The idea of companies having a unique culture isn’t a new one. Gather any group of humans together for eight hours a day and you’re automatically going to see cliques emerge, memes propagate and a variety of social dynamics form. What is new is the idea that a company’s culture within the games industry can be predestined through social engineering or by tightening requirements for new recruits. The idea being that a harmonious team is a productive team, especially when everyone is working for the same goal.
Perhaps it sounds strange to suggest that employees at a company wouldn’t necessarily be working towards a shared goal. In theory every member of a team is there to fulfill a need of the corporation, but in reality humanity rarely works that way. And individuals, complete with egos and desires and anxieties, will instinctively kick back against the idea of simply being a cog in a machine. There’s a lovely irony in the fact that a better way to get people to work together harmoniously is to highlight how different and unique they are.
So how does a company – whether that’s a publishing house, development studio or anything in between – create a culture that works for its needs? For starters, what is a good company culture?
“Company culture is a set of basic behaviours and attitudes that every employee should embrace and use as a foundation for interaction with others,” says Martin Hultberg, communications director at Sharkmob, a new studio in Malmö, Sweden. “It’s a social baseline of sorts.”
By that definition, a studio’s culture is a set of societal rules. So why would that differ between studios, when our western world already has a clear guideline for society, thrust on us from the moment we’re born? It’s because any company within the games industry is an entity unto itself, and these “basic behaviours” that Hultberg describes are more akin to an individual’s moral compass, their hopes, dreams and fears, than to societal norms. So when everyone in the company shares these, it will have a greater chance of being successful.
David Lomax, president of HR and operations at Jagex, puts it best by saying that “it’s about the character and personality of an organisation. Collectively, who are you, what makes you tick and how do you behave and react as a studio? Culture can be good, bad or – if disparate – you might not have a clear culture at all.”
Lomax goes on to explain that such a thing is never set in stone. If it’s toxic, it’s fixable. If it’s good, it needs to be maintained. “Jagex has a company culture, but it’s evolving,” he says. “Since the appointment of Phil Mansell as CEO in 2017, we have been proactively making steps to facilitate the forging of a more powerful company culture within Jagex, one that gives us a competitive advantage. At the heart of this evolution is our new company vision, mission and values. Key to a great culture is a collective understanding of the vision, our purpose and how each individual can play their part. That change is starting to take effect, it’s tangible – we want to deliver on our vision to be the home of living games and we recognise culture as a key ingredient.”
A strong set of shared values is something we’ll touch on a little later, but it’s not the only option when you’re looking to promote corporate cohesion. Tamsin O’Luanaigh, nDreams’ talent director, puts importance on keeping employees happy both inside and outside of work in order to maintain their productivity in the office.
“We place a huge amount of time ensuring the team works as a whole, that they have a platform to voice opinions and are actively listened to and, importantly, that they can enjoy themselves when they are here,” O’Luanaigh says. “We understand what it’s like to be under so much pressure to deliver at all costs and when you have a family, or other things outside of work, that can be hard to reconcile – so we try in our many little ways to help.
“The culture comes from the founders of the studio and the senior team. Patrick [O’Luanaigh, CEO of nDreams] and I had an idea about how we wanted the company to run and how we want to treat people. We are lucky in that we have a leadership team who shares that vision. You can’t just ‘create’ a culture – it evolves organically over time – but you do have to work hard to retain it, and you have to make sure that when faced with certain challenges you don’t forget what drove you to those decisions in the first place.”
Jagex’s Lomax agrees: “It could be argued that it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Of course, every individual contributes to a company’s culture, but it’s somewhat inevitable that they absorb elements too. That is what’s exciting about working in a growing company though. That’s where the evolution of culture really takes shape and it’s the company’s leadership that can help guide and steer those changes to help capture the best of us.
“The benefits are pretty fundamental, if I’m honest. A good company culture will not only help maintain or improve staff morale, it will help reduce staff turnover – something that every company should be looking to minimise when there’s such a limited talent pool. Having a good company culture can be inspirational for staff, and helps imbue a sense of pride in the games they develop, in the studio they work for, and ultimately in their work life. It also helps attract great talent; we are growing rapidly as a studio and it’s important that every candidate who walks through our door gets a real sense of who we are.
“In fact, I would go as far to say that building a good company culture is as valuable a strategic focus as the games we develop, it’s all connected to our success.”
Two of the biggest and most successful games studios in the world, Blizzard and Riot Games, both have a very specific set of company values. They also have huge campus style office complexes, tremendous perks for employees and, ultimately, enjoy fantastic success.
These studios, and there are doubtless others like them, follow the Silicon Valley formula of employee attraction and retention. Facebook and Google both have strong, public manifestos outlining each company’s goals and beliefs. They also have huge perks for employees – lure them in with promises of free gourmet food, nap times, slides between floors and keep them there with high salaries.
Except even highly skilled personnel need to run the gauntlet of the ‘culture panel’, to make sure that their “basic behaviours and attitudes” align with the company’s. Facebook, Blizzard, Google and Riot Games all make sure to screen applicants during the interview process to check this. The idea is that if everyone who enters the company is on the same page from day one, this can only benefit the company as a whole.
All of these corporations wear these manifestos on their sleeves, with them easily found on their websites. Blizzard and Riot Games share some similarities. Blizzard’s ‘Gameplay First’ value ties thematically to Riot’s ‘Players First’ promise, as does Blizzard’s ‘Embrace Your Inner Geek’ and Riot’s ‘Take Play Seriously’’. The full list of each contains inspiring (or perhaps nauseating to some) values such as ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Humble’, ‘Every Voice Matters’ and ‘Challenge Convention’. If these appeal to you, perhaps your next gig could be at one of these gaming monoliths.
But this won’t work for every company. In fact, some find the idea of dictating specific values to their employees against the idea of a corporate culture entirely.
“The culture can be encouraged by the company but in the end it is carried and shaped by the people working there,” says Sharkmob’s Hultberg. “So the company must keep an eye on the actual culture and relate to it – never letting it become an ungrounded, intellectual exercise.”
NDreams’ O’Luanaigh firmly believes the people within a company should shape its culture as an ongoing process. “It’s constantly evolving as the company grows,” she says. “We set the tone when we started the company, yes, but the staff now plays a huge part in helping steer the ship in the direction they want it to go in too. Why would you want to direct people to behave in a certain way? I can’t imagine you would get very positive results from a team that way.”
But just like at Blizzard and Riot, recruitment is the cornerstone, according to Jagex’s Lomax. Getting the right people in the door in the first place makes everything easier. “The growth of a company’s culture can be steered, harvested even,” he says. “But it takes time and you need to provide the right infrastructure and build the right team. Recruitment is key, you need to not only find the people with the right skillset, but also people who can contribute positively to your culture to support its ongoing evolution.”
A good sign that employees are interacting harmoniously is when they spend time together outside of work hours, without being paid for it.
“Socialising outside of work hours is important and we certainly see a lot of that at Jagex,” Lomax says.
“We use the workplace social media platform for a range of things, and one of them is to allow staff to create their own out-of-hours social groups. As a result, we now have a growing number of clubs at the company, whether that’s the mountaineering club or tabletop gaming group – there’s even rumblings about a comic book club starting in the future!
“None of these have been artificially created by executives, they’ve all started organically and helped foster our company culture. Of course, it’s not always necessary, but there’s no way a company can enforce their staff to socialise after hours – nobody likes ‘forced fun’! That said, we provide facilities and platforms to help that develop organically: we have our own onsite pub for example and more tabletop games than I can count.
“Out-of-hours socialising is a core part of company culture, and I think having that is perhaps indicative that a company is at the very least forming a good culture.”
For others, socialising is less of a core ideal and more of a nice-to-have. Hultberg believes there are more important signs of a healthy work culture.
“If people become friends to the point of socialising outside of work then that is awesome,” he says. “It is however not required, not by a long shot. The key is to have fun at work, feel comfortable and empowered.
“Game development is a creative craft and an artform. Pride is a natural outcome of a job well done, especially considering the passion and hard work that goes into it. That doesn’t mean you can’t maintain a sober approach to it though. A good company culture allows for criticism and opposing views too.”
Pride is a common theme among the developers we spoke to. Pride in one’s work, and the outcome of that work, is a noble goal that benefits both the individuals and the teams.
“We want people to feel proud to work at nDreams, because we take pride in all of the staff who work here and the games that we make,” says O’Luanaigh. “We don’t see that as creating a cult, it’s just more about being passionate about what you do, allowing the team to feel a sense of ownership of where they work and, hopefully, working with a great bunch of people who share a common goal.”
Once again, Lomax agrees: “Having pride in where you work helps to create a sense of belonging and that can have a powerful effect on your engagement – another way of looking at it is culture as the shop window of your people.
“A team with pride, a sense of belonging and high levels of engagement will have a more positive and impactful culture than those that don’t have those traits. As for feeling privileged, I think that we’re all fortunate to be able to work in such a growing industry as games.”