In the last year or two, we’ve seen a surge of new studios founded by long-time Blizzard veterans. Though their teams and projects are different, companies like Dreamhaven, Frost Giant, and Warchief Gaming have plenty in common beyond their Blizzard connections: a love of fantasy worlds, interest in games that bring players together, and a desire to work in a small team. Now, former Blizzard and Epic engineer Matt Schembari is joining that collective with a new endeavor: Lightforge Games.
Schembari spent over eight years at Blizzard, followed by another five at Epic Games, and his four Lightforge co-founders also represent a blend of those two company cultures. Opened alongside former Epic programmer Dan Hertzka, former Epic producer Nathan Fairbanks, former Blizzard artist Glenn Rane, and former Blizzard and Epic marketing director Marc Hutcheson, the studio opened about a year ago but has been working quietly since. It now has 11 employees, many of whom come from the same, or similar, industry backgrounds.
What is Lightforge working on? Schembari isn’t saying just yet, apart from that it’s something in the RPG genre. What he will say is that the team’s collective experience with making social, creative games at their past companies is being put to good use:
“When you look at anything from Minecraft to Dungeons & Dragons, these are games where people come together, they have shared connectedness, they’re creating a world together, they’re creating a story together in a very emergent together kind of way. These are the kinds of games that we love, and we’ve got experience and expertise working on games like this. We all came together with a shared vision that we can rethink RPGs through the lens of social and creation.”
One dramatic difference between Lightforge and the big studios its employees hail from is its structure: Lightforge is fully remote. Schembari tells me that this is in keeping with one of the studio’s values, “Embrace empathy.” Remote work, he says, is one way in which Lightforge can ensure its employees are healthier, happier people.
“There is nothing more disruptive to a person’s life than to ask them to relocate for a job. We are now culturally and technologically at a point where we don’t have to do that anymore. And so we made a decision from the very beginning, because most of us have relocated for jobs lots of times; it’s been very disruptive. We don’t want to put people through that. Let people live wherever is best for their life situation, wherever they want to live, and let’s build everything from the ground up to be all remote.”
So Lightforge was built with remote work as a pillar, with everything rigorously documented, video chat open all the time (but only if people want to participate), and asynchronous communications between its members, who are based in locations ranging from Hawaii, to the US east coast, to Scotland. Everyone works the hours that make the most sense to them.
“As a silly example for myself is that when the weather is nice outside, I’ll go swimming,” says Schembari. “That’s just a fun thing to do. We’d go gardening on my lunch break. Having people being able to adjust their schedule based on their life situation, whatever it might be, I think is something that is very valuable to people.”
I ask Schembari to dig in a little more on the “embrace empathy” mission. After all, it’s a nice mission statement, but plenty of studios with harmful policies have very nice mission statements talking about caring for employees. He tells me another element of the studio’s focus in this area is an interest in mental health and wellbeing.
“We wanted to make sure that everything we built was healthy and that people loved what they were doing,” Schembari says. “When you’ve got a team of smart, creative people, they’re going to be at their best when they are healthy, when they’re psychologically safe, when they’re able to be creative and free. We wanted to make sure from the very beginning we were building a culture that was really focused around that.”
And, he continues, it goes further than that. Beyond just adhering to the “Golden Rule,” he adds that incorporating empathy into Lightforge also impacts how it approaches game development, including design and accessibility.
“For example, UX design is a form of empathy,” he says. “When you’re thinking through the UX from the user’s point of view, what is the player thinking? What are the players’ motivations? Why are they doing this kind of stuff? So that’s a form of empathy… It’s really about having this focus on everything you’re doing, [asking] who is the other person that’s going to be impacted by this and why they are using this or why they care.
“I’m a big proponent of accessibility in games. A lot of the games I’ve worked on I’ve directly worked on the features for accessibility. Heroes of the Storm was actually a DAGER’s award-winning game for accessibility and I was the lead UI engineer at the time. Of course, community is a big part of this too, so what is the community feeling? Why are they talking about a particular topic? Things like that.”
Lightforge’s reveal comes alongside its announcement of a $5 million funding raise supported by studios including Galaxy Interactive, NetEase, Maveron, 1UP Ventures, and Mike Morhaime’s post-Blizzard endeavor, Dreamhaven. Schembari says that while Lightforge isn’t a part of the internal studio network Dreamhaven is building, he speaks daily with the Dreamhaven crew.
In fact, he adds that the growing group of former Blizzard employees who have been striking out in recent years and starting new studios are becoming, effectively, their own startup community. And even though they all have similar roots, he banishes the thought that they’re all competing with one another. Rather, the relationship is wholly supportive.
“Something that was a surprise to me and probably shouldn’t have been a surprise is just how positive this community is,” he says. “It can be really scary as a small studio, and what we’ve got now is, instead of just being lonely in this dark scary place, we’ve got this crop of all these different studios that are all starting up right now. And everyone is super collaborative and super supportive and super helpful and we’re talking to each other in a very open way and a very helpful way.
“I’ve heard the analogy a couple of times, this is like the Seattle rock scene or something like that where you’ve got all these groups that could be competitors, but instead we’re working together to create something better and bigger than all of us.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.