When I started Mighty Yell studios in 2017, sustainable work conditions were not the hot-button issue they are today, but I knew I wanted my team to feel good at work. It wasn’t enough for them to enjoy what they were working on — every studio tries to do that — I had to make sure they didn’t hate the work itself.
“Sustainability” can take a lot of shapes, but for me it means a work environment that doesn’t result in exhaustion and enables people to feel secure and comfortable as part of a team. A sustainable workplace is one that prioritizes the mental and physical well-being of the people in its employ. Sustainable management acknowledges that people make games, and that nothing is more important than those people.
So here’s what I’ve found contributes to our team feeling like they want to stick around without being on the precipice of burning out.
What I Provide for the Team
Not to get too deep in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but before you can have a beautifully brilliantly self-actualizing team, you need to make sure that their basic needs of stability and security are met. The most important of these is of course paying your people — I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you already have a competitive and respectable payroll setup for your team, right? Right?
But after paying people, the psychological needs of feeling safe are the next most important. You can think of this as creating an environment that is understandable, and feels secure for all of your employees, regardless of intersections of identity or skill level.
We have an in-depth set of policies at Mighty Yell. Things from what our policies are on taking leave, what kind of leave is encouraged, what our definition of discrimination and harassment are, how people are encouraged to be themselves on social media, (so long as their online personas do not meet our definition of discrimination and harassment), and more.
We are a fully remote company, so I like to think of the Policies as the walls of our studio. We make them accessible to everyone on Google Drive, and encourage the reading and signing of them every time there is a change. They create a space that lets employees know where they stand, that the company cares about them, and that we —IN WRITING— value their health and well-being. We have written policies (with our external HR rep) for things like behaviour at events, workplace harassment and its definitions, social media policies, and taking leave, be it bereavement, pregnancy, or sick days. Without policies in place, people are free to question things like what defines a sick day, what would happen if someone harassed them, and so on. A policy is an agreement between company and team to provide safety, and to enforce that provision where necessary.
We also have hired an external HR firm that the team is able to contact completely independently of upper management. Workers at any studio, regardless of size, deserve a neutral outlet to report concerns. Even for a small studio like us, where my spouse is our operations manager, it would be wildly inappropriate to ask my team to report concerns they have with me to her or vice versa. Providing an arbitrating, external third party for help with real workplace issues creates an additional level of safety and security for the people on your team.
What I Encourage In The Team
Offering people time off is nothing if you don’t encourage them to take it. I remember the moment I knew our company culture had taken hold:
If a team member would appear online and mention feeling sick or tired, I would make a point of saying out loud “Hey, maybe take the day off.” They would, and would come back feeling rested and able to do whatever tasks were on their plates. Over time, I started noticing them saying it to each other, other teammates encouraging those sick or tired to take time off. But the moment I knew we had built something worth being proud of was when they started saying it to me. I would come online feeling tired and would get the encouragement of our team to rest. I’m trying to instill in everyone a mantra of “No such thing as a video game emergency,” and it’s starting to work.
Team members are also encouraged to work when they feel most productive and to rest when they are in less-busy periods. We are firmly against crunch, the practice of sustained overtime, but acknowledge that sometimes we need to work a couple extra hours, if the muse strikes or if a client makes a small request at the last minute. These things happen, but any hours taken in excess of the amount we agree to work in a given day are banked, and encouraged to be taken off at the earliest opportunity.
On top of all this time management, I encourage the team to invest their ideas into the project. No one gets into games because of a lifelong dream to follow someone else’s direction, so remember that. Remember that your team, the people you trust, have ideas that are worth implementing. People that are creatively invested already have an edge on burnout.
What I Communicate to Our Partners
I know this is not a universal truth, but I promise you that every single funding partner I’ve ever worked with has been understanding when I’ve needed to put the health and wellbeing of my team ahead of a deadline.
The video game industry is a business, and business drives towards profit and deadlines with the dedication of a steamliner. It may feel like the people that have funded you or supported you require everything to be delivered on time, under budget, and without exception. It can be scary to advocate for your team in the face of a partner that controls the purse strings, but I promise you that the people you are partnered with are human beings. They’ve been sick. They’ve lost people. They’ve had bad days. They will understand if you need more time because people need time off. They will understand that you’re not going to crunch.
I always start out any conversation with a potential funder from a place of clarity — what is our scope, and what are the features we need to build? How much contingency is there? How flexible are we on timelines? As a note, a lot of people can be willing to let time slip if they have enough notice, but this may not always result in an increase of budget. Treating your partners like people, communicating to them early and often, and respecting their needs is a great way to make sure they treat you the same way, and that they’ll be understanding when you need to advocate for the health and well-being of your team.
What I Encourage In Myself
All of this talk of best practices is nothing if you don’t follow them yourself. Speaking to my fellow founders and directors, I can’t stress this enough: take the leave. Take time off. And take it before you drive yourself to the point where you need to take a whole month off for your health. Trust me.
One thing I do my best to enforce for myself is an open and honest communication of my emotions. Am I stressed? Do I feel tired? Acknowledging where I’m at can help me communicate to the team what they can expect from me from a capacity standpoint, but also helps model a level of physical and emotional check in that I feel is incredibly helpful.
I also have a certain amount of joyous nihilism when it comes to making video games. The market is chaos, and is completely unpredictable. Your best efforts to make the biggest game imaginable could be completely eclipsed by a DLC drop or a stealth announcement on the same day as your release. There is nothing you can do to ensure your game will be a success.
I need to repeat this: there is nothing you can do in your development to ensure that your game is a success.
And so I encourage myself to remember this: If there is no guarantee of success, then the only thing that matters is how you treat people. The environment you cultivate, the way you encourage growth, and your efforts to make folks feel safe — these are the only things you can control.
It’s A Lot
This list asks a lot. Hire HR. Encourage leave. Let milestones slip. Give up some creative control to your team. Acknowledge you may never make money. These are all difficult things to embrace and they all cost something (especially that last one). For each of these measures, you can find a shortcut that would increase profits, I’m sure, but the hard truth is that sustainability, and building a team, costs money.
Just as hiring good talent means spending a competitive salary, keeping good talent means making sure that the environment you’ve created for them has processes that make them want to stay around. It is work. But it is worth it.
We’re not making sustainable studios because it means we get to hoard the best talent in the industry. We’re doing it for other reasons. We’re doing it because these are people that are willing to show loyalty and support for the business you’re building — your dreams. Those are the people you should protect, elevate, and support. We’re doing it because the industry we work in is filled with “veterans” that have only worked for 6 years and retired, filled with stories of people burning out, of being hurt and discarded by companies making a profit. We’re doing it because we want to see a better future for video games.
I know that it will be worth it in the long run. In 40 years when I’m done making video games, or in 10 when we get to make our dream game, or in a month, when I get to come back from my leave to see what the team has been working on. I know it’s going to be something spectacular.