Erin O’Brien, Head of Culture at Gram Games, shares her insights on how to establish a positive company culture in the gaming industry, gives tips for maintaining culture on a daily basis, and discusses how ultimately, creating a strong company culture leads to building great games.
Read on for edited highlights from O'Brien's podcast:
Company culture bleeds through everything
“Gram has always had a wonderful inherent culture - it's something that bleeds through everything the company does. Our company culture is built around a few things which all support each other- flat structure, open communication, risk-taking and being data-driven. We work to create an environment where people can be themselves and put themselves out there because ultimately that will allow them to try new things and take risks.”
“The data-driven part is also incredibly important to us because in a flat structure you don't have middle managers telling you what to do. Everything we do is bottom up - the only real kind of authority we have is data and we strive to be data-driven in absolutely everything we do.”
Does company culture help to make better games?
“Our culture is a critical part of the efficiency with which we are able to put out titles. For instance, we don't work on a project for two years that's not going to go anywhere. We’re cutting the line on [those projects] early on and aren’t wasting resources and time on things that aren't going to work. That comes out of honesty, open communication and being straightforward with the people around you. And that, at the end of the day, is very fundamental to the way that we make games.”
How Gram’s company culture produces great games
“Most of our games come from weekly DIY Fridays where people can build tools to expedite our processes, or they can work on a prototype. Anyone on the team can come up with a prototype idea and if they can get a team together to work on it and then get a playable built, we’ll release it to the store and test it. If it meets the KPIs that we've set for a successful project, no questions asked it will be put into production. 1010! was our first instance of this. Everything that we make comes in one way or the other out of these DIY Fridays, whether it's an iteration on a project or a prototype.”
Company culture fosters creativity which in turn leads to great games
“The challenge of maintaining a flat structure is one we're willing to undertake. In mobile games creativity is so central to pushing the boundaries, to coming up with those products that millions of players around the world are going to play. If you have too much top-down direction, it stifles creativity.”
Culture as a live product
“Expanding our team in London also presented a challenge to company culture. So much of what we did initially was contingent on the one studio, tight-knit familial culture in Istanbul. That’s actually where a lot of the understanding of the organic nature of culture came from, because you can't just force one studio’s values, activities and workshops on to new people. So rather than tell people what culture is, you have to listen to them. This understanding of culture as a live product actually came out of that challenge. Rather than saying “this is Gram’s culture,” as we've expanded to our London studio, we've come to listen more than tell.”
“It's important to underline that company culture is not a set thing, it's a totally live product - our values are very basic and broad because it's something very amorphous. It's constantly shifting and developing and we have to be diligent and maintain an awareness of its relevance because the minute there is a gap, it's completely defunct. The biggest challenge is allowing culture to grow and shift rather than trying to cling to something that, as you grow, might become irrelevant.”
Make company culture real
“When you say you have an open communication, honest, or family-friendly culture you actually have to put that into action. A big thing on a broader level is maintaining visibility and communication of what everyone is [working on]. One way we do this is by holding dailies in studios every single day. Once a week we have full company check-ins - we have stages in each office and we get every person on every team on the stage to share what they worked on this week. It's very much about individual recognition - what each person contributed to the company this week and why they did it.”
Creating a culture of fun to enable the creation of fun
“Primarily and most importantly, the products of gaming companies are supposed to be fun, engaging and entertaining. So you need to ensure that the people that are making those games are happy and are having fun making those products and being in the company. If they're not, that's going to bleed into the products they make and you're going to end up with games that just aren't as fun.”
“In gaming you're fortunate to be surrounded by people who are hugely passionate about what they do. Therefore, if you create an environment that fundamentally allows for that then you've already done a lot of the work to create and maintain a company culture. Take the time to listen to your team because they spend every single day in your office. They're going to have the best idea of what is best for the company and they're going to be the people who best understand what is needed and what would work best.”
“As long as you stay true to what people are interested in, that's going to allow you to have a culture that is authentic and effective. You can't just sit alone in an office and say “this is what culture is, this is who we are” and then tell people. It's not going to work if it's not organic.”
Equal opportunity in the game industry
“At Gram we have a culture where regardless of gender, or where you're from, you come in and you're given the opportunity to develop the company, to create new products, to work hard to further Gram in some way and it doesn't matter who you are. We want to make sure that as much of the industry as possible is like that too, and that ideology is what brought out projects like 2Tons and the 22% Project .
How successful is the gaming industry at building good company cultures?
“Every year there are more and more people who are passionate about [building company culture] and there's more interest in having culture panels and culture talks. Because we're a creative industry, especially in mobile, there's an increasing passion and understanding for the [importance of company culture]. When you have a bunch of creatives you want them to feel their ideas are respected, that they can create things and try things and present them to the team. That's not just a moral thing - [then] culture becomes a business imperative. That's how you make games and that's how you create products and that's how you develop things, and the industry is now increasingly [aware of] these sorts of things.”
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