When Criterion collected the prize for best mid-sized studio, the firm took to the podium and revealed that, four years ago, it could have won the award for 'worst UK studio'.
“Criterion has been re-thinking the way that AAA games are developed and scaling our teams to approach the work we do in innovative ways,” says Matt Webster, VP and GM of Criterion.
“Inspired by Daniel Pink's 2010 book Drive, combined with many years of experience, the studio's operating model is built on harnessing the power that drives the motivation in our people - these motivations are summarised in themes of autonomy, mastery and purpose.
“We've designed the way that we work along these lines with strong values and a core philosophy to treat our people as talent and to resist harmful dogma.
“Working in seven-week cycles, our people form their own teams working towards clearly aligned priorities and goals. They have autonomy over team, task and technique. Our working environment is one that supports the way in which our teams want to work. Open and accessible daily and planning areas, desks that have just two cables - power and network - lead to a working environment that changes frequently.
“We have also introduced pure autonomy for our people. Following every major milestone, the team goes 'Off-The-Grid' for two days to work on anything that they choose. At the end of the two days, there's a big team meeting for people to share back what they've done.
“When it comes to the pointy end of game development, we're adamant that crunch is unproductive. There is good research that backs up a belief that we've held for years. Instead of crunching, we focus on making sure that everyone is well-rested and supported.”
Senior HR manager Becky Glover adds: “We employ a mindfulness teacher who is also a qualified executive coach who works with 35 individuals on a one-to-one basis. She also runs half-hour meditation sessions, which are open to all, three times a week, inside core hours. In addition, 44% of the team have participated in a 16-hour, eight-week mindfulness course that is offered inside core hours.
“During times of high stress we provide a mid-afternoon treat, to make sure that everyone takes 15 minutes to step away from their work for a moment.”
Webster adds that looking after the health and wellbeing of the team and recognising achievements are key to a happy workforce.
“We really feel that we're doing some of the best work of our careers right now,” he concludes. “Inventing new, innovative and forward-thinking IP for EA as well as building our capabilities in collaboration with our partners at DICE. Our people are expressing and developing themselves through high-quality AAA video games and technology across the widest range of game-making crafts we've ever supported.”
Double Eleven's list of benefits is long. Flexible hours, remote working, December off, private healthcare, birthday leave, performance bonuses, Christmas bonuses, cinema rooms, VR rooms, poker rooms, parties aplenty, and lots more. It's no wonder the studio boasts such a happy group of staff.
COO Mark South tells GamesIndustry.biz that the secret to a happy team is treating staff with respect, and appreciating how important they are to your business.
“Recognise that the company's success is based on the individual's success,” he says. “Without them you have nothing, and if they are good enough to work for you then ask yourself 'why would they work for you?' constantly. That'll keep you honest and on your toes.”
He adds that a strong work/life balance is key, as is company transparency, and the team needs to be conscious of one another, too.
“It needs to be in the culture that if someone isn't feeling right coming into work we all fix it,” he says. “The culture needs to be on the lookout for problems within the teams and be able to remedy them with speed, with people being comfortable enough to identify blockers and have accessible channels to raise issues at the same time.”
South adds that Double Eleven is currently trying to add breadth to the diversity of the team and improve its community outreach.
“For years we've been looking for our own unique way to give back to the community, and with the recent appointment of our Education Liaison we're going to be focusing our outreach attention to the under 16s around us, getting them interested in our industry as well as the supporting areas of study.”
“We're underdogs, punching way above our weight - working on quality designed mobile racing games in small teams,” says Shaun Rutland, CEO and co-founder of Hutch.
“We've designed the company around helping our teams get things done, while enabling them to immediately see the results of their hard work and empowering them to make choices for the best interests of their players and the business.”
Hutch enables its teams to work from home twice a week. It believes this allows its employees to complete deeper tasks, and that the office is often buzzing with excitement when everyone gets back together.
“It also allows our teams to cut their commute or be closer to home for family commitments, and it has been highly beneficial in attracting some of the best talent in the industry,” Rutland says. “Instead of being limited to the borders of the M25, we've recruited from all over the country.”
Like most of the Best Places winners, Hutch is looking to improve in specific areas.
“We've always been interested in supporting our team in the pursuit of physical health, but our current priority is to normalise ideas around mental health,” Rutland says. “We want to support Hutchies during the ups and downs of life - and over the coming months we have a number of initiatives that we hope will help.
“We never crunch, but our work is demanding - creatively and technically. It is imperative that we understand what our players want and how we can make the best games, and so if you're not feeling great this will affect you and your colleagues.”
Lockwood Publishing is one of a handful of winners that shares its profits with the staff.
CEO Halli Bjornsson feels it is one of the key areas that makes the company, famous for the Avakin Life social mobile game, so unique.
“Everyone is on the same mission and seems to be having fun doing it,” he says. “Mobile is also exciting in that the results of the team's work are so immediately felt on a week-by-week basis, and I think it's the combination of these things that creates a bit of magic.”
He continues: “We'd like at some point to implement a share options scheme on top of our profit share. That's going to be great for the team and the company. Other than that we'd continually like to improve in all areas, which gets easier and easier the more successful we get.”
The firm offers a range of benefits, social gatherings and rewards, but Bjornsson feels that the secret to a happy workforce is far simpler than these initiatives.
“The key is respect for their talents and hard work and giving them the chance to have a direct impact on and control of their own success,” he concludes.
When it came to adding benefits for its staff, the management team at Lucid Games decided that there were more important areas than just financial rewards.
“Making sure people look after their health is top of the list, be that through private health, dental and eye care for your family, or giving free use of Liverpool's city bike system to stay active,” says Nick Davies, production director at the studio.
“We also encourage flexibility so that family life stays important; having decent holidays, flexible working hours, the opportunity to work from home, and also a generous parental leave allowance when you need it.
“Coupled with that, we're always keen to make sure that while you are at work it's an enjoyable place to be. We spend a lot of time making the office somewhere you would want to spend time, with coffee rooms and breakout areas to get people away from being tied to their desks.”
Lucid's latest HR initiatives now involve giving back and supporting the local community.
“We have a lot of people on our team who are passionate about the community they live and work in, and although many people help in their spare time, it's something we'd like to get more organised with,” Davies adds.
“We'd like to form some stronger links to charities, good causes and community groups in the area. Whether that's through forming relationships with local groups, schools, schemes or just allowing the team to use some of their work time to take part in community programs. We'd like Lucid to be seen in some small way as giving back to the area where we work. We've already helped organise clean-ups of the local area and allowed staff to participate in that during work hours.”
He concludes: “For us, a happy workforce is one that knows what they need to do, and is able to spend their time just focusing on that without having to worry about anything else around them. To that end, we hope our staff feel they're empowered to do what they do best, knowing that we're there to support them with the tools they need to do their job.”
Playstation London Studio
PlayStation's London Studio is known for its work on unique products, from SingStar to Wonderbook to its latest PlayStation VR projects.
In recent years, the studio has seen some senior employees leave, and so it has worked on improving its working environment and culture to increase retention - and it's even managed to draw a few back.
“As the games industry grows, our focus has been to cultivate a family environment and to retain staff by ensuring there is a supportive, healthy work/life balance,” says Tara Saunders, head of operations. “Examples of this include our summer half days, as well as a kids and family day where staff are encouraged to invite their loved ones to see where they work.
“Our fast-paced industry is continually changing, and we understand the importance of mental health. There have been examples of our team needing support in their hour of need, and our structure allows us to give one-to-one time and refer them to more specialised help.
“As a studio, our shift in the working environment and culture has been noticed, and we are lucky enough to have secured two senior employees that had left us. They noticed the changes. We are proud of the efforts we have made in the last few years, and through regular workshops, feedback sessions and internal surveys, we will continue adapting our focus to the needs of our team.”
The company says social events are important. Summer off-sites have taken the team glamping in Sussex, and this year they hired an island off the coast of Essex. That's in addition to outings to places like the Star Wars VR experience, Go-Karting, cinema trips and more.
“For us, our focus on making game production more fun, friendly and inclusive is a high priority,” Saunders continues. “In order to achieve this, we have to support our teams in every aspect of their life, and not just work. From flexible hours for working parents, to coaching and mentoring, we will continue to improve in areas that make us adaptable to our team's individual needs.”
Sega's Hardlight team is best known for its Sonic mobile games, and as a studio it enjoys the best of both worlds - it's a moderately small team, but set within a far bigger organisation, and therefore gets access to some strong benefits.
Health screenings, life insurance, an impressive pension, dental insurance, massages, income protection, company bonuses, retail discounts, free breakfasts, a beer fridge, team building days, summer BBQs, Christmas parties and so on.
“All the benefits are there because we want a workplace where each individual is able to make the right work/life balance for them, and to see that we care about the individuals who make up our team,” says Harinder Sangha, operations director at Sega Hardlight.
“We believe that being a successful business and nurturing a positive happy culture go hand-in-hand, and what people have available to them in their working days is one key part of that.”
Studio head Chris Southall adds: “We try to focus on output of the work, our values and culture as a collective, instead of a rigid rule-based framework, punch the clock - unless you want to. We believe that if we hire well, if the people with us understand our goals and can all apply their skills in the most productive way, we're going in the right direction.
“It's important to us people know their purpose, have the autonomy to achieve their goals, and are growing in mastery of whatever skills they are bringing. If we focus on this stuff and get it right, we're all happy.”
Space Ape Games
“Space Ape is radically transparent,” begins John Earner, CEO at Space Ape Games. “All our finances, all our stats, our triumphs and our struggles, are all shared. We have a flat organisation structure and I'm no more than two degrees of separation from every employee at the company.
“We give our teams autonomy. If a game team can successfully answer three difficult questions about their projects, then only they can make a decision about whether to kill or continue with their own project. Finally, our game ideas come from employees, not management. This results in riskier, more ambitious projects being pursued.”
Some other unique elements at Space Ape include “Ape Space”, where for two days a month, staff can down tools and work on their own ideas. Also, once a quarter staff can take a training day, with a £1,500 budget they can spend on the training of their choice. On Fridays the company does a show-and-tell where they share their leanings, and they also match charitable funds raised by their staff.
“We're constantly experimenting with better ways to make games,” Earner says. “One thing I've become comfortable with admitting is that I don't have all the answers, and I'm happy for anyone in the company to challenge me. We're all in the habit of proving one another wrong. Nothing is sacred, including our culture.
“One particular area of interest of mine is improving the balance between creating a culture of sharing across our eight different game teams, and fostering an environment with minimal distractions. Both are important, but they are often at odds with each other - share too much and you're in meetings all day, don't share enough and teams don't learn from each other's discoveries and failures.”
Although a happy workforce is important, Earner feels that a satisfied one is more meaningful. He says that's a function of three things: purpose, mastery and autonomy.
“I've shamelessly stolen this notion from the book Drive by Daniel Pink,” he concludes. “I don't read many management books, but this one is worth your time. A satisfied team feels, both as individuals and as a group, that they are trying to achieve something meaningful, that they are learning and growing, and that they have freedom to get their job done in the way they think is best.
“I'm always conscious of creating an environment where people who embrace those three pillars can thrive.”
The secret to success for Studio Gobo is (you won't be surprised to hear) the people who work there.
“We believe the best way to inspire a happy workforce is to remember that everyone is an individual, with individual needs,” explains Gina Peach, HR and cultural ambassador at the company. “No two single people are the same. To us, it is the people that make a studio, so we focus heavily on investing in our employees.”
The company already does a series of things for its teams, from private medical and dental cover, health and wellbeing allowances, an annual budget to send staff to GDC, Gamescom and Siggraph, and a lunch on Fridays from their “amazing in-house chef.” There's also an end-of-month social event designed to maintain that important Studio Gobo culture.
“We are continually looking to improve ourselves - each month we send out an office survey where we ask for honest feedback from our employees,” Peach continues. “We do this to help us improve how we are doing things, or if our employees have any suggestions for the studio. We truly believe a great idea can come from anywhere, and encourage our employees to help continually evolve the studio so that everyone can feel a part of our success.”
She concludes: “Ultimately, we believe what makes Studio Gobo unique is that no matter how large we grow, we still remain a family. Whether that is down to the culture of openness and sharing we encourage, the people we have recruited, or the social activities we offer, we believe we have created something special, and that is why people are proud to say they work for Studio Gobo.”