As game developers, we can get so focused on the craft of game making that we can sometimes forget that the tools we use outside of actual game development can be just as important to the process. Having the right tools can make the team much more productive, so knowing which tools work best for your team is key. Here I will go over some of the tools we’ve used previously, and what we have replaced them with to better suit our needs.
From Hipchat to Flock
As a mostly virtual studio, having a good way to communicate online is absolutely necessary for us. When we first started developing Political Animals, company chats were still in their infancy, and Hipchat was one of the early companies providing this service. While Slack was around, Marnel preferred Hipchat because it had a much lighter chat client. Turns out the reason for this was that Hipchat was an incredibly primitive chat client compared to today’s updated products. It became very frustrating to use Hipchat during long chats, when it was unclear to whom we were replying to in conversations. We ended up creating our own systems for this, like copying and pasting the message we were replying to, as if we were on a forum.
So we were kind of amazed when we switched to Flock and all of its functionalities. The ability to reply to specific messages, create reminders and notes, and being able to create custom avatars for people and rooms just blew me away. It felt like the difference between dial-up and broadband internet, or SD vs HD. Once we switched over there was no going back.
Flock over Slack
The leader of company chat clients is Slack. You almost can’t get away from slack advertising when listening to a podcast these days. In some ways this turned me off on Slack (I like rooting for the underdog). However we did try out Slack and some other products for a little bit just to see what it was like, and we still came back to Flock. The reason? Flock offers basically the same service as Slack, with a much more generous free version. They offer double the storage space (10GB) versus Slack (5GB) which means we have a lot more wiggle room when attaching files in chat. I’ll write a more in-depth article in the future, but I highly recommend Flock for small teams.
From Jira to HacknPlan
Jira has long been hailed as the gold standard for agile project management. What they don’t tell you is that for it to actually be useful, you need an actual full time project manager, or someone who is committed to that role. Unfortunately for us, we do not have anyone who is able to fully maximize Jira and all of its integrations. Vanilla Jira is, at least in our experience, painful to use. Basic things like looking up previous sprints consume way more time than necessary. Their strict adherence to the sprint methodology also created some annoying things like not being able to easily delete tasks (something that they added eventually). I was ready to move us off Jira as soon as I found a suitable replacement.
Hacknplan is agile project management created specifically for game development. It’s hard to immediately explain why Hacknplan is better than Jira for our needs. The easiest way to explain it is that while a good project manager could probably create amazing functionality using Jira, HacknPlan lets teams without a dedicated project manager just hit the ground running.
My favorite thing about HacknPlan is its GDM, which is essentially a living game design document. Previously, I would often want to write down some game design ideas for future reference. I would put them in Jira’s backlog, and there they would remain for the rest of their lives. HacknPlan’s GDM lets me create a category or folder containing all of these design ideas, and lets me easily access them in the future when we’ve run out of tasks and need something new to work on. The best thing is that you can assign tasks directly from the GDM, meaning there is a direct connection to your daily work tasks and the higher level design, which is something that is lacking in most agile management tools. HacknPlan has some issues (the pricing tier and some limits on the free version can be a little annoying), but the benefits far outweigh them. I’ve become quite an evangelist, and will push HacknPlan onto any developer within earshot. I’m going to write a much more in-depth post about HacknPlan and how we use it in the future, but if you are a small team making a game, I absolutely recommend you use HacknPlan.
From Google Sheets to (Sometimes) Airtable
Google Sheets is a great all around spreadsheet app that you can access from almost anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. It doesn’t do anything special, but in the hands of an expert like our designer Tristan, you can make magic with it.
Airtable is an app that lets you do some of that magic and much more without a lot of effort. It feels a little like Spreadsheets 3.0 (with Spreadsheet 1.0 being the actual paper spreadsheets), adding functionality to spreadsheets that can make them much more easier to parse at a glance. For example, while designing our research items, we decided that they would be arranged like a tree, with some items being unlocked by research a “parent” item. Noting down the parent of a research item in a spreadsheet is easy enough, but hunting down items with the same parent can be a chore, even if you take the time to color coordinate the cells properly (which can be time consuming in itself). With Airtable, it only takes a couple of clicks to instantly rearrange and group the data by “parent”, which is a godsend when we are doing internal QA to make sure that everything is working properly in the game. Even better, you can parse this data by grouping it according to two different fields. So for example I could organize the data by way of parent and research cost, allowing me to know which research items that have the same parent cost the same amount.
Airtable’s complexity is also what makes it annoying to use sometimes. For example, coloring a cell is something that anyone who has used a spreadsheet does on a regular basis. I often do this when I want to indicate that a specific task is done, by highlighting it in green. Airtable’s free version doesn’t let you do this seemingly simple task, meaning if I want to do the same thing, I would have to create a new column, assign it as a “checkmark” type of field, and us this to check off items as I finish them. So while I highly recommend that studios use Airtable and its immense capabilities (of which I feel like I have only scratched the surface), sometimes good old Google Sheets is more practical to use. Luckily Airtable lets you import CVS files so if you start out using Sheets and deciding to move to Airtable, the process is painless.
Bonus Tools : Bug Reports with Google Forms
We currently use Google Forms as a bug reporting mechanism. While it’s great and importantly, free, I have been wishing we could switch to a different service that was better at parsing the data we receive. It’s great that Forms links seamlessly with Sheets, but all that data can be overwhelming to comprehend.
I’ve done a little research into alternatives like Surveymonkey, but I’ve yet to see anything that would be exactly what we need, which is an affordable bug report website or app that parses out the bug report data in more understandable chunks. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments!
Bonus Tool 2 : Rescuetime
We are a small team and we don’t do the typical time tracking expected in a virtual team. This probably won’t scale to a much larger team, but in general we’ve noticed that we tend to work longer hours than usual anyway, so asking people to time in and out just seems insulting.
Instead, we suggest that people download Rescuetime and track their productivity on their own. It’s a great free tool that helps you keep track of your computer time. We’ve found that most people are usually shocked at how little productive time they actually use during the day, and this helps give them an incentive to do better. The free tool lets you set goals (mine are to have at least 4 productive hours a day and to spend less than 30 minutes on social media during work hours) and is more than enough for the average person.
I hope this will be useful for other devs and studios out there to give them an idea of the tools that they can use to help make the process of making games a little bit easier. It’s important to note that these are the tools that work for Squeaky Wheel specifically. The best thing to do is to always try it out for yourself and see what works best for you and your team!
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