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The Chicago-based Iron Galaxy (Killer Instinct, Extinction) wasn’t built to be like other game studios. It prides itself on creating a culture in which work-life balance is paramount, where employees can feel comfortable speaking up about any problems within the company.
One of the reasons why it’s so successful at that is because its leaders aren’t afraid of being vulnerable themselves, either during team meetings or 1-on-1 chats.
“Modeling vulnerability really helps people know that they’re not alone, and gives them the opportunity to be authentic. So if you’re sharing parts of your personal story, that can resonate with people, and they can feel seen and that helps build a relationship with them,” said Iron Galaxy co-CEO Chelsea Blasko.
Blasko and her fellow co-CEO, Adam Boyes, met with moderator and Take This executive director Eve Crevoshay at GamesBeat Summit 2021 to talk about how the studio avoids crunch and other common development issues. They said that the regular, frank conversations within Iron Galaxy helps build trust among their colleagues, making it easier to share feedback with each other.
For Boyes, who joined the company after working at Sony for a few years, that transparency has also had a positive impact on his personal life.
“I think if we normalize [these open discussions] more as leaders, we permit it to be a topic that’s OK. I feel like some of the conversations we’ve had at the company opened me up to having conversations with my own family about mental health and depression and stuff like that,” he said.
That sense of trust and vulnerability is something they try to instill as early as the hiring process, with both Blasko and Boyes running orientation sessions for new employees. Blasko focuses on the company’s core values, while Boyes goes through Iron Galaxy’s history and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
“At the end, I make everyone promise me that if you ever see anything at the company that doesn’t align with all the words that I used today, call us out and hold us accountable. … We want to make sure everyone feels that they have buy-in to the vision of the company and the strength of the company and what we’re trying to do together,” said Boyes.
Blasko said it’s also important that her colleagues know it’s OK to make mistakes. Instead of trying to hide something from leadership, she wants them to feel empowered enough to sound the alarm if they ever feel like something is off or going in the wrong direction. She said this idea of “raising the flag” is another important value in Iron Galaxy’s culture.
“I often tell new people, ‘I’d rather have you running around like Chicken Little just raising flags all over the place than keeping things to yourself because we won’t be upset that you made a mistake. We just want to help you get through it,’” said Blasko.
Another part of their process is a tool called 15Five, which helps them gather feedback from employees every week. Boyes called it their “heartbeat approach” for tracking the overall health and wellness of the team. If needed, they can further examine what’s going on through 1-on-1 talks. Boyes, Blasko, and founder Dave Lang also host monthly office hours where anyone can drop in and talk to them about what’s on their mind.
They believe that as leaders, the least they can do is spend some time getting to know their employees, which becomes even more important as the company grows — Iron Galaxy has over 200 people, with many joining within the last year. The reason they care so much about having this transparency is because of negative experiences from working with other studios, where crunch and overwhelming pressure were the norm.
With Boyes, it also stems from learning from his own mistakes. He was once caught up in that cycle himself in his past roles, where his passive-aggressive behavior helped reinforce the idea that being overworked is an inevitable part of development. He only realized why that was wrong as he got older and had a family.
“As you get a little bit more mature, you realize, ‘Why was I doing that?’ I was part of a system. I was part of this very fraternal order [and believing] we were so anointed and privileged to be in this position and it’s bullshit, to be honest. It just doesn’t exist. It’s a construct that we all built,” he said.
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