Where are your docs?

Google Docs is a strong and full-featured collaboration and document management tool that I prefer over any other, but 3rd parties like publishers are understandably concerned about confidential game development materials on Google servers they can’t control. However many of the alternatives used in game development for document storage, access and management have flaws that make them non-ideal for a game development environment.

Problems

Many document control systems have the following problems that have inhibited wide adoption on game development teams:

  • Files are locked when in use – Windows Shares, Perforce
  • Files must be checked out before editing – Perforce
  • Files are accessible to publisher – Perforce (when using the publisher’s P4 server which is common in work-for-hire arrangements)
  • Files can’t be edited by multiple user simultaneously – Perforce, Wikis, MS Office (prior to Office 365)
  • No support for tables with calculations and logic – Wikis
  • Limited media support – Wikis
  • Version control not available – Windows Shares
  • Data resides on 3rd-party server – OneDrive, Office 365, Google Drive

ownCloud

logoownCloud is open-source, self-hosted software for file-syncing and document management. ownCloud is installed on an internal Linux server. Much like Google Docs, ownCloud allows for seamless file-syncing between multiple PCs, real-time editing of documents and spreadsheets, and robust user restrictions. Optionally, it can be opened up to external individuals like a publisher, outsource provider, or other collaborators, for instance to grant them access to specific folders.

More information about ownCloud is available on the project website.

As of June, 2016 the original founders of ownCloud have forked the project and created NextCloud. While development on the new project looks promising it’s too early to say if it will be a better solution than ownCloud currently offers.

Pros & Cons

  • [+] It’s in your control – Self-hosted means publishers are less likely to object to it like 3rd-party document control like Google Docs. You can secure it as much or as little as you want.
  • [+] Real-time multi-user editing – Multiple users can simultaneously edit the same rich text document, much like Google Docs (web interface)
  • [+] Seamless file-syncing – Optionally, some or all folders and files can be synced across a team’s PCs, or accessed on-demand (much like Dropbox)
  • [+] Web-based – Most activities are performed within a web browser and require no specialized software
  • [+] Robust user controls – It’s easy to manage users and groups to have access to specific files or folders and read-only permissions
  • [+] Versioning – ownCloud saves prior versions of all files
  • [+] Extensible with apps – Community-made apps are available to extend ownCloud functionality. For instance, sending Slack notifications when files change.
  • [+] Open Source – The ownCloud project is entirely open source allowing for easy auditing of its code and the ability to fork or modify the code.
  • [] Limited editing support for documents – ownCloud online editing only supports plain text and odt files and, when collaborating, is missing key functionality like ‘undo’. It’s not nearly as feature-rich as Google Docs
  • [] No Excel/spreadsheet support – Excel files can be read in the web view, but can’t be modified collaboratively (they can still be shared/synced/versioned)
  • [] Server is Linux-only – Some IT teams may not have the desire or skills to manage a Linux server running ownCloud. Without formal support from the distributor we may not be able to quickly resolve issues

Findings

While OwnCloud is an effective way to store, sync and version control any type of project file, its document editing features are (a) only available in the web client, and (b) only support odt files, and Excel files are read-only. In short, you can’t create or collaborate on documentation at the quality level you’d expect in OwnCloud. OwnCloud may still be a viable alternative to Confluence, Perforce, and a Windows Share for document storage and propagation even though it doesn’t offer meaningful real-time collaboration solutions.

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