When Criterion collected its Best Places trophy last year, it declared that the company certainly wouldn't have won this five years ago. But today it's one of the UK's most highly rated studios amongst its own employees.
"Things have changed, that's for sure and an award like this is a great opportunity to reflect on that," says general manager Matt Webster. "We defined our values and our philosophy, committed to and work hard to ensure they drive everything we do. Being open minded and prepared to constantly learn along the way is helping shape our future. The quality bar of what we're able to create is getting higher all the time and I can't help thinking that the way with think, work and feel now and its alignment is totally connected to that."
The firm changed its philosophy, is devoutly anti-crunch, and lets its team do a lot of the leading.
"A key to this has been shifting our leadership philosophy," Webster details. "We chose to drop 'command and control' leadership and favour 'influence and inspire', underpinned by a recognition of the science behind what motivates people. We're finding that this enables us to better meet the needs of our team and facilitate the creation of amazing games."
One of the areas that Webster hopes to see improved about video games is around the toxicity that exists in some gaming communities, and the impact it has on creators.
"It's a massive challenge that goes beyond just our industry," he says. "We believe that by inspiring and embracing more diverse viewpoints, supporting a broad range of creative talent and approaches we can lead by example. Mutual respect, understanding and active communication in the workplace, the way we design our games and support the communities around them is the best chance we have to get to a healthier place for everyone."
You may not have heard of d3t, but you'll certainly recognise some of the games its worked on, like The Room, The Witcher 3, Burnout, Shenmue, Super Stardust and many more.
It means the team at the outsourcing studio are often working on a variety of different products, which is one of the advantages of the company. But d3t says it's important as an outsourcer to maintain a good work/life balance for staff.
"[Anti-crunch] is important for employee retention, employee wellbeing, employee creativity, knowledge share and recruitment," says head of engineering Phil Owen. "It is also important that all employees have a good work/home life balance. Happy healthy employees do the best work.
"Anti-crunch is managed by scheduling correctly and effectively, making sure tasks are prioritised, red-flags raised as soon as possible and effective communication with teams, between departments and from senior management."
Alongside an anti-crunch stance, d3t (now owned by Keywords) also takes its role seriously in developing its staff.
"We put an important emphasis on job and role progression and have a strong culture of trust and mentoring junior employees," Owen adds. "This is both rewarding for the juniors and for the senior mentors. We also ensure that senior management have an open-door approach and support employees, whether that be work-related or with other issues outside of the office. We strive to create a strong identity, culture and environment for the employees to work in. This is demonstrated with the wide range of perks and benefits available along with organised social events inside and outside of work."
Electric Square is one of the studios that has seen its staff count rise rapidly over the few years it has been in operation.
Such fast expansion can be tricky to manage, especially when trying to retain what makes the place of work so special in the first place. Yet it's a challenge Electric Square feels it has excelled at.
"Where other companies have HR teams, Electric Square has a People and Culture team," begins Guy DeRosa, head of talent at the studio.
"Our teams work tirelessly to ensure new starters' on-boarding phase is as accommodating, smooth and inclusive as possible. This is achieved through a range of levels of support, from a bespoke relocation assistance service, a flood of email invitations to various social clubs -- currently we have 12 different clubs, ranging from bouldering and fitness to chess, D'n'D and cooking club -- new starter peer lunches, invitations to join the company's social WhatsApp groups, and individual ice-breaker introductions to everybody in the studio on day one. We encourage people to send out an introductory email letting everyone know who they are and a bit about themselves and what they like to do on their first day. It creates instant relationships from the get-go.
He continues: "With more than 70% of new starters joining us from overseas or other cities within the UK, we acknowledge that relocation doesn't just affect the new employee but those that come with them, too. It's vital that those around them settle and also feel a part of the Electric Square family, so partners and children are always invited to our biggest events such as our summer party. Over 200 of us spent the afternoon in the sun at Preston Park in Brighton, enjoying all expenses paid luxuries and fun such as a cocktail and beer van, pop-up pizza diner, paella, face painting, a kids' bouncy castle, an adults' obstacle course, fire dancing, life-sized Jenga and more. We also integrate partners in studio tours, our Christmas Party and other treats such as our annual ice-skating nights."
When 2K's Hangar 13 decided to establish a presence in the UK Brighton, the Mafia III developer publicly declared how important it was to build a diverse studio.
"When we first set up the Brighton Hangar 13 studio, we very quickly found that there was a genuine belief amongst us that diversity would play a vital part in the experiences, worlds and stories we would craft as a studio," explains Mike Rouse, head of production in Brighton. "This belief the leadership has of our creative strength laying within our teams' differences, means that diversity is not merely a goal. For us it is the fundamental underpinning of who we are as a studio. And so, it's less about how we achieve it, and more about how we harness it to create stunning original AAA games."
He continues: "The UK games industry is thriving. However, as an industry we don't often do enough to help nurture the great diversity of talent we find in higher education. Too often we don't see this diversity make its way through to the studios. For Hangar 13 this is something we would like to change. We are already a great supporter and partner for Women in Games, and we would like to take initiatives similar to this into our graduate programme that we will be starting next year."
Part of what makes Hangar 13 special to work at is the company's individual approach to its staff.
"Making people feel valued is extremely challenging, and this is because every single person at Hangar 13 is different," Rouse tells us. "Large team initiatives are great, but where we really endeavour to excel is in understanding individuals. We impress on our leaders the importance of this one-to-one interaction with people, and so we see these interactions manifest themselves in different ways. Some people feel valued when they are given more responsibilities, others when they are listened to, and quite a few when they get to travel to our San Francisco Bay Area and Czech Republic locations."
One of the areas that companies in the video games industry struggle with is training and development. It's an industry primarily made up of small businesses, and being on the vanguard of technology often means we have to teach ourselves new things.
Yet there are some studios that excel in this area, and Lucid Games was one of them.
"We work hard to ensure that as well as Lucid being a great, safe, friendly place to work, it's also somewhere that you can grow and learn new skills," says production director Nick Davies. "Very few people have left since we started the company and we want to make it a place where people can fulfil their ambitions and stay for a long time.
"In the last year we've tried to extend our library of training materials, give greater access to online learning, widen the number of conferences that employees can attend, and encourage masterclasses where people can pass on their experience to a wider group
"That's not to say we're doing everything right and the results of surveys like Best Places To Work show we've got plenty of room to improve in this area. Going forward we're having more dedicated training spaces in our new offices, and currently surveying our staff on the type of training they want to receive."
Lucid Games has now gone past 100 employees after eight years of consecutive expansion, which does bring challenges.
"We are getting into that area where it's a challenge for everyone to get to know every person," Davies says. "We've added some initiatives to help maintain that, we have a monthly breakfast morning where the whole company goes off-site and can catch up. We've also got a healthy number of groups from climbing, to board games, football, photography that we try and encourage as much as possible so people don't feel like they only talk with the people on their direct team.
"Importantly, we've still managed to make sure that every new employee is interviewed by one of the founders, and we place as much emphasis on how we think people will fit in as much as whether they have the technical skills required."
There are two issues that are near and dear to Media Molecule's heart -- diversity and sustainability.
"We get involved with programs like Girls Make Games, we bring young women in through work experience and paid internships, we evaluate our hiring practices and the language we use in job advertisements, we have a very proactive approach to being the difference we want to see," says communications manager Abbie Heppe. "On the sustainability side we have slashed our use of plastic in the studio, we have an internal group with resources for sustainable living, we recycle and compost and get involved with larger initiatives within Sony whenever we can."
Media Molecule is famous for its unique games, having won awards and acclaim for the likes of LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway. Its current project, Dreams, is a creation project that's in early access on PlayStation. It's no surprise, therefore, that the studio is a unique place to work.
"We're a studio of makers -- people who love to make games, music, art, crafts, garden or however they choose to express themselves," adds HR manager Grainne Rapley. "We encourage our team not to accept the status quo, be that pushing for a game feature they are passionate about or pushing us to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable as a studio. We love seeing the personality of each person at Media Molecule reflected in our projects and our culture."
Rapley continues: "We take pride in creating a great work environment on a daily basis and that means understanding that life happens outside work. We look after our team in terms of time off and flexibility to work from home or remotely and try to foster a studio culture where everyone genuinely watches out for each other and people can be themselves. We're a small team working on an ambitious project, so we understand the value that each individual voice has in shaping that experience."
Sea of Thieves developer Rare is one of the most iconic names on the list, with one of the most impressive studios in the business.
Based just outside of Twycross, the firm's farmyard setting features a track, football pitch, (indoor and outdoor) gym and even an allotment. Indeed, Rare takes its approach to physical and mental health extremely seriously.
"At Rare we offer a holistic approach, supporting not only our employees physical wellbeing but also their mental health," says talent ambassador Veronica Heath. "These vary from fitness sessions, healthy meals, onsite gym and flexible hours to an innovative mental health initiative, Project Spirit, which works to educate our staff on mental illness and provide support through onsite clinical and non clinical channels.
"Developers that feel supported are more likely to stay with us and bring their best selves to work every day. Our games would not be the memorable, creative and exciting games they are without the teams that create them. Our health and wellbeing programmes are not a case of 'nice to haves' -- they're incredibly important for the happiness of our staff."
The company is also proactive in trying to improve the diversity and inclusivity of not just Rare, but the entire business. It even sponsored this year's Women In Games Awards.
"We've made the conversation of diversity and inclusion an active subject in the studio through our all-hands meetings, training, internal support groups and sponsorship," says Heath.
"Our recent efforts involve our staff, including leadership, going through workshops on the subject to ensure all of us understand what diversity truly means, including neurodiversity, and why it's important. It seems simple, but it resulted in a safe space that our staff could discuss and ask questions they were otherwise afraid to ask. As a result, each of us came away with a goal to help the studio be more inclusive.
"By making the subject an open and active one at Rare, we're empowering staff to have a voice, embrace their true selves and develop as individuals. As a studio, this means we're able to continue making memorable gaming experience that players love to keep playing."
Space Ape Games
Smartphone specialists Space Ape Games recently restructured its team to focus on developing new games instead of maintaining those that are already live. It still supports the four titles it has live with 20% of its team, with the remainder focused on creating seven new products.
Indeed, the company has changed its production model to what it calls a 'funnel', where ideas come in at the top, and only the best make it through production.
"When we worked in a top-down way, we excelled at execution because the scope for creative freedom was quite limited," says COO and founder Simon Hade. "This was great for getting us to second base, but home runs in gaming require taking more creative risk and it's hard to balance that. Today, with the luxury of backing from Supercell, we can afford to flip that model on its head. Day-to-day is much more chaotic and teams have a tremendous amount of responsibility about what to make and how to make it. The result is a much more diverse slate, a lot more creativity and a better environment for retaining motivated entrepreneurial people."
This level of creative risk inevitably results in some failure, and involves putting a lot of faith in the team.
"The most important thing we do to ensure employees feel valued is to genuinely trust them, and back their vision," Hade says. "In many cases that means providing years of runway and millions in investment to keep trying until they nail it. Other times it means continuing to back people after a project has failed and their confidence has taken a hit. It's a lot of responsibility and not for everyone, but leaves little doubt that we value their judgement and contributions because we're literally betting the future of the company on them."
Moving forward, Hade would like to see more cross-studio collaboration to help overcome some of the issues facing the business.
"London is one of the biggest hubs for game development in the world and we can do a lot more of this as an industry, and that will trickle through to workplaces and benefit everybody."
It is a bit of a cliche, but Studio Gobo is focused on making its development team feel like one big family.
"We like to integrate the core values of home family life into the studio," says talent acquisition specialist Dean Antunes. "Our approach is to treat everyone with respect, practice active listening and provide a platform for people to connect on a personal level and develop relationships outside of work. For example, every Friday we have our very own in-house chef cook up a storm for the 100-plus troops, making use of our industrial kitchen and dedicated social space, giving everyone an opportunity to sit and socialise."
Gobo is also a dog-friendly employer, which adds to the family feeling. And when it comes to new recruits, the firm actively introduces staff to every employee.
"It sounds a potentially long and arduous slog - and it is - but we find that having that shred of familiarity with everybody after that moment really helps to help people feel embedded… Despite inevitably instantly forgetting everybody's names."
This is even more important when you consider that 50% of Studio Gobo's staff come from overseas, speaking over 15 different languages.
"We celebrate our diverse culture here and feel it has become the foundation of our identity," says Antunes. "Our operations team work tirelessly to ensure the on-boarding process is as fluid for new starters as possible. We provide extra financial support, and visas, where applicable, to individuals joining us with their family and make sure to invite partners and children to as many social events as we can. It's important to us that partners and children feel like an extended part of our family."
Going forward, Studio Gobo says it wants to help support and encourage the next generation of creators.
"A challenge right now is that everybody is competing with one another for the same staff," adds Antunes. "Rather than throwing their money at the now, we would like to see more companies investing their time and money into supporting young generations and minority groups being educated on the different disciplines they could consider as a career within the games industry."