Iron Galaxy has been making rough-sounding video games like Divekick, Wreckateer, and Killer Instinct since 2012, and before that it had been making games for other companies since 2008. But underneath that tough, veteran exterior, the Chicago-based studio has been taking a kindly attitude towards its 150 employees as they work from home in the pandemic.
Small game development studios and freelancers have reported having a tough time coping with the pandemic, even though the video game industry hasn’t been hit as hard as other industries, according to a survey of 2,500 game developers by the Game Developers Conference, which held a special virtual event earlier this month.
At GDC’s summer virtual event, Iron Galaxy chief operating officer Chelsea Blasko gave a talk about how game companies can preserve their company culture across locations while employees self-isolate and work from home. One of the things Iron Galaxy does is track employee happiness with an automated tool called 15Five. When those numbers change, the company pays attention.
I talked to Blasko about what Iron Galaxy and its leaders CEO Adam Boyes and founder Dave Lang are doing to boost morale.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You talked about culture during the pandemic at GDC Summer.
Chelsea Blasko: I was excited to talk about how we got everyone to work from home, and then what we’re trying to do to keep the culture going now that everyone’s home. The culture is near and dear to me at Iron Galaxy, focusing on our people and their growth and keeping them happy.
GamesBeat: How would you describe that culture? What makes it a unique place compared to other game companies?
Blasko: We focus on people as individuals. We have a lot of channels for people to give feedback, both aggregated and individual feedback. We host sessions — all of the three of us, the partners, we do open houses so people can talk to us if they want. There are open lines of communication with the head of each department and with us. I think that differentiates us. Also, our idea of growth as a tree instead of a ladder. Giving people opportunities to explore a lot of different competencies in their careers.
GamesBeat: Where did you come across some of these concepts?
Blasko: Dave Lang, as you may know, has never really been into titles. He felt that they foster a kind of toxic cultural element. I align with him on that. To us, the idea of titles is not as important as the idea of what people’s roles are, and those can change from project to project. It’s how you build that growth when you allow people to change roles. When someone, perhaps, is a lead on one project and is not a lead on the next, but it’s not a demotion. It’s just because there’s hands-on keyboard work to do, or that’s where they want to focus. To me, a tree was a good metaphor for all of the branches, how people can grow into different branches.
GamesBeat: You have more than one location, right? A couple of studios? I wonder how you maintain a culture across multiple locations these days.
Blasko: We’ve had the Orlando studio about six years, and we have a little pod of folks down in Austin. Prior to this, I did a lot of traveling back and forth to Orlando. I would go to Austin and do team-building activities. We were always set up to have a lot of virtual communication between the studios. We have our company meetings that we do across all the studios, broadcast to everyone at the same time. One of us would try to be at both locations.
Now, obviously, when we all work from home and we’re all in 150 of our own little mini-offices, we’re even more thoughtful. That’s been a cool realization for me. I thought we were already doing a great job, and we found areas where we can expand even more. We took some of the things we were doing in person, like fitness challenges in the morning. One of the producers and a programmer put that together. We took the idea of the Iron Galaxy question of the day, we made those virtual, so people have a kind of water-cooler IM chat. I was doing in-person lunches, getting to know different groups, and I converted those into the people party lunches we still do. I’ve tried to involve people from all of the locations, now that we’ve gone all virtual.
We have a spirit day on Friday. We’ve had a virtual fancy Friday. We’ve tried to do a variety of different events. We’ve done parent and caregiver talks that hit a lot of different interests to keep people talking. Different disciplines do different things, too. Get together and play games. Get together and have chats. We’re being a lot more conscious about trying to get people together while we’re all at home, virtually.
GamesBeat: Do you have organized events, like happy hours or game nights, things like that?
Blasko: Every Friday we have a happy hour. We get a pretty solid crew for that every Friday. The parent and caregiver event is organized once a month. Every week I do my pizza lunch. I keep it to five people or less, so for 150 people that’s quite a few lunches. I haven’t gotten through everyone yet. The question of the day, the spirit rally. We organized a bit of trivia for our pride and diversity rally. We showed some historical photos of Iron Galaxy at the spirit rally, and we had toasts. At some of our holiday parties, people really like toasts, so we had some people talk about what Iron Galaxy means to them. One of them in particular was really touching. We’ve tried to organize quite a few events. We’re also trying to be aware that people don’t want to be on Zoom 24/7, though. Most of the things, you can opt in.
GamesBeat: I talked to the folks at Blind Squirrel Games. They talked about having a community manager invest a lot of time into organized activities for people. They created a bunch of clubs where people could meet online and talk about their pets or comics or whatever.
Blasko: Oh, yeah. We have a ton of things like that. We use Microsoft Teams, and we have a ton of channels where people talk about Dungeons and Dragons. We have parent groups. Someone wants to start a gardening group. Almost any topic you can think about. We have a lot of people who are into board games. There’s a ton of different chat groups. They’ve grown organically. We have affinity groups for women or people of color to get together and talk. We have ladies’ lunches that we do. We don’t have a community manager setting them up. But whenever someone’s interested, they can start something. A lot of had been grassroots, community groups.
GamesBeat: With the GDC talk, what did you focus on? Was there any interesting Q&A afterward?
Blasko: I had one person who was very interested in the tools we use for tracking employee happiness. We use 15Five. We’ve tried a few different things, and we found that with that tool, we’re able to both track how people are feeling, use it as a feedback tool — people can get tracking and feedback within it — and we’re able to uncover a lot of great insights. With the aggregate numbers, if they slip or go up, we can dig in. We get a lot of individual comments from people too, so we can be sure their department heads and direct managers are following up with them, or HR or whoever is appropriate, when we see someone is struggling. I answered a lot more follow-up questions in particular about that, how we’ve used that tool.
GamesBeat: There’s some automation here, but it also takes a lot of face time, it seems?
Blasko: Definitely takes some face time. The tool automates it insofar as we get an aggregate number each week, where we can see if it’s up or down. But then we also have someone, the head of personnel, who goes through the data and pulls quotes and things for us, pulls things that look concerning. Anyone who’s reporting not feeling well — you don’t have to say what’s causing you to not feel well. But if people are feeling vulnerable enough and want to share, then we look into that. We look for themes, things we need to address as a whole company, or if it’s a conversation with an individual.
Especially now, everyone’s having a bit of anxiety, a bit more depression with shelter-in-place and everything being so tough. We want to pay more attention and be sure we’re talking to people when they’re having a hard time. Hopefully, we can help people feel that mental health is a normal issue and that we understand people could be struggling through this time. We did a community listening event. We brought in a grief counselor. As leadership, we’ve tried to also show vulnerability so people know that it’s normal. They should feel comfortable using benefits. That’s important right now.
GamesBeat: It’s an interesting spectrum. You could count mental health awareness and happy hour in the same kind of employee culture things here.
Blasko: It’s all about listening. The happy hour, we just let people blow off steam and goof around, and then obviously the mental health stuff is a different kind of listening, but it’s all about helping individuals feel heard, I think. And not alone.
GamesBeat: I think everyone wants the metaverse to happen now, right? It’s not quite here yet, but people are getting bored with Zoom. I wonder if there are other ways you’re entertaining yourselves.
Blasko: We have some Discord groups too. And then Discord introduced video, but you don’t have to use it. People chat about games. A lot of people are playing the Jackbox Party Pack games together. It’s OK to do some calls that aren’t video calls. It’s OK to decide you don’t want to have a camera on all the time. It’s OK to just do audio calls. It does get fatiguing to sit in your chair at your desk all day. We also want to be aware of that. We have voice. We have text chat. We have a lot of different ways of communicating.
I wanted to make sure it was fun and lighthearted, but we put together some tips for video calls, to make sure people felt that it’s OK to be casual. You don’t have to be so performative on camera, even though it sometimes feels that way when you’re sitting and looking at the screen without really seeing other people.
GamesBeat: Some years back, both Epic and Unity talked about doing their game design inside VR. I wonder if that’s ever happened, and whether or not that’s something that’s become helpful.
Blasko: We look at lots of different ways to do game design. I’ve been reading articles, like in Harvard Business Review, about different ways to brainstorm, especially asynchronously. That applies to a lot of things we do, from brainstorming game concepts to how we hire people, so you don’t just get all the groupthink. People can throw out ideas and then come together to debate them afterward. That’s been really interesting.
GamesBeat: The VR thing was supposed to be notable because an artist could tell the scale of something. Whether a door they created was lower than the height of the character, things like that. But I don’t know what the follow-up has been like, whether people adopted that.
Blasko: I can’t speak to that specifically, but I do know that when we were moving offices, we conceptualized the office space in VR. We wanted to see things like the space between desks. Is that comfortable? You know Dave Lang and Adam Boyes. They’re both super tall. How do they work in the space compared to someone like me, who’s a foot and a half shorter? We could see how things worked in the space in a different way than just with a regular CAD rendering, what that might convey. We’ve used it for practical applications.
GamesBeat: How long-term are you thinking about this? Are you going to have to be supporting people for a year or more? Do you want to build something more organized, because this could last so long?
Blasko: We did a survey a few weeks ago with our employees, asking them about their comfort level. When would they feel comfortable returning to an office? Most people still have some anxiety around returning to an in-person office. With that information, and also along with following all the data from the CDC and the data in the various locations — what’s going on in Orlando, what’s going on here in Chicago — we made the decision that at least for now, we’ll be virtual until January 2021. But we’ll reevaluate that around the end of October or into November to see if we want to extend or alter that plan if it’s feasible to bring everyone back.
There are so many different ways it could go. But I do know we have a lot of people who like the in-person office environment, who really enjoy it. I can see us getting back to an in-person environment in some fashion, at some point. But this has been constant learning. How do we do remote better? We keep adding to that all the time.
GamesBeat: When you think about how large a meeting you can have, is there an average you aim for when you’re meeting on Zoom?
Blasko: Our company meetings have everyone in the company, but that’s for “here’s information that’s going out.” We have presenters, and then we have Q&A at the end. That’s 150-plus people on a call at one time. But we’ve found that if you want to have real conversations, it’s best to limit to maybe six people. Otherwise, it gets hard to not step on people a little bit.
In our happy hours or parent and caregiver hours, that kind of thing, we’ve found a happy medium. We have probably 20 people or so participating in any of those get-together events at once. Then there’s good back and forth. It’s not the same as being able to see everyone in person, see their reactions, but it seems to be working well. In our community listening sessions and grief counseling sessions, we had about 70 people in each of those. We were able to maintain some flow to the conversation much better than I thought we would.
We want to make sure it’s not only one person who’s talking at everything all the time. Other people need to get a chance to speak as well. Trying to do that, to make sure all the opinions are heard, in a situation where you’re not seeing everyone, is a little bit tricky. You just have to be even more aware of it.
GamesBeat: Does any of this fall as a responsibility to any single executive? Are you where the buck stops on this?
Blasko: We work together on a lot of it. When we were getting people home, I was the main driver behind the “getting people out of the office” plan. I focus on our people programs. I’ve been the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain at Iron Galaxy for a long time. I focus on our internal programs, our people programs. But I would say the three of us always regularly consult on any major decision.
GamesBeat: How long have you been at Iron Galaxy now, and how many employees do you have today?
Blasko: I’ve been at Iron Galaxy for 10 years, which is shocking even to me. I was employee number 13. I was the first person Dave didn’t know. I’d been laid off twice in four years at that point, and then I got a call from Dave. I’d never heard of Iron Galaxy at the time. They were mostly doing tech firefighting at the time, starting in 2008. Through the Chicago community, Dave had found out that another studio had a big layoff, and so he reached out. I went in and interviewed. He was looking for production help at the time. I came in as a producer. I had started at Electronic Arts as a production coordinator. Then I was producing teams. I’ve always had a strong production background.
I went from not knowing anything about Iron Galaxy at all to becoming a partner. It was a good decision to make. We have about 155 employees now. We’ve actually hired 19 people since we started sheltering in place, which I’m proud of.
GamesBeat: Does Iron Galaxy still do a lot of work for hire?
Blasko: We still do a bit of everything, really, which is one of the things I love the most about Iron Galaxy, our diversity of projects. We still do some tech firefighting. We’re still working on ports. We still work on some of our own IP as well. We keep ourselves busy. We continue to work with a lot of the same partners we’ve been working with, because most of the things we’re working on right now aren’t announced. We’re still in that state.