News emerged this week that Quantic Dream studio was facing an investigation into harassment and discrimination as employees accused the firm of hosting a toxic studio culture of homophobia, racism and offensive humour.
Regardless of whether these allegations are true, it illustrates the importance of maintaining a positive atmosphere among any development team. It's never a bad time to question whether there's more you can do to support your staff, so GamesIndustry.biz reached out to a variety of studios to find out how they create a company culture their employees want to be a part of.
"If you want to make good, fun games that people will enjoy, then you need to ensure the environment that the people are being creative in supports this," Gram Games' culture developer Erin O'Brien tells us. "If you ensure that people are happy, comfortable, feel that they can be themselves and that they are creatively fulfilled, they're going to give their all to maintain that environment, and thus, the company as a whole.
"This is also the way that you end up with innovative, exciting products - if people feel that they can raise ideas, introduce games, and contribute to projects freely, you're far more likely to end up with games that are exciting, and push limits."
Long-serving games designer Brenda Romero adds: "Whoever you are, you work with your team. Every one of us is as important as everyone else, and that comes out in so, so many ways. The longer I'm in the industry, the more deeply I believe this. We all really want to make games and make them in a place where our efforts are recognized and rewarded and where we have a chance at making something good.
"It's also a part of the budget - plan to treat people well. I remember working at a place where we all had to chip in for coffee and the bosses drank for free. I was too young at the time to think it was anything but normal, but it's not something I'd emulate. We also had to pay if we wanted water from the water cooler. I laugh at that now, but my god, what obviously terrible ideas."
Encouraging a positive atmosphere can often boil down to getting your team to spend more time together - and not just working. This can nurture friendships or at the very least mutual respect (something that's vital to the efficiency of any team), but doesn't necessarily mean management needs to start shelling out on expensive team-building days and activities.
"Banter, jokes and laughs are part of our culture - but if it steps outside those behaviours, conflicts with our values or causes offense, we call it out"
Dave Lomax, Jagex
"How do you build a team - beer and pizza?" Dream Reality boss Dave Ranyard asks. "That is one way but if you look closer, you are always excluding some people, those who don't or can't drink, plus food can be quite divisive. Treat the team to a variety of events: cinema trips, museum, hiking, different food for meals. If this month's event does not suit someone, next month's will."
Ranyard offers the example of his own team's weekly Snack Club. Every Sunday, a different person makes something for the team and brings it in for the 11am Monday tea break. The CEO describes this as "a great way for people to share their heritage and preferences in a positive low key way."
He also suggests taking as many team members as possible to important industry events like GDC: "With cheap flights and Airbnb you can make a travel budget go a long way. This makes everyone feel valued and included. Get some people to speak at events so you don't need to buy passes for them and you increase their professional stature."
Often the root of toxicity in a negative environment is inappropriate or offensive humour. While it may seem like banter to those making such remarks, it can make others feel intimidated, uncomfortable or even unwelcome. But that's not to say your studio must become a humourless domain.
"Many people say 'my door is always open' but why have a door? Why not sit with the team and be part of them?"
Dave Ranyard, Dream Reality Interactive
"Games is a fun industry to work in and we don't want to stifle that by stopping people from expressing themselves," says Dave Lomax, Jagex's VP of HR and operations. "Banter, jokes and laughs are part of our culture - but if it steps outside those behaviours, conflicts with our values or causes offense, we call it out and line managers take on the responsibility as role models.
"The key is to trust each other to act appropriately, self-moderate and don't be afraid to challenge something that doesn't quite feel right - so that it never becomes the norm to offend."
Romero Games' chief architect Chris Gregan adds: "Banter is fine as long as nobody ever feels uncomfortable, personally attacked or bullied. A good manager will recognise when this is happening and have a quiet word with the person involved to cut it out. If the problem behaviour continues then the person involved needs to be removed from the team or the atmosphere will quickly turn toxic."
Gram Games' O'Brien observes that while managers are, of course, expected to deal with any situation that may arise, it's also important for members of the team to take responsibility for their actions. Staff need to consider the potential impact of what they might say.
Meanwhile, Sumo Digital's portfolio director Gary Dunn stresses the importance of managers paying full attention to their staff and any grievances they might have.
"You can't just instil or enforce a particular culture - it's a product of the people who work in the studio, the environment you create and the values you uphold"
Jon Gibson, Electric Square
"Listen to your team, directly and indirectly," he says. "We noticed that [several of] our staff wanted better common spaces, so we are acting on this - the new space should open in April.
"We keep our eyes and ears open and if we see anything overstepping the mark we work closely with HR to resolve any issue and re-educate people."
It's not just down to managers, studio heads and executives to deal with any toxic situations that may arise - it's also important for them to lead by example. Electric Square boss Jon Gibson says that managers and senior staff often "set the temperament in the office" and need to ensure their senior team shares a "considerate and progressive mindset".
Ranyard adds: "Many people say 'my door is always open' but why have a door? Why not sit with the team and be part of them?"
O'Brien suggests that, if possible, minimising the amount of management that staff have to deal with can also help. Gram Games prides itself on having no middle managers, no heirarchy so developers don't have to deal with "the nettles of bureaucracy". The result is a team that feels more comfortable putting themselves and their ideas forward.
It's also important staff know who they can approach if they do have a complaint, which is why all studios ought to have a HR representative or, as in Electric Square's case, a people and culture manager.
"Their job is to ensure the welfare of our staff, gauge the heartbeat of the studio and promote a healthy culture across our teams," Gibson explains. "But you can't just instil or enforce a particular culture - it's a product of the people who work in the studio, the environment you create and the values you uphold."
"It's well-proven that a more diverse team with differing backgrounds and viewpoints will produce better results"
Keith O'Conor, Romero Games
Keith O'Conor, technical director at Romero Games, observes that company culture "starts with the hiring process" - and not just for your people manager. Many of the developers we spoke to said they had a "cultural fit" part of their recruitment process to see how well new talent will gel with the established team.
"That doesn't necessarily mean hiring similar people," O'Conor warns. "It's well-proven that a more diverse team with differing backgrounds and viewpoints will produce better results. But it does mean hiring people with similar positivity, work ethic, enthusiasm, and dedication. We've found a good sense of humour is also a necessity."
Gibson adds: "Embracing diversity in the workplace is important - different backgrounds, experiences and skills lead to greater innovation and creativity - employees learn from co-workers whose life experiences, background, age, education, peers, style, and ethos differ from their own.
"But diversity isn't just about how you look, sound or choose to live your life - it's about diversity of thought - and to leverage value we need to be inclusive and create a work-environment where people don't feel they need to leave their differences at the door."
For managers, keeping a close eye on the office environment is easier when the company is smaller. Teams will more naturally bond where there are fewer people, but as a studio grows it becomes impossible for everyone to know all of their colleagues - particularly when your headcount gets into the hundreds. But it is crucial to maintain that positive culture as you expand.
"Early on companies often have that 'family' feel and it creates an exciting and inclusive environment, but it's hard to keep hold of that as you grow," Jagex's Lomax acknowledges. "That's why you need to have a focus on culture at the heart of your company.
"We don't just think about performance at an individual or company level based solely on what you achieved, but also how you went about doing it. We talk about behaviours, not in the sense that you must do this and mustn't do that but about why it's important to be open and honest, to take responsibility and understand the impact you can have on others - this is an integral part of our performance development process."
Toxic studio cultures can often stem from tensions among the staff, particularly when under pressure. Inevitably, the spectre of crunch enters our conversation and it's something studios must remain aware of if they want to ensure staff well-being.
"Every one of us is as important as everyone else, and that comes out in so, so many ways. The longer I'm in the industry, the more deeply I believe this"
Brenda Romero, Romero Games
"Actively strive to avoid crunch - from a cultural and operational point of view - but acknowledge the efforts and commitment from your team if the pressure is on and overtime is required," says Gibson.
"If someone is working extended hours or seems to be under a lot of pressure and stress, find out why and see what you can do to resolve the situation - in my experience, prolonged crunch is never the answer. Rested, relaxed, happy staff can achieve more in a standard eight-hour day than exhausted, demoralised burnt out staff can in 12 hours."
O'Conor adds: "Good preparation and planning can help alleviate much of that pressure. Managing expectations is essential to make sure that everyone involved are all in agreement on the exact details of the expected deliverable. That will avoid any last-minute misunderstandings that lead to undue stress and tension. Planning well ahead and continuing to refine the schedule - and staying realistic - keeps things manageable at the end, particularly if time is scheduled throughout production for bug fixing and the inevitable distractions that come with normal game development."
Finally, Ranyard suggests that being as open as possible about expectations on your current product and the time limitations the team faces can be instrumental in preparing developers for the more intense periods.
"Be honest and transparent about what is and is not happening," he says. "It is better to share good and bad news, rather than hide things. It will be worse when it comes out. Be honest about who is good at what, so that people support each other.
"Manage crunch and minimise crunch so that it only happens when absolutely necessary and not as a badge of honour."