The whole world has slowed down. With so many countries in lockdown, shops aren’t opening, McDonald’s isn’t selling its greasy air, and movies aren’t getting made.
Game development, meanwhile, is faring a little better. A lot of developers are working from home, AAA titles having the budget and huge structures to make it feasible. There have been some delays for the biggest games, but the effects of lockdown haven’t been that pronounced just yet.
But what if you are an indie developer with an FMV game currently in Early Access? How do you get actors to work together in isolation? How do you keep a whole production going?
I had the opportunity to chat to Denis Sewell and Jay Farley of NotGames, who are currently developing Not For Broadcast, a satirical FMV game set at a news station that is oddly prevalent right now.
Read on as we discuss remote shooting, what’s to come, and how they are making it all work. Check out the abridged transcript below and then the full interview at the video above.
I just wondered if you could talk me through your regular routine before “The Event”. Denis Sewell: The normal routine obviously we had an office–
Jay Farley: Yeah, that was nice.
Denis Sewell: We used to have morning meetings in the office in person, so we’d all kind of gather, and we’d basically set like a rule for the working day, so you could work any time throughout the working day, but everyone has to be in the office between the hours of sort of 11 and 4, so that we had that sort of crossover. Those that wanted to work later start at 11 and work through the evening and other people started working at 8 and finishing at 4, so—
Flexitime, essentially? DS: Yeah, but we’ve always got that crossover so that everyone is communicating and that worked very well, but, of course, shifting into quarantine, that completely disappeared.
So how has it changed overall, is there less routine, less structure? DS: What we do now is–because we’re in the shooting phase now remotely, what we tend to do is we’ll just have the morning meeting but now over Skype or Zoom–
JF: And it’s horribly early now because we’re in shoot.
DS: So the morning meeting happens before the shoot, which are happening at 9, 9: 30, so we’re having the 8, 8:30 meeting where we just kind of try to touch base with what everyone’s done for the day, what’s happening tomorrow, so we still try and keep that structure in terms of the meetings. But for the filming, I mean, it’s just a whole new system.
So I work with the actors beforehand because myself and Zara (Coombes, producer at NotGames) to make sure they’ve got all of their kit arrived and their costumes arrived and stuff, set up the shot. Then, from a tech perspective, I then have to run a tech test and make sure their mics are working, their lighting is all set up, the cameras are working, because they have to run everything for me, because I’m not in that room. So it’s sort of like someone just cutting a cord. It’s almost like a Crystal Maze kind of quiz where it’s so frustrating because you’re trying to direct people and tell people how to do this but you’re talking to someone who’s never used this kind of software before.
Screen share and remote control and Zoom has been a life-saver for me to just jump in and change things around. So once I’ve done all that, we call Jay and Alex (Paterson, director at NotGames), or whoever is the primary director, but they tend to both be there at the same time. They come in and direct and have their run-through, make sure that’s alright, and then we do the final tech tests, then we have to record the first take, but then after the first take, whereas we’d normally just be checking on the monitors and know that everything is okay, we have to spend about an hour to an hour and a half depending on internet connection to get everyone to download that footage, send it over to us to make sure there’s no stutters, that the sound is recording okay…so once we’ve got that out of the way, everything needs a bit more of a refresh because everyone’s been sitting around for an hour.
JF: To be fair, once you’re into the process, what I’ve discovered now doing–because we’ve been doing shoots now for a week in this new way–once you’re actually in the process of directing the talent, rehearsing it, taking it, watching it, the process is incredibly similar to actually being on set. On set you wouldn’t actually be on the set anyway, you’d be in the gallery watching them on screens because you wanna know what that performance looks like, you know, on video not in real life, in the room, where it can become very theatrical if you allow it to. So actually the process feels very creative still…and very comfortable for the artist and the director once you’re through that tech phase.
For some of our artists, having to run their own tech adds a layer of nervousness, you know. Have they pressed record correctly, are they doing this right, are they the one that’s sort of gonna cock it up?
How have you been able to facilitate all that, have you been sending–have you had to buy more equipment to send to every single person? JF: Oh yeah.
Has that racked up quite the cost? JF: Well, there were two options, really. One was to buy twenty really good webcams and one was to sort of buy a few good webcams and move them from place to place. We made these decisions on the week leading up to the lockdown because on the day the lockdown started, that was our first shoot for episode 2. So we were right on the shoots when they all had to be cancelled, so for about a week running up to that, we knew it was kind of coming, you know, everyone did, you could feel it, you could see other countries going into it. We started putting into place a pivot plan, basically, what could we shoot remotely, how could we shoot it, but we did talk about it probably a little too long because by the time we got to buying webcams, you couldn’t get them for love nor money (laughs).
The acquisition of webcams for this project, I think we’ve probably now spent probably as much on couriering things from place to place as we would have done if we bought fifteen webcams. Moving things and getting things on time, you know–for one shoot this week we were waiting for ages for the set to arrive and in the end we had to improvise with stuff in the actor’s house as we had just lost so much time because the delivery firm who had guaranteed that they would get it there that morning suddenly couldn’t get it there until 4ish in the afternoon. You’re paying actors by the day, so delivering things has presented real challenges.
DS: The whole buying kit issue–we need to film remotely, but everything is being used by everyone else in the world to work remotely.
And to start a podcast. DS: Yeah, exactly. You can’t buy a streaming kit for love nor money, and the ones that we have bought–the last one I bought is about a £70 webcam that cost me £165. It took about a week and a half to come.
JF: We’ve all got so used to next day delivery. They say that with filmmaking the process is that you turn up on set and a lorry sort of pulls up full of compromises and you spend the day unloading those until the lorry’s empty and then the next morning another one turns up. But, at the moment, everything–little things that you think would be the simplest thing like, let’s get that actor in a costume: ah right, right, that costume doesn’t fit, and it’s gonna take another week to get that delivered again, but we are working to very tight deadlines — we wanna drop this new content as soon as possible.
How are you explaining such a big change in-game then? Because the way the game works, reporters at a desk—there must be a big change in terms of quality with the (remote shooting) locations. JF: What we did when we knew this was coming, we decided that we needed to put the episode on hold, and put in a bonus level, basically, that would deal with issues around lockdown and would put our characters into, you know, a position where they would have to be filming from home to make that believable.
We didn’t want to just stop. When something like this happens and you’re, you know, you’re a political game, you can’t run from something like this. The world is fundamentally different and we’re in a very luxurious position in that we have an audience and a sort of medium where we can actually speak about this to a degree. Obviously we are a comedy game–
I was just gonna say, are you gonna be lampooning it a bit? JF: Well that’s something that Alex and I discussed an enormous amount, because you know, you’re writing, we finished the writing two weeks ago and we’re writing jokes thinking, “I don’t know when this comes out in June if it’s coming out when lockdown is over, we’re all going out, or, you know it’s horrendous death rates” — you can’t know the world you’re releasing into. We’ve tried to not be too on the nose, and I can’t tell you what we have, but I can tell you that we’re really pleased with it.
Was there ever a question of going on hiatus? JF: Yes.
Was it a serious discussion? JF: Yeah, and it’s not necessarily off the table. Um, we have this amazing publisher, tinybuild, and they’ve had a corona case if one of their offices I believe. They certainly went into a no travel, everybody work from home much earlier than anybody from Britain did and they’ve been really sensitive to this. And they know as a game we face particular challenges because of the FMV, but there are a lot of things we can do. I don’t know what we will do once we’ve dropped this level late May-early June. Obviously there will be a few weeks of response, bug fixes and all of that, but after that I think it will very much depend on what the government allows us to do. If they let us back out, or at least give us permission to film before July, we can pretty much be back on schedule by autumn.
What I think will happen is there will be some serious discussions with tinybuild, because even if we stop shooting completely, there’s a lot we can do on the game to sort of be prepared for another episode in pre-production so that when we’re allowed out we can actually shoot more in a chunk, you know–but everything has financial implications. When you’re in early access, it is really important to get regular updates out so that people know that you’re not giving up.
What we’ve decided to do as a policy is get this level out by June. I think by then we’ll all have a clearer idea of what the situation is, but we may have to take advantage of the furlough scheme for a while. It depends whether the run rate of an indie company is still quite high, the monthly run rate, so if you’re not producing any content it might be more sensible to go into furlough for a bit.
DS: The kind of the NotGames spirit has always been, whatever shit gets thrown at us, we just push on and make it work regardless. So this is just another bump in the sort of the NotGames challenges. We’ve had many of them before and we will have more in the future, I’m sure. That kind of spirit–I think it’s fair to say the early talk of us going on a hiatus didn’t last very long. It was a serious discussion but most of us just went “we can make this work”, and we have so far.
Do you have any advice for other indie developers at this time? JF: Definitely meet every day. Doesn’t matter what time, and–actually flexitime has now gone crazy for us. Often for us we’ll do the meeting and then the coder will go to bed, because he’s worked straight through the night, so he’s right at the end of his day. I would say that keeps you sane and gives you structure, and ask everybody at that meeting “what did you do yesterday?” and “what are you doing today?”. That, I think, is the single most important thing if you want to keep momentum, otherwise you’ll really lose momentum, and if you really lose momentum, and you’re anxious–and accept that everybody is going to be working slower than they thought they would because they’re gonna have distractions and they’re gonna have mental health days, and basically we have a rule in our company that, you know, if anybody at any point wants to ring up and say “look”–and this applied before the lockdown–“I’m just not in it today, I can’t do it, my head’s not in it”, there’s no questions asked about that. You just take a mental health day.
DS: My advice would be to keep the structure. Once you start to lose structure, that’s when it becomes very easy to not work and slip off, play video games–
JF: But definitely do that, too, definitely play multiplayer video games with your team. That meeting is more than just about the company, it’s about loneliness as well. I still feel very connected to the team even though I haven’t seen them face-to-face since someone had to drop off a webcam on my doorstep, and it’s like “hello, I’ll put that into quarantine for 72 hours”. So it is really nice to use all of the video conferencing and Skypes and all of that to make sure people are staying sane.
Also, you know, check in with each other. You can tell if someone’s having a bad one. Look after the people that you have.
DS: My biggest bit of advice apart from staying structured is to keep on laughing. We’re very lucky in the company that most of us dick about.
I couldn’t tell when the gimp came out. I was like these are very serious gamers, these are.
JF: (laughs) There’s been some very serious meetings about the amount of bondage things to nail on that door.
DS: We take the piss out of each other, we keep each other laughing. We have a kind of South Park rule in the office: just make people laugh, regardless of any boundaries, and that’s what we’ve used in our lockdown morning meetings as well. If the meeting’s going too seriously, someone will change their background to an old man’s dick behind them or whatever.
DS: Just keep on laughing. That’s the best thing I can say.