Steve Lin is standing in front of a wall of cartoon portraits, explaining why the gruesome character holding a bloodied scythe is wearing a bear costume.
"It's the zombie apocalypse," Mr. Lin says matter of factly. "So, whatever you were before influences what you look like now."
The scythe-toting bear is an undead theme park mascot for the studio's mobile game Beyond the Dead, one of the many new characters his studio is introducing, he explains. Turning to his tattooed art director, Mr. Lin asks what weapon a grim-looking sumo wrestler is holding in his stocky arms. "It's like an old-school gattling gun," replies Kevin Schmid, walking over to eye it more closely.
The quirky interchange is taking place in the booming Vancouver outpost of Japanese gaming giant Gree International Inc., which has about 1,500 employees at its Tokyo headquarters and 400 more in California.
Over the past few years, at least a half-dozen of Japan's largest video game companies have flocked to Vancouver – including Pac-Man-maker Namco Bandai, Street Fighter-creator Capcom, Sega (of Sonic the Hedgehog) and DeNA Co. Ltd., which is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The companies are drawn to the talent spun out of Vancouver's "Hollywood North" digital media industry. Location is also key: Most of these Japanese firms have regional headquarters in San Francisco. Vancouver, in the same Pacific time zone, is only a short flight from Tokyo – making it an ideal, additional beachhead in North America.
Mr. Lin, a former Google Inc. employee, was dispatched to set up an office for Gree after he scoured North America. The firm was growing weary of the expensive battle for talent against Google and other giants in Silicon Valley, Mr. Lin says. And he was well aware several large Vancouver companies in the console game and digital film industries – such as Walt Disney Co.'s Propaganda Games and Pixar Canada – had been shuttered, leaving the city with a pool of highly trained artists, designers and software developers used to working for North American audiences.
"Gree and our main competitor, DeNA, were incredibly successful in Japan," Mr. Lin says. "But the idea that you can cut and paste – from Japanese to English – doesn't work."
Some of the code can be reused, but the markets are different. The gaming world has also undergone several changes. The worlds of console and PC games have consolidated, and also polarized between highly successful franchises such as Halo and games that simply flopped. That left little profit for mid-sized gaming companies and led to studios closing in Vancouver and elsewhere.
The world has also gone mobile – smartphones have increasingly powerful processors, and the free-to-play, or "freemium," model has taken off – where games are free to download and revenues come from purchases made within the game. In the past, developers worked furiously on a game, which then shipped – and that was it. Now launches are followed by developer support, with new levels and new characters to keep people playing and paying.
At DeNA's Vancouver office, senior operations director Kaiser Ng explains that getting local talent was almost as important as Vancouver's Pacific time zone. The Vancouver office became part of "DeNA West," and linkages with San Francisco and Santiago offices became integral: Employees constantly fly back and forth, and are seconded from one office to another. More broadly, the specificity of the skillset means some employees move from one studio to another, and that almost everyone knows outside contractors who can help out on projects – such as drawing faces for thousands of zombies.
"What we're really trying to do here is work with local developers to make games that are suitable to the local market," says Ken Nakatani, DeNA's executive producer in Canada.
The B.C. government also hands out tax credits worth 17.5 per cent of each gaming employee's salary. But especially after large tax credits from eastern Canada lured high-paying jobs to Ontario and Quebec, getting companies such as DeNA is a clear win for the Vancouver.
But not all firms open up traditional offices in Vancouver. Nintendo has entered the market by contracting out all 75 employees at Vancouver's Next Level Games, which developed Nintendo's flagship Luigi's Mansion 2 game. And Capcom entered Vancouver through the acquisition of Blue Castle Games, a relationship which grew from an existing contract between the two firms on a game called Dead Rising 2.
"They wanted to continue the franchise, but (also) to appeal to the large North American market and the rest of the world," says Robyn Wallace, Capcom Game Studio Vancouver's general manager. "Capcom is interesting, because they have some wonderful characters and some great IP (intellectual property). And there was a desire to take some of that core IP and to get it out into the world."