Out of the Crucible: Volition Emerges to Redefine its Culture

Creative director Steve Jaros says that after feeling "adrift," Volition is finding a new sense of self. Get In Media sits down with senior development staff to discuss studio culture and what lies ahead. 

Voliton has endured growing pains in the last two decades since its inception as Parallax software. Mike Kulas, founder and president of the Red Faction studio, stepped down in 2011, handing the keys over to Dan Cermak. More than a dozen new and long-term employees were laid off that same year as the company had two games in the pipeline, along with the canceled Insane project with director Guillermo Del Toro. While in development on the latest title in the Saints Row series, Volition was acquired by Koch Media and Dead Island publisher Deep Silver during the bankruptcy of THQ early last year.

Yet through the ups, downs, and upheavals, Volition has churned out award-winning titles and global best sellers. So what is it about this studio, operating on its own rhythm and far outside the West Coast hubs of gaming, that has kept the company going strong for more than 20 years?

Shortly after the release of Saints Row IV, I traveled to the college town of Champaign, Ill. to ask this question of the Volition staff. I sat down with creative director Steve Jaros, studio design manager Anoop Shekar, studio director of audio Ariel Gross, and project manager Anne Odom to get their take on how Volition has evolved and where the studio is headed. As it turned out, the timing was perfect.

Get In Media: You mentioned that Volition is in the process of a cultural change. How so? 

Steve Jaros: It’s a very holistic view of the studio. It’s not just how we’re looking at managing a project. Its how will this change our studio and what do we want be? Almost two years ago is when we did the Secret Sauce. In my mind, this project began with that, which was when we took a hard look at our studio to decide what makes Volition, Volition. There’s a small group who wanted to change and define what Volition is as a studio, the games that we wanted to make, and where we think we need to go moving forward. And after we had that, it kind of drove a lot of decisions of how that impacts the way we are managing our teams. As terrible and awful as going through bankruptcy was for THQ, it’s interesting because from that we were able to kind of come out of that crucible and try to redefine who we are.

We were kind of adrift and able to go and define what we want to be. Because we were acquired by a company that has never had an internal studio before, really, and they were like, “Well, we love what you guys do. We want to support you. You do what you want to do.” That almost begs the question of, “Great, what do we want to do?” And so when you have that moment, it’s how do you try to connect those dots and where do you want to go and what do you want to be? And so it’s a little shaky and scary, but it’s really exciting because we’re trying to decide who we want to be as a culture and just be defined by inertia.

GIM: Your founder stepped down, and up until now you’ve been working on these existing properties. Are you trying to move into blue-skying the next original IP?

Anoop Shekar: I would say it’s not blue sky. It’s taking the strength of what we had before, but trying to focus on honing it down in a way that still uses those strengths, but is even more interesting to our end user, right, or to people who play our games.

Just like you said, Mike Kulas stepping down, going into a bankruptcy, and being part of a corporation that’s not as interested in telling us what to do, but rather what can we to do for them. As we move on to the next generation, there’s obviously going to be a lot of changes in technology. How can we take better advantage of that? How do we better utilize the skillset and strengthen the expertise of the people who already exist in the studio? Most of the people here have been here for many, many years and they already know what they need to do. Let them do it as well as they can.

Anne Odom: I would say this is the second major cultural shift that we’ve made. The first one was when we moved to our flexible work environment. Before, people had to be here at a certain time in the morning and stay until certain time in the evening. If you were like more than five minutes late your project manager had to slap your hand or whatever, so we moved to a flexible work environment. For two hours between 9:30 and 5:00, you have to be physically in the office. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter where you are, so you no longer have to ask permission to go to the doctor or go to your kid’s play or whatever. And if you have work that it would be easier to do if there weren’t 200 other people coming by to talk to you, then you can take that to a coffee shop or back to your house or whatever, so you don’t have to physically be in the office. That was a huge change and that was made from the studio level.

GIM: Does Volition have a particular development philosophy?

SJ: That’s one of the big changes that we’re really, really driving towards. I think that the simplest way to describe it is that we value the player experience. That is the kernel that drives all things for us. What do we want the player to get out of this and how do we want the player to feel? If it doesn’t support how we want the player to feel then we don’t need it. Cool though it may be. And I think that’s interesting because there are things that we’ve been doing in the past that go in and support that, but when you really make that the reason for the season, that’s how you truly go about it, you get some really interesting results and it really helps carve things away.

Ariel Gross: If the thing that you’re going after is the player’s experience and that’s what you really care about, then certain divisions and things sort of fall way and get eroded by that. If the player experience is truly what we care about, then who cares who comes up with what idea? Who cares what your title is or where you come from or whatever? I think it’s been really healthy for all of us because you feel like you don’t necessarily have those boundaries that you might have somewhere else.

AO: It’s made a big difference in our critique process. So you’re critiquing against what the player experience is, not against whether people in the room think that idea is a good one or a bad one. It makes objective critique, and just critique in general, more comfortable. I think it’s resulting in better decisions from the team.

SJ: The tricky part about it is that there is like the trap that comes when you push it down. You don’t want to necessarily be a democracy. You don’t want to be where some of you can go and get like, you know, the three of us are all on the same page because we’re all friends and Anoop has a great idea, so we’re going to go in and stop the vote. Maybe Anoop’s point of view is really, really strong and he has a really cool idea, so you can find a way to balance that and curate that experience to make sure that’s not just a popular vote. You want to make sure you get everyone’s opinions in that so you can make decisions. That’s part of the reason we use things like player experience because it acts as a tiebreaker.

Great ideas come from anywhere, right, and they really can. It’s important that you’re open to great ideas that can come from anywhere. It’s really exciting when you go and start bringing interesting folks together. Like we’re just doing a story, some story stuff for our next project, and in the room there was a mixture of the designers and writers and interface artists. There was an eclectic group of people and I was acting as a curator. The ideas were all coming from everywhere and no one was looking and saying, “Wait a minute, what’s the UI guy contributing?” It just becomes a great think tank.  But you need to make sure you have some structure to that. Things can go off the rails and nothing gets done because everyone’s waiting for everyone to be happy. You are just trying to get everyone happy, you have no point of view anymore, and things become this limp creative thing.

AG: It’s actually something that we talk about in our culture meetings, is that we don’t want to define a culture that’s purpose is to make everyone happy. We look at the other way, which is that we want the culture that is going to help us meet our goals. People who fit within that culture will probably be happy and the people who don’t fit, I mean, they need think about it.

AO: And when you make a cultural change, you’re always going to lose people. It may result in new and more interesting hires, but those can take a long time. So there’s always a risk with making that change, regardless of how overall positive it’s going to be for the studio, because change is frightening. Some people are very comfortable with what we did before; they don’t want to be uncomfortable. Some people just won’t be a fit. Those things are hard to keep in mind when you know you’re doing something different and you’re shaking stuff up. There are all these consequences that won’t be as positive as how happy everybody is that they have a flexible work environment.

AS: On the other hand, there are plenty of people who were struggling in the past because they were being held back.
AO: Right. Now they’re really flourishing.
AS: The flexible work environment is a double-edge sword for both the organization as well as the employee. Yes, you’re given leeway to do the things you need to do or want to do, but on the other hand you have obligations or responsibilities and you have to meet those.
SJ: There are always going to be times when some people take advantage of a system.
AS: I mean this is the definition of human behavior.
SJ: It’s always going to happen. I’m sure I’ve done it. I know I’ve done it, what am I talking about? But the question is, is that a chronic thing? Is it being done to a detriment?

AS: Ninety percent or more of the employees here use the system how it’s meant to be used. That’s great. And now, those 10 percent, you’ve got to figure out what you want to do and how to take care of it, but that’s a case-by-case basis.

GIM: With flexible schedules in place, what does crunch time look like?

AO: There are some areas where it’s improved significantly since Saints Row I. In those areas, we’re able to plan and deal with scope and change well enough that there’s very little, if any, crunch time. And then there are other areas where we really, really, really push, like world development and city size and stuff like that. We wind up with whole sections of the project that they need to push much harder than the rest of it.

AG: I see there are two different types of crunch. There’s the crunch that you feel like you have to do just to get the bare minimum of what you feel is appropriate for what you’re working on, and then there’s the crunch where you feel you want to put in that time because you’re excited about it. I’ve seen both of those. I saw people who crunch really hard and really long, but at the end they felt really good. They were burnt out, but they felt good about it because they felt like they had something special on their hands. They wanted to do that.

I saw another circumstance where the crunch was much less time, much shorter, much lighter in terms of hours, but they felt like they had to crunch just to get the essentials in. That felt worse to them, you know, even though they didn’t work as many hours. So there’s like an hours piece and then there’s also sort of a motivation and enthusiasm piece.

What I’m striving for is that the hours piece goes away and you don’t have to crunch just to get your work done. You should want to crunch, and at that point it’s different. I would say it’s not really crunching. It’s more like you want to put in more hours of work because you love what you’re doing. But I would still always remind those people, don’t forget there’s more to life.

SJ: I never look at crunch as a badge of honor. Saints Row IV is a great example. I promised that the script would be done. It was right before I was going on a trip. I was leaving on a Sunday. Saturday, up until an hour before I left for the plane, I basically worked from 9:00 in the morning until 5:00, went to bed for two hours, woke up at 7, started at 7:30, and then that’s the time and then I’m done with it.

I look back and think I worked so hard to get this done. I’m a little mad. If I paced myself, I would’ve seen my kids. This is my own damn fault. I knew what the task was. I knew what the deadline was and I made a choice. The company didn’t force me to do that. A reasonable deadline was set and I chose the to write my term paper the week before it was due.

Tight deadlines are my friends. I love them. I actually really get excited about having to go in and just do short sprints. Actually, I can go and do a lot in a small amount of time, but not everybody works that way. Not everybody likes the pressure of time to motivate them.

AO: When it comes to the badge of honor thing, we definitely still have that going on. There are definitely still people who get a charge out of that extreme work environment. That feels like teamwork to them. That feels good. They don’t understand why other people don’t feel that way. Sometimes, at the end of the project, that can lead to something like tension or whatever.

We had a group of people on Saints Row [The Third] that pulled a 24-hour thing and ordered food in the middle of the night and everything. We were like, maybe you’re not doing your best work by 2 o’clock in the morning; you should probably just go home. But they were into it, so we didn’t say you can’t do that, even though most of us were like, this is a really bad idea, you know, because they were excited about it.

When they left in the morning they were excited. Because we had FWE, they could just rest the whole next day. So it didn’t really matter whether they had done it all night except they felt really good about having done it all night. But then there were other people who thought, well, is that what I have to do? Then you have to get the message across like, OK, that was cool and that was fun, but no, the expectation is not that everybody’s going to do it.

SJ: The key is not resenting people for not working the way that you do. I won’t lie; I had a reoccurring meeting with people called The Midnight Society. We had a meeting at midnight, a glass of scotch, and then went back to work. That doesn’t mean that people who aren’t doing that are shit employees. Everyone has a different way of optimizing his or her best work. As long as people are doing their best work, I don’t care how you do it.

AS: We’d rather have people who work smarter than harder.

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