sega logo
Formerly known as: Secret Level
Location: San Francisco, CA
Industry: Video games
Employees: ~80
Tools used: JIRA, Confluence & FishEye

As part of our participation in the Game Developer Conference 2010 in San Francisco, we interviewed a number of our game development customers. Sega Studios San Francisco, formerly known as Secret Level, happens to be right down the street from our San Francisco office and were willing to chat.

Founded in late 1999, Secret Level shipped America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier for Xbox, as well as Final Fight: Streetwise and Karaoke Revolution. Near E3 2006, Sega was convinced to purchase Secret Level. Sega was impressed with their technology and their initial start on Golden Axe Beast Rider. After the takeover, the game development studio evolved into a larger operation; after 2 years of growth and expansion, they released both Iron Man and Golden Axe for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. More recently, the studio pushed out Iron Man 2, which was tied to the release of the mega-blockbuster movie.

We were fortunate to be invited into the modern Sega Studios San Francisco office for a chat with Chris Sipe, IT Manager, Mike Thyau, Producer and Buzzy Spain, CTO. We’ve published the highlights from the interview into the video and transcript below.

Video interview

The Transcript

About them

So who are you and where are we?

I am Chris Sipe and am the IT manager at SEGA Studios in San Francisco, CA. I have been at the company almost three years. We were formerly known as Secret Level. SEGA is our parent company, they are our publisher. The IT department is 3 people to support 80, and that includes our build admin who manages our day to day builds of the game.

My name is Buzzy Spain, and I’m the Engineering Programing Manager for the Engine and Tools Team. I have been here a year and a half now working on the development of our most recent game. I have been here for 3 and change total.

My name is Mike Tyau, I’m one of the producers here at San Francisco SEGA Studio. I’m also one of the JIRA administrators for the JIRA bug database and task tracking database. I’ve been here a little more than 2 years, and am part of the Production Team, so all the producers, senior producers, assistant producers — all the people that help out the development in tracking their tasks and making sure everyone gets their tasks done on time. There is about 7 of us.

Can you tell us about your office?

We are at about 80 people. We are entirely a game development studio, so we’ve got the design team, game play team, audio, IGC [In Game Cinematics], and then an engineering staff, and of course an operations and support team on top of that.

Game Development

What gaming platforms do you develop for?

This studio is working on XBox 360 and Playstation 3. Off and on we have messed around with other platforms, but those are the ones we mostly develop for. The run time is mostly C++, we do support some scripting language stuff for pieces of the game play. Typically the tools and some of the data formats are often XML and C#. We don’t have any Python at this point, or any Java or PHP.

What software development methodologies does your team use?

The closest thing that we do is probably closest to Scrum, it’s fairly informal. I wouldn’t say that we subscribe very strongly [to any single methodology].

How important are software development tools for game development?

That’s the heart of it. You’re not going to make a game without good tools. That’s the velocity and agility that your team gets to work with. If you have good tools, and have someone that changes a design, you can change with them; if you don’t, you are stuck. You will not be able to regenerate data or won’t have the design team able to change the level fast enough or the characters or the animation, or whatever.

How is software development changing within the gaming industry?

I think the game industry is coming out of “a couple of guys sitting around and coding like crazy.” It’s getting to be a little more mainstream in terms of its process with some of the other business side software development processes from internet industries and more traditional software development permeating in. There is also an element in games where you have artists instead of users, you are dealing with 3-D and 2-D art that is different than what your average users needs out of business UI. So, there are going to be some concessions so it won’t just look like a clone of what happens in a bank developing software. Process-wise, it will be moving towards that style of development. There’s lots of other changes; new tech, hardware is better, we can push more verts through the pipelines and better pictures.

How long was the Iron Man 2 project?

Pre-production was only 6 months, the actual production has been a year, which is very fast to make a video game. Other dev companies are given about 4 years. That is one of the disadvantages of being tied to a movie, a Marvell property. You have to jump when they want to you jump through the hoop. Within that time-frame, we have made a great game.

Atlassian Tool Use

How did Atlassian tools make their way into SEGA?

Our old president, Jerry Gordon, heard of JIRA and other Atlassian tools. We were researching what the right bug database we were going to use for one of our older projects. I actually used to use JIRA at the old company I worked at, not extensively, I used it as a user and did some workflows, so I had some experience with that. So, I was asked to evaluate JIRA against DevTrack, both, in the end served the same purpose and our end goal, but I believe it was not just the price difference that attracted us to JIRA, but more the ease of use and simplicity – it was web based, we didn’t have to launch a separate application just to see bugs on our PC. It made things really really easy, and customizable.

What Atlassian tools do you currently use?

We use Confluence for our enterprise wiki, JIRA for our bug tracking task tracking and bug database tracking system. The bug tracking system is extensively used with SEGA of America, our parent company, and also with SEGA of Europe, another sister company. We use JIRA for bug tracking and some departments use it for project tracking. We really need to start using it as a Project Management tool, but haven’t tapped into it all that much yet.

How many people, would you guess, are using our products across the company?

Just about everybody is using Confluence. Not everybody uses JIRA, but everyone is aware of Confluence as our primary repository of information. The Game Play team lead love wikis and forces all of his direct reports to blog to their Confluence page everyday. So I don’t know if that is how it was intended to be used, but it depends on the leader of the team and how they want to use the tools. As the IT admin, I’m just happy they are using it. FishEye has been extremely helpful too to certain people when they are looking for a bug and able to track it down with the connection to Perforce.

How many projects and issues do you have in JIRA?

When we first started using JIRA, there were 3-4 projects. Our company was a lot larger with more projects. Currently, we are using it for 1 main project, for our main Iron Man 2, our main video game we are working on now. I like the flexibility and the ease of use, how easy it is to start a new project, I mean, people didn’t beleive me when I said ‘I could start a new project in about 5 minutes, and get you up and running.’ It’s easy to start off, add users, etc.

Have you customised Atlassian products in anyway?

I believe I’ve done the most customizing here because I set up the [JIRA] workflows. It takes a little learning to set things up. I believe JIRA made it as easy as steps 1, 2, 3 to set up a workflow. It wasn’t very hard, I didn’t have to learn how to program, or learn Java, or any type of scripting just to set it up. An easy web based tool. Being web based made it very very easy, and I liked it because I could use it remotely instead of just staying on our own internal network. That made it really easy.

How are the tools used in the game development lifecycle?

Each dev team has their own way of working in using both Confluence and JIRA for task tracking. Each team wants to use the product differently. One team wants to use a schedule, one team wants a chart of milestones they want to bang out, another team wants to get so scrutinizingly detail oriented where they want every single task of every single day tasked to them done in JIRA, another team just wants a calendar. So, there is a big range of usability with both Confluence and JIRA, JIRA being the most detail oriented and also as we start going into full productions, it’s the main bloodline of how we track bugs.

When we start talking about how we use the other dev tools of Confluence and before we did bug tracking; we used Confluence for that because it was a repository to group ideas, or beginning steps or beginning building blocks of what we need to do in pre-production before we start doing the full blown programming of a game. That was really easy to start to use. Like the design team, each person has their own homepage and can blog or write what is going on in their department and I think we used to have an older wiki which was a huge headache. The beauty of Confluence is once everyone started using it, it was the main central area, or central portal where you could go to find out ‘OK what’s going on with the overall team, where do I go for my latest news of what’s going on with our current project?’ and Confluence made it very easy to do that. It also depends on the time-line.

Are there any non-Atlassian tools that you use heavily that integrate with the Atlassian products?

We definitely use Microsoft Project on the production side. The time that we started using JIRA, there wasn’t a plugin that we were happy with, so our old president Jerry Gordon just programmed his own plugin for it to export data in and out of JIRA. So that was amazing and helpful. Pencil and paper, excel spreadsheets, anything to track what’s going on. I think in a larger scale, we use Microsoft Project when we start talking about larger road maps and time-lines of things.

What would you tell another game dev shop if they were considering using Atlassian tools?

Very easy to use, and nicely integrated together where both Confluence as an enterprise wiki can integrate with a tracking tool like JIRA. It’s great that I can wake up every morning and sign on to JIRA and say ‘OK, what bugs have been created in Japan and what bugs have been closed in Europe or the other office of our QA team, what bugs have they filed with us and get reports on that immediately, that’s pretty cool to have.

How are you using Confluence?

Documentation. That’s one of the reasons we brought it in, just to start documenting. Doing our documentation for our in-house applications, not even the game itself, but our in-house applications. As we know, 2 or 3 very important programmers started those applications, and then they aren’t here anymore, so it’s pretty important that the info they put up when the started the application is still there.

Game devs also need to get the technical docs of specs of what the game is. So, we used the export to PDF which was kind of nice, we just laid out all the tutorials and documentation and then delivered and updated doc.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in one of our game development interviews: Zynga on game development tools.

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