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The future of AAA development culture: Sustainable, ethical, responsible | Playable Futures

Twin Suns COO and co-founder Forest Swartout Large on the importance of fair, ethical, responsible and sustainable development to her studio and the industry

Playable Futures is a collection of insights, interviews and articles from global games leaders sharing their visions of where the industry will go next. This article series has been brought to you by GamesIndustry.biz, Ukie, Sumo Group and Diva.

With the increase of remote work opportunities and the rise of people-focused studios, game developers have a greater ability to choose sustainable workplaces.

From the start of my production career in film animation and visual effects, I learned the value and importance of a shared language, clear goals, and measurable progress. I've carried these principles with me in game development, with positive results, proving that structure and a responsible work environment creates better games. Most recently, as the executive producer of Hitman 3, we transitioned the team mid-development to remote work. Despite the pandemic, Hitman 3 not only released on time, but became the highest rated and most commercially successful Hitman game of all time.

Today, I am co-founder and COO at Twin Suns Corp, a fully remote, global AAA game studio focused on sustainability. Our mission is to ensure a healthy work environment that nurtures creativity and innovation; through professionalism, planning, and iteration, we strive to create the conditions where our amazing team can thrive.

It's been a little over a year since starting the studio, and I've outlined below the themes and initiatives that have helped us to work more sustainably. They have proven to be an essential aspect of our business model and are the kinds of initiatives that will become increasingly vital to the sustainability and success of AAA development.

Our culture

Great cultures afford psychological and emotional safety so the team can take risks, innovate, and have the capacity and bandwidth to imagine and realise new frontiers and experiences.

Forest Swartout Large, Twin Suns Corp

We deploy consistent and robust processes around recruitment and promotions without bypassing steps or fast-tracking candidates. The cost of bringing on team members who aren't aligned with the values and practices of the company and team rarely, if ever, work out. On the positive side, a thoughtfully built team will expand upon each other's work; this is the flavour of collaboration that I find to be the most efficient, engaging, and purposeful.

We value our safe and engaging meeting culture. At Twin Suns Corp, we are fully remote and global, and our meetings are a critical mode of interaction. We are a conscious and thoughtful group; no one person dominates or overtalks; interruptions are rare, and when they do happen, are quickly stopped with an apology from the interruptor. While we value efficiency and being on-topic, laughter, levity, and joy are a frequent aspect, even in our quick, daily standups. Everyone easily gives and shares credit. We start our weekly team meeting with appreciations and end our sprint reviews celebrating accomplishments and contributions.

Collaboration on the game is done asynchronously through the editor, Slack, Confluence, and Miro. Team building activities, daily playtests, planning, reviews, celebrations, and appreciations are done synchronously via Zoom and Discord. We encourage on-camera presence but don't make it required. Thanks to a suggestion from a team member, we always try to end meetings five minutes early to allow for breaks. We record all team meetings and try to always have transcripts enabled so team members can easily watch any missed meetings.

Lastly, there is no business case for toxicity at any level. Transgressions and microaggressions shouldn't be tolerated; these incidents can make the work environment intolerable. From my own personal experience, I've seen the immense cost of unchecked toxicity: attrition and increased turnover; higher recruitment and onboarding costs; performance and productivity drops; opportunity and profit loss; hits to morale, and loss of confidence in leadership. Something every studio handbook can and should have is an easy to understand and follow Reporting and Safe Space Procedure.

Compensating Fairly

Preventing and monitoring for effort-reward imbalances is critically important. At Twin Suns Corp, we have salary bands based on role and responsibilities. Where someone sits in the band is determined by their experience within that role. For example, a highly experienced senior will be at the high end of the band whereas a brand-new senior will be in the entry level of the band, regardless of discipline or salary history.

The games industry is relatively youthful, but as it matures, operating our teams and businesses with a sustainability mindset grows increasingly essential

Discrepancies between two people who have the same experience and set of responsibilities only perpetuate the inequality problems in our industry. I'm also a believer in transparent and fair bonus schemes. No team member wants to learn that a peer who contributed the same value and work was given more bonus due to favouritism or another arbitrary reason.

Project management

Production and project management brings stability and predictability, making it another key part of both building a game sustainably and building a successful game studio.

Don't try to do it all; prioritise between scope, cost, and time. Keep in mind there is no feature, piece of content, or bug that is worth risking the health of the team or an individual.

Be sure to make all in-editor, collaboration and support work planned for and visible in the project plans; this helps to prevent the givers, who typically carry the extra burden of invisible work, from burnout. Again, transparency of all kinds is powerfully helpful to sustainable, impactful game development.

Operationalising heatlh and team health

At Twin Suns Corp, we conduct a monthly health survey, and it's been tremendously helpful. The results are transparent for the team, and we analyse each report and make improvements. In response to concerning trends around meeting fatigue and overtime in our monthly health survey, we started the practice of 'Free (Focus & Fun) Fridays'. Free Fridays allows us to operationalise deep work, learning, and when needed, rest, to support everyone to work more sustainably. When everyone protects at least 20% of their time to do the work they love, engagement and output increases all around.

There is no feature, piece of content, or bug that is worth risking the health of the team or an individual

Similarly, when people delegate or stop the work they loathe, motivation and productivity rise. Oftentimes, an activity one person dreads, another person would love to take on. If it's something no one wants to do but can be broken up, then everyone can take a little piece of it. If it's universally loathed and not critical, then it's probably not worth continuing.

Above all, make it safe for everyone to ask for help. The most efficient way to establish trust is to ask for help, and the most efficient way to establish safety is to provide help without judgement.

The future is sustainable

The approaches I've shared here aren't just nice ideas or hypothetical concepts. They are absolutely working for our team and our business. Being transparent, thoughtful and human-centric is empowering us to build a studio that does great work while proving the business case for ethical and responsible development -- and it comes down to fostering a healthy, happy workplace where team members are listened to and can speak up.

The games industry is relatively youthful, but as it matures, operating our teams and businesses with a sustainability mindset grows increasingly essential. While it takes commitment to implement these initiatives, the rewards are well worth the effort. The best cultures attract and retain the best teams and the best teams create the most successful and enduring games.

The time to move towards sustainability is now, and I look forward to more studios and businesses joining us.

Standing as Twin Suns Corp's Co-founder and COO, Forest Swartout Large brings 23 years of film and games industry experience, having served outfits such as IO Interactive, Microsoft, Playdead, Glu, and Crystal Dynamics. Forest is passionate about ethical, inclusive, and sustainable game development.

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