The role of HR in game companies – guardian of the culture


The most important role of HR in the game industry is to build a culture that attracts talented people and offers them a place to grow and flourish. The best teams create the best games, which means that the role is very important for the growth of the company.

This autumn we had the pleasure of hosting the Aalto ENT’s Game Executive program’s panel discussions on the role of HR within the game industry. Panelists, the HR leaders of three game companies and the owner of our game focused recruitment platform Games Jobs Arja Martikainen shared their views and practical advice on how to build and maintain a company culture, how to recruit and retain the best talent and how to coach your managers to become better leaders.

Inspired by the panel discussion we wrote two articles; this one is describing the role of HR in game industry and the second one is about recruitment methods within the game industry and what we could be learn from them.

Culture plays a significant role in game companies – especially when companies start expanding rapidly

One of the panelists beautifully described HR’s role as the guardian of the culture – enabler who makes sure that the community stays healthy and the people have the opportunity to flourish and grow (Mirella). The panelists all agreed that building and maintaining company culture is their most important responsibility.

“HR’s role is to create a community & culture where people can do what they are hired to do”
Liisa Lähteenaho

Retaining culture becomes especially challenging when the company starts growing rapidly. Think about a situation where a start up starts expanding; first you had probably a team of around 3-5 people. Suddenly the game breaks through or the investors get interested with your startup and you need to recruit a bunch of people to be able to answer the demand. How do you make sure that in sudden recruitment situations you successfully recruit people who fit into the culture but also take it to the desired direction?

“When the team is growing you have to be able to scale, puts a lot of weight on management skills”
Andrew Kolokolnikov

Most important tools for building an engaging culture

The focus on building lovable cultures are in recruitment of course, and this I will address closely in this article, but also in introducing new management methods and helping managers and teams to adapt these, building training opportunities and programs and of course, making sure that the environment is inspirational and people have fun.

1) Training programs

There are many ways to build programs and support the professional growth of employees. Panelists told that some game companies have predefined budget for each employee and they get to decide themselves how to use it. Usually people spend it to interesting conferences.

2) Leadeship

Management methods and leadership styles played also a critical role and these are also a very important part of the culture. In most companies HR’s role was to introduce new management methods and train managers to become better people leaders. Introducing new models requires a common language and communication between the HR and the managers.

“HR cannot force anything, you need to find a common language and a way communicate”
Andrew Kolokolnikov

Managers were encouraged to spend more time with their employees and even have a weekly one on ones to discuss about how the work is progressing but also to talk other matters, like how the employee is doing and what is going on their lives. The point with weekly meetings is to be present in the employee’s daily life, to make them feel safe and appreciated and to lower the barriers of sharing concerns about the company or even private life.

3) Environment and leisure

OF course the legend about having fun at work and together with your colleagues was true too. Most of the companies have activity opportunities outside work and the panelists told that their employees actually love spending time together.

Some companies went as far as taking their teams to nice warm locations, such as Bali during the darkest and coldest months of Finland. Most of them had a lot of game opportunities, and people also loved to spend time together outside of work too.

All in all, I think that game companies have really found the seed of what makes companies interesting places to work, which is something that we all need in the future.

Meet and greet with the St. Petersburg developers in November 2017

Finland is known as one of the fastest growing games hubs on earth. This means that the employers can offer exciting variety of projects and quite a bit of success since the connections to publishers and all stake holders are firm thanks to long lasting cooperation.
Employers invest a lot to work community, supporting the meaningfulness of the job and transparency. Despite of great working conditions and public support more than every second company has problems finding a talent. The industry is
moving fast, and some job profiles are hard to find. There is very seldom 100% match. This means also a possibility to any new hire to grow. There are a lot of opportunities especially to seniors but also to other talent.

Five games companies including Unity, DoDreams, Supercell, Yousician and Housemarque along with Games Jobs Finland and Playa organized a visit with the local Russian partners in one of the tech hubs of St. Petersburg. The target was to reach out to local developers and tell about the Finnish game industry job opportunities. Our call got a good response and we had a chance to meet over 80 developers that were interested in the companies. Participants had also a lot of questions about the local work environment and many of them had visited Finland many times. Comparatively short 3.5 h train trip makes capital area very accessible.

Doing St. Petersburg type of operation means that the companies are ready to do an extra mile while reaching for new people to talk to. The premises and good working environment is there, we simply need new forces to Finland! This is also a chance and a challenge to anyone willing to step to an international career in gaming. If you make it in Finland, you will make it anywhere! The experience was so good that we keep on exploring. Stay tuned!

How do I get a job in the games industry?

I decided to write down some thoughts on how to get into the games industry since I keep getting asked this once in a while by some hopeful individuals. I hope you will find this useful!

Yes, games are a hot, sexy and innovative area of business. Many people dream about a job in the industry, but only a few have the right skillset and mindset for it. Let’s talk about this. Actually, let’s start over. Maybe the question you should be asking is:

What should I do in order to get a job in the games industry? What does it take?

When I joined a games company in fall 2004, my merits were that I had actually pumped up some game development while working for a new media company during the late nineties new media boom. Those games were developed to give some added entertainment value to a carrier marketing web site (company websites were a new thing back then). I had dated a game developer who’d had some sort of a hit game at the end of eighties. And on top of that, I had played all the first TV console games in the seventies (thank you dad!) and Donkey Kong, Tetris, Nokia Snake, Doom and such. But otherwise I barely recognized that something was happening in Finnish games industry. But it was quite enough to get a job – at that time.

Now after all these years and some 400+ recruitments later, I have a hunch of what it takes to get a job in games. Below I have selected some descriptive words to give you few tips on how to prepare yourself if you – REALLY WANT THIS!

  1. Passion – The most talented developers start early. They may start sketching some game concepts simply with a pen and paper. Or start programming and drawing when they can just about manage it with a mouse or a pen.
  2. Training – There are some talents that have managed brilliantly without formal training, but only for the reason that there hasn’t been anything applicable available (many new, innovative concepts and businesses are made through trial-and-error, you see). Unless you are an exceptional talent, a formal training is much appreciated. If you manage to get to a school where you can actually study game development your opportunities have just gone up by 50%.
  3. Practice – No matter if you are in a right school or not, you need to break through with the “learning-by-doing” -method. Like passionate musicians all the best people practice and do what they “have to”. They hang out at game jams, demo events and spend hundreds of hours developing their own concepts alone or with some similarly spirited individuals.
  4. Portfolio – The first question that a recruiter asks is: Do you have a portfolio? What does it mean? It means that you’ve got a website or something similar with some well thought out game concepts, demos or graphics that looks like game art. Photos of your oil paintings do not usually help you, it has to be digital. And the best artists draw live models regularly. For a programmer it may be an own game running on his/hers device or on an emulator.
  5. Continuous learning – It takes a lot of motivation to learn and to master your profession. The world of games is in a state of constant change. Self-study, game conferences or lectures given by the industry experts for example at the Aalto University are OK. This works especially in the non-developer roles where you need to demonstrate your business understanding and your interest in games (like product management or data analytics roles).
  6. Play games! The more the merrier!
  7. Look for help and feedback – Introduce yourself to the local games community when you stumble towards your goal. In Finland you can start with IGDA, Assembly, Game Jam, Mentor group for ladies, or Finconauts. Ask questions no matter how stupid you may feel. You will get feedback. No shame no gain!
  8. Ability to work under pressure and cope with uncertainty – This applies to project schedule too but for the record, most of the games companies are start-ups. Companies come and go and you are really lucky if you have a chance to work in a same company for longer than three years. Even a solid giant or a household name may fall, downsize or merge. If you cannot handle this fact, please do not join.
  9. Persistence/dedication – Whatever you do, do it well and put your heart into it. If you succeed in your work and in your team, people won’t let you go. You will be asked to join the next project. You may even be one of those who will be seeking for funding for your own games venture.
  10. Meritocracy – Please keep in mind that games industry is driven by meritocracy, not per calendar or through who you happen to know.

And finally, this may sound hard but this may be a thing that a recruiter does first. When you compose your CV, run a word check and make sure that the word GAME(S) is there in an appropriate context. If the CV doesn’t contain “the word” you can forget about a job unless you are applying to a Controller position at the finance team. The other roles that you can apply without direct games experience are related, for example, to cloud computing, network operations, localization or other post-production jobs. In these types of roles a minimum requirement is a positive attitude towards games. You really need to think about your motivation since you are surrounded by developers and gamers that live and breathe games 24/7.

It may be hard to get into games, but when you do, it will be one of the most rewarding environments loaded with clever people, new business ventures, great events and great games. On top of this, Finland happens to be one of “the games hubs” on earth. A true place to be! This is unique!

Best regards,

Arja Martikainen

HR Manager at Digital Chocolate Helsinki (ex Sumea Interactive) 2004 – 2013

Senior Consultant – games talent acquisition at Games Jobs Finland, Barona IT 2013 –

Follow me at Twitter @gamesjobsfin

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