Co-CEO at Iron Galaxy Studios Chelsea Blasko talked about creating a perfect environment for employees and how to retain them in these trying times.
I’ve been in games for about 15 years. Before that, I taught High School German and Girls PE and was in Retail Management. I got into games a bit by accident. I had no idea how games were being made nor that it could be a career. A woman I was working with took a job at EA Chicago and told me they were looking for Producers. I thought, why not give it a try?
So, I took an interview with the GM that was pretty crazy, but I was kind of used to non-traditional interviewing techniques, so I came back for some more interviews with panels of future co-workers. They went well and I was offered a position. Initially, I was given the choice to be part of the game team or to work for the GM. I decided to take the role of Assistant to the GM. I figured I didn’t know much about making games and that working directly with him would give me insight into many areas of the business.
Pretty quickly, I moved into Art Production Management and also overseeing and producing training videos on my first real title, Def Jam: Icon. I had a great team of other producers with me on Def Jam. We really balanced each other’s skills. I was doing a little bit of whatever needed to be done. And that has remained true. I’ve always identified gaps and jumped in to fill them to keep things running smoothly.
Iron Galaxy Studios
Iron Galaxy was founded in 2008 by Dave Lang out of the ashes of Midway. We started off focusing on technical support and ports and we’ve evolved into co-development and full creative development in addition to our ongoing support of partner needs. Something interesting about our business is that we often can’t talk about what we are currently working on, only about what’s already been released. We take our partner’s trust very seriously. We are in the secret-keeping business.
We’ve done full development on titles like Killer Instinct and Divekick. We’ve ported Spyro: Reignited Trilogy to PC, Skyrim to the Switch, 7 Days to Die to console, helped bring Diablo 3 to the Switch. Basically, we port in all directions. We continue to do work like this on a variety of other franchises. We love getting the chance to help our partners bring their games to new consoles, add features, or increase performance. We get to learn so much about how other studios approach making games and that’s been really cool and integral to our value of the continuous improvement.
I created the most hated DLC on Street Fighter: 3rd Strike Online Edition. I hopped in and learned to do some coding to help create the colorways DLC. It turns out that people were not a fan of colorways that were not canon.
The Hiring Process
How we hire is a good question. It’s both complicated and easy at the same time. Mostly, we identify roles that we need to fill on our game teams and in our disciplines. Then, we work with recruiting to create the appropriate job descriptions. The job descriptions go up on our website and often LinkedIn and other job boards and then we sort through candidates to find the best fit for the position. We also look to actively source candidates as well as offer internship opportunities. In art, the portfolio has a lot to do with getting attention. In programming, we have a programming test that helps us assess a candidate’s skill level. Other roles might ask for a writing sample. All of these things are to help us see what the candidate technically can bring to the table. Then, we also look for diverse perspectives. Can this person bring something to the table we don’t have? We also care a lot about how this person collaborates. Making games is such a collaborative process that it’s really important that someone is able to communicate, listen, and be respectful of other’s ideas. We want to make sure people are a fit for our Values. We are also looking to upgrade our ATS system to scale with our needs.
For cool tools: I like 15Five as a feedback tool and studio-pulse check. It helps us keep track of how everyone is doing and how everyone is feeling. We are also at a state where we are reevaluating a lot of the tools we use (ie: HR, Finance, Communications) to make sure they can grow with us.
How to Retain Employees
Overall, throughout the history of Iron Galaxy, we have had very good retention. Our average tenure now is about 5 years…and we’ve hired over 80 people since COVID started, so we have a lot of new people, as well. One of our main Iron Galaxy Values is People and we take that very seriously. We encourage people to bring their whole selves to work and not to feel like they need to code-switch in the office.
We tailor everyone’s growth plan individually. In that way, our employees play an active role in building their competencies and deciding where they are the best fits. It’s different than the ladder or checkmark approach a lot of companies use. It really is made to be more of a journey along a path or through the branches of the Iron Galaxy tree. We want people to be able to try things and fail or not like them and not be boxed into a role that doesn’t actually work for their skill set and personality. We also offer nearly constant feedback. There is structured feedback at least every two weeks from a direct manager to an employee. We also have quarterly growth conversations with people to look at the bigger picture of their journey.
Recruiting and Employee/Employer Relationships: Problems and Solutions
We are hiring more than we ever have, so recruiting is really busy. There are tons of candidates to talk to and resumes to review. We have about twenty open job searches going on right now. It takes a lot of time and effort for the recruiting team, the hiring managers, and the interviewers to help fill these roles. Another challenge is attracting a diverse candidate pool. I don’t think we are quite a household name like some of the big publishers, so it takes more for people to find us. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing more talks. It’s also a reason we are hiring a full-time DEI Program Lead who can lend more expertise and ideas to our process. They can also help ensure that we are removing as much bias as possible from our decision-making and hiring.
I honestly don’t think we have any systemic employee/employer relationship problems. We always have things we are trying to improve…like I mentioned improving and focusing on diversity as a priority. We need to be able to easily parse data to get good metrics about where some of our processes are falling short. Looking into a new ATS and HRIS will help us in that effort. We keep trying to improve how people are mentored and help them more clearly understand their paths. With the paths being more organic than a ladder system, sometimes we haven’t done a good enough job helping the employee see where they could go and so we have been consistently working to improve that. Just because a role currently doesn’t exist at Iron Galaxy, it doesn’t mean it can’t, but without it modeled sometimes it is hard for individuals to see it. We as leaders need to create more scenarios that people can see themselves in. When we surveyed in 2019, folks reported wanting us to have more involvement in the community, so we’ve looked for ways to donate and give back to our communities at large. We started two scholarships at universities local to our studio locations to meet the dual goals of being more active in the community as well as fostering diversity. We’ve also looked at ways to tie the two studios together better and make everyone feel a part of Iron Galaxy. Admittedly, the pandemic helped us with that one because we are all remote and we just had to find ways to keep the culture going, keep teams running, and keep people feeling engaged.