Picture a pool of talented tech workers, programmers, designers and product developers. A huge number of them will get siphoned off immediately by the good salaries and relative job security of the tech giants and financial institutions.
Most of the remaining pool then trickles off to innumerable startups and contract work. Gaming companies then compete with each other for the precious few who are left, trying to entice them with perks and benefits for the many jobs that need to be filled, hoping that the video-game passion that gets many people interested in tech in the first place still holds sway.
“When I hear about people having a difficult time getting great technical talent for their software company, I feel your pain. But you have one-tenth of the pain that I have,” said Albert Lai, co-founder and chief executive of Big Viking Games, with offices in Toronto and London, Ont.
“Within the gaming industry, there is enormous competition for talent. It is the fastest growing segment of visual entertainment,” he said. “Compounded further, we are in the sub-segment of the gaming industry: the mobile game industry, where it’s even more competitive.”
Since its start seven years ago, Big Viking has had yet another hurdle when it comes to hiring. It concerns the company’s bet on a new kind of distribution system for its mobile and social-media games, including titles such as YoWorld in which players create mini worlds of customized characters and their homes.
The company is betting that HTML5, a web-browser-based technology, will allow users to access games more readily, rather than having to get them at app stores. “[It’s] what we call the post-app-store world,” Mr. Lai explained. Users can access a game on the web without having to download, install or update it, the company says.
This has been a strategy from the company’s start, he said, but it has required the faith of its employees. It has meant that Big Viking hires have to believe in this strategy of HTML5 as the future, even though its research and development hasn’t turned a profit.
The company had to find people “willing to keep the faith,” he said.
Other gaming companies, of course, go through similar faith building. For instance, Uken Games in Toronto, whose roster includes the mobile and social-media hit Bingo Pop, found itself focusing on fewer, more popular titles, in a more detailed way.
“The entire approach to product development became more focused,” said co-founder and chief executive Chris Ye. The idea has been to attract staff with a move to a more detail-oriented and partly data-driven approach, more sophisticated work with a tech backbone to let people do their job on a higher level.
“If you’re talking about designers and product managers, the more experienced ones expect that level of sophistication. On the development side, what has really helped is investing in core infrastructure that’s needed to support those processes,” Mr. Ye said. And so, it is a matter of building faith in staff by continually investing in the company, he argued.
The side of the industry specializing in mobile games is newer than the console side of the industry. Mobile relies on a fast pace of new iterations of games and introducing new content to existing games over time. This is different than the console side, which tends to be geared more toward big, blockbuster releases sometimes years in development.
“The rising costs [of console games] have made the economics extremely difficult and unattractive to invest in, which is probably why mobile games do so well. You can generate a lot of revenue without an enormous amount of cost,” Mr. Lai said. Nevertheless, he added that with the mobile side of the industry’s growth, development costs of some mobile games are beginning to edge closer to the budgets of larger console games.
Over all, revenue from the video-game industry is expected to reach more than US$200-billion globally in the next three years or so, with the majority of that new growth coming from mobile games, according to specialized investment banking firm Digi-Capital.
A few hit games early on helped Big Viking invest in making its London office attractive to staff, including setting up a second full office in Toronto. “We wanted to build a very [Silicon] Valley-esque startup environment that would provide stock options, catered breakfasts and lunches and on-site massage therapy, among the various perks,” Mr. Lai said.
“We thankfully do not have a cycle which depends on a publisher hitting a certain quarterly earnings or a cycle where we’re trying to make a Christmas deadline. Most of our people work on what’s known as live operations, basically content generation for games that already exist,” he said. Therefore, sales for mobile and online games are continual, not cyclical, not based on Christmas sales as are console games.
That steadiness of deadlines and numerous employee perks have helped to attract and keep the more than 100 employees the company has today, Mr. Lai said.
Yet, another key pivot point came when Big Viking grew to about 80 workers.
That was when Big Viking, like other growing tech companies, had to go from having more of a collective, startup feel, to being a place where people’s roles inevitably become more specialized and compartmentalized.
That transition is a challenge for fast-growing companies, “ours included,” Mr. Lai emphasized. “We have changed up the leadership team over the last couple of years to manage and facilitate the growth of the organization.” In large part, that’s because the transition from an organic environment to a more structured one doesn’t suit some people. They prefer less structured, freer flowing roles.
“In a small startup, in the first couple of years, you really want people that are highly adaptable and can wear multiple hats. As the organization scales beyond, let’s say, 80 people, you really want people that are more specialized, more process driven,” Mr. Lai said. “People will naturally self-select themselves out [when] an organization gets to a certain level.”
“That’s not to say that there aren’t people who welcome the opportunity to be in a different sized organization. But not everyone is good for different scales [of growth],” Mr. Lai said. It’s yet another factor that can make finding and keeping talent tough in the fast-changing gaming world.