71.2 May 2024

Heuristics for Equitable Technical Communication in Remote & Hybrid Game Development

By Rich Shivener, Elizabeth Caravella, and Renee Gittins



Purpose: This article seeks to provide a set of heuristics for technical communication, addressing the newfound challenges to game developers as a result of the seemingly permanent shift to hybrid and remote work in this industry. In particular, this piece offers developers tangible ways in which they can facilitate productive and equitable means of technical communications that account for the unique needs of this kind of work that now takes place in almost exclusively remote and hybrid working situations.

Method: This piece relies on both survey and interview data collected from nearly 300 members of the Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA) and at various games-based conferences (e.g., the Game Developers Conference) over a period of two years through a partnership grant between York University and the IGDA.

Results: The results noted two key findings: First, the majority of game developers do not want to or intend to ever return to a fully physical office setting. Second, the results indicate that the shift to remote work more often negatively impacted female and non-binary developers, most likely due to the additional caregiving responsibilities traditionally emplaced on these groups.

Conclusion: Technical communication is a central part of the game development process and has become even more pivotal as developers continue to operate under remote and hybrid working conditions. As such, the heuristics developed from this data focus on addressing the needs of these groups so that the remote and hybrid workplaces can operate as equitably as possible in this new industry model.

Keywords: game development, discord, remote work, collaboration

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Unlike more synchronous means of online communication like Zoom, specialized platforms like Slack or Discord are better suited to encourage and facilitate ad-hoc technical discussions between developers.
  • Moderators might consider using a group webcam and additional tools in order to ensure in-person and remote developers have either the option to view the body language of the meeting or are able to otherwise leverage chat or other means of communication (e.g., transcripts, reactions, etc.) so they can share/be shared with everyone.
  • From project leads to developers within, studios should be iterating on technical communication practices because platforms are constantly evolving.
  • These technical communication practices hold value for many studios as well as those in related and allied industries.


For many game developers, technical communication is iterative, collaborative, and dynamic. In this industry, technical communication practices often encompass game design documentation (GDD), daily team meetings about tasks, collaborative in-house wikis, and informal messaging through various digital platforms (e.g., Slack, Discord) to communicate and solve problems. These practices also involve adopting and customizing communication platforms and media that support the aforementioned. As noted by Richard Colby and Rebekah Shultz Colby (2019) in “Game Design Documentation: Four Perspectives from Independent Game Studios,” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, games-based technical communication took place in the fast paced, face-to-face office environments that once dominated the industry: “If everyone on the team knows where the designer is sitting, you can go and talk to [them] whenever you run into a future question, [light documentation] works pretty easy” (p. 8). However, as the pandemic necessitated a great migration to remote work, this reliance on light documentation with quick in-person clarification became a major pain point for some developers as they shifted to more isolated environments (Caravella et al., 2023). In addition, while the pandemic has not yet fully subsided and some industry areas seem keen on returning to a shared office environment, recent research indicates that very few game developers want a full return to the office, with most preferring either a flexible hybrid return or to remain fully remote (Caravella et al., 2023). As such, this spatial shift in the industry reveals the need to reframe technical communication practices in game development. In response to this need, the current project aims to provide a set of heuristics game developers can use in order to adapt previous in-person and ad-hoc means of technical communication to the current hybrid and fully remote practices that, for many developers, have become the new normal of this industry. By doing so, we hope to illustrate not only how technical communication has and is changing in response to the lived experiences of these developers, but also how such adaptations may inform how we think about various means of technical communication (both formal and informal) across the larger field.

In our initial article, “Surveying the Effects of Remote Communication & Collaboration Practices on Game Developers Amid a Pandemic” in Communication Design Quarterly, our research team examined and broke down some of the key challenges faced by game developers during the global shift to remote work. In our survey to game developers, we asked, “A number of game developers have reported difficulties communicating/collaborating with their team(s) remotely. How would you respond to this?” Through open-ended questioning, our research was interested in collecting data on technical communication practices like those previously noted. Our findings revealed that game developers struggled, for example, with the many emails and meetings related to documenting changes, updates, and moving to asynchronous teams. In addition, equity issues for women and other marginalized developers across teams persisted, and, in some cases, were magnified by the shift to remote work as well. Since this initial study, this research has expanded beyond merely addressing technical communication difficulties in remote and hybrid work to offering actionable heuristics to mitigate said difficulties. This expansion proves especially important for game developers, as it seems unlikely that they are going to have a massive return to the physical office (Caravella et al., 2023). Thus, by first pinpointing the actual, experienced pain points of developers both at the start of the pandemic and more than two years in, we can better address both initial and longstanding issues as they relate to technical communication. At this juncture, then, we are most concerned with the development of heuristics that help address certain equity issues as they emerged from the previous study, so that all game developers working under this new industry model have an equal chance at thriving within their industry.

Toward this goal, we first define and contextualize the role of technical communication in game development, arguing that many developers are responsible for technical communication practices. From this context, we chart our study’s background and research methods, including survey and interview protocols to collect evidence on how developers adjusted their wider communication and collaboration practices. Drawing on additional input from our partnership contact at the Independent Game Developer Association, Renee Gittins, we then offer, based on this evidence and current technical communication theory, a set of heuristics for how game developers might approach technical communication practices in hybrid and remote working conditions to strengthen their communication and collaboration capabilities working in these environments. By doing so, we move beyond the initial findings in our original article that uncovered these pain points to offering actionable practices to combat said pain points brought on by remote and hybrid work in game development, while addressing the areas of inequity that the original survey and interviews uncovered.

Technical Communication & Game Development

Before we delve into our heuristics, a definition of technical communication in the context of game development is necessary. Previous scholarship and our research demonstrate that technical communication is embedded throughout multiple layers and stages of game design, meaning that many developers are sharing technical communication responsibilities from a game’s concept to its final delivery. In addition, while some larger developers do have one or two specific hires dedicated to technical communication in and of itself, fully dedicated TC positions are rare within the industry. Rather, programmers, managers, consultants, and even creative roles instead come with expectations for TC-based documentation throughout the development process.

Like the lack of specific technical communicator roles within the industry, while TC sometimes refers to specific forms of writing and documentation that we traditionally consider technical communication (i.e., the game design document), within the games industry, technical communication also includes managing and deploying digital communication channels for collaboration and user testing (e.g., Kilduff-Taylor & Parker, 2022; Yu, 2023). For example, although the digital application Discord may not necessarily be considered a hub for technical communication across all offices, it can be a space for generating ad-hoc technical communication between game developers; they use the space to compose and share written documentation of the technical aspects of the development process, though less formally than constructing a specific document to house this information, as demonstrated in Figure 1. The same idea applies to game developers who develop in-house Wiki pages for their projects, where multiple members of the development team can freely refer to, adjust, and revise collaborative documentation across the development process (Ryan, 2009; Valve Developer Community). Development teams and publishers also conduct useability testing in-house or through a third-party, then turn those research reports into actionable revisions (O’Donnell, 2009; 2014). While these forms of technical communication between developers have always been important, they become utterly pivotal to successful communication when developers do not share a physical space or must keep documentation constantly updated and shared across large groups or teams. These examples hold practical and research value for the field of technical communication, and even more so as we unpack the heuristics section of this article. They demonstrate that technical communicators and those responsible for technical communication (read: game developers) must continually refine practices in response to new work conditions and global exigencies.

Figure 1: A simulation of Dave Gagne’s discussion of “rooms” that Rage Cure Games creates on the platform Discord. On Discord, “channels” can be named to signal their purposes. They can be arranged as text channels or voices. Server example created by the authors.

As game development usually requires teams of various sizes (though there are, of course, a handful of independent game designers who develop full games completely on their own), game development both creates opportunity for and necessitates technical communication and collaboration skills. One way in which these practices are formalized is through the creation and distribution of game design documentation, which comes in various forms but ultimately shares the same goal: providing technical documentation for the complex systems games require. As noted by deWinter and Moeller (2014), “games provide frameworks for interaction, and exist within complex cultural and economic structures that influence game creation, consumption, and deployment” (p. 8). They go on to explain that this means developers must design complex “systems of experience” (p. 8) when creating games for players. As this process then “explore[s] relationship between audiences and interactive texts” (McDaniel & Daer, 2016, p. 157) through “world design, system design, content design, game writing, level design, and user interface (UI) design” (p. 157), it becomes clear that game developers are working within large collaborative teams that must be able to exchange technical information quickly and accurately. In the case of smaller development teams, previous in-person office exchanges about technical information were speedier than online meetings and digital communication channels. Many developers we interviewed have noted the ease of ad-hoc exchanges from simply walking over to someone’s desk. To wit: “When people are in the same space physically, there is a kind of raw energy and momentum that can occur that is very difficult to capture otherwise with our current technology.” In this case then, clearly game designers (even those working on smaller teams) still encounter the “challenging production scenarios” (McDaniel & Daer, 2016, pp. 156–157; Greene & Palmer, 2014) and must contend with technical communication as a means of sharing ideas. Furthermore, as this process requires communication and collaboration from individuals across a broad range of fields and disciplines (Tran & Biddle, 2008, p. 49; O’Donnell, 2014), any infringement on this development process caused or exacerbated by a shift to remote and hybrid work must be addressed.

As noted by Mason (2013), game development and technical communication overlap in three main areas: design, information management, and systems of development. As noted by deWinter and Moeller (2014), previous literature on this topic was “concerned with understanding humanistic interests and agencies among technical processes” (p. 6), and often focused on communication processes as they took place between developers (McAllister, 2004; Robison, 2008; O’Donnell, 2009; Daer, 2010). In addition, this scholarship has also examined how these developers use the various tools for technical communication made available to them to communicate and solve complex problems through said documentation in the fast-paced environments these offices are often known for (Spinuzzi, 2008; deWinter & Vie, 2016; McDaniel & Daer, 2016). Despite some of these studies including sections or areas where they examine game development writing and design practices in hybrid or interdisciplinary teams (deWinter & Moeller 2014), few, if any, scholars have examined these communication processes through the new necessitated exigence of hybrid and remote game development. In fact, though some offices were operating remotely prior to the global shift to remote work, many game developers did not work from home (Informa, 2020). Many strategies for technical communication in game development assumed some level of face-to-face interaction, either for ease of clarification or speed of response. As the larger industry has shifted, though, remote work has replaced much of that interaction. In fact, only a third of developers we surveyed reported a desire for a full return to the physical office (Caravella et al., 2023). In other words, the work environments Spinuzzi (2015) refers to as “all edge adhocracies” now need some adjustments to a more structured approach to accommodate the new (for many) normal of hybrid or remote game development. A hybrid or fully remote model is not analogous to an in-person environment, even if most of the workday still takes place via computer, as remote collaboration and communication requires its own specific skills for workflow management (Czaudernal & Guardiola, 2021). Though game development companies have “always flirted with remote work” (Leonardi, 2020, p. 249) with consultants or freelancers, such a sudden shift on a large scale means that a large number of current practices, especially in the area of technical communication and collaboration, need to be adjusted to better match the work environment in which more and more developers now find themselves.

In addition to recognizing the sheer mass of information that must be documented and the overlapping of various teams that create content in each development cycle, scholars have also noted that the complexity of game development heightens the likelihood that developers experience issues regarding communication and politics (Tran & Biddle, 2008). Others contend that collaboration between developers also often breaks down because of said complexity (O’Donnell, 2014) and, due to the myriad of ways a game can be made, exactly what these complexities are and why they lead to collaborative disintegration cannot be easily generalized. As such, the field of game development must also wrestle with the tensions and best practices for effective communication and collaboration between developers at various stages of the development process and across various disciplines (Tran & Biddle, 2009). Communication and collaboration are so essential to the game development process that O’Donnell (2014) defines development as “the assembly of a space where creative collaboration can occur. Any commitment to a single person’s ego, approach, or perspective will only end in disaster” (p. 70). In addition, such claims have also amplified the tensions faced by women and other marginalized developers within a White, heteronormative, male-dominated industry (Kerr, 2021; Bailey et al., 2021; Weststar & Leaguilt, 2018; Helper, 2019). Not only are developers coming together from various disciplines and professional backgrounds, but they are also integrating and collaborating with one another while navigating personal differences, and any heuristic for facilitating effective technical communication must acknowledge and address these particular tensions in order to be useful to a wider breadth of developers rather than a single or majority demographic.

Following this thread, in a study of game development in higher education, Harvey (2021) found that cis and trans women in games programs noted a number of coping mechanisms for navigating the male-dominated field these women wanted to join. Some strategies by these women included purposefully isolating themselves from their teams, avoiding group social events, and even taking steps to obscure their true identities: “this approach hinders some trans students in their transitioning, and several women in these courses indicated that tolerance for sexism, transphobia, and misogyny were key to their success in the field” (p. 10). Through Harvey, then, we can further see the importance of strong and inclusive approaches to remote and hybrid communication and collaboration in game development, as it is also these marginalized groups who reported struggling the most with the shift to remote work (Caravella et al., 2023). While it is clear from the nature of game development that good technical communication is essential to ensuring accurate and accessible information, Harvey’s study into the realm of games programs further illustrates the need to refine such communication and collaboration practices so that the shift to more remote or hybrid models does not further isolate or disconnect developers already on the margins of their own industry.


To develop our heuristics, data were collected as part of this REB-approved study from game developers across various roles, most of whom were members of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). The survey and interview data here represent a broad selection of developers from various-sized companies, as well as across a number of different countries and projects. As the goal of this study was to uncover emergent attitudes regarding the shift to remote work, both the initial survey questions and follow-up interview questions were left purposefully open ended, rather than relying on Likert scales or other quantitative means of response. Once data were collected, we relied on a grounded theory method to first find common threads of discussion as they emerged, followed by a secondary sweep of the data to then find the created categories/themes that had been uncovered. These themes were then considered in conjunction with the literature and follow-up interviews to develop the heuristics discussed below.

Data Collection & Analysis

Data were collected in two parts. First, a developer survey was distributed via the IGDA’s mailing list, inviting any developer with an active IGDA membership to partake. As this was a partnership study, the topics covered were decided in consultation with executive director and staff of the IGDA, leading to the survey, which included questions regarding developers’ mental health before and after pandemic conditions, their perceived productivity upon moving to remote work as a result of the pandemic, and whether or not developers saw a need to return to physical offices in order to improve either of the aforementioned areas (mental health and productivity). In addition to these brief response questions, the survey also recorded demographic information for participants, including their age, gender, and occupation/title/role at their current company, as well as the overall size of their current company (independent, small, medium, or large). These demographic results are discussed in more detail in a previous report (Caravella et al., 2023).

As part of the initial survey distribution, participants could voluntarily provide their email addresses if they wanted to be contacted for more in-depth interviews related to the study. These semi-structured interviews occurred two months after the initial survey distribution, where participants were reminded of their responses given on the initial survey prior to being asked to elaborate and answer follow-up questions. The follow-up questions were aimed at garnering a deeper understanding of participants’ individual contexts and experiences more specifically relating to various forms of technical communication and collaboration practices that could only be alluded to within the initial survey. Finally, additional interview data were collected from additional developers both within and outside of the IGDA through this same semi-structured process at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco in March 2022 and the Montreal Gaming Expo Arcade in October 2022. As these interviews were not connected to existing survey responses, participants were first provided a handout of some of the initial findings from the first part of the study (Caravella et al., 2022) prior to being asked about their own experiences with communication and collaboration practices during their remote work experiences.

Statistical analyses as well as a grounded theory method of analysis––in which we constantly compared and categorized written responses in our survey and interview data—animated our initial findings and the proceeding heuristics (Caravella et al., 2023). While the initial survey results contributed to the formation of the heuristics we discuss in this article, the combined collection of interviews cemented the heuristics by affording us insights into the work of specific developers and their technical communication practices. That is, while the initial survey questions formed the basis of what we hypothesized would be reinforced by the follow up interviews, it was not until we were able to analyze the pattern of responses from the interviews themselves that we were able to definitively extrapolate the resulting heuristics discussed below. However, despite our initial hunches from the survey data, our semi-structured interview questions still asked responders to speak rather generally to broad questions about how they used various forms of communication (both technical communication and otherwise) after their shift to remote work to help prevent biasing the data. Despite this open-ended approach (and highlighting the key role technical communication plays within the industry even when not specifically named as such), every developer we interviewed shared stories of solving technical communication problems by adapting or adopting new tools and practices (noted in Table 1).

Table 1: Developing heuristics. Surveys and interview data revealed problems and potential solutions to technical communication problems for game developers.

Demographic Results and Technical Communication Across Roles

Although our findings sections will go more in depth as to the qualitative results of the interviews, this section will first briefly establish the demographic context from which these results were derived. To begin, a total of 245 members of the IGDA responded to the initial survey. Ages ranged from 21 to 71 years old, with most responses coming from 30–45-year-olds. Regarding gender, 69% (169) responded male, 24% (59) female, 4% (10) nonbinary, and the remaining 3% (7) chose not to disclose. Although this spread does not offer an equal perspective between genders, the percentages do match the larger general profile of IGDA members (where, historically, most members are male) as well as the larger general statistics for game developers as published by Western University’s 2020 Game Developer Satisfaction Survey (Westar, 2021, pp. 5–6), meaning the sample is representative of both the IGDA organization as well as the current population of game developers within the larger industry.

In addition to the demographic results, the survey also allowed for developers to input their specific job title or role within their companies. While these titles varied wildly between respondents, upon review of the data, it became clear that these titles/roles could be grouped into four key categories: supervisory/administrative roles such as directors or project managers (38%), programming or development roles such as software developers (37%), creative roles such as artists or story writers (17%), and academic roles such as professors or graduate students (7%). A total of three participants did not list a role. However, despite the clear categories for roles, there are two key elements of these roles with regard to the present study: 1) These roles often overlapped, with some respondents noting that while they were a director, they also took part in creative process or code development, and 2) regardless of the role or classification, nearly all participants also noted some type of technical communication (be it documentation, white papers, or other forms of TC) as accompanying part of their job. Although none of the respondents noted that they were technical communicators specifically, as noted in the literature review, nearly every role requires some level of technical communication skill within the realm of game development writ large.

Heuristics for Addressing Communication and Collaboration Challenges in Games-Based Technical Communication

Moving forward, this section articulates strategies for addressing technical communication challenges faced by game developers in both fully remote and hybrid positions. As noted above, these strategies arose from survey responses and from specific strategies that have worked for developers we interviewed as well as consultations with our research partner organization IDGA. Here, we’ve attempted to keep these heuristics broad enough that they could be adapted to the individual needs of each development team, while remaining specific enough to be actionable. Although these approaches may not work for every single studio, they are based on the reported experiences of both the larger survey results and interviews previously noted. Still, we think these approaches hold value for many studios as well as those in related and allied industries—including but not limited to software development, education, and health and medicine. Game development is, of course, not the only industry that has shifted to and been impacted by more remote and hybrid environments (Smite et al., 2023; Steidtmann et al., 2021).

While many industries have returned to the office and others have remained fully remote, some have opted for a hybrid approach. For this article, we note that there are two types of hybrid approaches in game development. Studios use these terms interchangeably, but it’s important to note the difference: one type of hybrid development is “hi-flex hybrid,” where some developers are in the office exclusively and some developers are exclusively remote. That presents its own challenges versus a traditional “hybrid” environment, where all developers mix the same in-office and remote workdays (e.g., three days in the office and two days at home). That said, in some cases, both practices present the same challenges, and, in others, each practice requires its own unique approach or presents its own unique challenges. In response, both the challenges and heuristics discussed below address both fully remote as well as hybrid situations, noting the differences between the two when specific approaches may need to be altered depending on the needs of either means.

Heuristic #1: Engaging Specialized Digital Platforms to Address (the Lack of) Adhocracy

As noted above, Spinuzzi (2015) positions offices as adhocracies, or places where ad-hoc communication plays a pivotal role in collaborative practice. Traditional office environments contain passive knowledge sharing, where workers can, say, look over each other’s shoulders or talk in the middle of the office. As designer Camella Avellar of Supercell told us, “It’s nice to just walk around and see people, and be able to have a coffee break with them. So I guess it’s this feeling of refreshment of being working that you don’t necessarily get from being in your home all the time” (personal communication, August 19, 2021). For this reason and others, many game development studios have open-office environments versus individual offices with more restricted communication and social networking areas (“The Biggest Video Game Design Studios and Game Publishers of All Time”). “Watercooler talks,” or unofficial idea exchanges with fellow developers around a central area of the office, are quite common in such spaces. However, moving to a fully remote situation removes what many developers previously considered a pivotal means of communication in the office environment––there is no watercooler to gather around if everyone is on Slack or Zoom. As one project lead told us in our survey, “I really miss watercooler/coffee machine impromptu conversations for instance, which were a great way of taking the ‘pulse of the floor’ or becoming aware of issues/blockers that people didn’t judge important enough to formally bring to me but that I could easily help solve.” Thus, remote development can limit on-the-fly social interactions and problem-solving that can happen ad-hoc in physical offices.

This collective limitation to ad-hoc communication is something that needs to be more proactively addressed in remote environments because it happens less naturally in these online spaces but is especially important for earlier and other creative aspects of game development. Technical communication practices, like those detailed in the next paragraph, are particularly well suited for addressing this particular pain point, especially when used as proactive means of informal communication facilitation.

When it comes to communication tools useful for this kind of proactive approach, specialized digital platforms play an essential role. Our initial survey data pointed to a myriad of digital platforms, such as Zoom, Slack, and Discord to facilitate production discussions and task management (Caravella et al., 2023). As lead artist Carolanne Courcelles, of the studio Chasing Rats, told us in an interview, “We actually use Discord [for most meetings and collaborations]. We share our screen a lot to show our work and share our work with teammates.” In the early stages of projects and associated meetings, then, project leads and managers of studios might entertain discussions about which tools work best for a team and the culture they’re cultivating between team members and the ones they recruit. Thus, evaluating communication tools that are going to be effective for a company for team members is just as important as implementing them well. Those tools are critical for encouraging communication and collaborations that stem from it.

Furthermore, unlike more synchronous means of online communication like Zoom, specialized platforms like Slack or Discord are better suited to encourage and facilitate ad-hoc discussions between developers. Discord, for example, has “drop-in” voice chat channels, where one can quickly enter (read: click into) a shared space to throw around ideas verbally. Outside of audio channels, Slack and Discord also allow for informal reactions to statements or ideas shared on either platform via the use of emojis, GIFs, and other reactions. This type of communication then comes off as much less formal than, say, an email chain or ticketing system, and that informality is much more reflective of Spinuzzi’s (2015) depiction of adhocracy in the physical office. These forms of communication and collaboration in online spaces, then, can be further encouraged and supported by management staff or admin via the inclusion of specific channels or through modeling (that is, managers encourage the use of emoji reactions, for example, by themselves using them with employees). Quebec City game developer Dave Gagne describes how his company RageCure Games handles such channels on Discord. The company’s Discord is arranged as a series of channels that signal their purposes. The “living room” channel is more informal than, say, Gagne’s work room:

We actually launched the studio during the pandemic. We’re using Discord as a tool and we really transformed it into our studio, almost like a physical studio. There’s a living room [channel] that means, hey, “I’m working, but I can chat with you if you’d like to talk.” So it’s kind of your message to say, “I’m open for discussion. And if you’re in your “room,” then that means you’re working and if we need to discuss something, I just go into your room and we talk about it. (personal communication, 21 October 2022)

As described by Gagne, open-chat channels or even a channel named “Watercooler,” for instance, can further reinforce the spaces in these remote platforms as being meant for informal communication and collaboration without having to formalize such interactions (see Figure 1, for example). Such processes can be further reinforced through the inclusion of core hours or hosting online events that mix shop talk and casual conversation much the same way as one might oscillate between such topics in an ad-hoc face-to-face setup.

Heuristic #2: Articulating the Appropriateness of Communication Tools for Work and Social Bonding

Companies who support the implementation of new communication tools for remote and hybrid workers also need to address the learning curves and the emotional labor of implementing such tools. This challenge especially came to light in our conversation with Cameron Oltmann, a developer with CodeBison. In this interview excerpt, Oltmann discusses the differences between hanging out on the platform Discord versus Zoom.

The other thing that we do is, we use Discord as another one of our communications tools. It’s for more casual stuff and whatnot. We have official community management stuff that happens there, but we also have this thing where we encourage people to just sort of drop in and kind of hang out. We have hangout channels. You might not even be talking or doing anything there, but you’re just there and people can randomly chat if they want. It’s still not the same as being in the same room. And it is a little more draining than that, but it’s not as draining as being on a Zoom call all day or whatever. (personal communication, 13 August 2021)

Oltmann’s comment suggests that development teams—perhaps again in the early stages of a project’s development—articulate when Discord and Zoom are most appropriate. Oltmann’s next comment suggests that even textual platforms like Discord can be overwhelming, a sensation that has been commonplace since companies went fully remote or hybrid (Caravella et al., 2023).

We have specifically channels in it that are designed for social spam and stuff like that, where people just talk about whatever, pictures of their cats, the horribly gross thing that some pet just hawked up on the floor, all of that kind of stuff or cool things that you did over the weekend, that sort of thing. But we do this where if something prompts more than a couple of messages, we try to encourage just kind of a jump-in quick voice call. (personal communication, 13 August 2021)

In summary, those moments of informal talk and potential ideation about a project in question can be lost without technical communicators actively addressing tools and their purposes. In abstract terms, there can be a division between remote and office developers regarding the sense of team, a challenge that is particularly emotional in nature. Remote developers can feel like second-class citizens because they’re not involved with all of those types of ad-hoc team-building moments on Discord. Developers who have those closer bonds with each other might be less likely to listen to or acknowledge the creative decisions of their remote colleagues. In other words, the lack of bonding can cause potential conflicts among team members, or at least for remote developers to feel like they’re not as considered or as included as their in-person colleagues. We are not suggesting that the lack of bonding is a malicious move on the part of the studio. Put simply, it is an affective gap that can be filled with intentional, hybrid team building through communication tools and purpose-driven formalization.

For a bit of refrain, inclusive social hours on Discord between all workers can also take the form of remediated and virtual reality hangouts. Reflecting a video game aesthetic, for example, the social platform Gather allows for participants to control an avatar and interface that reveals webcams and voice chat by proximity to other avatars. As depicted in Figure 2, Gather contains multiple rooms and spaces, from lecture halls to billiard rooms. In the context of rhetoric and communication studies, it is worth noting that the Rhetoric Society of America’s Summer Institute in 2021 included its opening reception in such a space to remediate conference traditions.

Figure 2: A screenshot of a promotional video about social platform Gather, as displayed on the company’s site

In addition, virtual reality systems, such as Meta Quest 2, have become rather accessible in terms of cost and installation. Encouraging teams to bond through virtual reality games and applications might help studios attend to the inclusive bonding that is layered with technical and interpersonal communication. Having meaningful team-building events during work hours can be very beneficial for bringing a sense of community to remote workers. As Oltmann told us during our conversation, some goofing off, even remotely, is crucial for bonding. He recalls when the CodeBison team released a Wild Western-themed update for Pistol Whip. There was a taco party as well as “check-in” meetings that encouraged Western accents.

The studio paid for lunch and drinks. People could figure out whether they wanted to be virtual or not, or all this kind of thing, whatever you wanted. We had people [making drinks and saying] like, “here’s your mix. Here’s grenadine. Here’s the recipe for this. Here’s that. Here’s the hot sauce I made for my tacos that I’m having at my thing, all that kind of stuff….Even introverts are social. Even the most introverted person is a social creature because we are human. It’s just that social interaction either takes energy or sort of gives us energy to varying degrees and with different kinds of interactions depending on our specific personality. (personal communication, 13 August 2021)

For studios, the goal need not be to facilitate a perfect remediation of in-person socializing but to simply try at closing affective gaps that get taken for granted in office culture yet are vital to ideation and problem-solving rendered through formal documentation and project management.

Heuristic #3: Strategic Moderation and Listening for Supporting Developers

A communication challenge related to hi-flex hybrid development reveals itself during what we might think of as “hybrid meetings,” in which you have some developers in the office and some workers calling in remotely. (In software development, these meetings are often called “stand-up meetings.”) In such meetings, in-office workers are communicating with each other with body language, something that remote developers cannot always pick up. As one survey respondent to the Game Developer Conference’s State of the Industry 2021 reported, “Group meetings. Only one person must speak at a time, laughter and side comments could disrupt a conversation (whereas in person that would be fine)” (p. 21). Remote developers can feel excluded from that type of communication, and it needs to be proactively addressed to make sure studios are giving them space. Raising a digital hand is different from an in-office one raised during an intense conversation. In development meetings, an inclusive approach might include moderators pausing conversations to allow remote workers to express ideas, contribute to conversations, and more. Moderators might also consider using a group webcam and additional tools to ensure all developers have either the option to view the body language of the meeting or are able to otherwise leverage chat or other means of communication (i.e., transcripts, reactions, etc.) so they can share/be shared with everyone. This inclusive approach to technical communication is crucial during periods of ideation, conflict, or even fun. As Casey O’Donnell (2014) posits, communication breakdowns are common in game development, especially when development stretches across digital communication channels and geographic borders. In hybrid contexts, such breakdowns might be avoided through strategic moderation.

Relatedly, strategic listening might fall on studio and project leaders. One of the persistent challenges and benefits of hybrid development is the flexibility that workers can enact. If a developer is a parent that needs to attend to childcare or attend to health difficulties, a hybrid model can be very beneficial for them. However, if studios are considering the hybrid approach, it’s quite difficult to communicate and enforce communication rules that are fair across all workers, particularly if studios are trying to encourage developers to come into the office. It’s a given that not everyone will have the same sentiment as developer Félix Liberali, game designer at Trebuchet Games: “So there’s no advantage to working in the office unless you just feel better working in the office, but there’s no disadvantage staying at home….I’m way more effective from home. At the office, there’s way too many distractions’’ (personal communications, October 21, 2022). If studios are giving some people such flexibility, others might feel like they have just as valid reasons to be working remotely, and it can be difficult for studio managers to justify why some rules apply to some workers and not others. Thinking beyond technical communication for a moment, we admit that this enforcing of rules might be one of the most difficult communication challenges to address, something we as co-authors have been facing in our classrooms as well. We encourage studio leadership to consider checking in regularly with developers across platforms—particularly in a private virtual room similar to Gagne’s aforementioned approach. As Renee has learned through her experience as a project manager and studio owner, effective communication on a team is the leader’s responsibility. When developers lose the sense of person they’re working with, it can be very easy to blame a slipped deadline or undelivered assets on an individual developer or area of the development team. Through documentation and the aforementioned platforms, leaders are responsible for communicating to an individual what needs to be delivered and when, and, if they slip, the leader takes responsibility. A leader can be more empathetic by supporting developers, understanding any challenges developers are facing are really the challenges of the team.

To demonstrate that support, studios might facilitate “listening sessions,” in which developers share their opinions without recourse and for the purposes of adapting projects as needed. In our follow-up interview to his survey responses, John Pile, principal engineer manager with Schell Games, spoke of the value of intentional listening: “[For] those of us who give time for a one-on-one for people talk about how they’re feeling, we actually have the opportunity to understand how they’re feeling as opposed to just hoping that we gathered it through nonverbal communication somewhere throughout the day” (personal communication, August 16, 2021). This listening approach has merit in the field of technical communication and writing studies writ large, as demonstrated by numerous editors who co-organized such sessions “to flip the script of a traditional editors’ roundtable and listen to your concerns, queries, and comments about current publication practices” (“#InclusiveTPC: A Statement from Journal Editors in the Field”). Like editors, studios might create space for developers to share information histories and experiences, perhaps anticipating conflict. If someone is a caretaker and has other obligations within their household, for example, studio leaders might need to adjust what the studio’s core hours are or communicate what the expectations are for people to be at their desk at any point in time during the day. Francis Lapierre, founder of Lucid Dreams Studio, describes the studio’s decision to host an all-team meeting at 10am on Discord during the work week, including in-office and remote developers.

You need to establish a structure. Every day at 10:00 we do a sync [meeting], and everybody says what they do. So you really need to develop a good tracking [system]. When you’re in person, you kind of get the feeling, “OK, it’s going to be the meeting.” But when you’re alone in front of your computer, you don’t have this feedback. I think having a pre-scheduled meeting makes it easier for everybody because then the person will know it’s not the time to go take a coffee and it’s less stressful.

Regardless of the specific approach, strategic moderation during these hybrid points of contact can be shaped by active listening and responsive actions curtailed to each teams’ specific needs and contexts.

Additional Challenges and Considerations

While the previous section offered heuristics for addressing several prominent challenges faced by developers, this brief section covers two additional areas of challenge that might stem from or alongside remote work.

Costs Associated with Remote Development and Communication

In addition to appropriating communication tools and listening to developers, studios and companies that support fully remote development must attend to different costs associated with the remote communication software and hardware. Beyond sharing stories of miscommunications, developers who responded to our survey noted that they either took their work computers home or were provided such equipment to work effectively. As one developer reported, “Effective remote collaboration is possible if the company provides the tools to do it. Yes, it means more ‘meetings’ as you cannot pull people in ad-hoc, but this also lets people structure their time and responsibility better.”

Although remote workers do not need office spaces in a studio office, studios might have to sponsor the costs of software and hardware that is vital for game development during pre-production, production, and post-production. For example, Keith Arem’s company, PCB Productions, delivered mobile recording equipment to voice actors for video games to ensure consistency across recordings. As he told us in an interview, “In a video game, if you have six, eight characters all talking to each other in a room, that room is going to be part of the recording, part of the microphone, how they all sound. So, you can’t have the villain on a real expensive mic and the hero on a really cheap mic. It just can’t happen. And it’s not fair for those actors to buy all that stuff and try to set it up” (personal communication, August 13, 2021).

Arem’s comment, as well as those of survey respondents, suggest that studios ought to cover or offset the costs of the individual employees who work from home. Employees do not have the time and costs of commuting, but they might need assistance with improving their home-office environment or the infrastructure that can support it. In Arem’s case, there was an added benefit to having an employee deliver recording equipment to voice actors: “For someone to come to their door, albeit 15-feet away and leave equipment, it was a friendly face and they all know us. And so, it was a little bit of an opportunity for us to stay together.”

At-Home Distractions and Caretaking Responsibilities

When creating space for understanding developers’ concerns, studios must be mindful of additional distractions that often accompany home-office environments. Our study indicates that women and non-binary developers saw a lot more distractions within their home-office environment, aligning with other studies focused on the uneven spread of home responsibilities found throughout the pandemic working conditions more broadly (e.g., Judge, 2021; Power, 2020; Readon, 2021; White, 2021). Combined with the IGDA’s initial survey of COVID-19’s impact on game developers, we found that the majority of these participants who suffered mental health declines also tended to be caretakers. As one developer told us in our survey, “We spend less money commuting and overall our stress is decreased as long as kids are in school or daycare so that working from home isn’t filled with distractions.” If studios are supporting fully remote development and have primary caretakers among their teammates, it might be challenging to those latter teammates who are often more disadvantaged within the games industry because of their home environments. Among our follow-up interview participants, game developer Camilla Avellar recalled some physical and emotional tolls for parents on her team.

I saw a lot of my colleagues who have children working at 7:00, 8:00 PM because, “Oh, I couldn’t work in the morning because I had to take care of the kids, and I was doing both.” At least I would actively say, “Leave. Leave the computer.” I know that my team lead would say, “Yeah. No, no. Go rest. Go do something.” So we knew that people would tend to just work overtime, either because they feel guilty because they had to take care of their children, or errands, or family matters, or really because they just lost track of time. There was a lot of that. (personal communication, August 19, 2021)

The role of guilt-inducing distractions in the prevention of effective communication and collaboration practices covers a wide berth of possibilities, so no one heuristic is going to offer a catch-all approach to mitigating these issues. However, as noted in our examples above, there are certain broader ways that developers and project leaders especially can approach these challenges in order to better facilitate and address these needs in remote and/or hybrid workplaces, in particular. There are at least some focused, specific ways developers can best address the challenges that accompany remote and hybrid work, including abandoning previous assumptions about physical meeting spaces and training project leaders to use strategic moderation and listening skills in virtual environments. Especially in this industry, where it appears that the field of technical communication will remain in these virtual and hybrid spaces, equipping these various workers with the right tools and expectations for working in these spaces (as opposed to simply trying to re-create physical experiences/practices in virtual space) is essential to maintaining both productivity and equity among developers as they continue their remote and hybrid work practices.

Final Takeaways

This article covered major areas of challenge related to remote and hybrid forms of game development, and it provided heuristics for development teams to address such challenges in meaningful and productive ways via technical communication. In addition to news and industry reports, our survey responses and interviews stress that the majority of the games industry desire remote work or the opportunity to work in some hybrid capacity, rather than returning to a physical office space. The reality is that more people around the world have access to game development studios because of remote work opportunities, but some developers who are caretakers in their home or have other things that don’t allow them to participate as readily in remote work are also going to find it harder to get the access and support they need. Studios are faced with a tension, then: If they want developers to come back into the office, they might not maintain their current workforce, let alone hire new people. Creating responsive technical communication, studios can help resolve that tension by supporting informal, strategic and empathetic communication and collaboration platforms and methods that serve myriad developers. In summary, studios can:

  • Implement both informal and formal communication platforms as necessary for social interactions and production decisions in remote and hybrid contexts.
  • Foster strategic moderation on such platforms and create (remote) spaces for dialoguing with developers across modes and locations.
  • Provide specific support for caregivers working from home as well as provide a means of mitigating other at home distractions/making expectations clear as to when workers are expected to be available without distractions present.

Put differently, while studios can implement and facilitate communication platforms and methods, a constant will remain: Remote work has a higher risk of miscommunication issues and needs to be proactively addressed in order to anticipate issues. Gittins (2022) offered this example of collaboration gone awry due to poor communication, which was compounded by a remote context:

A bad leader will say, “I need a rock, and an artist will make them a rock. [The leader] will say, “No, I need a small rock.” And so they’ll make it a small rock and they’ll say, “No, I need a small, smooth rock” and then make a smooth rock and then they’ll say no, “I need a small smooth blue rock” and finally create the item that they wanted. That’s often shown as being a negative impact because of the leader not properly defining what they wanted. It can be very hard to understand all of those small things that you need without coming across as being perfectly micromanaging. And so if you lead by “why” you say, “Hey, I need a rock to be in this aquarium, and please figure that out.” You weren’t asking for a small blue rock but you are telling them what the purpose of the asset is. And giving them the power to make those decisions to figure out the best solution and have knowledge to make decisions that you might not understand need to be made at that moment. (Gittins, 2022)

Gittins stressed that studio leaders are responsible for assessing purpose-driven communication practices across in-person and remote contexts that help teams meet outcomes. And, like game development, assessing communication practices is iterative. The decisions that leaders make, the people they hire, and the ways they provide them support and growth opportunities help cultivate teams or cause issues within it. At the helm of the varying technical communication practices in a studio, leaders should be iterating these practices, because platforms are constantly evolving. As one developer from our survey so aptly put it:

If the team is committed to establishing a remote-first (or at least remote-friendly) culture and ensuring that it is embraced, supported, and planned for with processes and tools, then a distributed development team is more than capable of producing complex software. However, if the culture, norms, and tools snap back to “what we did before” then teams are not likely to be as productive or successful working remotely.

Ultimately, the research findings and heuristics in this article implicate a prolific industry’s significant demand for team-based technical communications rendered through platforms and locations. Without paying more attention to this demand, the field of technical communication runs the risk of losing valuable information about creatives who assume and refine technical communication practices through constant iteration for equitable purposes.


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About the Authors

Dr. Elizabeth Caravella is an assistant professor of visual studies in the Writing Department at York University. Her current research examines the role of visual cueing in digital design—specifically, how visual cues influence and persuade one’s sense of presence via embodiment in virtual reality. Her work has appeared in Computers and Writing, Technical Communication Quarterly, and College Composition & Communication. She can be reached at caravell@yorku.ca.

Dr. Renee Gittins leads Stumbling Cat, an indie studio based in Seattle, and is a multi-disciplinary leader with expertise in business operations, software engineering, and creative direction. Previously, she was the general manager of Phoenix Lab – Vancouver and the executive director of the IGDA. She is a passionate advocate and connector for developers and diversity in the game industry. She is also the chair of the IGDA Alumni Board, consults for numerous organizations, and is outspoken about initiatives to increase diversity both within the game industry and gaming overall to help the game industry grow and improve for everyone. She can be reached at reneegittins@gmail.com.

Dr. Rich Shivener is an assistant professor in the Writing department at York University. Prior to this position, he worked as a journalist and technical communicator. His latest research investigates digital media writing practices and emotions, and he teaches courses in the department’s digital cultures stream. His publications have appeared in Communication Design Quarterly, Computers and Composition, and College English. Rich has been a special issue editor for Technical Communication Quarterly. He can be reached at richshiv@yorku.ca.