7 Remote-First Game Studios That Won’t Be Going Back to the Office
In recent times, almost every games studio has been forced to send their staff home and cease operating out of an office. This has caused many of them to become de facto ‘remote’ studios. However, there have been studios that have been primarily working remotely since well before it was required. And even some more contemporary ones (including one triple-A studio) that have recently chosen to make a distributed model part of their DNA. Let’s look at which studios have chosen to be remote-first and why, as well as some of the benefits that come from doing so. But first:
- 1 – Square Enix
- 2 – Moon Studios
- 3 – Nightdive Studio
- 4 – The Game Bakers
- 5 – Gravity Well Games
- 6 – 2UP Games
- 7 – Sonderlust Studios
What Do You Mean by Remote-First?
In order to be considered a remote-first studio, they need to have more than 5 full-time employees, the majority of which work from home. They also need to have released a game OR to have a large amount of funding or industry names attached that make it highly likely they will release at least one game in the future.
The studios on this list can have an office or a base of operations as long as the majority of the staff do not work there the majority of the time. They also need to be actively developing. There were multiple studios we found that talked about being remote in the past but which have had no activity on their social media or websites in several years and were therefore disqualified from our list.
It is not a requirement that the studios’ staff be located in multiple countries or time zones, although that is often the case.
There are likely many more remote-first studios than you will find on this list. Most do not share details of their structure and operations publicly but these are the ones that we found which did. If you know of any more, please comment below and we’ll add them to the list.
The following studios are ordered by size in descending order:
1 – Square Enix
Since: 2003 – When the companies Square (1986) and Enix (1975) merged.
Square Enix is the first major triple-A studio to come out and announce that they’re planning to make their current Coronavirus working-from-home policies permanent.
Square Enix, whose headquarters are in Tokyo, was already operating internationally with offices around the world and those offices will continue to function, only with far less staff required to work in them on any given day.
It should be mentioned that Square will not be 100% remote-first as some employees won’t have the opportunity to work from home. Each employee will be designated as ‘home-based’ or ‘office-based’ depending on their role and responsibilities. Even home-based employees may be expected to go to the office some of the time as the definition of home-based is working from home at least 3 days of the week.
However, considering they are the largest games company to make a permanent move towards remote working and considering they estimate that 80% of their staff will be working from home, they deserve a spot on this list.
Reading the recent announcement, it seems that productivity is one of their main reason for making the change, which tracks, as a large publicly-traded company like Square is unlikely to be making such a decision for purely selfless reasons. The companies first priority is profit and by making a decision like this, they must believe that letting their employees work from home will help them increase those profits. Something which bodes well for any other companies looking to follow suit.
2 – Moon Studios
Moon Studios is the company on this list that has been remote for the longest. As well as being the initial inspiration for me to write this article.
They are best known for their gorgeous platformer Ori and the Blind Forest and its recent sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
Moon Studios call themselves a distributed development house and have been so since their inception. Thomas Mahler, their studio head has talked openly about being able to poach top-tier talent from places like Blizzard, Riot, and Disney by saying ‘Hey, we have a good salary, but the nice thing is that you can work from home’. Something that would not have been possible if they had been using a more traditional work model.
Moon Studio also had the distinction of being a first-party studio for Microsoft after they signed a development and distribution deal in 2011 for the first Ori game. Since then, they have been open about Microsoft being very supportive of their way of working which is far from typical when it comes to large organizations influencing small ones. As far as we know, Moon Studios is Microsoft’s only remote first-party studio, and allowing them to use a somewhat experimental technique was a risk that paid off with how wildly successful Moon Studios’ games have been. With Ori and the Will of the Whisps winning the 2020 Golden Joystick Award for Best Microsoft Game.
3 – Nightdive Studio
Nightdive Studio has the unique business model of acquiring the distribution rights for games that are no longer accessible and updating and publishing them so they can be played on modern platforms. Well-loved games they have restored include System Shock 1 and 2, Turok 1 and 2, and Doom 64. Along with over 100 more as of writing.
Nightdive operates what they call a ‘virtual office’ which allows them to work with people from around the world. Including places as far removed from each other as New Zealand and Sweden. The result is that development is happening 24/7 through the use of asynchronous collaboration tools such as Jira, Slack, and GitHub.
Other than access to a large talent pool, Business Development Director Larry Kuperman has mentioned not needing their employees to relocate and the lack of commutes as some significant benefits of being remote, while also admitting that preventing their Devs from overworking can be a challenge.
They hold their virtual office in such high regard that they once turned down an offer to be acquired on the basis that it would have required them to open a physical office and adopt a more traditional way of operating.
Overall, their insistence on working remotely seems to have paid off since the pandemic. Kuperman mentions that “Some of the same companies that thought we were outliers a couple of years ago now turn to us for advice on best practices,”
4 – The Game Bakers
If there is one thing about remote-first studios that we noticed while writing this article, it’s that they all refer to themselves differently. The Game Bakers call themselves a ‘studio in the clouds’.
Regardless of their creative self-identification, The Game Bakers have been forging a very straightforward path to success since their formation in 2011. After the release of their first game Squids, they followed it up with two sequels in quick succession, before releasing a fighting game called Combo Crew in 2013, and finally their most successful game to date, FURI in 2016.
The Game Bakers were initially based in Montpellier, France. With their early team actually working above a bakery, hence the name. As they have grown, they began to collaborate with people from all around France and even the world. Fully embracing the remote way of working.
As early as 2012 Emeric Thoa, one of the founders, wrote an article about tips and takeaways of being a remote studio. Some of the tools suggested are outdated (such as recommending Skype before contemporary tools like Zoom). But much of the advice holds true to today, such as maintaining constant communication and making room for periodic in-person meetings to help build a connection between co-workers.
5 – Gravity Well Games
Gravity Well Games is the first of three studios on this list that were formed during the pandemic. As such, they have yet to release a game and are trading on the strength of their pedigree and their ideas. Luckily, Gravity Wells pedigree seems up to the task as the studio is made up of game development veterans and former members of Respawn, the studio that made Titanfall 1 and 2 as well as Apex Legends.
Joining in on the remote-working Mad Libs, Gravity calls themselves a ‘remote-native’ developer. Drew McCoy, a founder, has said that one of their goals in starting Gravity Well Games was to try and keep the team diverse and that “Unfortunately, this industry isn’t the most diverse. That’s part of the reason why we’re really excited to be starting as a remote-native studio. We can attract people from all over.”
They’re also embracing the exciting opportunity of using cloud-based computing, rather than having to buy and maintain their own render-servers. Jon Shiring, the other founder, said “What if we don’t buy any? What if our build machines can be scaled up and down as needed? We never have a budget problem where we can’t afford to buy more build servers. There is a very freeing element to being forced to deal with the remote lifestyle.”
6 – 2UP Games
2UP Games is another new studio and one that has gotten off to a roaring start by securing $2.8 million in funding from the Clash of Clans developer Supercell.
2UP is a New Zealand-based studio that’s embracing the remote way of working out of necessity. They see themselves as having been “forged in the fires of Covid-19” to the extent that co-founders Tim and Joe didn’t meet in person until five months after founding the studio.
Aside from having experienced co-founders, 2UP is targeting a very specific niche in trying to make mobile co-op games that will endure “forever”
2UP is new enough that they haven’t released much info about their remote way of working but with any luck, they’ll be around a long while and we’re bound to hear more soon.
7 – Sonderlust Studios
Sonderlust Studios is another studio that started during the pandemic and has chosen to make remote working a core pillar of their structure. Members of the founding team are located on opposite sides of North America with the only constrain placed on future hiring being the time zone the applicant is in.
The time zone of everyone in the studio needs to at least be similar due to one of the main tools they use to aid them when working remotely, which is an all-day video chat. Each member of the team joins the chat over Zoom while they’re working so that everyone is available to talk through an issue whenever needed. Co-founder and art director Lyndsey Gallant has said “It’s basically the same as working in an open office, but instead of going to your open office, you turn on your web cam,”
One of the big upsides to the all-day chat is helping to hold each other accountable and stop people from overworking or Crunching. According to Lyndsey “We all hate crunch,” she said. “Everyone in our studio has experienced it in different ways. It sucks and it’s bad and it makes the games worse and the people worse. We all feel this system enables us to not do that and hold each other accountable. Because I overwork even though I shouldn’t, and it’s great to have someone lovingly chide me about it.”
Hypixel Studios is an honorable mention due to the fact it used to be a completely remote studio that seems to be taking steps to become less remote.
Hypixel is a studio of developers and modders around the world, working together to try and make Hytale, an open-world game with a procedurally-generated, blocky world, that lets you destroy almost anything and use the materials received to craft and build things. With the only limit being your imagination. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Hytale hews closely to its direct inspiration, Minecraft.
The reason is, Hypixel originally started out as the team behind the phenomenally successful Hypixel Minecraft server. A server running a modded version of Minecraft and custom maps that hold multiple Guinness World Records, including those for ‘most popular independent server for a videogame’ (with 64,533 concurrent players) and ‘most unique players logged into a Minecraft server’ (with 14.1 million players.)
The reason for Hypixels’ recent move away from remote working comes on the heels of its acquisition by Riot games, which seems to have mandated an office to be opened up in Derry-Londonderry that will be used to house support staff and a QA team. It’s likely that the pandemic had delayed these plans and most of the studio is still remote for the time being, but we expect that to change over time.
What Is the Advantage of Being a Remote Game Studio?
Based on what the studios above have said, as well as our own experience. The reasons for going remote are legion. Some, but not all, of those reasons include:
- A larger talent pool to recruit from.
- The ability to work during your most productive hours.
- Lower overhead costs.
- No commute, meaning more free time and a better work/life balance.
- Less susceptibility to pandemics and other disruptions.
- More control over whether you Crunch or not.
Of all of these, most companies tout the increased access to talent, lower overheads and the potential for increased productivity as the main financial drivers. While also touching on better work/life balance as strong personal motivators.
The last point, control over whether you Crunch or not, is somewhat controversial. Sonderlust Studios mentioned it is helpful, but most companies actually report staff working longer hours, and having more difficulty switching off from work when they start working at home. This is something I’ve personally noticed at times too. The truth is, it’s an adjustment that will take time to get used to and everyone will handle it differently.
As with working at home in general, there are ups and downs, but we believe that if approached with the right mindset, remote work can make it easier to avoid succumbing to peer pressure and a harmful workplace culture of Crunch, while also helping give workers more tools and defenses to avoid Crunch. And even in the most cynical view, working overtime to get a game out the door is always gonna be easier when you have the ability to go and give your family a hug on your lunch break or when you can collapse straight into bed once you’ve finally finished for the day.
Are There Any Downsides to Being a Remote Game Studio?
Just as with the advantages of remote working mentioned above, there are also a number of downsides. Some of these are:
- It’s harder to foster a close company culture.
- Communication between workers and departments can be more difficult.
- Many people find it hard to focus at home.
- Working at home can exacerbate pre-existing or underlying mental health issues.
- The pressure to ‘always be online’ is higher.
- Many people do not, or cannot, have a dedicated workspace at home.
- Studios require specific tools and software to facilitate remote work.
- Studio’s miss-out on the prestige equity of having a fancy office.
Of the above issues, a lack of connection between workers that results in a weaker company culture and less efficient communication seems to be of the biggest concern to most founders and executives. Along with the difficulty adjusting to new ways of working and to learning the new tools which are required.
Most workers are concerned about the loneliness, mental health issues and difficulty separating their work and personal lives. To the extent that some people are just not suited to working from home and would much rather have an office where they can leave their work at the end of every day.
We personally think the downsides are worth it. But that’s a question each studio needs to answer on its own. Luckily, during the recent pandemic, everyone gets a chance to try before they buy when it comes to remote working.
Isn’t Every Game Studio Remote Now?
Yes! But also, no.
You would be surprised how resistant the games industry has historically been to remote work. There have, of course, been some remote positions available. Art is one area that was regularly outsourced to remote workers. Game studios sometimes needed freelancers to meet their short-term requirements which they would happily offer to outside talent, but when it comes to full-time roles, remote positions were few and far between.
Remote work is an area that the wider tech industry has been much faster to adopt, with many realizing that there are lots of talented people for whom it may not be reasonable, or desirable, to move to a major tech hub on behalf of their job. Yet still, many in the games industry believe that the practice of making games requires people to be in close contact so that they are able to bounce ideas off of each other
Then came the Coronavirus. Huge triple-A studios like EA, Ubisoft, and others quickly announced that they would be allowing their staff to work from home. Everyone struggled to adapt as quickly as possible and while there have been disruptions and some developers like Valve say that productivity has dropped, most seem to be managing.
This means that remote studios will become the new norm, right? All of the advantages we’ve talked about in this article make it a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately not. As previously mentioned, a lot of people in the games industry have very specific ideas for how games should be made, and that won’t change overnight. For many, the creative barriers that working from home brings, along with the downsides mentioned earlier in this article mean it’s inevitable that a large portion of the industry will return to the pre-pandemic status quo as soon as they are able.
That being said, the industry (and the world) as a whole are now aware that it’s possible to run a studio remotely, even a triple-A one. And companies like Square Enix have taken notice. It’s a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle and we expect to see many new studios forming with remote work at their core, and hopefully some old ones following in Squares footsteps.
Is Tiny Hydra Remote?
Funny you should ask. Like some of the studios on the list, Tiny Hydra was formed during the pandemic and has been a fully remote company from the beginning. More than that, we started Tiny Hydra specifically to enable remote working in the games industry. We noticed that there are huge markets around the world that were being underutilized by the games industry. Even worse, there are people who are well trained and extremely talented who have few, if any, routes into the industry. We wanted to help fix that.
There are other industries or even roles within industries where remote work is commonplace. The most well known and least liked example is customer services, but there are others including art and web development. In the games industry, there is no shortage of pundits who will extol the virtues of emerging markets for their rich opportunities as consumers, but very few seem to recognize their potential as game creators.
Our goal is to find talented professionals from around the world and give them a clear path into the industry through training and experience. We call these our Hydra Heads and if you’re interested in working with them, you can learn more here.
We hope you enjoyed reading about how some studios in the industry are using remote work to their advantage. If you have any insights yourself, please let us know in the comments below.