Joy Dey, a Design Manager at Creative Assembly, talked about the work organization and culture at the studio, shared some tips for designers willing to join the team, and spoke about how the team trains and motivates its staff to level up.
My name is Joy Dey and I am a Design Manager at Creative Assembly (CA). I support the design department of the Total War team. I studied Computer Science in Sweden, but after 3 years I thought Game Design would suit me better, so I did that for another year at a different university in Sweden. This eventually led to a technical design route in the games industry and it was my technical skills that earned me a job at CA 7 years ago. I’m now in a more people management role which I enjoy a lot.
Communication in a large development environment is critical – and you need to consistently be clear and make conscious choices about communication methods. Across the studio we have a weekly live stream with our Director, Gareth Edmondson, to keep us up to date on the business and to hear project updates from the many development teams (we are currently developing multiple Total War projects, alongside our newly announced sci-fi shooter, Hyenas, and two other unannounced projects).
Within a development project, we have different departments working together to make a game. Each department has its own sub-teams, e.g., in the design department, we have different kinds of designers such as narrative designers, battle designers, campaign designers, and UX designers. We have weekly meetings for the whole team which is a place to show what the different departments have been working on. We also have daily stand-ups with a mixture of people from different departments. These stand-ups are focused and small, specific to what they are collectively working on, e.g., a specific design feature, this ensures everyone is aligned and up to date on progress and objectives.
Advice for Creatives Willing to Join the Team
When hiring for the design team we consider any skill gaps we have on the current team which we need for our projects. But it does go beyond skills; we are looking for team players, as working in design means that you not only have to work well with your fellow designers, but also with the other teams. Communication skills are very important to have as a designer since you have to be able to communicate your ideas clearly. Another important skill, which might be the most important one, is to be open to criticism. Regardless of how good you think your idea is, it’s really important to listen to feedback and adjust and be prepared to let your idea go if it just won’t work either within the game scope or budget.
Ultimately, we are making games for others, and it is the overall experience that matters, so it’s important to listen to your colleagues, and also the player’s opinions. Getting feedback early and often is crucial.
Creating a Welcoming and Safe Atmosphere for New Teammates
Our new team members are welcomed on their first day by their Lead, and the goal is for them to have several introductory sessions with their Lead, their immediate team, and the operations side of the business to get them fully onboarded. New team members are also allocated a ‘buddy’; this will usually be someone who is working in the same area as them and is there to help them get to gain an understanding of how teams work, our culture, and crucially, avenues for support, questions, and advice. Setting understanding and expectations for how an individual asks questions, highlights issues, etc, is so important so that they feel it is a safe environment from which to learn, grow and share – both positives and negatives.
More broadly, as part of the studio induction, all new team members join our Studio Director, Gareth Edmondson, for an induction lunch. During this session, Gareth talks about the studio's values, culture, history, and what's important to us – he also highlights the avenues available for raising concerns and giving feedback, which includes speaking directly to him. It’s a fantastic way to break down any unseen barriers between our teams and studio leadership.
Key Strategies for Managing Burnout
We have a zero-crunch policy and part of the reason is to avoid burnout, but it’s also there for a work-life balance. It’s so important that development is sustainable – a project isn’t a success if you reach the deadline, but half the team is burnt out. We discourage people to work overtime and if someone is seen working longer hours, we look at the tasks, re-estimate, shift deadlines or look at the additional resources. No one should feel like they must work overtime to get work done by a certain time and people’s well-being comes first.
At CA we also have several employee-led groups that run fantastic well-being initiatives such as yoga, mindfulness, coffee mornings, and of course social activities to help switch off, such as a board game club.
Whatever we can do to make processes and people’s day-to-day more effective is something that benefits everyone. Giving people the freedom to work in a way that suits them, and their teams' needs really helps with that. For example; a designer has full autonomy when it comes to designing features and together with the other teams decides how to work together to get it into the game. Some workflows have a wider application of course, and here feedback on improvements from anyone is always welcome.
At the end of each project, and often at points throughout longer-running projects, we hold post-mortems to talk about what went well and what could work better; improvements to workflows are brought up there and can be applied to the next project. We have an ethos studio-wide of continuous improvement – and within teams, within franchises, and across the studio, we regularly seek feedback via surveys or working groups, for example, to identify key areas for priority improvement. New strategies and workflows can often be created as an outcome of these activities.
Increasing the Team Motivation to Level Up
The games industry is fast-changing so it’s important that everyone keeps training and staying up to date with their craft. We have Focus Fridays every Friday afternoon. It’s a meeting-free time and it’s a time for staff to level up their skills. As a designer you could be prototyping something in our engine, watching GDC talks, following Udemy courses, or playing the game that we are making. We also have a Learning and Development team who provides training opportunities for everyone. They facilitate SEGA Dev Days where we invite both internal and external speakers to present about different areas and experiences in games, these sessions are open to all SEGA Studios and provide a great opportunity for us to connect and share with each other.
In our design team, we also have a knowledge share channel between the different studios where we get together and share ideas and approaches so we can learn from each other. This is so valuable as there is always someone else who is dealing with or has dealt with a similar challenge to you, and you can learn from each other's mistakes. I’m hoping to do even more of this in the future since we are in a fortunate situation where different SEGA Studios are in different countries with different cultures - which means different experiences to leverage, all to the benefit of creating experiences for diverse global audiences.
Tips for Designers Willing to Join Creative Assembly
Something I think is important is to network as much as possible, join free events and learn from people in the industry. This is beneficial for people who have been in the industry for a while but crucial for people who want to join the industry. CA participates in major virtual and on-site events such as EGX, and the annual GIBiz Student Conference, and will have career booths set up with developers who are ready to share their expertise and experiences both of their craft and the studio. As important as it is for us to find the right fit for our team, it’s also important for the applicant to find the right company for them. Make sure your Portfolio is up to date because that is usually the first thing (after the CV) that is looked at. It’s a way to show off what you can do, what your process is, and the skills you can utilise – it's your chance to stand out and can make a difference in getting that interview. Make sure it’s easy to navigate and understand since you won’t be there to explain it. The portfolio can consist of different things, not just video games. I encourage people to show other things they have designed, like card games or board games.
Finally, play games, all kinds of games, and take an analytical view of them – what works, what doesn’t, and why? Make sure to enjoy what you are doing; we are working with games after all.