Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Erin Hoffman's Inside Job
Inside Job: The Great Game Studio in the Sky

Erin Hoffman | 7 Sep 2007 17:00
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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.

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