Polargryph: The game studio where employee happiness comes first

Penryn-based indie is determined not to let ‘crunch culture’ infect the development of its 3D platformer Soria

The videogames industry owes its success to filling people’s downtime, but downtime tends to be in short supply for the people who work in it.

Game Workers Unite, the industry’s union in the UK, says that 90% of people in games are required to work extra hours, but 74% are not paid for their overtime.

The so-called ‘crunch culture’ – working all hours to get a game delivered – has led to widespread disaffection among developers and designers on whose shoulders the success of the studio rests.

In 2018 an employee of Telltale Games, the developer of Minecraft: Story Mode and The Walking Dead: The Final Season, told Kotaku they had been working until 3am the night before the studio closed without warning, leaving them and hundreds of others without severance pay.

Another later tweeted: “Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.”

At Polargryph, employee health and happiness come first

It’s a culture and an attitude that independent studios like Penryn-based Polargryph are trying to change. “For the past 20-30 years, employee mental health and physical health have been an afterthought at so many companies,” says creative director Johanne Eikå Bergill. “Constant overtime has become part of the culture, and it’s very, very difficult to fix once it’s been established.”

“Constant overtime has become part of the culture, and it’s very, very difficult to fix once it’s been established.”

johanne bergill, creative director, polargryph

Polargryph is determined to maintain a healthy work-life balance for its seven employees while they work to complete their first game, a story-driven 3D platformer called Soria. The studio operates to a set of rules that place employee health and happiness first, above the delivery of the game itself.

Polargryph is developing Soria, a narrative-driven 3D platformer based on Scandinavian folklore

“We’ve all experienced bad practices in game development, like working terrible hours or doing volunteering work when it turns out that it wasn’t what we’re supposed to do,” says Bergill, who has previously worked at Falmouth-based Antimatter Games as well as Torn Banner and the BBC. “We realised that with our own company, we can make sure that never happens”.

With two women among the studio’s five co-founders, it might look like a case of gender diversity leading to a more balanced approach to employee wellbeing. Bergill isn’t so sure, though. “It’s actually a guy on our team – our production designer Oscar – who is the biggest advocate,” she says. “But we all have the experience to know that we can’t do this to our employees.”

So far, the approach has worked. As it starts to look for publishers for Soria, and sets its sights on growth and acclaim, Polargryph may find it has to work harder to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But Johanne is determined that the ethos won’t change.

“I want us to set an example that a game developer doesn’t have to sacrifice their physical and mental wellbeing in order to make great products,” she says.