Words and interview by Simon Bland
It’s one thing for an industry to experience great success but as the Spider-Man movies taught us: with great power, comes great responsibility. In 2020, when the gaming sector was in the middle of an unexpected lockdown boom, women made up almost half of all the gamers (46%) contributing to this surprise uptick. However, the visibility of this statistic was hard to find when you shifted your attention to those responsible for making the games. In fact, according to Forbes’ recent Gender Balance Worksheet, of the 14 top gaming companies currently operating today, just 16% of their executive teams were female compared to 84% that were male.
Meanwhile, workers from minority backgrounds were impacted further still. In 2021, video game advocacy and networking group Black in Gaming did their own survey which found equally troubling results. Despite the video game industry being at the top of its game, only 2% of its workforce in the United States was black even though this demographic made up 13% of the country’s overall population. While these insights are certainly worrying to say the least, it’s reassuring to know that change is indeed being made, with one Creative England supported company dedicated to leading the sector and its workforce into a brighter, more inclusive future.
Formed in 2010, Spilt Milk Studios is a company with community, diversity and curiosity at its heart. Led by founder and Managing Director Andrew Smith, this London-based organisation is currently working with the Creative Enterprise Evolve scheme which prepares high-potential screen based story telling businesses for growth capital. Alongside this, the team also hopes to achieve another target that’s just as important, if not more so, than commercial success: to cultivate products and a workplace that speaks to their core ethos of equality, inclusivity and support.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve been focusing on a single IP that we want to bring to life across multiple games,” explains Smith, speaking to us part-way through his Evolve journey. By pairing exciting screen-sector businesses with industry mentors and tailored support, this Creative England programme helps to get teams ready to wow potential investors. “The IP has a big overlap with how we’ve been operating. Basically, the more mentoring we do as a team and as individuals – and the more work we do to open up routes for people from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds into the industry – the more excited we get about what we do.”
This all-inclusive nature has helped inform the creative direction of Spilt Milk Studios. In addition to creating a community discord platform that allows game developers from all backgrounds to connect, the studio also hopes to instil nurturing elements into their output and work environment. “We’re cultivated around those three values,” explains Smith, highlighting the importance of community, diversity and curiosity and prioritising them over the more obvious things that sometimes steer a company, like time and money. “It’s easy for those to dominate everything you do, especially when you’re small and trying to grow,” he reasons, “but if we get where we want to go – which is to grow into a big company that really makes an impact – we need to be cognizant of making those other elements fundamental.”
It’s something that infiltrates all corners of their organisation, from the internal support offered to their employees, to job listings. “We’re quite aggressive about framing them as opportunities for people who often don’t have those opportunities due to race, educational background, family history or education,” says Smith on Spilt Milk’s recruitment process. “We try to have that as part of our DNA, then we won’t be in the position that a lot of big companies have been in recently, where they’re really having to reckon with their cultures.” According to Smith, this is something that benefits both creatives and players, alongside the industry as a whole. “The people who play games respond very poorly to companies that take advantage of their workforce,” he continues. “It feels weird to say it – but you just want to be morally put together.”
In a wider context, it’s also something that’s representative of how the new wave of indie developers are operating; paving the way towards a more inclusive industry. “A lot of us at Spilt Milk came from backgrounds working at bigger companies and established brands and we just don’t want to do it that way,” says Smith. “I think enough small companies felt like they could push a change – and it’s satisfying to see we’re not the only ones. Companies build and solidify around the values of their founders, so we’ve always tried to be really respectful of people, their time and their backgrounds – and to see the value in that,” he adds. “It’s great that we’re seeing a more aggressive shift towards that – because it’s something we’ve always believed in.”
The studio’s deftness in this area is used to signify its key achievements so far. While they edge closer to the creation of their new IP, Spilt Milk’s stand-out moments predominantly revolve around the seeds they’ve planted and the doors they’ve opened. “In terms of successes, as a company we’ve had something like 20 interns over the past two years,” recalls Smith. “The diversity of that cohort has been incredibly strongly swung towards men and women of colour and people responded incredibly well to it. Success at the moment is about the company we’re building and the games will come from that.”
With a firm foundation, Smith enrolled the studio onto Evolve to help take things to the next step sooner rather than later. “We decided on a creative and technical vision for the next 10 years and we saw that we needed to push that harder and faster than we were able to as a small company,” he admits, discussing his reasons for joining the cohort. “Evolve is the perfect thing. It’s really helped us crystallise the direction we want to go in, focus on what’s important and learn the unknown unknowns – the stuff we didn’t know we didn’t know about the challenges we’d meet,” says Smith. “One of the reasons we wanted to do it was to be exposed to that.”
While Spilt Milk Studios’ future plans feature new IP, exciting technology and growth at a scale that wouldn’t be possible without investment, Smith’s own vision of success once again speaks to the company’s nurturing nature. “In five years’ time, I hope I’ll be in a position to be one of the mentors on Evolve. I think that’s important for the ecosystem and industry,” he attests. “Having success means that you have a responsibility to give it back. I’m not talking about money but sharing expertise, soft skills, experience and bringing other people up who don’t have the same opportunities that you do,” he smiles. “That’s something that’s incredibly exciting to think about.”