A New Vision for the Gaming Industry: From Pixels to Purpose

Written by

Kes Sampanthar BCG BrightHouse Alumnus | Fati Ahmed Strategy Director | Lowman Harley Associate Strategy Director |

Oct 24, 2023 · 9-minute read

Video games are an entertainment medium like no other. Pixels and code intertwine to create limitlessly diverse and interactive worlds that inspire our imagination, ignite our curiosity, and build avenues for individual expression in ways other types of entertainment simply cannot. At this pivotal juncture in its trajectory, the industry is outpacing all other entertainment media in growth and revenue. Its staggering success is reflected in the passionate workforce it attracts, making it the epitome of an industry that enables individuals to apply their passions to their work. But these positive aspects of momentum, growth, and a passionate workforce come with common misconceptions about working in gaming. A familiar fallacy suggests that employees live out their dreams by playing, testing, and designing games in an oasis of free snacks, big salaries, and limitless creative freedom.  

For those truly immersed in the industry, this fallacy is a fantasy. In reality, a career in gaming can often spiral into a vortex of relentless job-hopping, grueling 14-hour “crunch days,” unexpected and often draconian layoff practices, compounding mental health issues, and abrupt project shutdowns. As of 2023, gaming industry turnover rates – now at 15.5% are outpacing every other tech sector. As a result, only one-third of game developers make it past a decade in their careers. The industry is at an inflection point, and its continued success hinges on its ability to address these systemic issues.  

It begs the question, why does an industry fundamentally built on creating joy and entertainment harbor such a dark side? Are these issues purely a case of misalignment of values? Or do they hint at deeper strategic shortcomings entrenched in the industry? In this series of articles, A New Vision for the Gaming Industry, we will endeavor to unpack the challenges facing the gaming industry and offer solutions. We’ll offer solutions by spotlighting companies that have managed to strike a more harmonious balance, one where purpose-driven strategies have borne fruit in both commercial success and employee satisfaction. Though they stand as outliers in a tough landscape, these rare cases may offer valuable lessons in sustainable and humane growth for the industry as a whole. 

How did we get here?

Let’s begin with an understanding of the history of the industry, asking ourselves, “How did we get here?” Tracing the roots of the gaming industry reveals a journey marked by rapid growth, debilitating setbacks, harsh learning experiences, and unceasing rivalry. During its formative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the industry experienced meteoric growth, capturing the imagination of millions globally and promising an era of unparalleled innovation. However, starting in the mid-1980s, this exuberant phase quickly gave way to a “dark age” — a period marred by market saturation, severe lack of quality control, and plummeting consumer trust.  

The industry emerged from the “dark age” in the late ’80s (which continued through the ’00s), which was marked by the infamous “console wars” in which giants like Sony, Sega, Microsoft, and Nintendo vied for market dominance. These competitive dynamics led to groundbreaking technological advancements but also fueled detrimental practices, like “crunch culture”, which persist even today.  

Fast forward to 2023, and we find an industry grappling with an entirely new set of dynamics — heightened competition and consolidation of publishers, myriad delivery methods like pay-to-win business models to and subscription-based platforms, the introduction of Generative AI , and the rise of social gaming, streaming, and competitive esports. All these dynamics, while innovative, are incredibly disruptive, and it’s difficult for companies to keep pace. With these innovations, adoption rates are soaring across virtually every demographic. And while it’s an exciting time to be in gaming, for the workforce, this rapid growth and disruption leave core issues like turnover and mental health unresolved. As the industry continues to mature, it’s crucial to untangle these complex threads to address the lingering challenges effectively. 

For the gaming industry, the ability to attract deeply passionate employees is one of the most important elements of success. Like other creative industries, gaming companies lean heavily on that passion. But even in service of the organization’s vision, there is a marked difference between harnessing employees’ passion and exploiting it.

In gaming, leveraging employee passion often comes at the expense of cultivating larger organizational purpose.

And when it fosters an environment where employees feel undervalued, overworked, and disconnected from the larger vision of the company, the ramifications of this tradeoff can be severe, ultimately resulting in employee attrition. For individual companies, this exploitation generates a disengaged workforce and a costly turnover problem. For the industry as a whole, the risk is more existential when it takes the form of a brain drain — the loss of critical talent and creativity necessary to drive innovation and create engaging content.  

The benefits of organizational purpose

Cultivating a shared organizational purpose offers a countermeasure against the exploitation of personal passion. The cornerstone to addressing the exploitation of personal passion is cultivating a shared organizational purpose. At the industry level, the weight of systemic issues cannot rest solely on employees’ passion for gaming. Instead, it is crucial that organizations cultivate a shared vision that harmonizes business objectives, employee welfare, and the alignment of personal passions for gaming among workers and consumers alike. Establishing a clear purpose with clearly defined values and embedding these across the organization will foster a culture where business success and employee satisfaction are seen as interconnected rather than opposing goals.  

As a shared organizational purpose takes root, it promises strategic alignments that promote clarity, consistency, and continuity. A well-defined purpose encourages organizations to create fair compensation structures that correspond with company values and recognize the critical role each employee plays in achieving organizational goals. A shared purpose offers a vehicle for healthy work-life balance, acknowledging that rested and satisfied employees galvanized around a common goal contribute more effectively than overworked, disillusioned ones. Moreover, a strong sense of purpose provides the blueprint for transparent career paths, aligning individual growth trajectories with the broader vision for the organization. And because top talent actively seeks workplace cultures rooted in continuous learning, skills development, and knowledge expansion, the right purpose can generate foundational Employee Value Propositions (EVPs) that communicate a compelling reason for talented individuals to join and remain with the organization.  

Purpose can also help direct an organization’s clear and distinct bold commitments to align ambitions with actions that creates impact. Bold commitments drive greater talent attraction, positive recognition from consumers and media, stronger employee retention, and a more potent talent density, strengthening a company’s footing with employees and other stakeholders. In essence, a shared organizational purpose that embraces employee growth, fair compensation, and a clear strategic vision creates a powerful magnet for top talent.  

Learning from organizations that have excavated purpose

A great example of an organization that has successfully cultivated a shared purpose is Valve Corporation, the renowned developer behind iconic titles like Half-Life, Dota 2, and, of course, the online digital gaming platform, Steam. Valve has always operated under the guiding principle of innovating in the realm of interactive entertainment. Compared with other industry leaders, its organizational structure is remarkably flat, devoid of hierarchical restrictions that might impede creativity. Employees in this liberating environment are trusted to select their own projects — a policy that encourages work born of genuine passion and, consequently, results in both personal satisfaction and impactful output. 

Valve’s unique model extends beyond its internal workings to the design of its products and platforms. Launched in 2003, Steam made an audacious play at providing a convenient platform for digital downloads, comprehensive customer support, and an effective strategy against digital piracy. This risk-taking venture proved successful as Steam’s ease-of-access attracted a loyal customer base that has now grown to over 130 million monthly active users. The longevity and success of Valve’s model offer resounding support for its approach to nurturing a shared organizational purpose that invests in employees’ passions. And Valve’s financial returns bring the point home — the Steam platform alone is projected to generate over $8 billion in revenue in 2023. 

As Valve continues to expand into new territories, such as gaming hardware and software development, so does the importance of the company’s commitment to its shared organizational purpose. Even as Valve faces formidable competition and navigates new challenges, it continues to prioritize creative freedom and the fulfillment of its employees. Valve’s story not only underlines the value of a clear organizational purpose. It offers the gaming industry a blueprint for sustainable growth and success in the coexistence of a healthier, more independent workforce and a fertile ground for creativity and innovation. 
Supergiant Games offers another great example of successful purpose cultivation in the highly irregular way the gaming company prioritizes an environment of work-life balance. Supergiant’s policy of “no emails on weekends and holidays” averts the prevalent burnout issue in the industry. When Supergiant was set to release Hades, the shockingly small team of 16 building the platform took several days off before launch — a stark departure from the industry standard of “crunching” until launch day.  

Supergiant’s flexible approach to product development demonstrates how values-driven strategies can be woven into the very fabric of product development. By focusing on launching games in early access and actively iterating based on player feedback, their method also illustrates a diversified and agile approach to risk management. They took a calculated risk with the launch of Hades — a major piece of IP and a frontrunner for many game awards in 2020 — where the potential for failure was balanced by ongoing user testing, constant iteration, and active feedback incorporation. Instead of staking all their resources on a fully-developed, major title, they evolved the game with their player base, reducing the pressure of a single, success-defining launch.The results speak for themselves — Hades sold over 1 million copies at release, making it the studio’s most successful game to date and funding the independent company for years to come. 

Towards a new standard

Now is the moment to shift paradigms by cultivating an environment that stimulates creativity and embraces a shared organizational purpose. Trailblazers like Valve and Supergiant model the viability of achieving commercial success while fostering a more sustainable, creative, and purpose-oriented ecosystem. These instances should not be the exception; they should set the standard. The challenges are formidable, but the potential rewards are more than worth the undertaking.  

Creative Design by Catalina Lotero, Creative Director (Design) at BCG BrightHouse

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