How start-up Noodle Cat rejects game development hustle culture

Colin Campbell, Friday, November 10th, 2023 7:17 am

David Hunt, CEO of start-up Noodle Cat, wants to remodel the basic form of game development, with a radical departure from industry norms. He tells GameDaily: “This feeling I’ve had has been growing and burning for years, that the way we approach development, as an industry at large, is broken.”

The Salt Lake City-based company of roughly 20 staff recently announced a funding round of $12 million (Hiro Capital, with additional participation from Makers Fund, Krafton, and Sony Innovation Fund). Its first project is an original IP title described as “an innovative multiplayer action RPG”.

Hunt has been working in game development for years, including a long and successful stint as a senior at Epic Games where he worked on Fortnite, often for long hours. Although he doesn’t criticize Epic directly, it’s clear he’s had enough of the kind of grinding culture that such companies tend towards.

Creative liberty

Noodle Cat’s operational model – working conditions, career growth, hierarchy, creative liberty and remuneration – are based on a kind of constitution that Hunt and his colleagues worked out in the early days of the company’s formation. It includes a spreadsheet that lays out an employee’s likely expectations, based on their working experience.

This template specifically does not include much leeway for gung-ho corporate superstars seeking to rapidly climb the organizational ladder, accruing job title promotions and salary raises. In fact, this kind of red-in-tooth-and-claw culture is the very thing Hunt wants to avoid.

“Our compensation is a series of mathematical equations that turn into spreadsheets to tell you what your compensation is, and what track you’re on,” he explains, comparing the plan directly with economic and progress systems in some of the games he’s worked on.

It’s early days, of course, but his ideas carry a refreshingly utopian feel, laced with reams of data and no little amount of empirical pragmatism.

Let’s negotiate

Prospective employees are shown the data early on in discussions. “Rather than say, ‘let’s negotiate what your salary should be’, I show you a spreadsheet where you’ll find your X/Y coordinates, which tell you how much salary you earn,” says Hunt. Employees are also offered a cascade of company options and bonuses, based on experience, and the stage at which they join the company.

Hunt acknowledges that the system is not for everyone at this point – particularly juniors looking to make fast, early strides in their careers – but that this upfront clarity helps to select candidates who want a change from the slippery pole. “Some people just won’t fit the company, and there’s some detriment there. But I think it’s worth it,” he says, adding that he wants to avoid encouraging “firefighting syndrome” in which resolving serious problems becomes more important than avoiding them in the first place.

“Game company structures tend towards a cycle of fighting fires, and all these heroics. It’s really easy to get into a situation where you just haven’t allocated the right amount of resources to preventing the fire, and making sure you’re in a good operating state.”

Promotions are a process of rewards along the way, rather than big, fanfared step-ups. He argues that this allows creative professionals to be rewarded as they go about their business, which is a departure from the kind of culture in which large numbers of employees are competing for a small number of senior positions.

“One of the things that tends to happen in the industry a lot is people end up doing things based upon things that will get them promoted, which is very, very good for them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best thing that you could be doing for your team and for the company.

“Instead of ‘hey, you got promoted, here’s a big raise’, we just have a steady pay increase that goes along with the number of years of experience. That also helps with figuring out where you fit within the company. We don’t have a lead track. You don’t get promoted to be a manager, so you’re not performing your job based upon a personal outcome or goal.”

Eliminate uncertainty

Perhaps more challenging is the company’s vision for allowing workers to choose their own ways of working. Like most sensible companies, Noodle Cat is fine with remote working. But employees also have a lot of leeway in terms of selecting their creative output.

He argues that corporate culture is extremely averse to any kind of uncertainty. Managers are encouraged to eliminate uncertainty, and to task their reports accordingly. This centralizes decision-making at a macro, and a micro level. Creative people wind up doing what they’re told, which is wasteful.

“We enable, encourage and facilitate creativity,” he says. “Creativity needs space to solve problems, and it needs a sense of real engagement. If the design director is telling you how all the problems are already resolved, you’re not going to engage. You’re going to miss the problems that actually have not been solved, and that no-one is thinking about. Uncertainty keeps you engaged.”

He says the company will likely double in size over the next year or two, and that plans are in place to make sure Noodle Cat’s relatively liberal working methods can scale.

Hunt adds that the company’s investors are attracted to Noodle Cat’s operational plans, viewing them more as a route – rather than an impediment – to success. “We increase our odds of success, which makes the general fundraising and investment circuit more viable. Because it’s important to me that we are good to our partners, as opposed to just ‘hey, we’re doing this because we think it’s the right thing morally’.”

Of course, this still takes persuasion, in a world where expectations for start-ups have long been informed by so-called hustle-culture. “A startup is supposed to be all about hustling, and working hard. Yet we have four day workweeks. And that sounds contrary to the expectation. But we can show links to research studies that other people have done about motivation, creativity, productivity, and here’s the game that goes with it.”

You can find out more about Noodle Cat here.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.