The games industry’s many company cultures have never been under the microscope to the same extent they are today.
On one side the pandemic has thrown the rulebook into the bin, forcing our industry to work remotely for the last 18 months, a period that looks to now be coming to an end. Providing everyone with a clear opportunity for permanent and far reaching changes in how we work.
On the other hand, toxic studio cultures have once again been laid bare, with accusations of deplorable behaviours at Blizzard over many years. They aren’t the first and they certainly won’t be the last. Meanwhile the ongoing debate around crunch and overwork once again raised its head on Twitter in the last week.
So a good culture looks to something that every company needs. But just what is studio culture? How is it created? How do you make it ‘good’ rather than ‘toxic’? And what use is a good culture once you have it? For all that we turn to CCP London’s studio director, Adrian Blunt.
We start with a deceptively simple question, what is studio or company culture?
“My take is that, it’s the who, it’s the people in the organisation. It’s effectively the personality of the company, that you both project outwardly, but also inwardly. And it comes from the way people interact with each other,” Blunt replies.
“The best cultures, I think, really live the values of the company. In our case: excellence, courage, unity and honesty. Those are the values that CCP has. It’s inevitably led from the top down. So the leaders of the studio drive that personality within the studio.”
And to that end they are also responsible for that culture and the outcomes of it. “Absolutely, it’s the responsibility of the people leading the studio. And they’re ultimately accountable for that culture, and they’re responsible for ensuring that the culture really is one that drives inclusivity throughout the studio,” he points out encouragingly.
People, values, leadership – that wasn’t too hard, though it can’t be as simple as that surely? How then do you go about turning those ingredients into a culture?
TOOLING IT TOGETHER
Blunt is clear on the key element to establish a positive culture. “You need to start from an element of trust.” He references both Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions in that. Famous examples of the needs of a successful team or society.
“It really comes down to safety. I think creating psychological safety within the studio really is the building block for how you start to create a culture. And from that, it allows everybody within the studio, once they feel safe, to challenge themselves, challenge each other, it supports positive conflict within the studio. And it creates that fabric that really promotes creativity.
“Making games is inherently difficult, there are so many facets to making games, so many ideas that need to surface. And so creating a culture that is inclusive, in terms of its makeup of people, but also in the way that people think. That then really allows ideas to come forward and for people to feel really comfortable in doing that.”
Culture then forms a bedrock upon which people can be themselves and express themselves, one that must celebrate difference, as otherwise groupthink can quash good ideas before they’re even heard. Although it’s not like switching on a light.
“It’s an ongoing process, you can’t just turn a culture on, you can’t checklist a culture, you have to grow it. And it is the responsibility of the leadership of the studio to really foster that and to remove any obstacles from the creation of a diverse and inclusive culture.”
CULT OR CULTURE
If you’re looking for a good analogy, culture is a road, you set clear signposts and smooth the way, you can’t force march a team into a culture, but you can present them an attractive path.
“It is part of the evolution of a culture, that you can’t just impose something, you can’t just say: ‘right now everybody’s going to work in this mould, this is us as a studio, and everybody conforms to that’. That just doesn’t work. If you want to change the culture, you have do it gradually, you can’t just change something on a whim, because you have to have people behind it, they have to believe it.”
And there’s never been a better time than now to make changes. “I’ve had the opportunity to come into a studio that has been working remotely,” Blunt points out, having been made studio director during the pandemic. “And now we’re moving into what happens post-pandemic, and so it’s an opportunity to really look at what we want. So it’s a really unique position.”
And a key part of creating a forward-looking culture is to tackle the habits that people have fallen into over time: “Also if you need to change habits in a culture, those things take time, you need to seed ideas, integrate ideas, and really find people within the studio that are very proactive and champion those ideas and build on them. Then you can start to see momentum behind the change in a culture.
“There are pitfalls in that changing habits is both very slow, but it’s also very easy to go back to previous habits. And you have to be able to stay the course. And it’s a constant drive to really change habits. And I’m not saying that we necessarily have bad habits within the studio, but if you are changing culture, if you are doing that, then you need to constantly reinforce that.”
Culture is an essential part of the studio, so a change in culture changes the studios very nature, even if the name above the door remains the same.
“There will inevitably be people within the studio that will not accept that change,” Blunt notes. “And it’s OK to part with those people. Sometimes it is beneficial to a studio culture for those people to move on, for the good of the overall studio. It’s always hard. But you have to accept that there is going to be churn in that.”
It’s inevitable that not every culture will suit every employee, however inclusive in its design. While low staff churn is generally desirable, within any sizeable developer a nearly static workforce is often a warning bell too.
And speaking of staff coming and going, a studio’s choice of project is often another key factor in attracting, or parting ways, with staff. So how then does the project, the game, affect the culture of the studio?
“The two are definitely intertwined. People will join a studio, but they will also join a project. And so there is a shared mindset there,” Blunt notes. “We were very conscious of that,” he continues, especially given CCP London is “a relatively new, single game studio, creating a new experience.” But building a culture to serve the project isn’t as simple as hiring fans of a certain genre.
“If I look across the type of people that we’ve got, everybody believes passionately in what we’re doing. I think that’s important. I think the intertwining of a project and the culture is that there’s that belief, and there is an excitement about the game.
“But everybody’s diverse in the types of games that they play – as gamers, they’re very, very different. And I think that diversity of thought is going to create the magic in [our] game that we need. I think if you’ve got everybody focused on a very similar, very straight thing, you end up with a very specific experience.
“So I think creating something magical, through diversity, is really where we want to get to,” and that’s in both diversity of people and diversity of thought. “It’s how the things that they enjoy playing will impact the game. And that then helps culture as well. It allows people to have very different experiences, but find commonality. And I think that’s really the gelling of that culture.”
Of course the game goes beyond the studio, so does the culture which created the title then kickstart the community culture for the game?
“If I look from past experience, studio culture doesn’t necessarily need to reflect a community culture, you’ve got two sides. And there’s many very different facets in that, but they don’t necessarily need to be linked. Communities form around specific things, communities will build around a commonality that they experience within the game.
“That said, we have the opportunity with a new game to create a community. We look at the team that we’re building and the culture that we have around the studio, and creating a community that is intertwined with that culture and shares our values, I think is a wonderful ambition to have. Like-minded people building a game for a like-minded community, I think is a great ambition.
On a more specific note, CCP London Studio’s game is based in the same universe as Eve Online, although Blunt is keen to establish a fanbase that expands upon that one, rather than one that’s simply within it.
“We’re creating a game that’s going to attract its own player base, just like Dust 514 did. And so that gives us the opportunity to mould that or help craft that community and support that community in its own unique way. You can’t just ignore existing communities, there’s so much that we can learn from them and all the feedback that we can get, but we are creating something unique.”
The Eve Online community is amongst the longest-standing and most dedicated in games. However even its complex internal culture is nothing compared to that of say Western Europe. Which is the background culture that CCP, or any UK-based game studio, will largely draw its staff from. How then does that background culture affect the makeup of the studio, and how much can it change around the globe.
“I think every studio I’ve ever worked at has had its own unique culture. Though always an element of the wider games development culture. But each studio has got different leadership, a different makeup within it. And I think those uniquenesses of cultures come from celebrating the individuals and celebrating the differences and uniqueness of that particular makeup,
“I’ve had the opportunity to work in different countries in the games industry. And I think there is a geographical flavour that does resonate within UK game development. Game studio cultures are very different to North American, they are very different to Asian cultures. It does create a unique flavour. But increasingly, the studios are made up of so many different nationalities, so many different cultures of where people have come from.”
Of course diversity of cultures is something that Britain is well known for. “I think as a studio, especially within London, it’s really important that we respect that. And we’re mindful that we are a melting pot from that perspective. We have to find the commonalities and differences that blend and celebrate that because I think that really will drive that diverse thought within the studio.”
Diversity of thought is obviously important, but what about the sharp end of diversity – getting more women, more people of colour, more minorities working in studios. As a growing studio, based in London, CCP is better placed than many even, so what’s the reality of trying to hire outside the usual candidates and how can culture help.
“I fundamentally believe it’s not just important for us as a studio and an industry, it’s just something we need to celebrate in all aspects of what we’re doing,” Blunt replies. “We’re building up the studio right now, and it’s at the forefront of our minds as to the future employees of the studio and the future members of the studio. That’s really where we can bring that diversity in.
“So we’re focusing a lot on those efforts. Specifically, we have established a diversity and inclusion committee within the studio that’s looking at all aspects. We know we’ve got a long way to go on this, and as an industry, we have a long way to go on this.
“We’re focusing a lot on education. Because fundamentally, if you are going to improve diversity within the industry, you need to focus on what the barriers are for people entering into the industry. It’s not just about employing a diverse group of people, it’s about creating as many opportunities as possible within it.
“Right now, there are large groups of people in the UK that do not see the industry as a career path… they don’t see a way in. So creating those opportunities and supporting those opportunities at the grassroots level: working with schools, and there’s some amazing schools that are starting to do this, such as ELAM in East London, as well as bodies like Into Games, helping create paths, create opportunities, through scholarship, through education, through introductions into the industry, those are the things that are really going to drive diversity, it’s not going to be a short term thing. It is very much a long term approach.
“Intern schemes, apprenticeship schemes, allow people to come into the industry through whatever means they can. If you imagine the start of the industry, nobody had a degree, you didn’t go to university to make games. As the industry has matured, those barriers have come in. It’s now really expensive to go to university, so it’s excluding people.
“Forming scholarship schemes, things like that will increase the pool of candidates that we have of creators that can join the industry. I think that’s really where we’re going to see that diversity. Being involved in those initiatives, sponsoring those, as well as providing education from our own creators that we’ve got. Talking about the industry, talking about how you can get into it. I think that’s something we all have to focus on.”
BACK TO THE OFFICE?
In the more immediate future, the aim is to find the culture’s new normal, to transplant the studio back into a physical space, at least some of the time.
“The pandemic has reshaped our lives. Priorities have shifted, there’s a focus on family, and that closeness, that bond that we’ve all had with our families, has changed people’s outlook.
So as a studio, we need to be flexible, and incorporate that. Whilst we’ve always prided ourselves in being family friendly, it’s really heightened that for the better, I think we will all benefit from that.”
And as we benefit from the new normal of flexible working as staff, will that also benefit the games that we are working on?
“I believe so… You’re removing stress from people, and I think if you remove stress out of people’s lives, it just allows creativity to really come together. The ideal world is when people want to come together and make that game. I think, by focusing on that flexibility and families and all of the aspects that we’re seeing coming out of the pandemic, I think it will allow for creativity to grow in new ways.
“I think the games coming out of the pandemic are going to be exceptional, I do fundamentally believe that.”