Culture at Gaming Company Gets People Involved

Employees at Insomniac Games have open work hours and spousal involvement.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
May 30, 2012

In a conference room just a few blocks from Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, Ted Price and Carrie Dieterle hover over the speakerphone. Employees are working hard in desks nearby, surrounded by Star Wars ships or figurines of video-game action heroes.

This is the headquarters of Insomniac Games, the company behind the successful Resistance and Ratchet & Clank games for PlayStation.

Price is the founder and Dieterle is the chief people officer. They are here to chat with me about how the company’s culture earned them a spot on the Best Small & Medium Workplaces List, released by the Great Places to Work Institute in 2010 and 2011.

A native of Virginia and avid gamer, Price moved to California and launched Insomniac Games in 1994 when he was just 25. He says the industry was going through a major transition at the time, from cartridge to CD. That lowered the price of inventory as well as the barrier for entry into the market.

Did he think about corporate culture back then?

“Not at all,” Price says. “I didn’t really start thinking about it until we hit 20 people. At that point, I considered how important it was to foster a sense of collaboration and open communication. Those cornerstones continue to this day.”

Insomniac has around 200 employees working between its two offices in Burbank, California, and Durham, N.C. Workers are encouraged to follow their own clock for working hours. As long as they get their work done, the attitude is one of individual acceptance. The dress code is casual, and there are plenty of places to release stress if needed.

“We have a unique campus,” Dieterle says. “We have a putting green, a basketball court, volleyball court and a commissary. And we have a lot of diverse individuals who enjoy extra-curricular activities together—from forming rock bands to volleyball teams and softball teams.” 

Mistakes Are Okay

The company's culture is more than its fun atmosphere. It focuses on internal honesty and open communication. Price explains that everyone in the company, regardless of rank, has a say in decisions. If something isn’t working and they have an idea for a fix, they can speak up.

“It’s a lot different from top-down decision-making companies," he says. "Over the past 18 years, most changes haven’t come from me, they’ve come from all levels of the company. Sometimes suggestions don’t work out, but we still encourage people to speak their minds.”

Employees who offer an out-on-a-limb idea that falls flat don’t have to worry. Insomniac’s culture embraces failure. Both Price and Dieterle say that everyone is encouraged to take chances.

Staying Power

Insomniac has a very low turnover rate, something Price is proud of, considering his industry. “A lot of gaming companies suffer from a lack of solid corporate culture,” he says. “It’s rare not to jump ship in less than five years in this business.”

Dieterle attributes the company’s high retention rates to its positive treatment of employees. Peers as well as superiors give out spot awards regularly, and electronic messages go out to teams highlighting achievements and anniversaries.

Good benefits contribute to employee satisfaction. The company offers 100 percent paid medical benefits for employees. “That's awesome in this day and age,” Dieterle says. The company fully vests 4 percent of an employee’s 401K contributions from the first day.

The kitchen is always stocked and vacation time is liberal, starting with three weeks on day one and four weeks after five years. Both offices are closed during the last two weeks of December, and the company celebrates anniversaries with more time off. A few years ago, Price took employees and significant others on a cruise to the Bahamas. Not too shabby.

Partners Welcome

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Insomniac’s culture is its effort to include employees’ spouses and partners in activities. The company’s intranet has a social networking site called The Better Halves.

“It is a private site for spouses and significant others to discuss benefits and events, and share photo galleries,” Dieterle says. “Our ‘better halves’ are really close. Right now, they are working together on producing a cookbook for charity.”

Why is including partners so important?

“I think it reflects the family feel we’ve always had here,” Price says. “We want to make sure that even if you aren’t working here, but are dating or married to someone who is, that you still understand what we are all about.”

Learn more in OPEN Forum's Company Culture 2012 series.

Photo credit: Insomniac Games