Animal Crossing for work: Is Shopify Party the future of the office?

Shopify built an Animal Crossing-esque internal tool where employees can explore fantastical virtual worlds.

A cluster of avatars on a virtual beach in Shopify Party.

Shopify built an Animal Crossing-esque video game for the office.

Image: Shopify Party

Shopify's solution for video fatigue? Building a free-play, internal game where employees have avatars and can race cars, hop on lily pads and run into caves. The game is called Shopify Party, and it's become the commerce platform's go-to way to make meetings, one-on-ones and other work events more fun.

The idea started with Daniel Beauchamp, a principal engineer, and Byron Delgado, a user experience lead, on the augmented reality/virtual reality team at Shopify. They were growing tired of back-to-back-to-back video calls, and brainstormed ways they could maintain employee interaction but also give people a break from their cameras.

"We built a quick prototype of something we would want to use," Beauchamp said. "And after using it for a little bit, we said, 'Wait a minute, this is actually really fun and provides a good break from the never-ending video call.'"

At first, the pair cast around for existing virtual-reality tools that combated video fatigue. They came up with nothing, except for office-recreation tools that relied heavily on video chat.

So instead, they drew inspiration from video games that exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Animal Crossing, with its cute animals and island paradise, was a helpful foundation. Some Shopify employees were already playing games together, but they had to have the proper devices and installations.

Over three months, they built out the tool, launching companywide in the middle of August. It's still in a beta phase, but Beauchamp wanted to test it out among Shopify at large. "It's too early to talk exactly about how much impact it's had on our employees, but anecdotally the feedback has been really great," Beauchamp said.

Employees don't need to install anything to access Shopify Party. It's as easy as sharing a link over email or Slack, allowing for casual, impromptu Shopify Party sessions. The company uses it for all kinds of work activities, from onboarding to catch-up meetings. Beauchamp hopes to further "encode Shopify's DNA" into the games, mimicking in-office rituals and processes.

Some people have told Beauchamp that Shopify Party eases anxiety and helps break the ice when participating in a large group discussion. Adam Mosher, a senior project specialist at Shopify, said several team members "have been much more engaged, open and talkative in Shopify Party compared to more traditional remote meetings."

When the game first launched, there was some initial distraction from work activities. "If you invite someone to Shopify Party for a meeting, you need to allocate 15 to 30 minutes for them to customize their avatar," Beauchamp said. Some workers opted to make their avatar their realistic self; some opted to be entirely purple with bat wings.

"There was definitely a period of just discovery," Beauchamp said. "People wanted to see what this world was about."

Rather than being like Mario Kart, with strict rules and a hard start and stop to the game, Shopify Party is a "sandbox encouraging free play," Beauchamp said. You can race cars on a track, or push some tires around. If all you want to do is dance around or hop, you can do that. "Once you've explored the world, you can find your favorite activity or spot in the world to hang out," Beauchamp said.

The goal, Beauchamp said, is to lean more into playfulness than productivity. There are plenty of tools for recreating whiteboards, presentations or meetings. Shopify Party is meant to embody the casual, social aspects of Shopify's work experience — like chatting about your weekend while playing ping pong.

"We had amazing areas in the office to explore and walk around that now are missing from that remote-first life," Beauchamp said. "So Shopify Party is a reimagination of what that can be."

Beauchamp encouraged other engineers out there to build their own interpretations of Shopify Party. "It's benefiting us internally, so there's no reason why it wouldn't benefit others as well," he said. Perhaps the future of remote work is less about Zoom meetings and Slack chats, and more about chatting with co-workers in a fantastical, metaverse version of the office.

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