As game development companies go larger and larger, more work has to go into the operations of keeping the studio doors open. No longer are studios just opened up in random office spaces–they’re designed and scoped out to be the best place for game employees to work.
At Sweden Games Conference this week, Avalanche Malmö studio manager Sara Ponnert offered insight into the process of building a Swedish game studio from scratch. In her words, she’d hoped to share some shortcuts that other developers can use to help build their studios, and lay the foundation for companies that will still be there years after the groundwork is laid.
Ponnert’s journey building Avalanche Malmö began in 2018, where she began laying the building blocks for the new branch of the studio that produces the Just Cause series.
“As soon as I got the job of studio manager, I started thinking about the values that I’d need to run the studio,” Ponnert explained. Those values included respect, diversity, openness, trust, collaboration, inclusion, passion, courage, and creativity. She scrawled them down on a sheet of paper that still sits on her desk to this day, and tried to make decisions around each value.
The studio began at Game Habitat DevHub, a coworking space in Malmö. From here, Ponnert began thinking about finding a permanent location that would fit her employees’ lifestyles. The goal was to find a place that would be no more than a 20 minute commute for employees. Ponnert herself lives on a farm outside of the city, so her own workload was something she was considering while planning a space for her coworkers.
Sustainability was not initially on Ponnert’s list of values, but she described it as a mentality that underlay all of her other values. “I wanted the office to be built with sustainability at the core…not just sustainable in terms of full free electricity, but not to buy stuff just because. Even if it’s a stapler, why do you need 3 staplers, for instance?”
Respecting the value of diversity proved especially challenging. Ponnert flashed a photo of what the Malmö team looked like when it started, and unfortunately, it was a team of mostly men. “We did not just get applications from women,” Ponnert said.
This wasn’t for a lack of trying. The company posted in women’s game dev groups, established gender-neutral language in its postings, but still struggled to find women candidates or candidates of color. “We just had to keep looking and searching all over the world to build that diversity.”
According to Ponnert, the studio has grown to a 20-80 women to men ratio, still not matching her diversity goals, but improving on the initial photo she showed to the crowd.
While building the team, getting into the final Malmö office took a total of four months. To Ponnert’s dismay, they found the previous tenant had cut off all the ethernet wires from the server room.
After the studio was built, Ponnert and the studio’s lead producer began taking time to meet with team members one on one, taking lunch meetings to try and get to know each individual employee and encourage them to keep communication open with studio management.
For routine communications, Ponnert tries to create special stand-ups that help everyone internalize team information. “Every Monday, we get the team together to sync with the studio in the Stockholm. Before we call Stockholm, I get everyone together to tell the team who’s visiting, who’s starting, what the budget looks like…some of this information they will forget, but at least I know I told them once.”
Once the studio was up and running, the management began implementing a feedback survey to try and evaluate the mood on the studio. Every Friday, the team tries to survey its employees to understand how they feel about etam spirit, inspiration, etc. According to the data shown onscreen, Ponnert says the team is still satisfied, but they’re aiming to keep those numbers up after the “honeymoon period.”
As for what Ponnert learned in this period, “Everyone loves to contribute, even if it’s the smallest thing,” she said. She also stressed the value of constant communication. “I’d rather people tell me to shut up than have them feel they didn’t know what was going on.”
During the Q&A, Ponnert circled back to the harder conversations that sometimes happen with employees. “We practice a lot of feedback, to try and give feedback without hurting anyone’s feelings. The lead groups train on each other before talking to anyone who may be a little more sensitive.”
“We want people to keep coming in and giving us ideas, and if you give feedback the wrong way, people may not feel as encouraged to give it.”
Gamasutra is a media partner of Sweden Games Conference, who provided travel and lodging to cover this event