Today, we sit down with Phil Foxton, a seasoned professional in shaping company culture and HR practices within the gaming industry. Phil brings a wealth of experience and insights, offering a unique perspective on how the gaming sector fosters innovation, attracts top talent, and navigates the challenges of a fast-paced environment. In this interview, we’ll explore his journey, strategies, and vision for the future of HR and culture in the gaming industry.
Question:Can you describe your experience in shaping and implementing company culture within the gaming industry? Share a specific example of how you’ve influenced culture positively.
Answer:My experience here has been mainly positive. Generally, from my experience, the video games industry is open to new ideas and also to adapting current ideas. Compare that to some of the industries I have worked in before (banking, defence) and it becomes apparent why I really like working in video games. When joining a studio that is already 3-4 years old the culture is already set but the skill comes from being able to maintain that culture while the company grows. This means that things that are easy in a small company (check-ins, for instance) become really time-consuming but I found a way to ensure that they were kept up and expanded or increased where needed.
Question:What strategies have you used to attract and retain top talent in the competitive gaming market? Can you share a success story related to talent acquisition?
Answer:There is only really one way to attract the top talent, that is to be the company that that talent really wants to work for. To achieve this takes a whole lot of relationship building (you’ll see a lot of staff from some studios, for example, at nearly every games event you go to) and relationship maintenance. This is surprisingly labor-intensive but pays off when you start getting those emails and phone calls. This worked well for us on a couple of occasions, but one time in particular sticks in mind where the person sent me a speculative email, which I followed up with several calls, then a couple of interviews which eventually led onto them being hired.
Question:How do you approach diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within a gaming company? Give examples of DEI programs or policies you’ve led.
Answer:My view on this, which has proven to be unpopular a couple of times, is that you can’t have inclusivity (which diversity, equity, and belonging all fork from) if you try to “gate-keep”. Basically what you end up doing is creating another type of exclusivity, thus going against what you are trying to do. One particular instance that stands out in my mind is that a staff member wanted to start a group for under-represented groups. I was 100% behind the idea until they said to me “I will choose who can be in that group”. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to a point where we agreed on a way that would be handled so, sadly, the group was parked. The only way to ensure that your DEI is working is for your staff to not actually realize that you have policies on it. By that I mean that DEI is a standard way of working. This relies on all staff understanding and accepting one another. To help with this, organizations like Safe In Our World and Raise The Game have been really helpful by providing training and lots of useful advice.
Question:In the dynamic world of gaming, how do you ensure that the company culture adapts to changes while maintaining its core values? Share a challenge you’ve faced in this regard and how you overcame it.
Answer:Shortly after I started a particular role, I was asked what I thought of the state of the company. My honest assessment was that it was at a key point in the company’s lifecycle. Doing a few particular tasks, in a particular order right then would pay dividends later in that harder tasks would be negated. The challenge I faced was getting acceptance for the now tasks from the C-suite as it initially appeared that they went against the company culture. I found that being able to illustrate the issues with real-world examples (ideally independent ones) made a whole heap of difference to their acceptance. This took a lot of one-to-one chats.
Question:Describe your approach to employee engagement and feedback. How do you foster a sense of belonging and open communication among team members?
Answer:It sounds like a cliche, probably because it has been misused into just that, but keeping an open-door policy and being there for people to talk to is a small step towards ensuring you get honest open feedback. Having regular, useful 121s, check-ins, and just good old-fashioned “water cooler” conversations are key. Gathering feedback without appearing to gather feedback is an underappreciated skill that not many managers have. I learned from some of the best and I still think that I am mediocre! Employee engagement, though, is a long game. Just sending out a survey and expecting everyone to feel in included may end up disengaging those that need it the most. At the end of the day if a company’s management doesn’t show that the engagement is acted upon, then it is only human nature to not spend time on things that don’t have an outcome.
Question:In a fast-paced industry like gaming, burnout can be a concern. How do you promote work-life balance and mental well-being among employees?
Answer:Rather than promoting work-life balance, I prefer to look at work-life well-being or harmony. The former suggests that to increase one you have to take from the other, when real life doesn’t work like that! To get the idea across effectively is the difficulty as we have, as a society, become too invested in the balance model. However, I have found that Q&A sessions or “show and tell” can be effective here. Again, going back to the open-door thing, being available and open to conversations about it is important.
Question:The gaming industry often involves remote and distributed teams. How do you ensure that company culture and HR practices are consistent across different locations and time zones?
Answer: We ran a policy which we knew as “What works for you” with regards to working location, so that meant we had many people who are remote first, with occasional office trips. The inclusion starts from the interview stage, whereby we don’t do face-to-face interviews, they are all online (Meets, Zoom, etc). Once past the offer stage, several things happen to keep the remote users in the loop:
1) They have a conversation with the IT tech to work out the best place and time to deliver their PC. 2) The IT tech sets up a call to configure their PC, and the tech makes themselves available on chat for any “What do I do about this?” types of questions. 3) The new starter is invited to the office for the first day/few days/week to meet others in their team (even if all remote) as I find that helps the team start off right. Policies are written in such a way that they don’t favor anyone due to location, and all staff have equal access to management.
From the other side, the management team does regular check-ins with the team, again regardless of location, which really helps with inclusion. Finally, the pitching of questions is important. We never use any questions that imply “Oh they are remote so it doesn’t matter.”
Question:How do you stay updated on industry trends and best practices in HR and culture management specifically tailored to the gaming industry?
Answer:Interacting outside organizations that are expert in these areas is essential, with the likes of SIOW and UKIE/RtG really useful. Regularly attending external events such as Game Republic, Develop, etc., was also useful as there are lots of chances to have those spur-of-the-moment conversations that further your understanding of a particular topic.
Question:In the gaming world, creative collaboration is essential. How do you foster a collaborative environment that encourages innovation and cross-functional teamwork?
Answer:I have, for years, worked with an open working model. This is from my work in the DevOps, Platform, and SRE worlds. This is also how mathematicians and scientists actually manage to achieve things. Teams have an open dialogue, covered by NDAs. This depends on all involved having the same altruistic ideals. If any are protectionists, then it becomes difficult but not impossible. Many a time I have had to have the conversation where it is pointed out that the protection is actually hurting the project. I have found that a kick-off call works brilliantly here, as it sets the ground rules. Being available for the team to talk to if they have any queries regarding whether they should or shouldn’t share is essential.
Question:Can you share your vision for the future of HR and culture in the gaming industry and how you plan to contribute to it in this role?
Answer:HR is going to still be important, even though it is a phrase I dislike (it dehumanizes the person), but from a regulation and legal point of view. The rest will, I believe, become more “People Services.” These will focus more on staff being people, with hopes, fears, and ambitions. It will be more and more important for the People Services staff to be approachable, so that staff members feel comfortable talking to them about sometimes sensitive issues. I believe this is actually part of the HR model that is broken. There is a perception that if you go and talk to your HR person about something that might be illegal, immoral, or even just slightly outside the norms as accepted by society, you are opening yourself up all kinds of trouble. What should actually be happening is an open dialogue where both parties are fully aware of the boundaries.
Question:If you had to choose one video game that had the most profound impact on your life, which game would it be, and what made it so influential for you?
Answer:I’m really showing my age here, but I remember playing Rogue on college’s PCs and realizing that computers can be serious (COBOL 77 anyone?) and fun. Up to that point I was very much in the mindset that our Atari 2600 was for video games and the computer was for doing accounts and writing serious bits of code.
Question:When it comes to gaming, is there a title that holds a special place in your heart, perhaps a game that you’ve returned to time and time again? If so, what makes it so enduring for you?
Answer:There is only one that could possibly fit here, and that’s Diablo. Particularly Diablo II, which my wife and myself would play many LAN games of in 2000 when we first moved in together. We had a gap of nearly 20 years where we didn’t really play video games together, but then we got a Series X earlier this year and returned to Sanctuary for Diablo III. I purposely held off buying IV until a week or so ago as I wanted to actually see some of the summer this year!
Question:If you could choose one gaming console from any era as your all-time favorite, which console would it be and what games or experiences on that platform make it so special to you?
Answer:It would have to be the Nintendo DS Lite. I got one for Christmas one year from my wife and daughter as I was working away a lot and they wanted me to have something to fill the really boring evenings. It’s amazing how much fun Guitar Hero can be on a device as small as the DS Lite! It managed to get me through a 24-hour flight to Australia and helped with the jet lag. I still have it, stashed in a drawer somewhere but I think I have lost the Guitar Hero controller, sadly.
As we conclude this insightful interview with Phil Foxton, it’s clear that his expertise and perspective in shaping company culture and HR practices within the gaming industry are invaluable. We look forward to the contributions he’ll make to the world of HR and gaming.
We’re thrilled to announce that Phil will soon be starting his own guest column right here at Dive In Jobs, where he’ll share more of his knowledge and experiences in the ever-evolving landscape of the gaming industry. Stay tuned for more from Phil as he continues to provide valuable insights and advice to our community. Thank you for joining us in this conversation with Phil Foxton.