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Phoenix Labs expands to Montreal and LA

CEO and co-founder Jesse Houston talks about the Dauntless developer's new studios and branching out into new games

When we spoke with Phoenix Lab co-founder and CEO Jesse Houston in January about the studio's acquisition by Singaporean mobile firm Garena, there were two key takeaways: Garena would help bankroll the company's growth, and Phoenix Labs was still laser-focused on its debut hit Dauntless.

Only one of those takeaways still holds true, as Phoenix Labs today announced that it is expanding with new studios in Los Angeles and Montreal, with both studios expected to work on new projects rather than Dauntless.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Houston says even the previous Phoenix Labs offices in Vancouver and San Mateo had begun work on new titles earlier this year as the company. It's described as a move to a new multi-studio vision for Phoenix Labs where each studio has its own new game explorations rather than any kind of transition away from Dauntless, which receives its largest update of the year this week and has more than 25 million players. In fact, Phoenix Labs upped its Vancouver headcount by 40% this year so it could have staff to work on prototypes without taking away from Dauntless.

These new studios and new projects also raise the question of what people can expect a Phoenix Labs game to look like if it's not Dauntless.

"We're very much a company that believes in reducing barriers of playing together"

"When we started making Dauntless, we thought about what kind of game we wanted to be known for," Houston says. "We want to bring people together through cooperative experiences, so I think a lot of the stuff you're going to see from us as we expand are experiences that are ultimately about playing with your friends, doing things that would otherwise be really difficult for an individual to do, like coming together to do something greater than themselves.

"You're probably not going to see a lot of Bioware-style RPGs, for example, coming out of Phoenix Labs. I wouldn't call it off the table, but we're very much a company that believes in reducing barriers of playing together, and being able to create an environment for both players and developers where they can find themselves in a game and then the people they want to be around. And having experiences that allow them to find community. I think that's a really key component to what all of our games will be about."

The Los Angeles studio is a little further along, Houston says, with a management team led by product director Omar Kendall and Phoenix Labs' Jing Wang serving as general manager. Both Kendall and Wang worked at Riot Games for a little shy of seven years, overlapping with Houston's own stint at Riot prior to the founding of Phoenix Labs. When Kendall left Riot to start his own studio, Houston says he suggested doing it at Phoenix Labs as a way to build the game he wanted to build, but without having to navigate the difficulties of venture capital to get there.

The Montreal team is just a handful of people at the moment, led by André Roy with Marie-Andrée Lavoie as lead of talent and culture initiatives and Guillaume Roy as head of technology. Houston has some history here as well, saying he worked for André for five years at Ubisoft Montreal, calling him "easily the best boss I ever had" and crediting André for whatever experience and leadership capability he has himself.

Lavoie has been working as a talent management consultant for creative businesses in Montreal for the past five years, with prior stints in HR at Ubisoft Montreal and other non-gaming businesses. As for Guillaume, he has extensive experience consulting in tech both inside and outside games, including (naturally) Ubisoft Montreal.

Neither the LA or Montreal has a physical location yet, but the plan is for both to have offices rather than rely exclusively on remote work.

"In our long play, I don't think we would ever turn ourselves into an entirely remote workforce versus keeping it up to the teams to figure out the way that makes them the most successful," Houston says. "We talk a lot about empowerment. Whatever way we can create a safe environment that the team feels they're going to be able to operate in the most effective fashion in, we're going to support that.

Across all four locations, Phoenix Labs has about 150 employees right now, and is planning on growing to about 250 by the end of 2021.

"As we think about the type of team we want to put together, it looks very different than it did in 2014"

In building these new studios, Houston has a chance to learn from past experience and not repeat a previous error. With the original Phoenix Labs, the first couple dozen employees were all veteran developers who had worked with him previously. As a result, they had a similar lack of demographic diversity to the studios and the industry of a previous generation. Phoenix Labs has since pivoted and Houston says now the leadership team is majority women or people of color, but it's something Houston has been mindful of with the new studio locations.

"When we first got started with Dauntless and Phoenix Labs, we didn't know what we didn't know," Houston says. "There was a huge effort from a number of folks internally to, if I'm just being honest, help us become better. And help us become more of what we aspirationally wanted to be... So as we think about the type of team we want to put together, it looks very different than it did in 2014. And the relationship we want our teams to have is really the 2020 version of Phoenix Labs. We want that diversity of thought and a place where no matter who you are, you can find people like yourself within our community."

Houston doesn't hesitate to talk about the company's emphasis on diversity, but he did wait for us to bring the subject up. He says it's important to do things like that more because they're the right thing to do than because of how they play in the press.

"Do it because you want to do it. And don't be proud of doing something we should be doing anyway. Creating an environment that is a safe place for people to work and be creative in and do their best work with a global peer group is important work, but it is not pride work. It's not 'brand' work, if you get what I mean."

Given Houston's history with (and habit of enlisting talent from) Riot and Ubisoft -- two companies who were exposed for having profoundly sexist workplace culture issues -- we ask how he ensures he's not overlooking similar issues in his own walls.

"If you are a member of Phoenix Labs and you harass somebody, I will put you into a cannon and fire you into the sun"

"This is a really important problem, not just for us but for our industry to resolve," Houston says, adding, "It's not OK for the world to take a stance where leadership can be oblivious. We must go out of our way to make sure we're not oblivious, so we have to put systems in place that allow for this. We have to ask. We have to seek to understand this as a regular thing."

Houston says Phoenix Labs has multiple people in the operations and HR side of the business that routinely check in with employees to see what issues they might have.

"It's one thing to say your culture does it and incentivize that. It's another thing to ensure that you have a frequent and active discussion going on in every part of the organization, making sure and checking in, so that's what we do. There's no, 'Well a certain person is really important to the company so we'll send them to training and hopefully they get better.' That doesn't honor the reality of a commitment to workplace safety. It just doesn't."

The phrase Houston likes to use is that people are the ends, not the means, of Phoenix Labs.

"In my opinion, if you're going to say you're a safe workplace, you must create at a policy level a zero tolerance policy," Houston says. "And that's what we've got, so if some person here sexually harasses [someone], they're fired. Every time, no matter who they are... We have an absolute zero tolerance policy for anything that looks like harassment. If you are a member of Phoenix Labs and you harass somebody, I will put you into a cannon and fire you into the sun. No holds barred, no questions asked. I will not tolerate, under any circumstances, an unsafe work environment."

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