The Burnout and Need for Speed developer has undergone quite a change since the departure of its founders.
“Since 2014 we've been very specific and deliberate in reinventing how we think games should be made,” begins Criterion GM Matt Webster.
“We felt that for too long games have been made in the same way based on principles that are two decades old - principles that largely eschew empowering and motivating people for command and control leadership. We were inspired by Daniel Pink's book, Drive, which studies what motivates people and combined it with lessons learned through our past developments and those learned by other EA teams. We've developed a completely new way of working.
“Everyone who has been a part of this or who has visited us in the past two years totally feels this difference and they also see it in the way that we work and our working environment.”
Webster says they've made this change whilst retaining what made Criterion famous over the past 20 years. The company prides itself on giving power to its staff, and even reserves two days during a project to something called 'Off The Grid', which allows the team to work on whatever they choose as long as it wasn't scheduled in the last milestone.
“Everything we've changed was to make the switch from a small cabal of people pushing instruction towards a large team to developing the ability to apply the wisdom of our team to solve the complicated problems of large scale video game development,” Webster says.
Criterion was one of the highest scoring studios from the Best Places To Work awards, and singled out specifically for avoiding crunch.
“It's clear to us that crunch reduces your capacity, so it's a mistake to think it gets more done,” Webster adds. “To crunch a team is the easy choice - it takes more discipline to go home and get a good night's sleep than to keep plugging away. Having a team that's alert and well-rested means that you can always make great decisions. Now, saying that is one thing, putting it into practise is another.
“Through aligned goals and clear priorities people on the team are able to select what they want to work on. This level of autonomy is really powerful as it empowers people to take hold of what they are doing, how they are doing it and whom they're doing it with. It's highly motivating and we all know that motivated people do their best work. Clearly aligned and communicated goals in which the team are intimately involved with leads us to be better at planning.”
Hutch was formed by five former PlayStation employees eager to create free-to-play mobile racing games, and over six years has grown to 55 staff, 7 games and 130m players.
“We work hard to find people that are aligned with our vision,” says CEO Shaun Rutland of the company's growth. “We keep the game development teams small, with new starters joining established teams to help embed them into the company's culture more comfortably. Each growth phase has come after a major milestone in the business, so we grow, we learn and we internalise the learnings from successes and failures to then grow again.”
The company boasts a transparent and open work culture, and even allows its staff to work from home two days a week.
“Amongst numerous benefits, our work from home policy and culture of small teams are appreciated the most,” Rutland says. “These have encouraged a feeling of trust between the business and our people, laying the foundation for a united, honest team.”
Hutch is currently on the lookout for a new home near its current office in London.
“We value open spaces in which our employees are able to socialise and collaborate,” Rutland continues. “It's important our next studio has the space to encourage interaction and make an office feel like a home for the team.”
Playground's score on the Best Places survey was one of the highest of the lot. And the reason is that they do surveys of themselves to understand issues and fix them before they develop into something far more negative.
“We present the results of the survey back to the whole studio, and we've taken many decisions which have improved our culture as a result,” says CEO Gavin Raeburn. “The survey always tells us that our staff love the little perks which improve studio life — free breakfast, the beer fridge, the ping pong table, staff social events and so on — but I don't think they're the key to staff happiness on their own. That comes from trust, autonomy and a shared passion for making great games.”
One of the biggest benefits that Playground offers its team is the royalty scheme, which is significant when they have a major hit like last year's Forza Horizon 3.
“The royalty scheme is uncapped so it's a simple equation for the team: the more we sell, the more they earn,” Raeburn explains.
“Staff who were here for the whole of Forza Horizon 3 will more than double their salary this year through our royalty scheme. I'm delighted with this as it means we're all sharing in the game's success together.
“Of course, there are many benefits to working here. We offer all the usual stuff like Duvet Days, flexible working hours, private health care, contributory pension and life assurance, to name just a few, but the most meaningful benefit is in linking bonus remuneration to the success of our games.”
Playground Games is now one of the UK's most prominent and respected games studios - not bad for a company that's only seven years old. But a lot has changed in that time.
“The start-up experience for any company is really about survival,” Raeburn explains. “After we signed the deal to make Forza Horizon in late 2010, we had to grow rapidly, building our studio infrastructure as we went, and our focus was on the quality of that first game. We knew we'd be defined by it, and that if it wasn't great there might not be another one. Being a start-up is exciting, but it is also terrifying.
“Over the years, as we've become more established, we've been able to take a much more staff-centric approach. The chief lesson we've learned is the importance of listening — many of the most significant changes we've made to the way Playground is run have come from hearing the team's concerns and ideas. I believe there's a direct link between a team's happiness and the quality of the games they make — I think we saw that with Forza Horizon 3.
“As we begin building a second studio to work outside of the racing genre, we're keen to apply our learnings of the past seven years to that new team.”
Space Ape Games
It's been a dramatic few years for the team at Space Ape.
“Today we are around 100 people split across nine game teams, with more than two-thirds of the company working on new, in-development games, the ideas for which come from all over the company,” says Space Ape COO and co-founder Simon Hade.
“In contrast, at the start of 2016 we were also around 100 people but only working on three games. We had maybe half a dozen people, including the founders, spending time figuring out what types of games we should work on next. Whilst we had an appetite to break new ground, we didn't have the skills or financial runway to do that.
“Since then we've grown sales from around $20M to over $50M per year, and sold a majority stake to Supercell. It really feels like a different company, but in the best possible sense. We've retained the things that made us good 18 months ago, like our highly technical focus on live ops and a great community of players, but we've augmented that with a strong creative DNA. As a studio we're now focused on breaking new genres and making that massive hit people will be talking about in ten years' time, as opposed to incrementally growing year-over-year.”
Whenever a big company goes in for a smaller firm it can be a scary experience, and we've seen countless examples where things simply don't work out.
“It was a fundamental aspect of the deal that there would be no merger,” Hade insists. “They liked us for who we were and believed in our mission and teams. There was never any talk about synergies of merging this department or that - which is the kind of thing that sinks most acquisitions.
“What has changed most on our side is that we now have an amazing sounding board. We show our builds to people who are literally the best, most successful game developers of this generation and get priceless feedback.”
Space Ape doesn't like the term HR, and feels HR initiatives and departments are incapable of building a good culture. It also doesn't have patience for conversations around job titles and has few employees that would call themselves managers.
“On the other hand, it is not a full-blown holacracy. We do have some elegant and deliberate support structures in place,” says Hade. “We put a lot of effort into giving people outlets to talk to someone if they have concerns about their progression, and identify people with talents being underutilised. Everyone has a one-to-one with someone who can help them every week, but we leave it to the teams to figure out what form that help takes. This philosophy works great for creative game development and it also fosters the kind of supportive and inspiring environment that more formal HR initiatives aspire to, but often fail to achieve.
“For example we have one game team that is mostly female whose idea has organically become a huge focus for the company. They came into development out of a game jam with a fresh perspective and the result is a game that we think can truly stand out. We also have a vocal group of artists who have strong views on diversity, and they have a big influence on the characters, art and tone of our games. Others are very active in the game development community, sitting on various boards and providing support for indies.
“All of these initiatives would usually be championed or handled centrally, and maybe that kind of structure is needed when you are thousands of employees. But we've found the top-down approach generally works terribly for game development, and equally terribly for maintaining a healthy culture.”
You will have noticed a theme from our Best Places winners… the focus is always on the employees and finding the right people. The same is true of Studio Gobo.
“What makes Gobo truly unique is that we hire people and not resources,” says HR manager Gina Peach. “People bring more than just skills to a company; they bring their experiences, culture, personality, hobbies and family. We embrace all of this and through it have developed a culture that fosters creativity.”
The company has a flat team structure, which removes a layer of manager that slows down decision making and restricts creativity. By removing the structure, the company says, it gives people a greater sense of responsibility and ownership, as well as the freedom to work together for the betterment of the product.
Studio Gobo is proud of its international workforce, which includes people from 12 nationalities, although still hopes to improve its gender split further. And one area that is very important to the studio is finding and supporting the next generation of top game creators.
“We take a very active role in the future talent of the games industry,” Peach says. “Many of the team travel across the UK and Europe to meet with university students. We take the time to assist with university game jams, give talks on the industry, offer support and advice on specific career fields as well as having a great Intern programme. Our primary goal of this programme is to give people a great start to their career and allow them to experience games development with the support and mentorship of our senior team members. Our flat structure also benefits our interns as they have the same responsibilities and ownership as everyone else.”
Twitch is still a very young business in games, and it's an unusual one as so many of its staff were Twitch users before they were hired.
“This makes everyone more passionate about the product since they experience any pain points the broader community experiences and are eager to address them,” observes Sally Buchanan, VP of People, Workplace, and IT.
“Employees are also encouraged to express their views if they have new ideas or alternate approaches to completing a task. In addition, Twitch has a casual spirited, but intelligent, hard working staff, which makes it a fun environment.”
The company says one of its biggest focuses is on developing talent and skills, and encouraging its teams to try things.
“We believe in fostering personal growth and development,” Buchanan continues. “We encourage experiments with new technologies for learning. We give people the candid, compassionate feedback they need to improve. We grow our content creators by helping to promote and educate them. When we hire for a new position, we first look to promote internally. Then, we look second to hire out of the greater Twitch community from those we have already started developing, be they Partner creators or chat bot authors.”
There are plenty of benefits at Twitch, particularly being part of the wider Amazon business, including flexible working hours. But Twitch also likes to support its team's love of games, including trips to various conferences and events.
Buchanan concludes: “Twitch accommodates everyone's passion for gaming with a high end gaming lab, attracting lunchtime Overwatch sessions and evening PUBG squads. The office space is also frequented by Partners and community members, with staff appreciative of the ability to connect with them in a social and business capacity.”
Like many of the winners, Unity offers a variety of strong benefits to its staff, from flexible working and generous holiday entitlements, to cheese boards, fitness support and covering Unity tattoo costs (seriously).
But there were a couple of specific areas in which the studio stood out. And the first is how it encourages all of its staff to speak their mind, without fear of reprisal.
“One of the biggest things is for companies to be consistent in doing what they say they will,” says Jamie Trentham, senior HR business partner at Unity.
“If you say you value open and honest communication and then punish or ridicule someone for doing it, that's a sure fire way to kill it. Not long after I joined there was a decision communicated to staff from our CEO and exec team. Some of the staff questioned it, not privately but on reply all, which turned into a 150-long thread of discussion with staff from around the world. That the exec team engaged in the discussion rather than shutting it down speaks to this consistency, even when it's difficult to hear.”
Recruitment co-ordinator Alexander Bell adds: “Collaboration is very much built into our culture. Most, if not all, new starters at Unity will be involved in a team daily stand up from their first day - to encourage participation and sharing.”
The Unity team is a close one, too, with many of the colleagues forming strong friendships.
“We make a conscious effort to hire people who are collaborative, genuine team players - which creates a vibrant social dynamic,” Bell says. “Small touches like having a relaxed Slack policy — colleagues can create channels to discuss whatever they like — make a huge difference.”
Trentham concludes: “We do have a really great Workplace Experience team who look after things like regular socials, impromptu office events — like Marioke — and just the small things like setting up a music room. Some of our teams also game together.”