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Mandatory Care

The Game Dev Industry

Game Development is an industry that has a number of problems, and almost all of them boil down to a small handful of core causes. One such root cause is this: It’s fun to make games. While at larger organisations, stories about crunch come as directives or threats from management, as the leader of a smaller studio, we face a different problem: People want to throw themselves into their work. Today, I’m going to talk about that problem, and the mandatory care structures we put in place to solve it.

We’re a small team who all care a lot about each other, and care a lot about the projects that we create. So, it becomes very easy to make personal sacrifices for the projects we’re working on. Putting aside the obvious problems with this, it leads to long term stress, burnout, and (putting on the pragmatic hat), worse projects. Projects suffer when their teams suffer, so obviously this is something to be avoided.

So the question becomes: How can you build a culture that encourages people to love their work, and put themselves into it, while not encouraging them to do so to an amount that is unhealthy?

Or at least – that’s what I thought the question was. But over time, I have come to realise that it needs to be stronger than that. It’s hard for people to know (especially more junior staff members) what that unhealthy limit is. So, we need to be a bit stronger: How can you build a culture that encourages people to love their work, and put themselves into it, while preventing them to do so to an amount that is unhealthy.

Person presenting a board of sticky notes in a meeting.

Mandatory Care

And here we get to the real meat of it. I am realising more and more that letting people be laissez-faire about how much they put themselves into their work is problematic. There need to be some strict doctrines around your workplace in order to ensure it is healthy for everybody. Let’s take an example.

Previously, when new starters were joining the company, we would say to them something to the effect of: We are ok with you managing your own timeframe for work, as long as you aren’t working too much! This felt, at the time, like a great way to allow people to work odd hours, and things that suited them (e.g. starting early, and finishing early!). That’s a way that I often like to work, and as a result, the flexible approach seemed like a good starting point. But, invariably, this leaves a dark shadow of the people around you assuming you are working reasonable hours, and even you yourself thinking you are working reasonable hours, while in fact you are overworking yourself.

So – if people might not even realise that they are overworking, how do we solve this problem? Something that we are trying to implement is the idea of Mandatory Care – forcing people to have strong opportunities not to work. This applies at small scales, and at larger scales, and we’ll talk about some of them as we go.

A scale

Small Scale

As a team, we want to make sure that we have enough time to recharge and connect with our team members, which is getting increasingly important in the COVID age. Last year, we had a regular friday hangout, where the company would all relax and play games together. However, after a few weeks, people just stopped showing up.

When asked, people would almost always look at that time, and decide that instead, they had things that they would rather be doing. Finishing off a key piece of work, taking a meeting with a client, doing a retrospective. All things that are important, but the friday hangout was getting consistently shifted. We all agreed that bonding and relaxing was important, but nobody had time for it. So, after discussing the topic with the team, and agreeing that we all wanted to value that time more, we decided to make it mandatory.

It feels so weird to take a team bonding time and make it mandatory. It feels wrong in so many ways. But, the benefit is there. Our team bonding time has rocketed up in attendance, and we all feel more relaxed throughout the week. Making self-care mandatory removed the option of devaluing it.

A weighing scale

Medium Scale

As a game development studio, we work on a project schedule. One project finishes, and you move on to the next one. If you’re not currently on a project, you have bench time, where you work on miscellaneous company projects, or our own internal IP.

This as a structure works pretty well, except things are getting more busy. We have found that we almost always are rolling directly from one project into another, which means we don’t have enough time to creatively sit back and recharge.

So – we made it mandatory. Now, there is a mandatory gap of a week between working on projects. What this means is that when you finish one project, you aren’t allowed to roll straight onto another one. You can work on internal tasks, polish up internal things, create something new, whatever. But you can’t roll straight into production on another project.

This is one of our newer policies, but so far it’s working out fairly well. We’ll have to keep an eye on it and see how it goes.

Photo of a mountain.

Large Scale

While the above are the tangible actions we’ve taken in the past few weeks, there is almost certainly more to be done.

Some organisations have touted unlimited time off as a feather in their cap, adding to their culture. But, according to the ABC, some tech firms offer unlimited time off because it reduces the amount of time off that they have to pay.

So – this is something worth thinking about as well. Perhaps a blend of mandatory and flexible leave is the right way to optimise for employees taking leave? Who knows!

If anybody has any other great cultural touchpoints they’ve seen in other organisations, we’d love to hear them! Get in touch, or leave a comment, and let us know what you think!

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