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Double Eleven's attention to retention

Prison Architect console port studio hasn't lost a developer in over three years; co-founder Mark South suggests how and why

Job stability may as well be an oxymoron in the games industry, but some outfits will always have better track records than others. For example, it's been more than three years since Double Eleven has said goodbye to a full-time developer.

Speaking with this week, the company's chief operating officer and co-founder Mark South held up retention as a key competitive advantage for the studio. The company's staff of 34 today looks essentially identical to that of a few years ago (an IT employee left in 2016 for reasons beyond the company's control), but with a few more years of experience, camaraderie, and personal skills growth to pour back into their work. To find out why Double Eleven has held onto its team, it may first be helpful to consider why developers usually leave employers.

"By and large I think people leave due to a misalignment of expectations between themselves and the studio," South said. "This could be anything from the nature of the work they undertake, to how they progress in the [organization] or the simple stuff like salary. Parallel to that I believe there's also an element of Maslow in there, in that anyone would want to know the studio and job are secure and that if they want to keep realising their career ambitions, the studio can help foster it.

"Once things start to deviate from what's expected, the doubt starts to creep in and evidence begins to collect in their case for leaving. It's not hard to see how that happens as projects staff up and down, scope changes, volume of work and the resulting responsibilities change. It's not hard to imagine that someone started as mid-level coder became a senior by rights at the end of a project, and then went straight onto the next project and no one realised it until it was too late.

"In that regard retention for us has unsurprisingly been about being very transparent and honest with our team on as much as possible so they can make their own informed decisions. This certainly isn't special to our industry but it becomes a question of how well it's thought about and managed."

South said the studio is thinking about retaining employees before they've even hired them, that it shapes the messaging for potential hires, from the job posting to the interview. At every step, the studio emphasizes transparency with employees and potential employees.

"We don't always know the route but we know the direction, and we're very honest about that with the team," South said. "I think people are smart enough to make their own decisions knowing where we're going as a business and being able to ask themselves, 'Is this the bus I want to be on?'"

Double Eleven staff, circa 2014-2017

For at least the last few years, Double Eleven has been a reasonably attractive bus. Its reputation is as a technical support studio, porting games like Limbo, Goat Simulator, and Prison Architect to consoles, but it's using that work-for-hire to help support wider ambitions, recently branching out into publishing other developers' work (like the upcoming Songbringer and Super Cloudbilt), as well as its own original, unannounced project.

"We've had to wait this long to make our own games, literally almost seven years, to be in a position where if one of our games doesn't sell, it doesn't matter to us," South said. "I think the company would appreciate that more than saying, 'Let's roll the dice and if it doesn't work we'll do something else...' It feels a bit conservative to a lot of people, but we're at a point now where we're making our own games, we're working on some great brands, and we're also publishing games and funding other developers as well. From that perspective, today, I wouldn't say we're doing anything conservative."

Double Eleven's growth in business helps stave off some downsides to extreme retention. If a company has no turnover and the same headcount as it did several years ago, one might assume that there's little room for growth or personal advancement. And while it's true that Double Eleven might not have much of a corporate ladder to climb, South said it tries to realize employees' ambitions in other ways. For example, QA workers may take on design or coding tasks, and more senior staff become increasingly responsible for managing external teams or working with partners. The studio also accepts employees working on personal projects in their spare time, and while they need to be dealt with on a case-by-base basis, South said Double Eleven generally just asks for right of first refusal on such efforts.

Of course that's not going to be enough for every developer, which is partly screened for in the studio's interview process. They definitely want to see job candidates with ambition, but they also want to make sure Double Eleven is a place where those candidates can realize their ambitions.

"It's really hard to make a senior hire into the company," South said. "Not because it's hard to find people, but because it's obviously hard to find the right person, especially when we think about bringing someone on full time. We have to see years of road ahead for this person to be in the company, which is part of us keeping small as a business and maneuverable within the industry."

That interview process may also be a bit different than usual. South said interviews "just for the sake of meeting someone" have less and less relevance these days. Traditional interviews may be great for gauging a person's confidence or how they presents themselves, but South said they don't necessarily have much bearing on the ability to do a given job. Double Eleven prefers "situational interviews," where they present candidates with a variety of scenarios they can be expected to face on the job, from core obligations related to the position at hand to softer skills like dealing with people in a difficult situation.

"There's an understanding we have that if these people are good enough to work for us, they're really good enough to work in a lot of places, so the question becomes what makes us special to that person?"

Naturally, interviews work both ways. Double Eleven has to sell itself to prospective employees as much as those candidates have to sell themselves to Double Eleven.

"There's an understanding we have that if these people are good enough to work for us, they're really good enough to work in a lot of places," South said, "so the question becomes what makes us special to that person?"

One obvious component is an assortment of benefits and perks. For example, Double Eleven provides private health care for all of its employees and their immediate families, and it also allows flexible start and end times for employees to fit their work days as much as possible around their personal lives. They also pay overtime, and try to treat it as a last resort rather than a scheduled part of development. Even though these sound like no-brainers for a company looking to boost retention, South said they still need to be considered and implemented before a company runs into problems.

"When things are great, it's easy to do things [to aid retention]. But the reality is when things are bad, it's hard to do anything like this, so these things need to be in place when companies can actually look more than a month ahead," he said.

Ultimately, Double Eleven's corporate culture is supposed to reflect three values, South said: hard work, integrity, and solidarity. Hard work is self-explanatory. For Double Eleven's purposes, integrity simply means "not bullshitting and learning when it's time to learn." But solidarity is perhaps the most relevant to the company's retention.

"Solidarity for us on the team is about making each others' lives easier, helping out and not leaving people behind," South said. "And I'd like to think if that happens on aggregate, that happens for the company. So I suppose that's my view on loyalty. We've rolled it up by everyone being loyal to each other, and that in turn tends to work for the business. So when we do need people to work the extra time on rare occasions and we explain why it's necessary, they do it."

It's not unusual for a studio to foster such loyalty from its employees, but it's less common for that loyalty to go down the org chart as well as up, a sentiment underscored by South's answer when asked if his ideal world would see the studio with the same roster of 34 employees five years from now.

"We joke that in an ideal world, maybe our staffs' kids would work for the company," South said. "That's a super-ideal world, but it's been said more than once."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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