virtual companies, striving to finish a demo or game in the hope that they'll get a chance at the bigtime as a physical company. This may not be everyone's goal, but if you fit in this category, you might find this information useful.
Since the goal of a virtual team is to create something of professional quality, it is often hard to know where to start in terms of organizing and communicating effectively. It is even harder to maintain the momentum, morale, and interest for a large project.
Before You Succeed...
Before we discuss anything specific, there are some fundamentals that need to be covered. These are things that some people might take for granted, and others will have never considered.
Since your goal is probably to impress someone with a lot of money (a publisher or investor), you have to appear to be professional. You have to be able to understand what someone means when they discuss "man hours" or "ROI" so that you know how to communicate and don't sound like an amateur. If you present yourself professionally, you will be treated professionally. Mindset is a key factor in how others percieve you. In marketing, it's said that "perception is reality." Since you are basically selling your product and abilities, that applies.
The first thing you have to do is study a little bit about business. If you are going to organize and lead a virtual company, you have to understand business in the real world first, because that's your goal-- to do real business involving real contracts. So, learn basics about starting a business.
Being the leader is not for everyone, but if you do hook the publisher that you want, you're going to have to understand what's happening on a level that doesn't involve programming or making games. You need to understand what funding really is and what options you have when it is available.
The next thing you should learn about, well before you approach anyone for a deal, is how to market your product. You'll be marketing your product from the time it is conceived up until the last sale. If you don't, you are weakening the chances that someone will see you-- which might mean a chance lost at achieving your goal.
The next topic you need to understand (and this one might be more important than any of the others) is how to manage a team. This is a vastly complex subject that requires not only study but practice.
We'll touch on all of these again, as they are fundamental to operating a successful virtual company.
Communication and Organization
There is no more important factor for a virtual (or physical) team than communication. Being able to only talk by typing on a keyboard filters the bandwidth of normal human communication down to one dimension or less. It's impossible to read body language or sense innuendo by reading an email. The only clues about intention beyond the text are emoticons. Using proper netiquette is essential. (Editor's note: Another, more extensive resource on netiquette can be found at investintech.)
But you have to also consider that your own feelings and mood will affect the words of another person. So before you flame someone on the team for being insensitive or negative, consider that it might just be your own feelings altering your perception of what the author really meant. If you're having a bad day, you should acknowledge it and reply after time away from an upsetting email or chat.
There are a lot of tools available for communicating, among them: ICQ, mIRC, and standard email. At GrimmWare, company President, G.R., recieves over 200 emails per day. There won't be many teams that will generate that much, depending on team size, but it can be a daunting task if you do. Therefore, email should not be the sole means of communication as it is not very conducive to organized discussion.
Chat tools help in facilitating immediate communication, where an email might be too slow. ICQ is excellent for this, and the developers at Ward Six Entertainment use it daily while working. If something comes up, you just start talking about it. It allows a sense of "live" interaction that feels like you are working in the same physical space.
Groupware is growing more sophisticated, and there are some excellent tools available. A messageboard is almost essential, but a true holy grail for virtual teams is Innovie Software's TeamCenter. This product looks incredible, and even assists in implementation of project management, which is something that any serious team will employ. Version control is also a critical system that no team should work without. Granted, some of these tools require cash, but if you can afford it, it will reap many returns in productivity, organization, and sanity.
Another form of communication is some kind of weekly (or daily) progress reporting. In order for the project manager to stay on top of who's doing what, there have to be reports detailing the tasks accomplished or attempted. These do not have to be formal or long, but they should convey precisely and concisely what was achieved. Reports are to announce results. Results are what drives progress, and so reports should be welcome news. Some items on such a report could include (but are not limited to):
These reports serve two purposes: 1) in the short term, they allow the project manager to keep tabs on who's doing what and how much time they're spending on it; 2) in the long term, it builds a record of metrics that the team can look back on to find ways to improve the next project. This kind of process is invaluable for improving team performance.
Reports are good, but they should be complimented with weekly meetings. These meetings are chats, but should be treated as no-nonsense business conferences. The moderator or meeting chief should determine the topics to be discussed ahead of time and then a short period of questions and brainstorming can follow if it's appropriate.
It's recommended that an agenda be created for each meeting, including:
Meetings can be effective, or they can waste valuable time. Save socializing for after the meeting. Socializing among the team is important, but it should be allowed during its own time.
Chain of Command
While in some circumstances it might be desirable to have a "democratic" team where everyone has the same amount of decision-making clout, there is a reason that the traditional hierarchical structure of authority has stood the test of time. Also, it's generally acknowledged that the creative design process of games requires a single arbitrator who has the final say on all things to avoid prolonged debate. This does not mean a tyrannical dictation of how things will be, but should help to shorten the time required to come to a final decision for any given situation since time is always a critcal factor in commercial development.
This is even more important when you work virtually, because the lag involved in arguing via email will grind your project to a halt as well as undermine morale of the team. Decisions should be quick, and provide a maximum amount of time for juggling alternatives until you finally have to move on.
Another area that is important, especially in later stages when your game might actually be getting some interest from publishers, is who will make the official decisions on behalf of the team. This person is the single voice between the team and the publisher or other benevolent entity. Determine who this person will be, the chairman, and write a simple contract if you have to in order to avoid conflict later when things aren't working out as planned and the team needs somebody to blame. If you have it in writing, then the chairman can't be blamed, because everyone agreed to trust his choices beforehand.
All complex projects need a schedule if they are to be done with any kind of efficiency and quality. This applies as much to virtual projects as any other. Assuming you have set goals for your team, you should be able to easily create a schedule for meeting those goals. Use any tools at your disposal to assist in budgeting time and resources. This is an integral part of making a game, and you will be doing it with the pressure of a publisher on your back once you get a contract. Practice now, before there's a chance for substantial financial and personal loss.
Managing the Project
If you are the leader or President of your virtual company, you need to know how to be a good leader and motivator. There are many great books on the topic, and it is suggested that you go to the local library and read about people managing. It's not barking out orders or dictating what each person does; management is about encouraging people to get work done using their own initiative-- and the added challenge is that you may not be paying much if anything for the members of your team's work.
Keeping your team together, focused, and motivated is probably the single most important activity you as leader can devote your time to. Without a team, your project will stop dead in its tracks. And you can't just keep replacing team members, because each new person has to learn how the company operates and get accustomed to the other people on the team. It takes time to create a team that can work fluidly without arguing and quitting.
Constant contact and encouragement are required for keeping the project moving forward every day. This will become a second nature habit, but only after a whole lot of discipline on the part of the leader. It is hard to get past your own worries and really listen to the problems others are having and on top of it make them feel motivated to do what you ask. Not everyone can be a good manager, but it only takes the will and a lot of work.
One facet of building strong morale is to trust the work that others do. If your project is substantially large, there's no way you can track the minute activities involved in even one small task that each person is doing. There must be a mutual respect and trust that things will get done right and on time. If things don't get done right or on time, don't blow up and scold the person-- try to find out why, and then help find a new way of going about it. In other words, don't investigate details until it requires your attention. In general, the more freedom people receive, the more initiative they will offer. And that means improved morale, more productivity, and a better product.
When the schedule begins to slip and your deadlines are closer than you thought, you might need to rearrange some elements of the project, or cut some out entirely. Some slippage should be expected, because unforeseen events will happen (sickness, personal problems, or hardware downtime). Defer tasks onto other able team members, but at all costs you have to keep to the schedule. If you allow the schedule to slip and then ignore the fact, it gives the whole team the impression that you don't care and the schedule doesn't matter. This will lead to very bad habits in the future when your next paycheck is at stake. It should be noted that this is an extremely difficult aspect to manage if you are not paying the team, since they must work at other jobs to survive. Scheduling becomes next to impossible in this case, but it should be worked at nonetheless.
Sometimes a member of the team is simply not performing. They may ignore your emails, or ignore tasks and do what they think should be done. This is a problem and should be handled as early as it is detected. You have to let that person know that the project as a whole depends on the coordinated actions of everyone, but unless the guidance you give is followed, the required coordination is destroyed.
If they persist in causing schedule or morale problems, it might be time to tell them to leave the team. This is not something that is to be taken lightly. Firing someone will affect the whole team negatively, not just that person. You will notice a dip in morale, and maybe things will slow down a little. That's your cue that you as leader have to inspire motivation-- so plan for that inevitable slump, however minor, and be ready to give the team the push it needs to continue.
Even if you have a great team, smooth operation, and a wonderful game, you won't get anywhere without somebody knowing that you exist. Promoting your company, like any business, is required from day one. You have to think in terms of the here-and-now, the long road to completion, and the period after success when you're on store shelves.
For each step in promoting yourself, you have to determine what it is you want from being noticed. If it's early in the project you might not have enough to show, but it's always useful to at least set up a website and attract visitors. Once development begins, you can expect to start creating contacts with others and giving out irresistible tidbits of information to pique interest. And then you have to think of ways to maximize exposure once you get a deal, even in addition to the marketing that a publisher might provide.
Blatant and unsupportable hype are not good marketing tactics. Customers will know if you are blowing hot air, and you should not attempt to hype any feature that is not implemented or supported by a demo of some sort. Having said that, minor hype is okay so long as it is based on realistic plans. There is a difference between claiming, "This product is better than anything out there!" and suggesting, "This product has some innovative features that make it stand out!" Tactful wording is the key.
Achieving Your Goals
By now you should understand a little about the dynamics of working with a team and what you should know before you start. But this is really only the beginning of an evolutionary process. As you continue to function virtually, you'll learn more about the people who work with you and what the needs of your project are. There are no hard and fast rules, so you have to constantly absorb new information and adapt to what you learn.
If you are really serious about success as a virtual game developer, then you have to approach it as a business first and foremost. If you are the best programmer in the world and do the work of fifty men and women, you will still not have a chance if you don't understand what's involved in the business side of game development.
Go now, and study. With lots of hard work and some luck, you'll be on the PC Data best seller list!
Author Jason McIntosh is President and CEO of Ward Six Entertainment, Inc. The author would like to thank G.R. Moore, President of GrimmWare, for his input on these issues. Ward Six Entertainment and Grimmware are virtual game development companies.