If you need a little inspiration in your life, you should look to Phoenix Labs Co-Founder and CEO Jesse Houston. After stints on some of the biggest games in the world at Riot, Bioware and Ubisoft, Jesse set out to build a Forever Company with the Dauntless maker.
In this recent interview, Jesse schools me in all things company and culture building. Culture has been the secret superpower behind the success of F2P hit Dauntless, the birth of upcoming Switch exclusive Fae Farm and a successful exit to Garena.
Here is one of the many highlights from our talk. Jesse explains why it is more important to him that his colleagues have great life outcomes than his shareholders having great financial outcomes. And it is that caring and empathy for his team that helps enable those financial outcomes in the first place.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ethan: I’m very early on my personal founder journey and something I think about all the time is: this is my dream job. It’s all I ever want to do. I think it’s the coolest job in the world and the most fun job in the world. And I love video games. I love playing them, talking about them, reading about them. So why am I so miserable all the time at work? Why has this work made me so often over the past 20 years?
If you were just building a games company on autopilot, it creates a lot of opportunity for misery. And I mean, that’s probably all jobs, but…
Jesse: It is all jobs but I think also that the world likes to try and believe that you have this thing that you do in an office and then you have this thing that you do at home. And one is work and the other one is life. And they’re highly independent of each other and you need to balance them.
I mean we talk about work life balance as if they are two opposing poles in some sort of spectrum, or on some sort of seesaw. Like “if I work too much it hurts my life, and if I life too much it hurts my work.”
And you know I’m a video game executive so obviously I work probably a few too many hours and it seeps all over the place. But I don’t think that it is as bifurcated, and especially in 2022 when you know many many people are working from the same place that they sleep, and their dog wants to lick them, and their kids are in the room with them.
That separation is just not as real and it never was real to pretend that we can put these things in little boxes. As a business builder I’ve always tried to recognize that everybody’s on a journey at some point in their life and everybody’s life is you know wrapping around this thing that they do at the job. And there’s a bit of grace that you have to have when people are saying “life is a little heavier.” And in the same way that we ask for grace when the work is a little heavier.
I use the term grace very specifically because I you know it’s not forgiveness. It’s understanding and empathy. You’re building a community in the workplace, but also there’s a community in the home and all these other things that need to be taken into account and to be thoughtful about.
I think there’s a lot of company builders who want it to be a very transactional relationship. And I think there’s there’s a very popular set of labor movements happening in the universe right now that are trying to make it much more transactional. And there’s also a lot of bosses who are interested in this as well.
And I think that it’s actually the wrong solution to the right problem. There was a lot of bad behavior over the last 25 years in the games industry that are causing us to try and move to something that creates safer environments with more humane hours. With better pay distribution. And I think the move to a more transactional method is not gonna create great creative products. It’s gonna create more transactional products.
If you look to the car industry as one example. If you look at Ford today versus Ford 15 years ago. The relationship that Ford had to the people that are actually making the cars has radically shifted. The CEO recently talked about how the move to electric is being powered by a closer relationship to the union a not a further away one. If you think about how Ford interacted with unions 15, 20, 30, 40 years ago, it was very adversarial versus bringing in the folks who can help build better cars. When you build more autonomy into the system and build better rewarding jobs, his view is that’s going to result in better cars.
If you look at the shifts around the car industry you see that all over the place. The people who care deeply about the workers’ experience tend to have better outcomes.
If you recognize the larger ecosystem, when you can make an environment where folks want the company to win they’re going to do their best work. I’m only doing my job if people are having great life outcomes.
People are the ends not the means. That’s our one of our values. The people are going to do right by the larger company in that community. In that environment you are much more likely to breed success than if the people know my value as a leader was “Shareholders first! Make profit go big!”
Ethan Levy is a 20 year veteran game designer, producer and monetization expert, having worked on over 80+ shipped games across every platform and business model. He is Deconstructor of Fun’s resident Crypto Kid, and is on the hunt for a Technical Director to help him build the next, great Web3 games studio. If this sounds like the right next adventure for you, reach out on LinkedIn.