Meet the 2020 UK Best Places To Work Awards winners
We interview all 15 of our top-scoring companies on what it takes to be a great company in 2020
A regular winner of the Best Places To Work Awards, the EA studio also had a dramatic year, even without the pandemic.
The company has been put back in charge of the Need for Speed franchise, and has also welcomed a plethora of new recruits to the team as a result.
"It is a truism that the only thing that is really permanent is change, but it is hard to imagine a time with more societal change," says the head of studio operations Steve Cuss.
"This has, of course, impacted our industry and our studio. Nine months ago we had already started on the journey of focussing on tuning everything in our studio to take Need for Speed into the next generation, including welcoming many colleagues into Criterion who had been working as part of Ghost Games, when COVID-19 created the change in the UK that meant we had to learn rapidly about working from home.
"Early on it was clear we were much less working for home and much more at home, during a pandemic, trying to work. Our people have risen to meet extraordinary challenges and overcome new obstacles in a way that just makes us really proud."
Cuss continues: "This intense period of change has presented challenges but also opportunities for us. We're rapidly innovating in how we work and the opportunity is in front of us to develop our industry into a more diverse and inclusive place. It is on us as leaders to seize the opportunity for our industry to be a place where everyone can bring their whole authentic selves to work, to be a place where people feel safe taking risks in front of one another, where it's fun to make fun."
Criterion has consistently been one of our top-scoring Best Places winners, and that comes from a place of continually trying to improve.
"At Criterion we see constantly striving to work in a better, healthier way as fundamental to making amazing games that entertain our players with great experiences and that are commercially successful for us and Electronic Arts," Cuss says.
"We recognise that our culture is not what we present in a meeting but the sum of all our behaviour, what people experience every day. We have put long-term, focussed effort into those behaviours being driven by our values and that is what is consistently fed back to us as being the thing that makes Criterion special. This is never something that's complete but is something that always remains a priority."
Space Ape Games
Never underestimate the power of positive thinking in keeping employees excited.
"Optimism really helps," says Simon Hade, COO & co-founder of Space Ape Games.
"Game development is a roller coaster of emotions and self-doubt at the best of times, but with everything else going on in the world it's even more important to stay positive. We're very fortunate that the pandemic happened at a time when we had our strongest and most diverse slate of upcoming games in the history of the company."
Space Ape was once again the UK's best mid-sized games company, and this has come down to a few unique practices.
"Sharing all the information about the state of the company and the rationale for difficult decisions is more important than ever, as is fostering a culture of radical candour," Hade details.
"Some internal playtests generate hundreds of pages of feedback. Often the feedback is harsh -- we actually encourage projects that are controversial, because if everyone agrees something is a good idea that is likely a sign we're playing it too safe -- but if people trust it is coming from the right place, it's invigorating.
"We aim to have a satisfied, passionate, and motivated workforce. Happiness is often a side effect, but focussing on keeping people 'happy' on any given day is not necessarily the goal. Rather, we set goals that talented devs naturally align with and ensure there is autonomy, mastery, and purpose at every level. As a result, the average tenure of employees is over four years.
"This is best achieved in a decentralised environment where teams and individuals have ultimate responsibility and the scope to decide what they work on and how. Some of our most promising games have come from teams working on something that would never have passed some central committee or satisfied any rational greenlight criteria, but through their persistence and internal vision became something great. To pull that off you need to tolerate failure and for games to take longer than you'd like, so setting up a structure where the company can weather that uncertainty financially is crucial. Nothing guarantees mediocrity like a launch date or a greenlight meeting."
The pandemic has been tough for everyone, and Space Ape has launched two games during it and even killed some projects. But the firm made sure that there was zero pressure to prioritise work over home.
"We have a few games that we're committed to launching and everyone knows to help those when they can, and we have a very clear ambition for new ideas so people don't waste their time on anything that is not going to make it," Hade says. "A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has forced us all to be laser focussed on the most important things, and as a result I think we've collectively done our best work in the past six months."
The Leamington Spa-based Sega studio is best known for bringing Sega's hit IP, from Sonic to Crazy Taxi, to mobile. It's expanding what it's working on going forward, but its projects are not entirely dictated from the top.
"We canvas interest to make sure we're not taking on anything that is unpopular in the studio," says studio director Neall Jones. And it's one of the many things that the business does to ensure it has a motivated team.
Jones lists more, including ensuring autonomy and that people are not being micromanaged; Giving regular updates on the studio and being open about financial performance; Ensuring staff have the capacity to develop and learn; Quarterly appraisals with clear goals, and employee feedback sessions on how to improve the business.
In terms of the switch to working from home, Jones says the IT team "performed miracles." And the business has worked hard to ensure the mental welfare of its team, with extra counselling sessions on top of what was already in place.
"For some, working from home has been an enjoyable experience. But not everyone has felt that way," Jones says. "People have suffered from isolation, and there's extra pressures from looking after children and balancing responsibilities with partners… that's just two examples. So we have made sure that regular check-ins have been happening and social events have been arranged online across the teams, including our annual team day event."
Sega Hardlight has also been paying attention to the serious abuse stories that have rocked the industry in recent months, and that's provoked it to look at itself and its own systems.
"Thankfully we have not seen any of the behaviour that has been reported arise in the studio at this time. However, we're not taking anything for granted and a number of company policies are being reviewed currently to ensure that they are still fit for purpose," Jones says.
"We are looking at making sure there are independent external channels available to staff to deal with any complaints that arise, too. We have to ensure staff feel comfortable being able to raise these issues and not everyone will be confident of doing that through existing internal channels.
"The hope is that with people feeling more comfortable being able to raise these concerns at an early stage and if they have more confidence that action will be taken, we'll see this kind of behaviour eradicated and ensure the industry is an even better place to work in."
"Among all the uncertainties, ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of the team is certainly one of the biggest challenges," says Studio Gobo's game director Xu Xiaojun.
"Working remotely and not having the daily face-to-face contact made it harder to gauge how our team is coping. We are also a very social studio so to suddenly have these activities taken away has been a difficult adjustment.
"We are doing everything we can to face these challenges by reaching out more often. Monthly virtual wellbeing seminars and workshops that cover subjects from finance to motivation via meditation have been organised.
"Many events have been adapted to a virtual format -- coffee morning, show and tell, quizzes and games -- to keep us connected. We've also been delivering many of the perks our team would usually have in the office like fruit, snacks, and ice cream direct to their homes.
"But most importantly we have taken the time to understand the challenges that each individual is facing, which has enabled us to tailor our support for each team member."
One again, autonomy was cited as one of the key ingredients in developing a happy and motivated workforce, alongside empowerment and trust.
"We also believe it is important to create a safe space so our employees feel they can be open about the challenges of their work and day-to-day life," Xiaojun adds.
Looking forward to a world after the pandemic has subsided, Xiaojun doesn't expect the games business to return to normal. Indeed, he believes the industry overall will have a more distributed workforce going forward.
"We will certainly see a more varied working arrangement, which will enable studios to reach out to talents in locations that perhaps couldn't be considered previously," he says.
"Working remotely will encourage game studios to consider a more distributed development set up as well as collaborate more with external partners in different parts of the world."
The Keywords-owned co-development business is once again amongst the Best Places winners. So what is it that makes the company's staff so satisfied to work there?
"We believe the key ingredients include making sure people feel important and feel like they're contributing to their projects and to the company as a whole," says development director Steve Powell.
"Day-to-day work that is enjoyable and engaging for each individual is another factor, as well as offering a collaborative and supportive culture."
Head of studio Rich Badger continues: "Having programmes and processes in place to include individuals' career progression is very important. We believe that regular discussions within our quarterly one-to-ones, and more in-depth annual appraisals, ensure each team member has good job advancement and feels supported to achieve their desired career direction.
"Helping to balance the excitement of the games sector with the responsibilities of home life, keeping the team motivated and happy, with great career progression, all whilst making some of the best AAA titles to the highest possible standard, are some of the most important features to having a happy and motivated workforce."
D3t has been expanding its business in recent months, and Powell says the company has onboarded more than 25 recruiters remotely, and that the team managed this "really well."
"Every new starter is welcomed and brought into the d3t team as smoothly as possible. Equipment being sent, full introductions and Microsoft Team meetings with management, and the d3t sub-team working closely with them. All communication and social channels explained. A few items of welcome merch, along with adding to our care package deliveries from the moment the job offer is accepted.
"Switching to working from home -- including purchasing equipment for team members -- was a large task, especially as so many suppliers were furloughed, closed, or low on stock.
"We ensured all our teams were supported with equipment, including laptops, webcams, headsets, chairs and various helpful aids, along with support for their mental health during the lockdown. Our Mental Health First Aiders were quick to provide extra support via various channels, with line managers and others given the time to be in communication with each team member regularly. We also increased and made changes to our security due to the different demands of homeworking."
In the future, d3t feels that the industry needs to embrace and support diversity and collaboration to keep moving forwards.
"Other industries are a long way ahead of the games industry regarding regulation and process," Powell says.
"The challenge for the games industry is to make the necessary improvements to the way we make games whilst retaining the fun and creativity for every member of our team."
"At Hutch, we believe that one of the best ways to keep staff happy and motivated is through autonomy, mastery, and purpose," begins COO Andy Watson, reflecting what many of the winners of the Best Places To Work Awards have been saying.
"We allow the team to define what they do, how they do it, who they do it with, and when they do it. We provide them with opportunities to experiment and grow within their careers with training, conferences, mentoring, and opportunities to develop projects based around their personal interests.
"We aim to ensure everyone has a strong understanding of Hutch's goals and its mission to build a diverse mobile racing game portfolio, with the most engaged communities. It's a significant priority of ours to help the staff understand how their work contributes to Hutch achieving that mission."
Based on the survey responses, there are many areas that Hutch excels at, but one thing it's especially proud of is its social responsibility programme, which all employees are invited to get involved with.
"Initiatives span the environmental footprint of Hutch and support for charity partners on a local and global level, which includes our staff, our players, and the wider global community," Watson explains. "We want to run our business in a way that is good for people and the planet, to go above and beyond what is expected. We believe allowing Hutch staff to be involved in these initiatives will also increase their motivation and happiness in their day-to-day lives."
Hutch, like all games studios, had to wrestle with the COVID-19 crisis this year, and had to overcome working remotely, and even bringing in new recruits during the lockdown period. However, Watson feels that going forward this situation will result in some positive changes for the wider games business.
"We believe that while challenging for all at the moment, great opportunities and improvements can come from the current COVID-19 crisis," Watson says. "Alongside simply increased levels of remote working we can foresee a greater level of ownership from leadership teams within games companies, to do our bit in society and try to move things forward. We also expect greater investments in teams and companies on the issues of the day, not just to raise our awareness but to make big changes on fairness and better work-life balance."