Read the gaming rags, or listen to those who toil in the industry, and the complaints soon arise: The “crunch” workweeks of 60 to 80 hours, the culture that looks askance at someone daring to go home after putting in 40 hours, the sacrificing of family life and mental health on the altar of being a “hardcore” developer and employee.

It’s enough to make you wonder what life is like in the casual gaming industry, where development times are months, not years, and budgets are in the thousands, not the millions. Do the casual developers know something we don’t, or is the grueling crunch the only way it can be done, as is commonly heard among those Stockholm Syndromed into thinking 100-hour work weeks are normal, even desirable? Casual developer PopCap Games was kind enough to allow a pair of employees to offer some insight into their development process. John Vechey is one of the company’s founders, able to discuss the high-level corporate approach to employee relations, and Stephanie Jessel is one of PopCap’s staffing specialists, able to walk us through the employment process and talk about PopCap’s culture from the HR trenches.

Hardcore Refugee: John Vechey, Co-Founder of PopCap Games
John Vechey helped found PopCap in 2000 with Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka, and he currently runs the company website . The company is growing, he says, and growing quickly. “When I first took over on the website a year and a half ago, we only had three people working on it. Now we have 16 people! It’s actually representative of the phenomenal growth the whole company has been experiencing in the last couple of years,” he says. With the growth of the team, he’s been able to step back. “The focus of my job is leading the team, communicating to different departments and working to align the overall strategies of the different departments to make sure we’re all going after the same goals. I’m also lucky enough to serve on the board and get to be one of the ‘faces’ of the company.”

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Culturally, PopCap is pretty different from the usual developer, partly because of the nature of the business. “Working for a company whose most expensive game cost $700,000 is actually great,” Vechey says. “Though we tend to work on titles for much longer than the typical casual game company, the teams are smaller, and everyone who works on a game is really required to contribute to the game design and game vision.” That’s one of the challenges, he says, in that “we can’t just hire an engineer because he or she is good at programming, we really need to make sure they get games and are capable of making solid game design choices.”

When it comes to putting together a game, Vechey describes PopCap as “spoiled,” saying, “We’ve never asked ourselves, ‘How much can we afford to spend on a game?’ We just keep working until the game is great, or until it gets cancelled. And we never cancel titles because of time or budget; we cancel titles because no one working on them is passionate about that particular game or game concept anymore.” Big developers, he says, don’t have the luxury of walking away from a game, largely because of the money they pour into development. “We have no green-lighting process. A lot of people ask us that, and it always brings out a giggle. We have games that people are passionate about, or we have games that are cancelled.”

For those working at PopCap, he says the lifestyle is pretty casual. “We get to have beer/food Fridays, do two to three companywide volunteer days a year. We bring non-profits in to talk to people about donating (and match donations). We encourage, nay, force people to play games at work, and we really try to make sure people are able to spend time with their families and not kill themselves working insanely long hours. Many of us are ‘refugees’ from the hardcore side of the business, and none of us want to go back to working 60-plus hour work weeks!” He emphasizes that it’s important that people get a chance to “breathe,” saying, “If you’re working 60-80 hours a week, you’re probably not happy, probably not productive over the long haul, can’t really make the decisions and are definitely not as creative as you should be. What’s funny is that if you really respect people’s personal time, you’ll have people a lot more happy when they do have to work longer hours.”

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The sort of person they’re looking for is “someone who has a high level of personal accountability, and who wants to get shit done. People who want to play politics, build empires or half-ass it tend to get weeded out very quickly. We also need people who can have a vision for something and move that forward. You don’t have a say at PopCap because you have a title. You have a say at PopCap because you say intelligent things, listen, and have gotten a lot of quality work done. … The company culture is one of ‘nothing is ever good enough.’ When we add a new feature to a game, we always ask ourselves how to make it better. When we release a new redesign on the website, we immediately want to redesign it again to make it even better. We do something great, slap ourselves on the back and then immediately try to do something better.”

Ultimately, Vechey says they’re “building a company where people are able to enjoy doing really great things. We’re a company where you put in your all because you know everyone else is, and a company where we’re all on the same team, working towards the same goals. I know this all sounds clichéd, but it’s true.”

He uses a recent example from his team, where everyone had been working hard, but they also had to work weekends to get everything done. “The web managers and I asked everyone what would make their lives easier. Everyone came up with a great list of stuff that helped us optimize all of our development and processes on the team. No one tried to offload work, but when they saw what other groups needed, people would almost always step up to do more work to make everyone’s life easier. It was great because it had the net benefit of making less extra ‘work’ for everyone, so we could take the time needed to do the important stuff.”

The Stephanie Test: Stephanie Jessel, Senior HR Generalist/Staffing Specialist
Stephanie Jessel is an experienced HR Generalist with over eight years of experience, most of that time at fast-growing companies. She started at PopCap last October. “Given the growth of not only our company, but the casual games industry in general, we have had to work pretty fast to bring quality talent in house and build HR infrastructure at the same time, Jessel says. “It’s been an unbelievably exciting time for me in my career.”

“PopCap Material” varies from department to department, she says, “but the overarching profile that makes a super PopCap applicant is: Individuals that are outstanding performers in their discipline, strong at building relationships between dynamic groups and teams of people, are willing to take risks, ask questions, adaptable to a quickly moving and changing environment, capable of working under minimal guidance and process, are passionate about what they do and about games, and generally want to have fun.” Perhaps understating a bit, she adds, “We don’t ask for much!”

I asked for her pitch for a prospective recruit, and she said, “Honestly, I don’t believe I have a ‘pitch’ to prospective employees. I treat prospective employees with honesty and respect, and, happily, PopCap and the opportunities here really sell themselves to a significant extent.” Those that seek her out already know about the environment there, she says. “PopCap is a fun place to work, and we believe in treating our employees well, but we also work really hard, so I do make sure that people clearly understand our expectations. Can the candidate accomplish projects without perfect information or constant supervision? Does this person understand that a critical factor for success here will be the ability to move quickly in the short-term, but with an eye towards meeting long-term objectives?”

The hiring process “starts with a candidate sending in their resume through an internal referral, a job posting site or our website. From there, I look over every resume to see if the position they are applying for is the best fit. If not, I try to see if another potential position might work, or if a position slotted for a later hire date might work.” After that, she gets in touch with the candidate, and they talk. “If they pass the ‘Stephanie test,’ I schedule a time with the hiring manager. If that works, we usually have another interview where a few PopCap employees have the opportunity to meet with the candidate and weigh in during the decision-making process.”

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Assuming they make it through the hiring process, she says, “PopCap is a fairly easy company to acclimatize yourself to. The only real suggestion I have for potential new hires is engross yourself into the many social events that are scheduled, and feel free to approach people.” On the working side, “PopCap offers many flexible working options for employees. … We definitely stress the work-life combination. For example, one of our departments had a pretty daunting schedule of numerous releases, and after a month or so, one of the managers in the group brought up the issues that the group needed to find a way to make the work more fun. The group worked together to figure out how to meet the business needs of the company, but also their own personal needs. From an HR perspective, this ability is so very important. We enjoy very low turnover and a higher level of productivity as a result.”

Overall, she says, “Our company culture is our people: colorful, dedicated, passionate about games and passionate about PopCap. There is a definite vibe that exists at PopCap, people are just pumped about the things they are doing, and we are still a small enough company that each person really has an impact on what we do and what PopCap is. … We believe in having a place that helps maintain and foster creativity; a fun, exciting place to work that people look forward to going to; a place that feels like home away from home.”

Sometimes, the carrot works better than the crunch mode stick. Considering PopCap’s success, it’s a wonder more companies don’t emulate them.

Shannon Drake is a former Contributing Editor to The Escapist. He now rides a polar bear to work.

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