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How Splash Damage’s values turned the studio into a game development family

2,600kg of coffee, 66,000 tea bags, 21,000 bananas, 21,000 apples and 1,000kg of grapes.

Splash Damage’s army of 357 definitely marches on its stomach. This is a non-exhaustive list of what the Bromley-based game studio consumed over the last 12 months, even if co-founder and CMO Richard Jolly admits with a smile that he’s personally added substantially to that list since the last time the company tallied it up.

But it isn’t just its gigantic catering bill that has seen Splash Damage become the first video game developer of its kind to appear on the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list in 2018, slotting in at No.47. Appearance on this list is dependant on the testimonials of employees working at the company. It comes at the end of a redemption arc for a company which, Jolly says, experienced an exodus of talent after a project wrapped up, causing the management to question not just how it made games, but how it could create an environment where employees could thrive.

The company has, after all, come a long way since the three co-founders came together as friends in 2001. Keeping morale high in the early days involved going to the pub together after work, something Jolly says is a little tougher now there’s nearly 400 employees. Splash Damage’s local pub, I’m reliably informed, still does fairly well out of its proximity to the developers though.

So, Splash Damage’s management set about creating a workplace that was as warm and inclusive as when it was a few friends developing mods. This started with an employee survey, asking what those within the company felt the company’s core ideals were. With some refinement, these became a series of values to which the company holds itself. Splash Damage wasn’t just looking for rockstar talent anymore, it was looking for people that could fit in with the company’s values (see Values below), to come together as a team, rather than individual egos.

Commiting to these core values was “transformational,” with Jolly saying the only regret was that the changes weren’t made sooner. He’s also surprisingly honest about the company’s former failings: “I remember some of my early days, I was standing behind people giving feedback, saying ‘that’s shit change it’. And then wondering at the end of the project why they all hated me,” he says.

Jolly mentions that the team that originally came together didn’t really have any idea how to be managers. And not just the original co-founders, but also a lot of their early employees, promoted from junior roles within the company.

“There’s a certain amount of self awareness that came from these failures that we had as a team with regards to management,” Jolly admits.

After changing its values, the company set about changing its yearly appraisal system, which most of the studio agreed was fairly useless, replacing it with a series of one-to-one chats with direct management over a six month period. Each month covers a different topic, whether it’s how managers can work better with subordinates or what an employee’s long-term career goals are. At the end of the six month arc, employees are subject to anonymous peer reviews which both celebrate their successes but also provide a space for employees to realise weaknesses early and take corrective measures. Then Splash Damage looked at putting a management training program in place.

“When you promote someone into a management role often no one gets any training at all, and we never did when we became managers,” Jolly says. “We wanted to try and help ease that journey for either people who want to become managers or people who recently became managers.”

The program tries to teach people how to give criticism, how to communicate a message and the other soft skills that are so valuable but so often overlooked in game development. The team also goes through personality profiling, to help people understand how to work together better.

Autonomy at Splash Damage is high, with Jolly mentioning that his ultimate goal is to make himself redundant in the process, with staff empowered by management to make decisions but also guided well enough to ensure that they’re the correct choices.

Values

Splash Damage interviewed many of its staff to put together an internal list of values that it uses to inform everything it does. It has compared these to game design pillars, which are used to decide the direction of a project whenever an important judgement call has to be made.

These values are the ‘pillars’ for Splash Damage’s corporate culture. When a decision has to be made about the company’s culture, they’re made using these as a guide:

-We’re intensely loyal

-We’re friendly and trusting

-We’re self-reliant

-We put the team first

-We express a can-do attitude

-We pursue mastery

For Alex Wright-Manning, Splash Damage’s senior recruitment manager, recruiting for the firm is actually easier than a lot of other studios. Wright-Manning discusses a value proposition and says that many employees want to work somewhere where they feel they’ll be looked after and can feel like part of a team. Something that the company’s values make easier.

For him, the Sunday Times 100 Best award feels like a sign that the mainstream media is recognising the value of games, and is acknowledging that the medium has grown up, something he says is “about time.”

“We want to be an employer of choice,” Wright-Manning adds, “so things like the award, they only serve as markers for us to say: ‘look, we are an awesome company, come and work for us’.”

It certainly does seem like a family. Everyone I talk to throughout the day seems happy to be there, and a poster in the bathroom advertises both a Super Smash Bros tournament taking place in the office after hours, and also a karaoke night that I was later invited to and warned away from within the same sentence.

Outside of a workplace family, Wright-Manning notes that several people are starting actual families, too. He says it’s a positive: “If people feel safe and secure enough to start a family when they’re working for you, you know you’re doing something right.”

After its buyout last year by Leyou Technologies Holdings, Splash Damage is rapidly staffing up, with the company doubling in size over the past twelve months. As we talk, the building next to its office is being kitted out to act as a second office while it looks for bigger and better digs.

“Ordinarily that would be challenging, both from a logistical standpoint and also from a culture standpoint. You know, you bring people in and you die with your culture. There is that danger,” Wright-Manning says about the difficulties of recruiting at this scale. “But because the values here are so set in stone, we actually hire against those. Everyone who walks through the door, we look at their technical ability and their experience but we also talk to them and evaluate them against our core values. So we could have the best programmer in the world, who’s an absolute rockstar, they could be incredibly technical, world-class talent. But, if they don’t meet our value requirements, then we don’t hire them. And that’s why, I think, we’ve continued to grow and to develop as a company, because we’re hiring people who are all moving in the same direction.”

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