With half the world on lockdown, games developers, like many, have been forced to adjust to remote working. But what do you do if the game you’re making involves hour upon hour of studio filming?
That was the problem facing NotGames, the studio behind PC FMV game Not For Broadcast, currently in Early Access. The team was three days away from shooting the latest episode of this newsroom comedy when the UK government issued a nationwide lockdown order. The team had felt the lockdown waiting in the wings and were concerned about shooting safety, particularly since one of their performers was in a vulnerable group.
“Keeping our actors safe meant that filming in a full studio with crew, cast and team was simply no longer feasible,” says Andy Murray, CEO and co-founder of NotGames. Clearly, something had to change.
Putting production on hold was one option, but NotGames chose to embrace the situation. They had said they were going to deliver new content in May but it wasn’t just about keeping a promise. Alex Paterson, co-founder of NotGames (and a director, writer and artist on the Not For Broadcast) explains:
“Times like these are where people turn to art most and we thought that not only do we want our game to provide some laughs in a really challenging time, but that we had a really interesting opportunity to make something completely different and fascinating.”
Co-founder Jason Orbaum, also a director, writer and music maker for Not For Broadcast, raises the wider significance of the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown. “We had been planning to pivot the company for a full week before it was announced – just in case,” he says. “We also knew that the world had changed fundamentally, and that it may never be the same again, and a world event like that, in a political game… well, we felt it had to be addressed.”
NotGames chose to create a new Not For Broadcast chapter, outside of the game’s main story path. But in order to produce new, relevant content, they had to rethink their production and writing process, working within the limitations of lockdown.
“One rule of thumb we used was that although we were extremely limited practically and technically, we were not limited creatively. Therefore we wanted to push the creative as hard as possible,” Orbaum continues.
“We tried, where possible, to take advantage of where we could get more than one performer on screen at once,” adds Paterson. “We also had to bear in mind the technical restraints… we didn’t want the scenes to feel stationary or dull so we were mindful of keeping the pace moving.”
“Other writing considerations included the fact that lighting greenscreens wasn’t going to be practical for most performers, or indeed, setting anything in what we used to call ‘outside’, or even in a location that didn’t match the actor’s houses.”
One notable advantage NotGames had was, because it parodies news programmes, Not For Broadcast’s format was more suited to isolated filming than other FMV productions.
“The format is useful as a vehicle for explaining to the audience what’s going on in the world in a natural way. It’s also very common to see people reporting or being interviewed remotely so it doesn’t stand out as unrealistic or bizarre which is really handy,” Paterson notes.
Orbaum adds, “We looked for members of our cast who were in lockdown together so they could share a shot and we wouldn’t have every shot be a single person (although, thankfully, the news is often quite like that). I think we’ve managed to get some interesting interplay, and I’m so glad that actors date/marry other actors!”
While the news format may have done the team a favour, there were still major issues involved. NotGames couldn’t expect the actors to have access to production-quality equipment; instead, the team had to provide the technology themselves. What the team hadn’t taken into account was that webcams and microphones would be in short supply.
Denis Sewell, NotGames co-founder and director of photography on the project takes up the story:
“Buying the kit that we wanted proved harder than we initially thought, as most of the world needed webcams and mics to work from home, everywhere was already out of stock!”
“Once we had couriered the kit to the actors, the challenge was not over, as I had made sure that all the people receiving the kit knew how to set up and control all of it. On top of this we were at the mercy of internet connections – if they dropped it was game over for us!”
The reason for this was that a director had to be involved, albeit remotely, to manage the process. Orbaum discussed the issues that streaming presents: “From a director’s perspective, once everything is up and running, the actual process of rehearsing and shooting a scene is very similar and feels very natural.”
“The biggest problem is the lag … and the jerkiness making it hard to see actor’s micro-expressions and maintain comic timing,” he continued. “There’s a lot of trust involved! Unexpected disadvantages include having to work round times when the actor’s children are asleep so they don’t wander into shot, causing all sorts of licensing issues.”
Wandering children aside, there were other practical issues. The team discovered that a lot of the actors’ homes complemented the characters they were playing, which helped keep costs down in some areas.
“A big advantage is no cost for hiring locations as we can only use what each actor has available to them within their home,” explains Sewell. Some scenes still required sets to be shipped out, but the actors really came through for the team, going the extra mile to help things run smoothly. “It was amazing to see how accommodating they were,” Sewell continues, “even offering to paint walls and build flat pack furniture for us.”
“We managed some pretty impressive transformations in many of the other actor’s homes,” adds Paterson. “So although there were very abnormal restrictions, within the parameters we had there was still room to manoeuvre.”
The NotGames team has nothing but praise for both their co-workers and the actors involved in the lockdown production. “We’re very lucky to have an incredible cast who take challenges in their stride… we were so pleasantly surprised by how the actors threw themselves into making this really challenging logistical and technical nightmare happen,” says Paterson.
Orbaum echoes this sentiment. “I’ve been touched by the expressions of gratitude we’ve had from the cast and their recognition of the ambition of this crazy script. It’s been genuinely touching. They’re such an amazing and friendly and all round decent team.”
Sewell also hails the cast’s ability to put up with the technical hitches the production ran into. “Of course, the response from our cast was amazing and – most importantly from my perspective – patient; there was a lot of sitting around while they waited for me to solve any issues during the tech tests.”
NotGames has no plans to film additional Not For Broadcast chapters in this manner. “It would require a significant adaptation of the (currently) intended story with rewrites being the first of many issues,” explains Murray. But the team still pushed through the challenges they encountered, and when Not For Broadcast’s new content arrives in late May/early June, you can see the results for yourself.
I asked NotGames for their final reflections on this unorthodox production effort.
“During a really tough period for The Arts where a lot of people have lost jobs and income, the adaptability and accommodation of the people surrounding me and my NotGames Brothers and Sisters have helped us achieve something really special,” said Sewell.
“It’s great to have a team around you to support you even if we’re all stuck working remotely,” added Murray.
Orbaum lauded the accomplishments of the whole team. “When the chips are down, you are forced to make incredible creative leaps and, if you do it, other people will leap with you. The whole team, cast and devs, are like a little community making this weird and beautiful thing and we all rise or fall together. Blitz spirit, baby!”
But it’s Alex Paterson’s words of wisdom that, perhaps, will ring truest with anyone working from home: “Going to work in your pyjamas is not as good as I thought it would be.”