I’m occasionally asked why I joined PlayMesh over other options. I wish I could say it was for the money and everlasting glory, but the fact of the matter is that game development is a hard business and there are easier paths to success. The honest response is that I just really wanted to be a part of the company – there was a certain feel to PlayMesh that I found extremely attractive (to the point where I happily passed up other offers).
I think this is the power of company culture. It creates a family, and it makes people want to join that family. Some families are inclusive and strong, and others put those clowns in American Beauty and Arrested Development to shame. Let’s talk about building the right type of culture.
Recruiting The Right Members
I’ve spoken a bit about hiring in the past, largely to make the argument that gaming companies should try to hire gamers. Some disagree, but they’re wrong. I’m somewhat idiosyncratic on this point, but whatever. The broader point is that hiring is not just about educational credentials or work experience, it’s about the elements of that person that make them who they are. If you fail on hiring, you fail on culture.
You’re looking for kindred spirits. For PlayMesh, we’re looking for nerds. Unabashed and total geeks. In the last few hires we’ve had a hardcore comic enthusiast, a pen and paper dungeon master, and a dedicated collectable card game player. This stuff isn’t a coincidence. We want people with a natural curiosity and passion for sophisticated systems and geekery. That’s the marrow of the company and people need to be excited to build on that foundation.
A person’s credentials can get them an interview, but that’s not going to get them a job. This isn’t about being qualified, it’s about being accepted as one of us. Hell, you can be slightly off on credentials and we’ll take a chance on you if you’re of our ilk. Why? Because if we put a round peg into a round hole, things seem to work a lot better than jamming in a triangle without vaseline. People doing what they are meant to do work harder, care more and stick around longer. We don’t like losing family.
Instigators are the folks that think of cool things to do and then organize people to do them. Instigators are little forces of nature, eviscerating the indifference of the people around them through sheer force of will. The value of instigators cannot be underestimated.
PlayMesh benefits from a surplus of these people, but I think that’s a product of the effort put in by a few core people. Effective instigators convert others into instigators as well. In our case, we benefit from a strong push by the founders. The founders organize movie nights, fantasy drafts, game nights, and dodgeball games. They do these things because they have a genuine interest in the activities and would like to share that interest with their colleagues. There’s no pressure or expectation that any particular employee participate, but most folks do (see the hiring section above).
Founder participation has a number of benefits. It emphasizes the importance of participation in the activities (nobody is above it) while humanizing the executive force behind the company. More importantly, it energizes other instigators to go out there and foment shenanigans.
Once culture has been highlighted as an important part of the company (through actions, not words), the employees inevitably follow the lead. We benefit from the efforts of our head recruiter as well as our office manager, who have created macro processes around culture. Things like the Totoro Board, which is a year long contest among the employees tied to participation in monthly game nights. I like this for a few reasons: 1) it shows that we expect employees to actually be around long term, 2) it allows each employee to take a leadership position in the company, by planning a night, 3) gives people some practice in soliciting others to join in activities, and 4) it’s a lot of fricking fun as we battle for Totoro dominance. People care because everyone else cares.
From there, instigating has taken on a life of its own. Engineers, QA specialists, analytics folks and just about everyone else bringing cool ideas to the table. Sometimes the entire company participates (like going to see a late night showing of the Hunger Games), other times it’s just a small group (like the sealed deck Magic: The Gathering tournament starting tomorrow). People feel comfortable integrating their passions into the company and sharing them with other people. Each family member feels like they belong and wants to contribute.
Growing An Interest Into A Practice
Culture starts with the small interactions and grows from there. Currently the entire company is embroiled in a tangled web of Draw Something battles. Everyone is challenging everyone else and it’s pretty hilarious to see some of the results. For example, this is a single screen from a Draw Something movie depicting “Luke”:
The Draw Something battles arose from a casual remark between two employees about the game and took off from there. Since the company spends so much time doing broader activities, it was perfectly natural for the idea to expand and reach across multiple teams.
Another example: fitness. One of the employees treats his body like a temple. I’ve treated mine like a dumpster behind Denny’s. I still recall one of the first times I walked into PlayMesh (some time before I joined them). Everyone was in a big circle doing push ups. As a company. I thought it was a bit odd at the time, but frankly, it was one of the few cases where I had seen a company work in perfect harmony for a single objective. Everyone supported everyone else, and no one made fun of the folks that were lagging behind.
The first time I did pushups at PlayMesh (first day of work), I managed only 7 and hurt for 3 days after. I can now do 35. When new folks join, we bring them in if they’re so inclined. A lot of folks start at square one. They don’t end up there.
I often hear stories about how hard it is to “scale” culture. That once everyone doesn’t know the name of everyone else, it’s the beginning of the end. There’s certainly some truth to that belief, but I think there are some ways to avoid that fate.
Since I’ve joined PlayMesh, the company has about doubled in size. In that time, the culture has gotten stronger, not weaker. I think a major part of this is our continued focus on hiring people that share our passion. People aren’t passionate about making money or working in a startup. Those are aspects to a job that they desire to have, but they aren’t why a person ticks. When we talk to people about the company, we talk about making awesome games and interesting universes. Shared passion is the lingua franca that allows any two employees to always have some basis for conversation.
In the likely event that teams expand to the point where they can have their own internal culture, it becomes necessary to facilitate middlemen. Middlemen are folks that have personal relationships with a broad cross section of the company. I happen to fall into this cateogry (I wear a lot of hats and touch on all of the teams), but anyone with a reasonably social personality can fill the role. The idea is to find these people and push them to be emissaries of culture between the different teams, carrying cool ideas back and forth and making introductions between folks that would not have cause to work together. A middleman takes person X on team Y who is interested in thing Z and introduces her to person A on team B that is also interested in Z. This begins to create social networks in a company unrelated to occupational frameworks.
My parting thought is about communicating culture. Don’t frakking talk about it. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting values or important contributions, but culture isn’t something you explain to people; it’s something people determine from the actions around them. If the founders are playing video games at lunch and joining after hours Magic tournaments, then people will follow that lead. If the founder says that culture is hugely important and shows this by creating a PowerPoint presentation detailing the 3 culture action items, then something has seriously gone wrong. My view is simple: if you spend a lot of time messaging culture, yours probably sucks.
JM: This is solid gold. We were talking this week about culture and Totoros, and the more Shawn told me about the shenanigans at PlayMesh, the more we realized that this needs to be a more public conversation. If you think about how important culture is to the legendary creative teams in the game industry, Shawn’s article above is easily one of the most valuable nuggets of wisdom on this site.