December 7, 2022

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How Iron Galaxy is expanding both work- for-hire and original titles

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Last week, Iron Galaxy Studios announced that it would open a new game studio in Nashville, Tennessee. You can chalk that up to the boom in gaming during the pandemic, as well as the company’s own good fortunes in the work-for-hire and original games business.

Iron Galaxy will invest more than $950,000 to set up the office and hire more than 100 people for the Nashville studio, which is the third such studio for the company which also has offices in Chicago and Orlando. I caught up with the leaders of Iron Galaxy — founder Dave Lang, and co-CEOS Chelsea Blasko and Adam Boyes — to talk about the expansion. We met during the DICE Summit in Las Vegas.

Founded in 2008, Iron Galaxy has shipped more than 65 titles to date across 10 platforms in partnership with 20 game publishers. And today, the company has more than 250 people.

On top of its work-for-hire business, the company has made original titles like Divekick and Wreckateer. And it is working on Rumbleverse. That title pushed back some, as it was supposed to launch on February 15. But the company is working on bringing it to the finish line.

Iron Galaxy also announced that, in the past year, 33% of the company’s hires have been people of color. About 6% of its staff is Black, compared to 2% for the industry average. About 20% of the staff are women and 16% are LGBTQ+. The company also has won these accolades: Great Places to Work’s Best Places in Chicago 2021, a Best Place to Work by GamesIndustry.biz and a Top Workplaces USA 2022 winner.

Since joining Iron Galaxy, Rejess has been instrumental in setting the agenda and defining the strategy behind the studio’s DEIA initiatives. She has established strong partnerships across all departments and has been leading many initiatives geared towards bringing awareness about representation and accessibility in games.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Iron Galaxy leaders (left to right): Adam Boyes, Chelsea Blasko, and Dave Lang.

GamesBeat: You opened a new studio in Nashville. What was behind that?

Adam Boyes: Dave started this massive hunt about a year and a half ago.

Dave Lang: Yeah, about a year and a half ago all three of us decided that–this isn’t, strictly speaking, true, but it feels like it’s true at times. It feels like, when we’re recruiting, we’ve gotten everyone who’s willing to come to Chicago in the whole world. It’s not true, but it feels like that. To meet our goals, we wanted to grow a bit more, so we said, “Let’s do it.”

We did a nationwide search over the last year, and we were really impressed with Nashville. They have a deep arts culture, a deep tech culture. Maybe not video game tech, but tech. There’s 125,000 college students within 60 miles of Nashville. It has all the pieces. All of us were frankly surprised that no one had tried to put it together at the scale we were talking about. Obviously as game developers–games are made everywhere. There’s no place games aren’t being made. But at the scale we were discussing it hasn’t been tried there. I think it’s going to be great.

Boyes: Reasonably-priced housing. A vibrant downtown. I think people want to try new things.

Lang: Chicago, a lot of people just think it’s cold. It’s a big city, but it’s maybe not for everyone. Orlando, it’s hot. You have the parks, but you also have the hurricanes. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s actually equidistant in each direction. It’s about an eight-hour drive to the other two studios.

GamesBeat: How many people are you going to add there?

Chelsea Blasko: We’ll add about 110 people over five years. That’s our projection, our goal. We’re going to start off with a little core of folks from our current studios to make sure we have people who understand our culture, people who are excited about being there. They’ll be the tentpoles. When we started Orlando, it was myself, Dan Coleman, and Chad Newhouse. Dan was head of tech at that time and Chad was head of art. We were down there a lot making sure that the studio had what it needed, that they felt like they were Iron Galaxy, not just Iron Galaxy Orlando. Even though the culture of each studio is going to be a bit different, we want it all to be Iron Galaxy.

GamesBeat: Are you planning to work on any particular types of games there?

Boyes: It’s fascinating to me. A lot of people I’ve been talking to about Nashville, they ask me who will be GM. That’s not how we operate. All of our studios are just pools of incredible talent. When we think about the future, obviously right now about 65 or 70 percent of our business is work for hire. Then the remainder is original stuff. We announced Rumbleverse. We’re building some new pitches and ideas. It’ll always be a mix. We love the work for hire business. That’s been paying the bills for 13 and a half years. It got us where we are. But it also helps our teams get better faster.

Lang: We very rarely in our history have felt, “That’s an Orlando game” or “That’s a Chicago game.” We almost always co-develop everything. We might have a feature or a character for KI that’s all being done in Chicago because it’s tighter iteration, but generally speaking that’s not a priority for us.

Rumbleverse is being published by Epic Games.
Rumbleverse is being published by Epic Games.

GamesBeat: Are there any other game studios in Nashville?

Lang: A handful of small ones. Poppy Works. Traega, in Franklin. I’m sure there are a few more I’m just not familiar with.

Boyes: We thought about what it would be like if we went to Montreal, where there’s 16,000 studios. How do you compete and network? You try to pioneer a new place–when we were in Orlando there were a handful. You had Tiburon and n-Space. But it was a relatively small pond. Chicago obviously–when Midway exploded–

Lang: When we moved to Orlando, though, it was a very practical reason. Iron Galaxy at the time, and this still true to some degree–we certainly weren’t a household name back in 2012 when we went to Orlando. Think of competing with Respawn or Naughty Dog for employees. It’s ridiculous, right? We had to do something a little different so we weren’t directly competing with them on every single front. A city like Nashville makes tons of sense from that perspective, even if the reason isn’t quite as true as it was in 2012 for us.

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GamesBeat: Once you get to 110 people there, how many is that altogether?

Boyes: We’re 250 now, right?

Lang: We had some other news break yesterday. The city of Orlando announced our 45 jobs there. No goals in Chicago right now, but we do have empty desks.

Blasko: Well, we do have goals, but no projections. In the next five years we could have another 200 people. This all assumes things go well and all that good stuff. We have to put quite a bit of effort into recruiting. Like Dave said, we need to make sure people even know who we are.

Boyes: And maintaining that crafted culture that Chelsea has done so well building for the last 12-13 years. That’s so important. As you grow you have to make sure you maintain that. One thing I love is that every single new person that starts at Iron Galaxy, they get a face to face meeting with each of us separately in their first week. It’s about instilling that culture and that knowledge and that background. Chelsea talks about culture. I talk about business history. Dave talks about the dos and don’ts of how to be successful at IG.

Lang: When the company was much smaller, I used to not only talk to everyone, but I used to interview everyone. No matter what discipline they were in, I wanted to talk to them. Obviously that doesn’t scale at a certain point, and I just stopped talking to people. Then I’d be walking around the hall and think, “Did someone follow someone in? Who is this guy?”

Adam and Chelsea started doing their orientation stuff. I felt like I should start doing that again as well, but I wasn’t sure what I could say that was new. After a while, about halfway through COVID, I got started up again. It’s great. You get to learn a bit about them. They get to hear different perspectives on the company than they probably would normally get to hear. It’s super rewarding to give people a welcome to IG. It’s generally pretty appreciated.

Iron Galaxy is based in Chicago.

Boyes: It’s literally the highlight of my week, when we talk to new people. Never in groups of more than two. It’s just so much fun. You get invigorated by why they came, by their stories. I’ve talked to other people who ask, “How do you guys make time for that?” How do you not make time?

Blasko: Sometimes I have five people in my groups, but also I’ve realized, as you get bigger you can’t just expect that everyone knows what the culture is. You have to be more explicit and let people know. I always ask at the end, “Is this what you’re experiencing so far?” Asking for feedback.

Lang: That’s why they say something to me that they almost always say. I do all mine one on one, and the topic of mine is I’m giving people Iron Galaxy pro tips. How to be as successful here as possible. And one of them is, we’re building a culture of listening. At the end of almost every one of them, they say, “I just wanted you to know, everything you said, in my first week here I’ve been through this already.” That’s probably queued up by what you’re asking them about.

Boyes: But there’s so many other things you do, Chelsea. You do your lunches where you’ll throw a random group of people together. You have your parents and caregivers roundtables. There’s so much work you put into that.

Blasko: Before we had done project lunches, and those were great, but sometimes they would get pretty big. You couldn’t really have a meaningful conversation. People like IT weren’t necessarily invited. That was an oversight. During the pandemic I decided to make virtual lunches with random folks who weren’t on the same teams, maybe not at the same location or in the same discipline. I keep those to five or six people total. We talk about whatever. Sometimes they’re deep. Sometimes they’re silly. We just let it go wherever the group feels like they want to go that day. Those have been awesome.

The initial feedback I got about those when I asked for advice from other co-workers–I was told, “Nah, don’t do it.” Not by anyone in this room. They told me I would be stealing people’s lunchtime. But I thought I’d give it a try anyway. People have really responded. They seem to want to eat lunch with me. And we send lunch to their houses. We call in their lunch orders. It’s one of those things. We try to create different avenues. I also just do an open lunch. We don’t send people lunch for that one. But just, “Hey, we’ll be around at this time.” Finding time for parents and caregivers, moving that around, is also important.

Lang: Pre-delta, we were looking at a voluntary move back to the office if you could meet certain criteria. We had about 25-30 percent of the company back in, and I was one of them, because I’m an office person. I love being there.

Normally, pre-COVID, I would get my lunch from the downstairs restaurant, work at my desk for a half hour, eat fast, and do my work. I don’t want to be at work. I want to handle my business and go home. But I missed people so much over COVID, and there were so many new people at the company. I started eating lunch with people every day. And it’s awesome. I see what all the fuss is about! Just getting to know people in a different context.

Again, our mission is to be approachable, to lead by example and all that stuff. That was the worst thing for me about having to go back home when delta kicked in. Going back home, I missed the lunches.

Iron Galaxy has opened a studio in Nashville.

Boyes: Not only just eating lunch, but Dave started doing these cooking shows and streaming them to the company. Nashville hot chicken, cheesesteak sandwiches.

Lang: We tipped our hand there, didn’t we?

Boyes: Exactly. We should have known then. That inspired a bunch of other people to sign up and do their own cooking shows, which inspired us to build a cookbook that we gave away as the holiday gift for last year. We made a cast-iron Iron Galaxy: Established 2008 pan. All this stuff during COVID–how can we make this feel comfortable? How can we do awesome events? We had pet fashion shows. We had a freestyle rapper come and perform with us. We had bingo. How do you make it engaging?

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Blasko: And different things that hit different types of people. Not everyone is going to be into the same things. We want to make sure people feel like they’re seen as individuals. Especially as you get bigger, that becomes something you have to do intentionally. People aren’t just cells in Excel. They’re people.

GamesBeat: It feels like, if you’re not also the biggest company around, you do have to differentiate yourself in some way to make the place attractive for people to work here.

Lang: We know we don’t pay what some triple-A developers pay. We know we might have smaller perks compared to working somewhere else. We try to compete on the employee experience. That’s our magic sauce. We put a ton of effort in at every level of the company to make it as good as it can be for employees. It works. We have awards to prove it works. You don’t do that overnight. That’s years and years of banging the drum and people finally buying in and getting it. Seeing people say, “No, I genuinely love working at this place,” that’s super satisfying.

Boyes: And it goes all the way through it. A lot of people talk about user experience and user research. When we built our studio in Chicago–we moved a couple of years back and built a brand-new massive 33,000 square foot office. We thought about the employee experience. What do they feel like when they enter the building? What do they feel like when they enter our floor? Big logo up front. Put that pride there. What do they feel like when they get to the kitchen? What do they feel like when they get to their workspace? Even having custom desks built–we collaborated with the employees to see what they wanted. They got to vote and have input. That’s something that’s just so special, because I think it resonates when you walk through our space. It was all purposeful and deliberate.

Lang: We have a potential disaster on our hands where–every time we’ve done an office, it’s been so much better than the last office. This Nashville office–the Chicago office is so good right now.

Boyes: When we opened Orlando, everybody said, “Let’s go to Orlando for meetings!” Then we built this huge office in Chicago. “Oh, God, I love that one!” Then Nashville.

Blasko: We learn things every time. We get better.

Lang: We’ve had two offices in the same building in Chicago. The first time we did it, I kind of wasn’t involved with it. At the very end I was looking at the plans. “Man, there’s all this common space. What are we doing with this? This is a waste of money.” I was so salty about it, because I’m the person who hates overhead in the company. That’s my job. They said, “Trust us. People will love it.” And people use that common space all the time. They have lunches together there. They have D&D or board game sessions at night, hanging around together after. I may have been wrong about that one. But it did inform us, when we moved to a bigger space in the same building, to go even crazier with that. And then we went into COVID. I look forward to seeing people finally use the space.

Iron
Iron Galaxy’s Wreckateer

GamesBeat: I was writing about another company where they discovered it’s possible to have really bad problems with remote people. How do you try to think about that and make it a better, happier, less toxic situation?

Lang: Chelsea’s really led the way for us on that.

Blasko: Oh, yeah. Again, I think you have to be really intentional around it. I also think people are struggling currently. They’ve been cooped up. Some of their social skills are lacking. They’re not having outlets for some of their frustrations. You have to be willing to give people some grace too, and understand that they’re having a hard time. Help them feel seen through that, and then also help them understand that even if they’re having a hard time, they need to make their emotions work for them. We need to be respectful of other people in our communication. Games are very collaborative. If we’re not all respectful it just doesn’t work very well.

Again, we go out of our way to overcommunicate, to give people–a million is hyperbolic, but a million ways to give us feedback, from weekly reports in a tool we have called 15Five, where people tell us how they’re feeling. They have a direct manager they can talk to. We have anonymous hotlines. Any of us, HR, their project leads, their discipline leads. We encourage a lot of avenues for feedback to uncover these problems before they turn into something that’s really problemsatic.

Boyes: I remember about six months in, we were talking as the group of the three of us, and one of us said, “I’m not doing well.” And another one said, “Me neither.” “Yeah, life is kind of sucking right now.” Well, if the three of us feel like this, I bet everyone else doesn’t feel so good too.

We started a bunch of listening sessions. We scheduled bigger company meetings where people could talk about what they were feeling. That sort of exposed what we realized–some people had been searching to try and find their steam release valve. How do you augment, whether it’s hobbies or sewing or nature or wine or food or travel–just helping provide as many outlets and tools for people to discover as you can. And also, us standing up and saying, “I’m not doing well.” That vulnerability, I think, at all levels of the organization is important. That permits a culture of honesty.

Giving them therapists’ numbers, reminding them of the benefits–the cost of health care that we provide our employees has gone up for us, but we know that it’s helping them deal with this stuff. The vast majority of people are maybe not talking about the compounding interest that we’re building up when it comes to negative mental health implications. As an industry we need to be doing a better job of helping support people that are in need.

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Blasko: We’re getting to a place where it’s so open. It was actually kind of surprising to me. People would say, “Yep, four to five is my therapist appointment.” People are just so much more open and comfortable talking about this. It’s normalized.

GamesBeat: How do you apply some of this thinking when you go into developing Rumbleverse? What was it like to make this game mostly in the remote era?

Boyes: It was wild. One of our biggest pitch meetings was as soon as COVID happened. We had to transition. We had this big huge road trip where we were going to go to all these different areas to pitch the game and talk to a bunch of publishers about it. Then we knew we would have to do it remote. Okay, this is going to be the first remote demo they’ve ever seen. It’s going to be the first remote demo we’ve ever done. How do we make it special?

We sent backstage passes to each of the publishers. We gave them a behind-the-scenes VIP pass. We added these fun channels to our Discord, the “backstage room” for us to chat in after the pitch. Then we had the main screen. The other thing we started doing–we used to just demo the game and show it to them. Then we started changing it up. We’d get on the server and do the tutorial in a virtual space. We actually did the tutorial with them, jumping around, grabbing stuff, smashing each other. Our designers said, “Okay, simmer down a bit.” But that changed and evolved the game.

Also, when we think about the game design, we wanted to bring more joy and happiness and vibrancy to multiplayer gaming. One of the big pillars we wanted, it has to be fun to watch someone who’s bad at playing the game. That really changed it. So many times it’s easy to get super sweaty and nervous and frustrated with a game. Our game, we wanted it to be more approachable. Just more smiles. We need more joy and happiness in the world right now.

Lang: To your point about these learnings, thinking about people and what they’re going through and how we apply that to Rumbleverse–when you’re working on original things, conflict happens. It happens all the time. It’s natural. It’s part of the process. But when people are feeling like they’re feeling now, conflict can be conflated into a lot of other things as well. Like Chelsea would say, it’s having grace, having empathy, and making space for people to deal with these things as best they can. Sometimes you catch things too late, where feelings are already hurt. Sometimes you have to help mend the fences or whatever. But that’s where I think–in a game like Rumbleverse, or any creative endeavor, any conflict, you have to watch that like a hawk.

Blasko: As a leader you have to be willing to do a lot of emotional work that you may not have thought about before.

Boyes: Chelsea often says, “Remember when we used to make games?” But it’s about people, empowering them, listening to them, and acknowledging and helping change and evolve the culture to show that you’re rewarding them every day they come in.

GamesBeat: Pushing the date back, was that partly to avoid overworking people?

Boyes: It was a multitude of things. When we looked at the response, the excitement coming out of the early access and the playtest–we’d never done that at this scale before. We had an opportunity to really stack the deck. Let’s go back and add more outfits, more costumes, more features, more functionality. How do we make it more stable? We did the network test. We’ll likely do more of those. It’s about honing the craft. It’s one of those things where you wish you could point to a time in the future and say, “It’s going to be then!” But we’re still working through what needs to be done to make it great. Part of it is that balance, stretching it out a bit more.

Lang: It’s certainly a benefit. It’s a factor. But even if it wasn’t a factor, it would be a benefit.

Divekick was one of Iron Galaxy's fighting titles.
Divekick was one of Iron Galaxy’s fighting titles.

GamesBeat: We had a work for hire panel at our November event. People were commenting there that they can charge double what they used to now. With the environment we’re in, there’s just a shortage of developers. That works in interesting ways for you. You could charge more, but you probably also have to pay more for your people. What is the environment like for you now?

Boyes: Yeah, the supply and demand aspect is obviously always in play. On the retention side it’s an important part of what Chelsea and the HR team are trying to do. How do you attract people? How do you retain them? We’ve had great retention in the past, but a lot of it feeds back into that culture. If they understand the culture, if they’re here for who we are, that helps.

Blasko: It’s one of the reasons we’re going to a hybrid model and not fully remote for everyone forever. We believe that co-locating people and having them build relationships in person is important for helping them feel like they’re part of Iron Galaxy.

Lang: Demand has never been higher for what we’re doing. It’s a little awkward to be talking about making a fortune coming out of COVID, in a time when so many people suffered so deeply. But we were in really solid relationships with a bunch of great partners already. For us it wasn’t about doubling down on the money. It was about doubling down on that relationship. It gave us time to focus on those and make them as good as they could be. We got out better than most, I think.

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