What is "Company Culture"?

I post something sort of like this a lot, I know. Part of it is that it's a point that I still don't think a lot of people have internalized, and part of it is that repetition helps keep things focused. Company culture seems like it should be easy. It's just something that "happens" - but it's not. Maintaining a good company culture takes a tremendous amount of effort, and it takes a tremendous amount of thought. The problem is that what defines a "culture" is when you do things that are not the easy or traditional things to do, which means that they're usually not the usual or obvious or simple things that just happen naturally. First, just a point of clarification. Company culture has absolute nothing to do with:

  • Massages
  • Razor scooters
  • Ping-pong tables
  • Game tables of any kind
  • Beer

These are a lot of the trappings of companies that try to project an aura of "fun culture", but these are "perks", not culture, and if the "perks" are what make the difference to you in where you want to work, the company should never have hired you. So for a company, a focus on "perks" attracts the wrong kind of talent. It's a bad message. Perks show up for employees who have done the work to make the company successful. They're not a recruiting tool, because the moment you start advertising perks, you get a tremendous and dramatic shift in your culture away from people who want to build amazing things, and toward people who are attracted to fun, superficial time-wasting.

So what is "culture"?

Culture is what you value. It's how you work. It's what you build.

It's where you decide to spend your resources when making the decision where to spend your resources is difficult.

  • When you have no time before a release, do you get people to stay later & sacrifice their personal time, or do you push the release?
  • When you have a maxed out workload, do you focus on mentoring junior members of the team, or do you just get them to "do their jobs" and then hire more senior people to fill future roles?
  • When you choose what to build, are you building for a quick buck, or are you building for long-term relationships with your players/customers?

I'm not saying these are "culture" or "no culture" decisions. There are certainly terrible team cultures that are rife with crunch, lack of progression in careers, and chasing the easy, exploitative money. That's a huge portion of the game industry. But those are all the easy/shortsighted choices, and the culture they result in is awful, and any success becomes really difficult to sustain over the long term. Mostly, what happens is that your company isn't guided by any actual core values, which means that in the end, your company doesn't actually mean anything at all.

For me, one of the big reasons to start a game company is to establish a culture that's different than the norm. It may be the big reason.

Mobile development is really different than AAA/console development. It's different in every way. But most companies are still treating mobile like it's just a simpler, lazier version of console-style development (though fortunately, the number of teams that are finally wrapping their heads around it is growing - maybe mostly because a TON of Finnish teams are doing well, and they've been mobile-centric for a while - as a half-Finnish person, this makes me really happy).

But one of the biggest problems with traditional development is crunch. Why? Because your game is tied to a hard release date. Why? Because of marketing expenses, and the lead time to set up a marketing campaign coordinated with shelf space in prime retailers. Why? Because if you're out at the right time during the holiday season, it can be a significant multiplier on your sales numbers.

Mobile doesn't have that. Yes, there's a very small chance that you can get featured by Apple, and that can certainly help your game grow quickly. But it's a very small chance, and relying on it is likely fatal. So having a launch date doesn't matter as much. More, though, instead of releasing a "packaged" game at all, you can create a long-term "game-as-a-service". A lot of folks refer to this as "Free to Play", but it's really a microtransaction-supported service. You're not "finishing" a complete experience anymore, you're building an infrastructure for continued development over the long term.

And while what you have at launch certainly matters, you can now continually upgrade and develop your game, even once it's live with real players. So instead of making a decision, "Do I crunch to get this feature in or it will never ship and never be part of the game and the game will be worse," the decision is "Do I crunch to get this feature in now, or if it slips a day or two no one cares and it'll just be out a day or two later which is fine." Which means that you get to make a fairly easy call to preserve the sanity and durability of your team. But first you have to really deeply understand that the whole process is different than what you're used to, and that's a hard thing for a lot of people coming into mobile with decades of traditional game development experience behind them.

Crunch is one of the worst elements of traditional game dev, but really, the shift is seismic and total. Understanding mobile development lets you change nearly everything about how you build games for the better. I know that last bit may be controversial, because you look out at the forest of lousy free-to-play clones and think, "This is better?" but think about it a little bit differently - what you're seeing is a potential for huge improvement that's being wasted by people who don't have a strong company culture or a strong guiding vision, who are chasing the quick buck and making easy, short-term decisions.

One of the interesting things about "Company Culture", is that because it's related to how you spend your resources, it's one of the few things that remains a largely top-down construct. Yes, it's about the people, and has a massive impact on how people interact at a company, but culture in this case is driven by the top. The result is that a company's culture is often a reflection of the personality of the people who make critical decisions, and the systems the company has to incentivize different types of behavior.

Look at a really political company. Why is it super political? Is it that each individual is a driven politician? While I've worked with some people who are definitely more political than others on a personal level, a political culture is created when individual politicians can be successful because the structure of the company rewards such behavior. One really eye-opening example, comes from Ben Horowitz, and I have to admit, I fell into this trap when running Self Aware, and experienced the repercussions first-hand when a highly political individual took advantage of the situation. The problem was structural, because the wrong behavior ended up accidentally incentivized. This is one reason that it's super handy to have a lot of game design experience when managing folks, because in the end, creating a company culture isn't all that different than designing a game.

But the problem is that ultimately, the culture is a reflection of what the people making the decisions value. If you crunch, it's because they value the deadline more than the team. That may be correct in certain very high-stakes circumstances for very specific projects. If you chase the easy money, it's because they value money more than creative fulfillment. Often this is a good call from a short-term business perspective, but it's a lousy long-term model. But specifically because culture is about resource allocation, in the end, it's often a top-down process, and I'm not honestly sure if it can really be driven in a bottom-up or "organic" way. And in my experience, everyone who thinks it's an organic process has ended up with a company whose culture is toxic, because the easiest path is rarely the best one.