Working at Games Workshop: The Nuanced Version

If you’ve been following me for a while, you might know that I was recently diagnosed with Adult ADHD. I wrote a thing on here a while ago about my journey towards diagnosis, and I keep meaning to get around to writing about the diagnosis itself, but for some reason I keep getting distracted and not writing it. Hmm. Weird, that.

I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but one of the joys of diagnosis is discovering context for all the little weird things you do. These things can often be the source of anxiety and self-consciousness, but looking at them through the ADHD filter can help to feel less awful about them. “I don’t do it because I’m a weirdo, I do it because that’s how my brain works” takes it from moral judgement to self-reflective observation. And that’s got to be a good thing for your mental health, right?

One of my lifelong quirks has been ‘getting really riled up about things that I perceive as unfair’. I’ve still got vivid memories of standing up against some perceived injustice at school, and having the whole room laugh at me. I’ve had countless run-ins with line managers when they’ve told me I need to do something, or something’s changing, and I’ve raged against it because it doesn’t seem like The Right Thing. Over the years I’ve gradually learned to push these feelings down, and internalise them instead of making a scene. But they’re still there, and sometimes they bubble over.

I’ve been doing some reading over the past couple of days, and guess what? ADHD often causes what this blog refers to as “an unusual sense of fairness”: a general dislike for shaky morals, dishonesty and discrimination. Pair that up with the impulsivity that’s a core part of the disorder, and I’ve realised why I sometimes find myself doing big, lengthy rants on twitter threads.

Erm, case in point. And look at those numbers. Apparently this one caught people’s attention.

I never expected it to go viral. I ended up muting the thread, but not after I’d posted a few other bits and pieces as follow-ups, and now I’m seeing it plastered all over the web, being held up as evidence in countless ongoing arguments about how much Games Workshop sucks.

I’ve had a couple of days to cool down, and I’ve put the ADHD filter in place and realised that while, yes, I’m still angry about some of the stuff I talked about, there’s probably some nuance that didn’t come across in what I wrote. Twitter’s awful at nuance at the best of times, and blogs aren’t much better, but I’m going to try to paint a more detailed picture of things. (Also, I’ve heard on the grapevine that some people I used to work with are really upset that I wrote what I wrote. I hope this goes some way to redressing that, because that makes me feel awful. I felt like I was standing up for them, but I can see how it might have come across as bashing them because they’re part of the company I was complaining about.)

If you haven’t read the thread itself, it’s probably worth going and doing that first. I linked it up above, just under the screenshot.

Okay, here we go.

I’ve worked for Games Workshop three times in my life. The first two of those were in retail. I was recruited to work at GW Maidstone in 2002, and after several shop moves, I left GW Reading in 2008 because I felt I was being repeatedly passed over for management training. I came back a year later as a trainee store manager, ran the Windsor and Kensington branches after completing my training, and left in 2011. In 2014 I was hired as a Rules Writer in the GW Publications studio; I transferred to Specialist Brands in 2016, and left to set up Needy Cat Games in 2017.

My salary as a part time retail store worker in 2002 was just over £2.50 an hour (£4.16 in 2021 money, adjusted for inflation — this was when there was a different minimum wage for under 21s), and when I left in 2008 I was on a salary of £14,000pa (£19,100afi). As a store manager in Windsor I was on £17,000pa (£23,300afi), and this increased to £20,000pa (£24,900afi) when I went to Kensington. As a Rules Writer I was paid £19,000pa (£21,700afi), increasing to £20,000pa (£22,300afi) in Specialist Brands.

To be very clear, I haven’t worked at Games Workshop since 2017, so I can’t comment on their current practices or salaries. I’ve put this in bold because I think this is the biggest thing that people missed when reading my thread.

Also, the figures above shouldn’t be taken as indicative of what anyone else in the same role was being paid at the same time. For example, I know that one of the more senior members of the Rules Writing team was on at least £30,000, because that was one of the things I pointed out in my many attempts to ask for a pay rise. I also know that the person who replaced me on the team was on £26,000, because they matched his previous salary. The point is, the rule seemed to be that they would pay as little as possible, and that generally meant matching what you were on in your previous job if you really put your foot down and said you weren’t taking a pay cut. That said, there were definitely people who were told “sorry, we can’t pay that much”, so presumably there are some (hidden) salary bands for the various positions. That, or the managers have a set budget for their team, and it’s down to them to make a call on whether someone’s too expensive.

A lot of replies to my thread pointed out that since 2010 in the UK, employees have a legal right to discuss their salaries. This is true; however, I think it’s important to take GW’s culture into account when discussing this sort of thing.

Games Workshop has a very strong culture. You know this because the upper management spend a lot of time talking about how strong the culture is. By “culture”, I mean “how they expect the staff to act”. There’s an indelible notion within the business that Games Workshop comes first. To paraphrase the infamous black book (or red book, depending on era) that codifies the company’s culture, working for GW is hard at times, and a lot will be asked of you, but you need to always aspire towards excellence, and never have a “this will do” attitude… and if you don’t like that, this isn’t the job for you, and you should leave. As far as I’m aware, the black book stopped being handed out to staff in the early 2010s, but its presence was still felt while I was in the studio.

I remember having a discussion once with the studio’s deputy manager (who later took over the department), in which he told me that he was frustrated that the creative staff weren’t doing more projects off their own back. Apparently, a few years prior, several of them (including him) had got together over several lunchtimes and evenings, and had written a campaign supplement based on games they’d been playing. He didn’t understand why we weren’t doing the same. The fact that I didn’t seem keen on taking on extra work like this wasn’t something that I could be held accountable for, but it definitely wrinkled his brow. This only got worse after we had our daughter and I stopped being able to do overtime (running evening playtest sessions, for example, or staying late / coming in at weekends to get things finished, which I’d done a lot of previously). I wasn’t going against my contract, but I wasn’t aspiring for excellence, either.

Basically, it was always assumed that if you were lucky enough to have been given a job in the hallowed Games Workshop Studios, you couldn’t take it for granted, and you had to go out of your way to prove how much you were thankful for it.

Which is why, even though our right to discuss our salaries was legally protected, no one ever did it openly— it’s hardly a display of gratitude, is it?

I think a person’s ability to have a successful career at Games Workshop comes down to how easily they can tolerate the environment. I know some long-term staff who bend in the wind and go along with whatever is asked of them, without really investing themselves in the culture; I know others who take the culture to heart and dive in feet first.

Again, remember that I haven’t worked there in four years. A lot of this might have changed. GW’s certainly had a facelift in that time, and a friend with connections to the company has reached out and told me that there have been improvements, but I’ve also received quiet messages from several friends and acquaintances who still work there, telling me that they’re glad I spoke out — so apparently the improvements either haven’t been across the board, or things are still falling short of what people hope for.

Whatever the case, there’s a really important caveat to all of this.

Games Workshop isn’t a monolith. Nothing that I’ve said was true of every part of the business. GW is really a collection of small ecosystems, each with their own microculture. I learned this moving from the Publications studio (later “Books and Boxed Games”) to the Forge World studio, where Specialist Brands was based. It was like moving to an entirely different company, with an entirely different set of benefits and challenges. (It was a bit more cynical and a bit less idealistic, certainly not as zealous about the company’s culture, but it was also a lot less organised, and was controlled an awful lot more directly by the whims of its senior manager, who tore through the office on a more-or-less daily basis, scattering best-laid plans to the four winds.)

What Games Workshop is is a decent-sized publicly traded company, which operates at a profit. That’s what it is, first and foremost. Strip back the Space Marines and the painting livestreams and the events and everything else, and that’s what it is. Most of the issues that I have with Games Workshop are things that can be found in almost any similar business. A lot of the experience of working there comes down to the people around you, and especially your manager. A long time ago, when I was working in retail, someone told me that a good manager is an umbrella, protecting their staff from corporate nonsense, and a bad manager is a funnel. That’s always stuck with me.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that after reading what I wrote, they’ve set aside their hopes of one day working for the company. I think that’s a bit hasty. There are a lot of worse jobs to aspire towards, and there are still a lot of good reasons to work for Games Workshop.

I mean, I knew exactly what GW was like when I applied for the game designer job, and I knew the pay was poor. But I still took the job, and I don’t regret having taken it at all. Here’s a list of reasons why it was still a great job.

  • I got to work on games that I’ve been playing some variation of for most of my life. I wrote scenarios for Space Hulk! I designed the new Necromunda! I managed to pay homage to Warhammer Quest in an incredibly cool way! Regardless of how I was compensated, this was fun and rewarding.
  • I learned how to design games professionally, by working with some incredibly talented and experienced people. I honed my skills and built a strong reputation for myself. Needy Cat wouldn’t have got off to such a strong start if I hadn’t had my GW game design experience.
  • I got to work in a relatively secure job within the tabletop games industry, with sick pay, annual leave and pension contributions. This is a rarity!
  • I got to work with a lot of people who were on the same wavelength as me, and made some firm friendships. I only hope that if they’re reading this, they can forgive the awkwardness that I’ve no doubt generated over the past few days.

When I accepted the job at Rules Writer, I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. I knew that the company’s culture didn’t sit perfectly with me, and that I might find the job frustratingly constrained at times, but I resolved to work there for a few years, learn a load of stuff, get good at designing games, then move on. I didn’t feel bad about this approach — after all, I’d seen several friends lose their GW jobs with no notice because of restructuring or budget cuts, so I reassured myself that I shouldn’t feel like I owe the company lifetime service.

Whenever someone asks me whether they should work for Games Workshop, I tell them some cut-down version of what I’ve said above, and advise them to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s a corporate office job. You’ll have a great time if you approach it with the right mindset, you’ll learn a lot, but you should never be under the illusion that GW as a corporate entity cares about you. Your manager will probably care about you, and your team, but the company will drop you if that’s the best decision from a business angle. This doesn’t mean the company is “evil”; it just means that it functions like any other successful capitalist entity.

“Business decisions” are a good lens through which to view my shoddy pay. No matter how much people might want it to be the case, the truth is that the quality of a GW game’s rules really doesn’t have much of an impact on how it sells. Sure, if a GW game is utterly broken, people are less likely to play it, but it has to be really bad to get to that point. As long as a GW game is functional and playable, and can generate some fun moments, people will happily buy in, because it will have recognisable elements and will let them play with their miniatures. There really is a ceiling, a point at which the return on investment in game design hits a plateau.

I often talk about how much time and effort went into making Silver Tower, and a lot of people talk about how it’s their favourite game. But if the rules had been a lot less involved, and if the game had been slapped together in a fortnight as a barebones dungeon crawler… it would probably have sold just as well, because it has the Warhammer Quest logo on it and it was filled with amazing miniatures. Sure, the popularity of the game led to several spinoffs, but those could just as easily have been brand new boxed games with whole new game engines.

My point is this: rules writing and game design aren’t skills that Games Workshop, as a company, puts a great deal of value into. Remember, the company’s aim is to make great miniatures, sell them at a profit, and do this forever. (They put some version of these words into their investor reports, so this is no secret.) Making great games doesn’t enter into it.

When they hired me to write rules, I’d been on £18k in my previous job, so they offered me £19k, and I gladly took it. The person who followed me in the role had been on £26k in his previous job, so they matched it. In both our cases, we really wanted to design Games Workshop games, because we’d been lifelong hobbyists and we knew we’d get a kick out of it. I ended up working on some amazing projects, and I know he’s done the same. I don’t regret my time at GW, not in the slightest.

So was the twitter thread a load of half-cocked, impulsive nonsense?

No, I don’t think so. I just think it lacked nuance, which I’ve hopefully now added. The message here isn’t “Games Workshop Bad”, but rather “publicly traded companies incentivise managers to pay their staff as little as they sensibly can, because this is good for profit, and we should remember that Games Workshop is this kind of company and not some kind of magical unicorn factory.”

At least 90% of the people working for Games Workshop are utter legends, and I have nothing but love and admiration for them. The other 10% are a product of the company’s corporate culture, which I’m sure you’ll find some variation of in any similar-sized publicly traded company.

Do I think GW could pay its staff more? Yes, definitely. Do I think a £5k bonus is a good thing? Yeah, of course, but it’s not the same as a pay rise, and I know if I’d picked up a bonus like that when I was there, the majority of it would immediately have been eaten up by boring car / house maintenance things, and other stuff we couldn’t normally afford to get sorted out. (Also, sources tell me it was actually two separate bonuses — one at Christmas and one more recently — which reports have consolidated together for some reason.)

Am I a bitter, twisted husk who despises GW for its crimes against me and my family? God, no. Not at all. I’ve still got a lot of love for the place, and especially for the people who work there.

I just really, really hope that the past few years have seen some improvements, and that the company continues to move in that direction.

James likes writing. He writes too many words. He has a 160 character limit here, though, and that's kept him in check. This time, at least. Phew.