“We probably started earlier than a lot of folks,” explains Bungie chief operating officer Patrick O’Kelley. “Part of it is we have colleagues at NetEase in China and we were talking to them, and I was really looking at how they were impacted.”
“I was looking at what was happening in other countries; what was happening in the early stages in Italy. I knew that we’d had an early case in Washington state, and I started to read a lot: CDC, other places, about how this might unfold. Part of the role in operations is you’re always doing this kind of scenario planning and the risks seemed pretty significant that we would be in a position that we would follow the path of one of these other countries.”
Early conversations about Bungie’s plan to deal with the crisis happened back in mid-February and the whole studio was informed very quickly.
“I think that’s been really important,” says O’Kelley. “Just to help people understand so it’s not a surprise.”
According to O’Kelley the geography of Washington state meant Bungie already had framework in place to support studio operations in the event of bad weather and the like, but nothing specific to the scale and duration of the response required for the US COVID-19 outbreak.
“We live in an earthquake zone, we have snow days – all those kinds of things – so from that sense we have this fundamental preparedness that we have to have to be ready to work remotely,” he says. “For a while our Bungie network operations centre has been able to work entirely remotely, so that entire team is set up so that, if they needed to work anywhere else, then they can do that.”
“And most of our employees have VPN, remote desktop networks set up; we’ve done that in the past for when we have snow days and so on. That’s really set up to do short bursts of work from home. But when you’re talking about long periods of time, and again we’re still in the early days so we don’t know how long exactly, we’re planning that, ‘Hey, this could be the way that we need to work on our games for a while.’
“Then you really have to get into the more intensive workloads that are involved in making games. The workloads, the tools that are needed by artists, animators, engineers, and making sure that they have the set-up in their home to be productive. Fully productive for that long period of time.”
O’Kelley concedes that the process hasn’t all been easy but is full of praise for how the team achieved it in such a narrow window of time.
“First of all I should say our IT and operations team and our people team and some of the folks on the Destiny team have been extraordinary in collaborating,” says O’Kelley. “I wouldn’t say it’s surprising but it’s just wonderful to see how this team rallied and you see the IT team really carrying the studio on their back. We have this kudos tool internally and just see this flood of kudos going to the IT people who have been, person by person, attending to the needs [of staff] and provisioning laptops.”
“We’ve set up these beefy laptops – we call them developer-grade laptops – for people to work from home so they’ve been working really, really hard to get those set up so that we have that basically full-on, workstation capability at home for people. So that’s been one of the hardest things – literally just getting a couple hundred of these machines set up for people to take home.”
O’Kelley explains that ramping up the use of tools for remote collaboration and video conferencing has gone quite smoothly, between what the studio has already learned from having members of its global publishing team based outside the US and the enthusiasm of certain team members who have rapidly put together support documentation and FAQs to help keep communication as strong as possible.
“Another thing I’ll throw out is Google Stadia: it looks like that’s going to be our test solution,” says O’Kelley. “Getting playtests at scale is a hard thing to do – a lot of bandwidth involved – so they’ve been collaborating with us to set that up and that looks like it’s going to be a really amazing solution for us. It’s not something we necessarily thought about initially but it looks like it’s going to be a great way for us to keep getting regular playtests and do it pretty easily.”Ultimately the goal for Bungie is for players to not notice the upheaval on its end, but also to help other studios establish their own contingencies for tackling this crisis.
“Yeah, our goal absolutely is delivering on our 2020 product goals,” says O’Kelley. “All the things that we’ve been working on on the operations side is to set up our team to be able to do that. Making sure we get what we need from our community and then also put us in the position to support other studios too.”
“Part of the why I leap at the chance to have a discussion like this is we really want to be out there to help anyone else – I have a bunch of colleagues in this industry.
“We’re gonna have to take it a day at a time, and I’m sure there are certain things where – if we stay locked down for months and months – there are obviously certain types of things that you can’t do, like a motion capture shoot. We can’t have people come in and do motion capture, so that will limit some things that we can do. But we have agility… [and] our focus is on making sure we can keep delivering, absolutely.”
“Obviously it depends on the organisation and what kind of thing they’re doing – and I certainly feel for people in the entertainment industry where they just can’t. There are certain kinds of work that require that entirely in-person work, and that’s tough; I feel for that. I’m on the board of directors for a non-profit local arts organisation and they’ve had to completely scrap their season. It’s heartbreaking to watch that. We feel really blessed that we have an opportunity to keep going.
“I’d say that if you’re in the world of digital entertainment there’s a ton of opportunity to keep working at it and I would say take it in pieces, understand what your priorities are, really radically prioritise, and then do one thing at a time the best you can every day. And then the other thing is take it seriously. The big thing for us was up-front saying, ‘This is serious, folks; we need to actually have people pivot from their job that they were working on yesterday and focus on solving this.’ You don’t have to have the entire staff on this, obviously, but some dedicated people who are entirely focused on problem solving. And it’s hard work; kudos goes to the individuals who literally made a list of every single person in the studio and what their technology needs are, and they’ve been grinding through that list day by day to solve with them. That took time.”
Bungie recently published a post on Bungie.net outlining its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, its plans, and advice for other studios on maintaining staff wellbeing and business continuity.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter every few days @MrLukeReilly.