FOSTERING FUN AND COLLABORATION
Every new employee who joins Firaxis Games gets a sit-down with president and studio head Steve Martin. At the end of that session, Martin hands the employee a business card, and printed on the card are the company’s five core values. They are: “gameplay first,” “employee focused,” “be accountable,” “work smart” and “embrace enthusiasm.”
Martin asks the employee to always carry the card, or to keep it at his or her desk. It’s just one example of how the Sparks-based game studio, with its 180 employees, maintains and propagates company culture.
Those five core values are at the heart of it all. “They are so important to us that even if they became, say, a competitive disadvantage, we would never abandon them,” Martin says. This strong mission statement provides a glimpse into what it takes to run a successful game studio — which Firaxis has been for 20 years. With marquis titles like Sid Meier’s’ Civilization series, Firaxis has been able to produce hits, and those hits are rooted in a studio work environment that blends artistry and engineering.
Firaxis recently relocated to a new space, moving from a setup that spanned three floors in an office park to its own one-floor building with an open floor plan. The headquarters includes a yoga room, workout room, outdoor sports court, board game area and painting area.
“You have to have fun to make fun,” Martin says, noting that many of Firaxis’ video games fall into the category of “strategy” games. It only makes sense, then, that employees would spend time at work playing strategy board games.
The overall company culture is focused on family, fun and flexibility, Martin says. “All three of those things become a guiding principle: Is this a fun environment to be in?”
Monday mornings at Firaxis mean a company breakfast, and Wednesdays mean company lunch, and most Fridays mean company happy hour and barbeque. Halloween is a big holiday at the studio, with decorating contests and employees’ kids invited in to trick-or-treat. The company also has an active health and wellness program.
But what really makes the company culture tick — and what makes working at Firaxis different — is the fact that the company makes video games for a living. This means that everyone at the company knows the intensity of working in what Martin terms a “hit-driven business.” Each individual game is a massive project, and not every project gets seen through to fruition (there have been a few over the years, Martin says, that just didn’t make the cut). And as a big new game approaches its release date, game designers, artists and engineers work long hours — late into the night, through weekends — trying to cram as much quality and fun into the game as possible.
“Creativity doesn’t happen on a schedule,” Martin says. People at Firaxis know their phones might ring in the middle of the night when someone else in the company has a great idea. And this is where the not-so-fluffy side of the company culture comes into play: In this intense project environment, everyone is expected to play the games that are under development and to have the courage to speak up about improvements that should be made.
“If somebody steps up by playing the game — to say that this isn’t good enough, or we need to do something different, or let’s add this thing — to me, that’s exceptional leadership, and that happens all the time on each project, and it’s expected that it happens,” says Martin.
Creating an environment where artists and engineers can work together in harmony might sound like a tall order. But Martin says the spirit of collaboration at Firaxis comes from the top.
“There’s a really great collaboration amongst the whole leadership team that’s very real,” Martin says. “It’s a very trendy word, but within a project, certainly in our development of video games, it’s very real. And we try to disseminate that into the actual workings of the projects themselves. But it really starts with enjoying each other and enjoying each other’s company and knowing each other, and we all do.”
Photo (L to R): Steve Meyer, Director of Research and Development; Kelley Gilmore, Executive Producer; Arne Schmidt, Studio Art Director; Shawn Kohn, Human Resources Director; Steve Martin, President and Studio Head; Lindsay Riehl, Marketing Director; Barry Caudill, Director of Gameplay; Sid Meier, Co-founder and Director of Creative Development