Thursday, June 22, 2017

Opinion: The Greatest Place To Work In The Games Industry


“We wanted to build a place where people are happy to wake up and can’t wait to get to work in the morning; we wanted to create the greatest place to work in the games industry, and I really feel that we have achieved that goal …”

Counterintuitive to the uninitiated, and, if you find yourself talking to a company co-founder during a job interview, you have almost certainly passed the test and should be expecting a job offer rather quickly; if you find yourself talking to a co-founder during a job interview, he is almost-certainly selling YOU on why you should want to join the company.

“We wanted to create the greatest place to work in the games industry, and I really feel that we have achieved that goal,” I found myself saying to Jorge Moreno, a technical design candidate who had wowed the dogpile of interviewers leading up to meeting with Chief Executive Alessandro Tento and myself. I involuntarily paused myself in a moment of internal wonderment …

we REALLY have achieved that goal!

Ignited Artists is the greatest work environment to which I, in my near-two decades in the industry of making games, have had the pleasure of waking each morning. And today, six months following bringing Jorge on board, when he is asked by strangers about his line of work, Jorge offers a wide-smiled laugh, “I make video games and in my life I have never been so happy to go to work in the morning!”


Back in June of 2014, before the money, before the offices, before the employees, before the product, when we were nothing but people with PowerPoint slides, we had a vision for what we believed to be the future of the games industry: With the proliferation of ungated, worldwide digital distribution and with developers receiving substantially bigger cuts of game profits than ever before, a new breed of game company would emerge: Bigger than basement-dwellers and smaller than Activision, these ‘new independents’ would maintain ownership in their intellectual properties and have millions of dollars to risk, with total say as to how their capital would be deployed.

Risk these ‘new independents’ would; and they would win, bringing visionary games to market, games that would never pass the gauntlet of blind idiots that guard the platform and publishing purses of the world. And, most-importantly, these ‘new independents’ would attract the very best talent in the games industry: Top talent wants to work with other top talent in situations that position them for maximum upside, not with a gauntlet of blind idiots who are also the most-terrible combination of both greedy and stingy. In this new games industry, anybody who can do it does it for themselves.

Chris Olson over at SEGA shared our vision for the future of the games industry; in September of 2014, he agreed to fund Ignited Artists, with the mandate that Ignited Artists recruit, develop, and retain top talent in the games industry.


It’s 2017, and it turns out that we were right! What we thought of as ‘new independents’ would later come by the industry to be called “Triple-I” studios. If “Triple-A” stands for, “aaaaaaaaall the money you’re going to spend,” “Triple-I” stands for, “how iiiiiiiindependent you are.” It’s 2017, and here, at the three-year anniversary of the founding of Ignited Artists, I want to share with you how we created what we feel is the greatest place to work in the games industry ...

… but first, a caveat …

I had previously written three thousand-some words about toxic corporate culture, which, unfortunately, had eight thousand-some readers. I say “unfortunately” because I forgot to spell most-importantly that corporate culture is ultimately a mirror which reflects corporate leadership. You can read all of the books by or about Steve Jobs and Andy Grove that you want, and, sure, you’ll find useful techniques within, but you’re not Steve Jobs nor Andy Grove - only Steve Jobs and Andy Grove were - and so you might want to consider what that cultural mirror will reflect when you stand in front of it. In this author’s opinion, the four virtues for good living are kindness, generosity, confidence, and humor, and everyday is a practice in cultivating these qualities …

… and now, THIS IS HOW WE DO IT

(1) The Greatest Place To Work In The Games Industry: Companies don’t make games, people make games, and happy, productive talent is the greatest asset of any games business. We made a very conscious decision to put people ahead of every consideration at Ignited Artists. Our litmus test for this goal of being the greatest place to work in the games industry is, “Are you happy to come into work in the mornings?” We vocally encourage our employees to let us know when they feel that some policy, process, and/or practice is not conducive to being the greatest place to work in the games industry.

(2) Everybody Wins: It is common practice in Silicon Valley to award vesting equity in the form of stock options as an incentive for joining a company, and this practice is as inscrutable to employees as it is mostly worthless to employees: Shares have liquidation preferences based on class; shares can be diluted; options can vest over a long period of time, and often on a cliff; options are generally granted from a pre-determined pool which is far dwarfed by the equity that a few chosen others receive; and, if somebody truly wants to screw you, options are more-or-less easily transformable into used bathroom tissue.

Here at Ignited Artists, our board has approved a very simple-to-understand passthrough profit-sharing: Full-time employees will see passthrough profit-sharing checks as the money comes and our accountants determine what profit is; everybody gets the same check, so the Technical Designer and the Chief Executive Officer get the same profit-share; there are no “profit points” awarded by managers, nor any other obtuse way of making the profit distribution unequal. The way to get any organization of people to truly execute in unison is to align utilities: There is no alignment greater than equal alignment, and it is the co-founders’ goal to become the highest-paying studio in the games industry; it’s our mission to make millionaires.

When talking to other games industry executives, I am frequently asked, “Aren’t you afraid that your employees will get rich and leave you? Aren’t you afraid that you will be creating competitors?” And I must say, my only fear is, Where in SoMa will we park all of these Ferraris? (“Ferrarii?” What’s the plural of “Ferrari!?”) When you create a corporate environment where everybody is unsure of whether they have more money or more smiles, why would your team want to go anywhere else?

And, if your teammates do leave you, can you, as an entrepreneur, blame them? Entrepreneurs gonna entrepreneu … This is San Francisco, Gameywood California, The Big Controller (and, to my constant chagrin, The City That Never Smokes): Follow your heart while your freak flag flies!

(3) We’re All Here To Win: Another common practice in Silicon Valley is to build one’s office into a dormitory, a place where employees will want to spend all of their time: Billiard and foosball tables, nap time areas, catered meals, video game systems, and even full bars, complete with tapped kegs. A lot of these luxuries are provided to subtly dissuade employees from leaving an office, or even to keep employees from realizing how little they are actually earning relative to company management. While our San Francisco offices are quite comfortable, here at Ignited Artists our utilities are equally aligned, and we ensure that our employees comprehend, Our offices are a stadium, not a clubhouse: We are all here to win.

(4) Mutual Admiration Society: It is this author’s belief that the world runs on sincere compliments, and Ignited Artists employees are constantly encouraged that, “If one of your co-workers does something that you like, compliment them on it!” Shit-talking your coworkers is simply NOT tolerated at Ignited Artists.

This does not mean that we do not critique work at Ignited Artists; indeed, if you only find out during a performance review that your management is unhappy with you, you have terrible management. Feedback comes fast at Ignited Artists, but never furious: We are big fans of serving the “shit sandwich,” the recipe for which is, “Sincere compliment ‘and’ the criticism shit ‘and’ another sincere compliment.

(5) Careful Hiring Process: Hiring is absolutely the most-crucial activity in forging great corporate culture: Companies are the employees that they eat, or something like that … Going into detail about hiring deserves three thousand-some words in and of itself, which I’ll probably get around to writing sometime in the year 2020. Suffice it to say, you need a hiring process: If you don’t have a strategy, you can’t fail, because you weren’t trying to accomplish anything in the first place.

We have a careful hiring process at Ignited Artists, one tuned around testing for skill competency, empathy quotient - we have a “No Dilbert Rule,” and, if you’re lacking empathy, you’re not going to make it here, no matter how technically skilled you are - and, maybe most-crucial, Weedwacking people with antisocial personality disorder. (Regardless the level of talent, even one sociopath, psychopath, malignant narcissist, or histrionic can decimate an organization in short time! I wish that somebody would do a study of antisocial personality disorder in the games industry, as, supposedly, only three-percent of all humans are antisocial personalities; empirically, it feels as if the games industry boasts a much, much higher population.)

Lastly, we test for passion specific to the types of games that we are making. There’s a certain trust tax that one doesn’t need to pay when dealing with game developers who actually love the games that they are making: You don’t have to tell developers who love those games that the camera system doesn’t feel right and is in need of adjustment; they love those games, and they fix issues before issues ever appear in a play test. Really, I find the “programmer, any programmer” talent-grab in the games industry shocking: If you don’t love games, you’re simply not a gaming talent.

(6) Unflinching Firing: The second-most-crucial activity in forging great corporate culture is in quickly letting go of people who are not harmonizing productive, profitable teamwork. No organization is perfect at hiring, but successful organizations must be perfect at firing: At Ignited Artists, we have been diligent in letting go of bad hires quickly - or, in happily waving goodbye as bad hires exited on their own. We observe “The 90 Day Rule,” whereby, if somebody is not meeting expectations within 90 days of joining the company, that somebody will either have their responsibilities and authority adjusted to better maximize strengths and trivialize weaknesses, or that somebody will be non-negotiably encouraged to pursue other opportunities.

(7) Talent Development: At Ignited Artists, we are dedicated to developing the talent that we keep in our employ: Through both structured and unstructured mentorship, individual and team-wide coursework, nothing would make we as founders happier than to see those people working around us become the future, scrupulous rulers of the games industry.

(8) Entertainment Property Development: Here is another topic to which I could dedicate too many words, possibly sometime in the year 2022: I have always disliked discussion of “intellectual property” in the games industry, as “intellectual property” is defined as “products of the mind,” or, “any intangible asset that a company owns.” Invariably, when “intellectual property” is discussed, the abstract to which the discussers are referring is, “Entertainment Property: The sounds, stories, symbols, characters, and themes, the composition of which brand the entertainment experience.”

Or, to put another way, when Disney purchased Marvel for billions with a ‘b,’ they were not purchasing for printing press intellectual property; when Disney purchased Lucasfilm for billions with a ‘b,’ they were not purchasing computer graphics intellectual property; Disney was purchasing superheroes and Jedis; Disney was purchasing sounds, stories, symbols, characters, and themes for use in an array of media; Disney was purchasing Entertainment Property.

Gameplay is not well-legally protected: In a 1981 District Court Case, the courts ruled that, to simplify and paraphrase, “It’s okay to rip off somebody’s gameplay, as long as the ripping off is done with original source code and assets.” This verdict has informed legal precedent regarding ownership of gameplay to this day: As in, one cannot legally own gameplay; which is absurdly good for innovation in general, as, otherwise, we would all exclusively be playing different shades of table tennis in the year 2017.

But one can own Entertainment Property; you can protect sounds, stories, symbols, characters, and themes. And every Ignited Artists employee is made aware that it is not enough to develop an amazing game product: At Ignited Artists, we develop amazing Entertainment Properties.

(9) Core Hours: We have core hours at Ignited Artists, hours in which every full-time employee is expected to be in the office, working. “Working from home” is not something that we encourage, and we have no remote full-time hires - just because you can get your work done while away does not mean that you are not blocking somebody else’s execution by fiat of your absence.

If you need a nap, take a nap; if you need to go to the dentist, go to the dentist; if you need a beer, drink a beer, even - and just be sure that you make up the time that you spent away. Again, we’re all in this together, and we’re all here to win.

(10) Purse Is Polish: This tenet actually began as, “Pride Is Polish,” but then we had to ask ourselves, “What the hell does ‘pride’ mean, anyway?!” We decided that we would all be mighty proud when our furniture is composed entirely of stacks of $100,000 Series 1934 Gold Certificates.

And then we had to ask ourselves, “What the hell does ‘Polish’ mean, anyway?!” There are many ways to define product polish: “The point at which the value of the product investment is maximized,” “fix your ‘C’ issues,” “fix issues that players wouldn’t even know are there,” “if you want to be like Blizzard, you have to do a snow dance,” “chip away everything that isn’t a horse,” none of which are very useful for our purposes, and so we codify with, “See a bug? Fix a bug.”

You love games: You don’t need to wait for a Player Experience Analyst to log a bug: You know what needs to be done!

(11) Players Are The Boss: I’m not going to bore you by typing on about The Economic Theory of Resource Dependence - actually, we’re over two thousand words deep, and, if I haven’t bored you already, you must give me the address of your marijuana dispensary - and the long and the short of it is that “experts” are only right 60% of the time, which means that corporate management and role-contributors making decisions everyday pile up a whole lot of bad decisions, which is to be expected, but …

… when a baby monkey dies, its mother will carry the corpse around for a while, bereaved and refusing to let go, just like a game developer who made a bad decision but, in the face of contradicting qualitative and quantitative player data, refuses to correct the course …

… at Ignited Artists, we let go of our dead monkeys. “Don’t guess; test,” is a phrase that we find ourselves saying often around the office, and, when a given test fails, we bury that monkey and keep going. The players are the boss; we’re all here to win; the only way to win is to make games that our players love.


I’m not speaking from a place of theory here but from a place of practice and experience: It is my firm belief that we at Ignited Artists have created the greatest place to work in the games industry. But maybe you disagree? Well, for you, I would offer this: The games industry is entertainment industry, and, as the old entertainment saw goes, Tell’em what you’re going to tell’em, tell’em, and then tell’em again.

Having cultural tenets submerged somewhere in a document in the cloud does not do you, nor your employees, any good. Whatever your cultural tenets may be, I suggest you sparkle them until they are both short and memorable, and then print them to hang prominently in your offices; make your culture both unignorable and of such substance that all would feel diminished to ignore. If you cannot agree with even that, well, at least we can together agree to be good to people.

I don’t allow comments on my blog: There’s just no way to control the quality. Besides, if you have something to say, you can get your own blog. In lieu of comments, I’m just going to leave this tweet from Battlefield 3 and Payday 2 director David Goldfarb right here …