Gordon Walton, co-studio director at Star Wars: The Old Republic developer BioWare Austin and a veteran of Kesmai, Origin, and Sony Online, compared studio culture to an essential function of the human body at a GDC Online discussion on Thursday.
"Culture is like an immune system," he told a group of game industry workers. "…It recognizes you as something that belongs, or a foreign object that needs to be expelled."
Culture encapsulates a lot of different elements – he and the audience named several of the components of culture in an effort to define it: attitudes, habits, customs, unwritten rules, vested interests, goals and ambitions, successes and failures and even the physical environment of an office.
"Every company has these things to a lesser or greater degree," he said.
The topic of the relationship between culture and a studio's physical environment struck a chord with attendees.
One person in the audience said that the high price of real estate in New York meant that his former studio's workspace became dreary and increasingly cramped. "It became a sweatshop because it looked like a sweatshop" – and employee turnover climbed to 100 percent in a year.
Another said that a switch to an office with shorter cubicle walls made a big difference in team culture. "It fostered conversation by being in that more open environment," he said.
One producer said her team works in a small area, but she's right there beside artists and programmers, and that openness is beneficial to reaching goals. "We try to intersperse and mingle," she said.
But relationships between team members shouldn't necessarily stop when outside of the office, or be limited to business tasks. An attendee said her employees weren't getting along, but after she ordered her team to go on a paintball outing, things changed.
"It was the best team-building event – everyone was shooting at me, and the first shot I got was in the back – but it was raining, muddy, and we still talk about that," she said. "… It's amazing how something so little [can make such a difference] – it cost us less than 1,000 bucks."
Not all companies are so welcoming of extracurricular activities. One worker said that he and other employees would conduct Street Fighter IV tournaments during lunch. He said they would sometimes run 10-15 minutes too long, but they were fun breaks.
Management shut it down "just because, 'oh my god, they're having fun at work,'" the attendee said. Another suggested that it's important for companies to show appreciation for employees, and it doesn't cost much. "Small things are worth working into your budget," she said.
One of the larger issues regarding fostering culture at a studio is deciding whether it's more beneficial to hire someone with stellar talent -- but isn't a good fit for a company's culture – or a less-than-stellar talent that will work well with the team.
Most attendees that commented said that in their experience, teams of supposed mediocre talent have been able to do extraordinary work because they worked well together.
Another industry worker who has been with his studio for around for 12 years said one of his favorite hiring rules is a "no dicks and no douchebags policy." For that studio, the policy has worked out well.
While Walton said that culture acts as an immune system, he said that "expelling a foreign object" doesn't necessarily mean that someone will be fired because they don't fit in. But these people will likely become outliers within the company, and a weak link can break an otherwise progressive and efficient culture.
"It's so important -- it's intrinsic to the culture that the culture is important," said Walton.