Many years ago, a graduate fresh from an animation degree applied for a role at PlayStation. Over the years she progressed from Junior Animator, Cinematic Lead to Art Director and then Head of Operations. Her name was Tara Saunders.
Elsewhere, an 18-year-old won a competition in a magazine called Amstrad Action, springboard to his initial career in video games journalism. This led to a production role within the industry. His name was Stuart Whyte.
In 2017, Tara and Stuart met for the first time at London Studio. Today, we’re proud to have them as our Co-Studio Heads!
So how do they feel about their journeys to date and what are their thoughts on the studio and industry?
Hi both! Tell us a bit about your roles at London Studio and how you work together as Co-Studio Heads.
Tara: I focus on the art, design and operations teams ensuring that we have a great creative working environment and culture for our development team!
Stu: I guess Tara and I are kind of like right brain / left brain! With Tara’s focus on all the great creative and people stuff, my focus is more on production and technology. Between us we run the studio and continue to push on aspiring to become the best team, have the best culture and develop the best games possible.
Tara: There are some surprising benefits of co-direction because two brains really can be better than one, especially when you both bring different backgrounds, strengths and skills to the table. Rather than either one of us leading with our biases we get to challenge each other’s thinking and engage in a productive conversation about the best route to take. In doing this we better align product and culture goals together.
How has your journey into the game industry looked over the years?
Stu: My journey into the industry took place back in the late ‘80’s (yup, I’m that old). I won a competition in a magazine (Amstrad Action) and this was a springboard into writing a monthly adventure game section for this magazine (back when text adventures were a thing! You know “Go North”, “Get key” etc.). I freelanced writing the column all through university and then got into game dev in the early 90’s – working at companies like Microprose, Bullfrog / Electronic Arts and Lionhead / Xbox Game Studios – initially as a producer/project manager and then, over the years, moving more into studio management.
Tara: I studied industrial, product and graphic design before discovering animation while on my design degree. This was at a time when Pixar was making computer animation mainstream. So I focused some time on studying computer animation before joining the studio as a junior animator working on the PS2 game, The Getaway. I spent most of my time on that game doing cinematics and went on to become the Cinematic Lead on the sequel. I then focused my career in art management and leadership roles, moving away from hands on content creation. I ended up focusing a lot of energy on team culture and development, setting up a small operations team to look after everything to do with people, environment and culture. And that’s how I partnered up with Stu on the co-direction of the studio!
How would you describe the culture at London Studio?
Tara: The culture at London Studio is very much echoed in our studio values. We are very brave and unafraid to tackle new challenges head on, while our team is very supportive of each other and has an amazing team spirit. We have developed a lot of trust over the last few years through an open and inclusive approach.
Stuart: We care about our games. We care about our people and we embrace that we are all different. Our culture is incredibly team centric and very friendly. We, as a studio, want to make award winning landmark games, so we spend a lot of time ensuring that we have the right talent in place to make this happen. It’s also very much a culture of creativity – being pioneers is at the heart of our DNA and something that very much resonates throughout the team. Events like our annual Creative Day really help showcase this!
As Tara said, our culture is very much embedded in our values. A couple of years ago we got the whole team together to crowd source what our London Studio Values are – Brave, Team-Spirited, Empowered, Inclusive, Curious and Balanced. In other companies I’ve seen values being something that are only given lip service, but at our studio we all genuinely aspire to live by these every day, to the point that we also include them in our product decisions and framework.
Covid-19 has significantly changed the way we work moving forward. How has the work from home journey personally been for you, and reflecting back – what do you think helped the studio navigate this transition?
Stuart: I think we could probably write a whole book on the impact and changes that have occurred since we first evacuated the office back in March 2020!
Before the first lockdown in the UK, I’d typically spent one day a week working from home so I thought I was ready and prepared – I wasn’t – and the last 12 months have been a voyage of discovery for all of us.
Tara: Agreed! Personally, working from home has been a series of lessons. I know I’ve had it easy in a lot of respect without having children to home school and a decent, separate desk space I can work from. However, the isolation of not being around others was very hard for me. It’s really made me appreciate the small social moments that studio life brings… like when you have a communal lunch with some of the team and have good banter while you work. It’s also highlighted how much you get from reading the nuances of body language and the weight of the atmosphere in a physical meeting room. I’ve really missed those things.
As a studio we realised very early on that not everyone’s situation was the same and we needed to acknowledge and support this, ensuring that people didn’t feel pressured when they were juggling multiple roles of parent, teacher and game developer all at the same time.
We’ve taken a very open and honest approach throughout this experience encouraging the team to share how they are feeling and supporting them. I think we now know that there are pro’s and con’s working from home and while some thrive, others need to work in a communal environment. We think there is a future magic space supporting both kinds of people, with flexibility being the keyword.
Stuart: Now that I’m settled into working from home and my initial internet issues and home set up works well, I can see the benefits. As Tara says, not everyone’s situation is the same so I think ultimately we’ll end up in a much more flexible future where our London Office becomes a hub for staff to hang out and meet up. We’re working closely with the team to get direct feedback so it’s shaped by everyone’s input.
So what are the key ingredients for a happy studio?
Tara: A happy studio is built from happy team members! There are some practical things that help with that, for example we offer flexibility in hours to work in a way that suits you and provide opportunities like Creative Days for the team to get together and have fun together outside of their day jobs.
For me, though, the crucial thing is to demonstrate to your team that you listen to them, respect their opinions and show that you really value them. Stu touched on this earlier, but our studio values were built from the ground up by the team, rather than top down. They have the studio voice in them. That has been invaluable to making them stick and giving the team the power to also hold us –as a leadership team – accountable to them.
Stuart: I think any game development studio’s main reason to exist is to make video games, BUT to make a great video game you don’t just need to have a killer idea and killer tech – you need to have a great team, great talent and great culture, ensuring that staff are empowered, have the right tools in place to create greatness and ultimately create a work environment where people are valued and can grow. That’s paramount.
London Studio has a history of creating incredible games over the years, so with that in mind – what are your personal goals for where you want the studio to be in 5 years’ time?
Stuart: I know we’re both super proud of the rich heritage in the London Studio back catalogue – from The Getaway through to SingStar, EyeToy, EyePet, VR Worlds and Blood & Truth – there’s some incredible games in there! In 5 years’ time I look forward to seeing what the team can bring through our pioneering spirit and desire to push boundaries! As we’re now in the fifth generation of PlayStation it’s an incredibly exciting time to be making (and playing!) video games.
I’m also very much looking forward to seeing how we continue to grow and develop as a team/studio. People are at the heart of everything we do and, as we continue to invest in this area, I know we’ll continue seeing great payoffs that will give us firm foundations for the future.
Finally, 2020 brought to the front of our minds the continued inequalities of the world, so I would also like to see a continued increase in the diversity of developers in the team and in the wider industry. We’ve already seen over the years a real increase in diversity of our player base – it’s time that we reflected that in our industry.
Tara: Yes, I want us to dream big and realise our full potential… but at the same time ensure that there is a real emphasis on ethical and sustainable game development practices. We have super strong values in place that mean we should be keeping in mind the importance of inclusivity, balance and team spirit on a day to day basis. Our next project has HUGE potential and we want to leverage that to the max by empowering the team to thrive and deliver a top quality game!
Thank you both! Last but not least, tell us why working in the games industry is special to you.
Tara: When I first stepped into a games studio 20 years ago I was blown away by the buzz of groups of artists, designers and programmers collaborating on making something together. That magic is still there for me, even though we have had to find new ways to do that remotely. There is a special vibe that comes from the collaboration of different disciplines working to bring a creative vision to life, each leaning into their own expertise while supporting each other. I’ve still not come across that anywhere else.
Stuart: My entire working life has been in video games. In that career, technology change has been incredible and the pace of change is very high – I personally thrive off that… PLUS I’m a massive gamer. I love that when you finish a game and release it, you’re bringing joy, fun and hopefully, positivity to players! People play games for fun and seeing the reaction to a new release that you’ve worked on is a special feeling. That’s why I love working in games.