Big Pixel Studios
Big Pixel Studios is best known for its work on the Rick and Morty IP -- in particular the 2016 smartphone hit, Pocket Mortys.
The firm was acquired by WarnerMedia in 2018 and now, in 2019, makes its debut in the GamesIndustry.biz Best Places To Work Awards.
"We've worked really hard to empower our employees so that they feel they can make a difference to the company, its games and its culture," says studio operations manager Georgina Felce.
"We are constantly asking for feedback on the way we run our company and have several platforms for receiving suggestions that ensure everyone feels comfortable having their say. Finessing our onboarding process has also been really important as we've grown -- it's the first impression a new team member gets of our company and we aim to make every new employee comfortable and welcome as soon as they are offered the role. Alongside this we also offer a highly competitive benefits package that includes an industry leading bonus and double matched pension scheme."
Big Pixel has also tried to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing small teams:how to progress and develop staff.
"The hardest challenge for us as a growing, small studio is ensuring our staff are happy with their career prospects and opportunity for progression within the company," Felce explains. "It's difficult as a small company to be able to guarantee meaningful promotions but we do have development plans in place for all of our employees to ensure we can support their goals and aspirations for their future careers. We also offer opportunities for further training as well as paying for our team to attend industry events to support their professional development."
Felce adds that crunch is something Big Pixel is very much against, and hopes the industry can improve in this regard.
"Encouraging passionate and enthusiastic employees to go home on time can be tricky. It's well known that consistent crunch and overtime can lead to burnout and other serious mental health issues, so it would be good to see heavier enforcement of regulation on employee working hours."
Dlala has been on a challenging journey over the past few years. It secured a big contract with Disney, but as the game came to completion, the entertainment giant exited games and cancelled the project.
It's since worked alongside numerous other big studios, and has teamed up with Rare to create a new game in the Battletoads series.
It's not been easy, but CEO Aj Grand-Scrutton says the studio has never wavered from its commitment to its people.
"The team are the only thing that matters at Dlala," he tells us. "Projects will come, go and get cancelled. The only thing that is constant here is the team. I never wanted this to be a company which was a stepping stone for people to enter the industry and then move on to somewhere bigger or better. I always wanted this to be a place where we created lifers.
"In terms of the things we've actively done to make the team feel valued, it would be easy to list out the perks or the niceties we've done but I think the main thing is that everyone here has a voice and is actively encouraged to use it. Whilst we don't have a flat hierarchical structure, what we do have is a completely flat structure when it comes to voicing ideas and/or concerns."
Grand-Scrutton believes that when it comes to building a great workplace, there's no right way to do it. Whether it's production methodologies or working practices, there's no one solution or way of doing things.
"There are universal issues that we should all be actively looking to improve on, but I feel that the focus should be on taking shared learnings from different places, companies and industries and figuring out what works for our own studios," he says. "I like to have all the team in the office. When I've had this conversation with some people I've been told that I must not trust my employees. But it's actually because for Dlala I've found that we're much more efficient and successful when we're together as a unit. I believe that the biggest challenge facing the video games workplace, and industry as a whole, is this ingrained belief that there is a right way and a wrong to do everything."
"We give people autonomy and couple it with meaningful support and benefits: flexible working, remote working, parental pay that far exceeds statutory requirements," begins Hannah Flynn, communications director at Failbetter Games.
"We refuse to crunch -- something that is almost a given in this industry -- which shows how much we value our employees' health and time. And we treat everyone as an individual, with individual needs, right down to arranging a specific lunch or treat that we know they'll love on their birthday, and a thoughtful gift for their work anniversary."
Failbetter Games is one of the smallest studios in this year's Best Places To Work Awards, which means it doesn't have the capacity to offer some of the flashier benefits of working in a larger organisation. But Flynn believes the benefits the form does offer are the ones that really count.
"In many senses, being smaller gives us an advantage: we have fewer barriers to changing things that aren't working, or trying new things," she says.
In terms of things that the industry can improve upon, Flynn had a long list of issues that ought to be a priority for the business as a whole.
"Sexism and lack of diversity are big issues that go hand in hand. We'd like to see more studios taking on work experience, paid internships and incubations to widen the pool of people who'd consider games as a career. We'd like more studios to offer meaningful support throughout people's careers. We have to help people who might otherwise leave the industry to stay happy in their jobs and stick around, so we get more diverse people in positions of leadership further down the line. And we'd like to see games education including more business modules so future graduates are entering the job market with essential business development skills."
The virtual, augmented and mixed reality specialist has been making a name for itself through its immersive content, producing original titles alongside client campaignsEven so, as a small outfit, garnering attention hasn't always been easy.
"We've seen rapid growth over the past two years and have been fortunate to work on some awesome IP introducing new innovations in immersive and location-based entertainment, but as a smaller studio we're still focused on growing our reputation," says senior producer Sally Blake. "The team was really excited about the creation of ABE, which was teased at E3 this year. There are many challenges when trying to be recognised as an indie studio that doesn't have the marketing clout that AAA often does, but we've really made an effort this year to showcase what our team can do and share our work more widely."
One of Hammerhead's employment philosophies has been to create a culture of diversity, so that all backgrounds can feel welcome at the studio. And the firm says it wants to be part of the solution in eradicating some of the negative headlines that can surround working in games.
"There are many challenges to be tackled, and we're all responsible for doing so," Blake continues. "Recent reports of workplace harassment are extremely saddening to hear, and we have the utmost respect for the bravery of those speaking out. As an industry we must stand and work together to eradicate such behaviour.
"There are also a lot of discussions surrounding excessive overtime, and at Hammerhead we've worked very hard to ensure that our team has a good work/life balance -- that is key for their overall wellbeing. One of our biggest achievements this year has been hiring people from various backgrounds to diversify the team -- we've hired people all the way from indie development to AAA, from film to VFX, and as a result we're able to cover a lot of ground and find synergies between disciplines that might have been ignored with more traditional hiring processes."
Returning after a triumphant debut last year, Mojiworks is a game developer that builds 'snackable' games for the likes of Facebook Instant Messenger and WeChat.
The company is proud of the freedom it offers its staff to try new roles and develop in different areas, but is acutely aware of the downsides that this can have.
"We try to ensure that nobody's spread too thin," says company founder and CEO Matthew Wiggins. "There are lots of cross-team collaboration here and opportunities to work outside strictly-defined disciplines, so while we want everyone to feel that sense of freedom we also have to be careful that nobody gets overstretched. We try to do that by encouraging honesty about how we all feel we're doing, and discussing how to improve, in regular one-to-one catch-ups and company-wide retrospectives."
He continues: "Above all we're trying to build an exceptional company with a strongly positive culture, so it's our number one priority to ensure that all of our Mojiworkers love being a part of our team. Being seen, heard and appreciated are huge things. When hiring, we consider what each person's overall contribution to the company can be, and then we give lots of scope for involvement when they start here. We recognise individual contributions in our team and company retros each week, and we also have an informal system we call 'Cheers 4 Peers' to thank each other for helping out and being supportive."
Wiggins adds that it's important that the games industry doesn't take advantage of its people, who often work in the business because of their passion for the craft.
"If we want more harmonious, productive workplaces we need to care about respect and civility," he says. "We need to put those things at the heart of company culture and clearly advance them as core values, with real consequences for unacceptable behaviour."
Indie studio No Code has garnered significant acclaim in recent years. Its mobile hit Super Arc Light was praised by Apple, and PC title Stories Untold won a BAFTA.
Now it's one of the UK's best small studios to work for, and creative director Jon McKellan says he was actually inspired by his time in AAA.
"I worked in a larger studio a few years back, before No Code, that had the most amazing HR team, and they continue to be an inspiration in how we treat our own employees," he tells us.
"It's not just about listening to their ideas, valuing their input, respecting their work -- that should all be default -- it's about going above and beyond that and making them feel valued as people, too. Even little things, like merchandise and thank you awards/gifts after a production wraps -- they come from the heart and carry more weight than the object itself. It seems a bit cheesy to say 'we want to be a family', but we really do. It helps that a few us at No Code actually are family of course; the running joke is that when you start at No Code, you have to change your surname."
No Code offers a large number of benefits and perks usually found at larger teams, which McKellan says is essential in attracting experienced developers to give up the relative stability of AAA for the uncertainty of an indie start-up. He says it's the "duty" of the studio to protect their teams from that risk.
And he feels that the entire industry would benefit from unionisation.
"We are one of the biggest sectors in the entertainment industry, with an almost unfathomable reach around the world to players and viewers, yet the way we finance, build, and deliver games is still incredibly messy," he says. "We're running through the motions and making the same mistakes again and again, because change is hard. It'll take the whole industry to change how we do things for the better, and I feel unionisation will help force those larger studios to change the practice, and in turn, change how we teach and develop games, and how we manage teams respectfully."
Unit 2 Games
"When we first started Unit 2 Games we spent a lot of time during our first few weeks as a company talking internally about how we wanted it to operate -- initially through an anonymous Google Form and then through index cards and voting stickers," explains CEO Richard Smithies.
"We were really keen to ensure that everyone felt like they had a voice in how the studio was run, and generally found people were very enthusiastic about engaging with that process. The outcome of that initial period was that the first purchase we ever made from the new company's bank account was eight electric sit-stand desks.
"As our company has grown, we've continued that process and kept evolving what we offer. For example, we've just started running yoga classes in the office at lunchtime as it's something a lot of people expressed an interest in."
Unit 2 Games does suffer from one of the classic small studio challenges, which is finding opportunities for staff to explore other projects and roles. However, the firm offsets this by allowing its staff to develop their skills through numerous initiatives, including access to professional events and conferences for those who wish to attend.
Another challenge that Unit 2 Games is trying to work through is the ongoing mission of building a more diverse workforce.
"We actually ran a survey to try to find out what under-represented people within the industry looked for in a studio before opening a number of vacancies, as we wanted to make sure that we were inclusive and welcoming," says Smithies. "Unfortunately, it still proved incredibly difficult to attract diverse applications, at least in part because of the make-up of the industry.
"However, there have been huge strides made in this area recently -- for example, the work of organisations such as Girls' Game Lab and POC in Play -- but there's still a long way to go. We were especially glad to see the recent launch of UKIE's industry-wide diversity census to start to measure diversity in a number of ways so we can soon begin to track this progress more objectively."