Making games off the ground: how Serenity Forge thrives as a hybrid game studio

On paper, Serenity Forge is a game studio based in Boulder, Colorado. But in execution? The magic happens out of a collective of bedrooms and offices from the slopes of Colorado to the rolling hills of Vietnam. 

Known for games like Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, Death’s Gambit: Afterlife, Neversong, Cyanide & Happiness - Freakpocalypse, and more, the development and publishing studio has been operating both out of a quaint office headquarters and all over the world, through the thick of a pandemic. And the secret to their success in hybridity? Well, there is no secret—it's a staunch and honest effort: putting a foot towards prioritizing talent, having a reverence for empathy, and taking advantage of modern collaboration platforms.

Talent comes first

The craft of game development is a meticulous and intensely collaborative feat—building out new worlds, scripting content, testing builds iteratively. And surrounding the core development is even more cross-collaboration: prototyping vertical slices, piloting pipelines, working with vendors, and so forth.

Parker Davis works out of an office built like a battle station—armed with plentiful monitors, a cinecam, and all the gadgets he needs. But he also works out of planes, locales all around Colorado, and even the shores of the Caribbean where he used to live. A development director at Serenity Forge, Davis has helmed both its Unity and Unreal divisions. A typical day for him involves reviewing a lot of other people’s work—setting the criteria by which work needs to be done, monitoring timelines, aligning project visions, and making sure the work, works. 

Parker Davis

Whether Davis is reviewing specific widgets or running wider-angle planning meetings with game leads and executives, it’s all pretty cooperation-intensive, so one would be surprised to hear that his team is actually quite decentralized.

“We kind of faced a crossroads even before the pandemic where we had to choose between only getting people in Colorado working entirely out of the office like a traditional company, or putting talent first and figuring out how to be hybrid,” says Davis.

Serenity Forge’s core team is scattered around the globe—from well-warmed bedrooms across Colorado to the Pacific Northwest, and even all across Latin America and Asia. And their outsourcing and publishing partners run even further beyond.

“The teams that we work with every single day are everywhere. So…you definitely see bedrooms, you see a lot of cats, an occasional rabbit. We’ve even had people call into video conference meetings from their car while they’re about to go on a hike because it’s Colorado and that happens. I’m sure at some point I’ll call somebody from the ski slopes because I have boundary issues and I’m always available,” Davis jokes. 

For Serenity Forge, the name of the game is ‘talent comes first,’ as Davis notes, “People have different work habits and different locations, have different needs—and for us, it’s always about finding a way to unlock in every kind of talented person the best kind of work here.” In a bird’s eye view, the whole industry, from indie all the way to AAA, is learning to move away from location-sensitivity to not only address new pandemic limitations, but to imagine greater possibilities of working together.

Tools that keep up

When the pandemic hit, Serenity Forge already had plenty of employees working from home and using digital communication tools. But the team started to hit a wall with the basic text, voice, and video communication tools:

“It was that really high-test, critical review stuff, where if it’s animations or it’s color quality or things where you’re really pixel peeping on resolution…no other tool that we had used made the out-of-office experience the same as the in-office experience.” That’s where Evercast came into play. 

As the office experience dematerialized, the team initially recorded high-quality videos for review sessions, but something crucial was lost in the asynchronicity of exchanging recordings. Davis explains, “If you record a video for somebody, you’re kind of implicitly saying, Just watch this, don’t communicate with me. Whereas if you’re getting in a room with somebody—like you do with Evercast, you are implicitly, through the medium where that’s happening, you’re encouraging them to communicate, collaborate with you.”

Cultivating empathy

The throughline of Serenity Forge’s work ethic seems to match what they want their games to evoke: unified experience. Whether it's tapping into player emotions like in their pixelated slice-of-life game of Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing, or making sure two colleagues on other sides of the world are in the same creative headspace, their work is about connecting people. But when your talented creatives are based out of different cities with a pandemic stretching between them, it takes creative ingenuity to retain a sense of togetherness.

“We work from everywhere. Even people who are here in Colorado, we work from home all the time, so the experience kind of needs to be unified regardless of where people are,” remarks Davis. True to their identity as a game studio, the folks at Serenity Forge love jumping onto Discord for stripped-down voice chats as if they were just popping their heads into one another’s offices. “But then you’re not getting all of those micro-expressions, all of those kind of sympathetic things where you can kind of read where people are coming from,” says Davis, and that’s a more crucial element of building experiential products.

When it comes to interactive media, the player is just as important as an element of the game as any digital asset is. As much as a developer can inspect code and assets over and over, building a game requires monitoring how people are reacting to the experience as it’s happening. While recorded gameplay videos go a long way, it’s only in a live review session that Davis’ team can deeply grasp how a game plays and how it feels. “For us, that’s always the ultimate product, is through the game, to create feelings.” And to review all the layers of gameplay with high fidelity—that’s what they use Evercast for.

The build review 

For a game development studio, the build review is a moment of culmination. “It’s one of these kind of tent pole moments for us in the process, both creatively and from a project management standpoint, to be able to take all of the work that everybody has done, get it into the engine, get it into the scene, and actually see it played in a packaged build,” Davis tells. Before the pandemic, the team would be able to gather in one room, throw up the scene onto a screen, and play it with everyone in the same space. 

But as a remote company with an international core team, Serenity Forge was already looking for solutions to hybridize the complex digital experience of review—and the pandemic only furthered that need.

In a broad sense, reviewing a build consists of multilayered data collection. There are debug tools spitting console logs to grant insight into the backend, a recording of the gameplay to get a feel of the iterative execution, a recording of the player themselves and their reactions, and documents of observation notes from reviewers.

Davis remarks, “Being able to have something like Evercast that timestamps things and lets us chat back and forth is also really nice because then we can sync those things up. We can go into our logs and say, ‘Okay, at this moment in the Evercast session where this particular thing happened, here’s the bug that we encountered at that time—and we can trace it based on that.’”

In an Evercast session, all this robust review data is layered together, synced up, and timestamped, saving Davis’ team a lot of trouble: “As many of those pieces of data as we can get in a single feed is really nice for us to have as the master record of the experience that we can pull logs and other diagnostics into later on.”

Once the studio had begun to incorporate Evercast into its build review workflow, they kept finding more functions it could be used for: reviewing cinematics and animations, multilayered gameplay recordings, and more. With this revelation, the team found that they didn’t need to silo off tasks and sacrifice harmony for efficiency in digital hyper-compartmentalization.

“Everything could be live, everything could be together,” says Davis.

As opposed to other industries, game development has always inherently been more digital, so while it’s quick to evolve, it’s always at the precipice of dealing with technical challenges. Luckily, with powerful software tools trickling down from AAA and Hollywood combined with platforms like Evercast, remote indie outfits are better poised to make games than ever.

Better lives make better games

“As a remote company…never—in many, many years—have we had the entire company in the same state. It just hasn’t been possible,” recalls Davis, “What we also found is: the more we could make the digital experience feel like the physical experience, there’s also that emotional benefit.”

And the emotional benefit is multifaceted in this case—it bridges gaps in the team’s morale, but it also makes room for what they want their games to evoke in the first place: sentiments and human connection.

“Especially during the pandemic, where everybody was isolated…having those opportunities to play the game together and have it feel real, being able to play other games together, being able to just have any kind of conversation in a way that felt like you were in the room with somebody was also just really emotionally important and you could see this really clear curve of morale in the company correlated with the chances we had to get people in the same room and talking to each other.”

Ostensibly, Evercast’s function seems to be its ability to test performance qualities like resolution and frame rate, but what became more crucial to Davis and his team was its ability to make them feel like they were together again. “If there’s a bunch of lag, it’s not going to feel real. If people can’t see each other’s faces, it’s not going to feel like they’re in the same space.”

The key to play-testing

Historically, the process of play-testing would involve each stakeholder of the publishing division to download and play a game individually, then come back together and compare notes. And while that allows people to sit with their experience, digest it, and then put thought into their responses, there’s a loss of spontaneity and emergence in that. Davis elaborates, “There are some things, especially with games, where it’s such an in-the-moment [thing], being able to see how you’re reacting kind of a thing…how the game really feels in that moment-to-moment experience.”

So for both reviewing internal and external games, the publishing team has begun to jump into Evercast rooms to play together. Davis explains that this allows them to have a more precise, shared vocabulary of that experience to draw upon, because it’s not simply that they all played the same game—it’s that they all experienced the same version of the game. “And that changes the way you talk about it,” says Davis.

While asynchronous communication has long had a place in QA workflows, Davis points out that the drawback of such a disconnected setup is that you have to know exactly what you’re looking for: “A lot of times we will say to the QA team, hey, here are six things that we need you to test, go out and test them and tell us what happens…But only when you get into the game and you actually play it and you can see it being played and see the person who’s playing it, can you absorb the things you didn’t know to ask for.”

When trying to manage a hybrid workflow, there’s the critical moment of rediscovering organic interaction. Davis explains, “The mistake that game developers make when trying to communicate purely digitally, is you kind of surrender to the constraints of needing to know what you’re asking for. You kind of just let the emergence go, you let the water cooler talk go, because people are only getting together and talking together when they know they have to…So anything we can kind of do to bring that more organic emergence, like, ‘Hey, I just noticed that thing, go and do that again.’—anything we can do to bring that back into our development process is going to be a secret sauce that you can never replace.”

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