If there were a perfect game studio, what would it look like?
The trouble with this question, as in general with quality of life, is the profusion of answers you get when you ask about the ideal workplace environment. In the end, as we’ve seen, the ideal comes down to the ability to choose and control your environment – but that’s not particularly useful when talking about shaping an entire studio. But when we talk about collective choice, we’re ultimately talking about company culture, and that is something that can be quantified, to a degree, and comparatively measured.
This month, what I’d like to do is focus on general models for company culture as found in the game industry. To my knowledge, while a great deal of energy in business school focuses on company culture as a whole, and while culture style models have been developed for business as a whole, no one has addressed game development specifically with culture models that come out of what we’ve observed in the growth of our industry.
The first one is the most common and tends to be how the media likes to portray game development as a whole.
The Frat House: We Work Hard, We Play Hard
Mentioning a frat house doesn’t usually conjure up the best mental image, especially around those of a geeky persuasion, but despite its poor reputation even among developer groups, the frat house designation isn’t inherently a negative one. No decent game studio is entirely clear of frat house elements, and big companies within games and without often yearn after the frat house culture, providing paintball “teambuilding” events and cultivating an environment of safe challenge, initiation into exclusivity and no-holds-barred engineering. If you see phrases like “We’re looking for smart, driven people who are passionate about our games” in a recruitment flyer, chances are you’re looking at a frat house.
The frat house model is one nearly as old as game development itself, preceded only by the original one-, two- and three-person teams that made the earliest videogames. The frat house, therefore, inherits a lot of ideals from that age, a primary one being ownership – an idea that becomes absurd on a team larger than about 20, but clung to nevertheless. In small frat house studios there is an intense sense of one’s personal ability to influence, and therefore be responsible for, the ultimate survival of the company, and with it, the livelihood of one’s friends. Contrasting this is the air of mercenary movement among these studios, though it is with good will; developers at the age and stage of frat house development are frequently on the lookout for better opportunities, higher pay or, often most importantly, a credit on a higher profile style of game, whether it’s an up-and-coming MMOG or a gig with a highly regarded license. The result is indeed a highly passionate yet highly transient sense of loyalty to the studio brand.
The trouble is, like any field of unlimited growth, the frat house quickly exhausts itself and exists at a high state of instability. Couple hungry youth and boastful inclinations with publishers anxious for bang-for-buck and you get an environment where studios over-commit and under-deliver (or worse, crash and burn without delivering at all), leading to a tense relationship between publishers and studios, which in turn leads to underhanded behavior. On an individual level, young developers remain passionate for about two to five years, give or take (depending often on how many studio closings and unemployment stints they’ve had to survive), and then grow bitter and leave the industry, blaming the system as a whole for patterns established on a local level. A select few will stay in and ruthlessly sacrifice social lives, family connections and personal hobbies out of commitment to the company.
A plain fact is many of the adrenaline-inducing emergencies that emerge from frat house-style development – and the ensuing acts of heroism – frequently aren’t necessary and are ultimately self-defeating. Balancing this is the fact that, for many, the people, the charge and the environment are why we make games – so the trick is to capture that level of excitement-driven creativity without utterly burning people out. There are successful frat house-style studios that do this – quite a few of them. Ironically, the longer a studio remains a frat house, the more likely it is to make a transition into another kind of studio, as the happy developers age.
The Family Store: Room for Everyone
On the other side of the pendulum swing from the staple of the frat house is the “family store” – the studio specifically oriented toward, and advertises, its support of family. You’ll see flexibility for people who need to abruptly leave the office to pick up a sick child, company events that offer babysitting so parents can attend without guilt or hardship, and, more frequently than in other studio models, a dedicated HR manager whose specialty really is human resources, not just managing the applicant pool.
These studios are incredibly stable by comparison to their predecessors, and because they’re family-friendly they’ll often attract that rare bird, the veteran game developer. They often know how to manage contractors and work on a flexible development schedule that predicts hardship and engineers around it, or knows when to batten down the hatches and weather the storm.
Does it have to be as extreme as offering babysitting perks to parents to be a “family store”? Certainly not. But in terms of priority, events will more frequently be parent-friendly, you’re more likely to see a pregnant woman on a team and the general atmosphere, while still fun, will be quieter – and emptier at night – than the frat house.
Does this impact the quality of the output? No, it doesn’t seem to. Red Storm Entertainment is noted by its employees for its family-friendly policy; Cyberlore was similarly regarded.
Strangely, though, the stability of these studios itself tends to impact their known presence in the talent movement circuit. Because they tend to stay more stable, they have fewer openings, so they tend to fly below the radar of the migratory population. However, complete equilibrium is very unusual, and studios generally either grow or recede, and through that growth opportunities become available.
Besides the budgetary and managerial challenges to maintaining a family-friendly studio – particularly in a market where the studio must compete with hungry frat houses – the remaining challenge for the family store is one of sustaining culture. Because game developers are in the business of things fun and cool and smart, boredom is a genuine threat to talent retention, and even if a particular developer has been through a rough time, a couple of years at a stable studio can result in amnesia and encourage risk-taking behavior. Higher-level challenges, like maintaining a sense of ownership, also start to arise, and these can be addressed by encouraging developers to take ownership not just of the work they produce but how they produce it. Most people thrive when in possession of their own destiny.
The Nine-to-Five Hardcore: Serious About Quality and Life
A third and final model shares “recent development” status with the family store: the nine-to-five hardcore. This new model of studio is a “we are smart” hybrid of the frat house and the family store, with a sharp emphasis on efficiency of productivity and life outside the office.
Though gaining steam in the United States, this model is also rising in Europe, and two notable studios are High Moon and Relentless Software.
Like the frat house, the nine-to-five hardcore has a passionate, driven culture with a little dash of elitism thrown on top; they’re passionate not just about the delivery of games, but about their ability to do so in less time than the average studio, through innovative process and a focus on efficiency.
This studio model comes in varying degrees, from a light implementation of Scrum and a focus on minimizing crunch to studios (like Relentless) that don’t allow internet access during work hours and other studios that actually lock people out of the building outside of core hours, barring special permission from management. The full gamut of these methods has not been fully tested, but the internet issue is a hotly debated one and definitely impacts company culture in the truest sense.
Because it is a new model, the nine-to-five hardcore has not been tested across the timelines of either the frat house or the family store, though its adherents will tell you it most certainly works. While combining the intensity, exclusivity and “hardcore” elements of the frat house, it puts an emphasis on quality of life like the family store. If anything, its liabilities will remain in the maintenance of a company identity; to some extent, frat house style stay-after-work-to-play-Guitar-Hero-II sessions support company culture and lubricate team dynamics by encouraging people to work together voluntarily.
So What’s It All Mean?
All of these models have a delicate balance to maintain; all have their challenges and strengths, and all, to a full-project-cycle level at least, have been tested in the real world.
Further subsets exist within these, or can be applied on top of them, mostly having to do with the kind of games a particular studio makes. A handheld studio is going to have a noticeably different culture than a AAA studio, even aside of its drastically different development cycle rhythm. But by codifying studio styles in cultural terms, perhaps we can begin to decide how quality of life can be achieved across a spectrum of potential options, rather than attempting to mandate a uniform workplace.
So what is the perfect frat house, family store or nine-to-five hardcore? Well, the ideal is obviously the small-team house full of sharp and hungry developers that manage to drive their passion into just the right place at just the right time and get a smash hit, making them all fabulously wealthy and left to drink themselves into a stupor on their private islands for the rest of their lives.
This is, sadly, pretty rare. But smart studios are self-aware, and above all they are up front about their goals as a company and their expectations from talent. Anything else will lead to bitterness, a fast road to mass exodus. Communication in any style of studio can be even more vital than it is outside of game development, for the highly volatile kinetic energy of that so-vaunted “passion” can also lead to internal politicking. The upside is developers deeply want to feel positive and cool about their company, so a little cheerleading goes a long way. Hopefully, we can do all of this and pave the road toward independent studios self-sustaining enough to be able to turn down bad deals, protect and grow their talent, and develop unique, original IP that rocks the gaming world. That is the great game studio in the sky.