Frances Williams, Head of People @ Playtonic
Frances Williams, Head of People @ Playtonic — Image: Nintendo Life

Here at Nintendo Life we've followed Playtonic's journey since its inception back in 2015. We caught up with the team behind Yooka-Laylee and its follow-up Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair last year to see how the studio had grown and what they are working on next.

During that last visit, we spoke to several different members of the team and quickly noticed the same name kept popping up in conversations about how the studio has grown and evolved in recent years. This name was Fran, referring to Playtonic's Head of People, Frances Williams, who joined the studio just over two years ago.

Knowing that this week's Mental Health Awareness Week was on the horizon, not to mention Mental Health Awareness Month throughout May in the US, we reached out to Fran to see if she would be willing to tell us a little more about her role at Playtonic and their forward-thinking approach to team wellbeing to answer our burning question: What is it like to work at Playtonic?

Finding Playtonic

Playtonic Games
Image: Playtonic

We sat down with Fran and began by talking about her role at Playtonic and how she got started with her first role in the games industry.

"When Gavin [Price, Studio Director] first approached me about the job, I actually turned him down. I wasn't from the gaming world and after first researching it there was all this talk about crunch — I had no idea what it was — and then when I researched further I was like, that goes against my values. My background, I had my own business in fitness and wellbeing. So, coming from encouraging wellbeing, I felt I can't do that [crunch], but it was then that Gavin said, 'No, we want to be different, we don't want to be like other studios.'"

Fran continued and admitted to an element of imposter syndrome when she first started, but soon realised coming from outside of games wasn't such a negative. "I realised that, actually, that's probably a bit of a superpower because I didn't have any preconceptions of what it should be like here. I came in and I was able to say, 'You shouldn't be thinking like that, no matter what industry you're in!'"

Moving on, we wanted to hear more about her role and what it entails. "My role, I would say, is to be the voice of the people," Fran explained. "One of the areas is gathering constant feedback. Pretty much every policy that we have in place will have been based on some of the direct feedback that we've had from the team. It's completely confidential. I can then share the views with the management team, but not who said them, we can then be more proactive and spot trends and get a vibe for what's going on within our team".

Wellbeing Initiatives

We visited the studio on a Monday, which coincided with the latest "Let's Chat", an initiative that encourages the team to step outside for a relaxed post-lunch walk into some nearby green space. Walking and talking, we could hear chat about work, life, and everything in between — even some speculation about what Switch 2 might actually be like.

Playtonic Let's Chat, 13th May 2024
Out and about with the Playtonic team for their latest Let's Chat walk — Image: Playtonic

This is, of course, just one of the many wellbeing initiatives that have been introduced by Fran, and something that the studio seemingly takes very seriously. "The management team [wants] an environment where everybody can thrive and everybody can get what they want and be the best version of them within Playtonic — physically, mentally, nutritionally, financially, spiritually, socially, and emotionally — and if any one of those isn't aligned, people aren't going to be the best version of themselves.

"We have different things that we put in place, for example from the wellbeing side we've got the Let's Chat every second Monday and last Thursday. We've got a wellness and events team that puts on some kind of event at least once a month. We have wellness action plans. So if people are willing to express what can trigger them with regards to their wellbeing, and mental health, they can share it with their managers or their peers, they can own that document to share which I think every manager should get their team members to do. We have also created our Playtonic Wellbeing Hub to give team members advice and support and to signpost them to many areas of wellbeing and not just mental health."

"Speaking of mental health, we also have trained Mental Health First Aiders who are there to listen, ask questions and signpost as needed. They are there for people to reach out to, in addition to the Stronger Minds 24/7 helpline that’s part of the private healthcare we offer."

There is a holistic approach emerging as we learn more about the work Fran has been doing which is all tied back to the Playtonic Promise which consists of six core values: Play, Trust, Optimism, Nurture, Inclusive, and Care.

Playtonic Recharge
Image: Playtonic

"We also have [the] Playtonic Recharge wellbeing initiative, because every five years, you get a five-week paid sabbatical to either rest, recharge, volunteer, whatever it is. You also then gain a week per year if you don't take it, up to 12 years. We have Life Leave, for when life happens that shouldn't be booked as sick but also shouldn't require you to take annual leave. No probation, we trust in our hiring process and want to remove the unnecessary uncertainty that probation can cause."

The list of initiatives is extensive, but all of them make sense and tie back to those core values. "Now, this is something that I'm really passionate about," Fran tells us excitedly, "there is a thing called 'helper's high', which perhaps some people aren't aware of, but, when you do something good for somebody else, like random acts of kindness, volunteering, you get this rush of endorphins, similar to exercise, and so what we did was we introduce Playtonic Cares, which is two days paid leave a year where people are encouraged to go and do good things, such as volunteering. Now this may sound bad, but if people thought about others a bit more, they [would] feel better and have gratitude for what they've actually got instead of focusing on what they've not got."

It's Bleak Out There

It's hard to ignore the tidal wave of studio closures and layoffs across the game industry over the past few years now, so we asked Fran how she feels about the state of the industry.

"The vibe that I'm getting at the minute, as a whole, feels very sad. I can't get my head around companies making millions and within the highest-grossing industry of both film and TV as well. As an industry, we're making all this money, they're releasing games and then getting rid of whole teams, to me that's just not morally right."

"It's just really sad, because it doesn't just affect that studio. I think it affects the whole industry and the amount of uncertainty and sadness it causes for anybody in the industry. Let's face it, [as] people working at Playtonic, when you look at evidence, we've not released a game since 2019. If you're looking at people being made redundant who have just worked on a multi-million-pound game and are getting laid off, naturally you're going to be thinking, hang on a minute, we've not released a game. This is why at Playtonic we have tried to educate and give as much information to staff with regards to where we're at as a company, what we're doing to make sure that we're not going to have to end up going down the redundancy route. We've set those expectations, we've told them the plan that we've got for the next couple of years, so we've got that real awareness."

We also asked Fran if she had any advice for anyone potentially wanting to get into the industry. "Well the advice I'd give is look at the company, their values, how they treat their staff. A lot can be said about their attrition rate. How many people are leaving the studio? Research that side of it. Work on your mental strength and wellbeing because you're going to face challenges, nothing's rosy all of the time. That's not just in the gaming industry, [but] getting a job generally, your work ethic."

"You could be the most highly skilled, but if you're not a good person and you don't have a good work ethic and mindset, then you won't get a job at Playtonic. Work on yourself as a person and not just for a particular skill. They go hand in hand, one isn't over the other. That's why I created the free Well Good! mindset learning resources. It's all about tips on what you can do to be the best version of you. And no matter what industry you then go into, you'll be set up to succeed."

Well Good! Unlock your inner power
Well Good! mindset learning resources was created by Frances Williams — Image: Well Good!

Back To The Beginning

"So, I turned up on day one and it was like, grab yourself a desk. And I remember thinking, it looks like a packaging department [laughs]. It's like they don't actually realise I'm here to join them, but then that gave me this real excitement. There is so much I can change!"

Now of course, things are different with a complete onboarding process "We have the Life at Playtonic, so that on day one, everybody comes into the office. They have an intro to each head of department, so they know exactly who is who. We take them out for lunch with the Studio Director. They get their tote bag with their favourite chocolate in. There is loads of stuff like that. It's great that you literally could see a huge impact from day one. We've also ditched the 75-page staff handbook and replaced it with an engaging deck which we call the Playtonic Playbook."

Playtonic Playbook
Essential reading for all new Playtonic members, the Playtonic Playbook — Image: Playtonic

Fran made it easy to understand that there is so much more to running a good studio, than just making good games. "But yeah, that's an example of what attracted me to Playtonic. It was the openness to want to know what they can do better, and the willingness to then implement it."

Credit Where Credit Is Due

As gamers, we naturally tend to think about whether a studio is 'good' or 'bad' based on the games they produce, which is fair, and traditionally the kudos for those achievements land on the artists, the programmers, or perhaps the director of a game. Whilst that remains true today, given that team sizes have swelled exponentially over the years, perhaps more credit should be shown to the people who facilitate good teams of people.

Francis Williams accepting UK Best Places To Work Award in 2023

The positive impact Fran has had on Playtonic's people is plain to see, even winning a UK Best Places To Work Award in 2023. We hope all this suggests good things for their upcoming project(s). We ended by asking Fran what she is most proud of in the role so far.

"I am super proud of when you put the research, time, and effort into explaining the why, sharing information, implementing policies and initiatives, and then seeing the impact it has on people's lives and the appreciation they feel to have a supportive, caring employer, makes me feel super proud. I am proud to also witness people being willing to speak up and share their thoughts and change the thinking that HR is coming in just for bad things to happen, to realising HR is coming in to improve everything."

Before leaving, Gavin Price snuck into our meeting room and we asked him what it's been like working with Fran. "We were so blind to our ways when you joined, weren't we? There are so many things we didn't realise. And once Fran came in we were like, 'Oh wow, this is such a huge difference.' You've transformed the place. Honestly, if everyone was like Fran, not just games would be a better place, the world would be a better place!"

We'd like to thank Fran and the wider Playtonic team for their time and openness during our visit. What do you think of Playtonic's approach to people? Let us know in the comments below.