East Side Games on why it's not afraid of DeNA, GREE and TinyCo setting up shop in Vancouver

They can't compete with our fierce independence

East Side Games on why it's not afraid of DeNA, GREE and TinyCo setting up shop in Vancouver
With lots of the big social-mobile companies now setting up shop in Vancouver, we'd thought it the right time to find out from those already there what the scene's like.

One such is East Side Games, which describes itself as 'Canada's largest indie' and 'not just another social gaming company'.

We caught up with COO Josh Nilson and mobile producer Jacob Krarup to find out why they ain't afraid of no GREEs or TinyCos.

Pocket Gamer: Why do you think Vancouver has such as strong reputation as a game development hub?

Josh Nilson: First of all, Vancouver is an amazing city. It really is a work-life balance place. You can walk the seawall, snowboard in the afternoon and take off for the weekend surfing if you want. It's easy to get people to move here - lots of patio beers and fewer suit-laden meetings. Most of the successful companies are just head down getting shit done.

There is a strong foundation for talent starting at our universities, (UBC, SFU, Capilano, Emily Carr, etc) and also many strong game design programs like VFS, AI and Masters of Digital Media.

There also used to be loads of triple-A studios here, and now with many of them cutting back, there are start ups springing up and changing the landscape.

Jacob Krarup: Another thing... we have a strong tradition of smaller companies starting up as people leave established studios to do their own thing. It goes all the way back to when EA was a scrappy little start up. Plenty of the respectable Vancouver console studios were spawned if not directly from EA, then from companies that did. The current indie scene is just a further evolution of that.

That and once you've lived in Vancouver, you don't want to move anywhere else in Canada. Yes, it rains, but you don't have to shovel the rain. The talent is here and people are hungry for success. That feeds itself.

Or what I should have said... Vancouver has such a strong reputation as a great game development hub because it's true.

Jacob and Josh (left to right)

Are you worried that the likes of TinyCo and GREE are now setting up mobile/social shops on your patch?

JN: Not at all. We are very excited to see some larger companies move into Vancouver - it's booming here. It shows they know where the next wave of growth will be. Let's face it, in some areas it's really hard to hire and keep the best talent. In Vancouver we are close to everything.

We hope they will help build up our strong mobile and social gaming scene and build our community even more.

JK: They're welcome. The more action there is in Vancouver, the better for everyone as far as I'm concerned.

I have a lot of friends in console development who are curious about mobile and social but perhaps aren't ready to jump in the deep end as indies; they have too many commitments and need a steady pay cheque.

Working with the bigger companies can be a great transition for those people. They can get exposure and confidence to do their own thing further down the line. I think it's only going to be good for Vancouver, especially in the view of the console houses leaving in search of government subsidies.

How much of a co-operative indie scene is there in Vancouver?

JN: The indie scene is amazing. There is everything from powerhouse studios such as A Thinking Ape to up-and-comers like Blue Bat Games, Little Hero Games, Black Bird Interactive and Nine Tails Studios.

There are also some great success stories from a few people making a hit game like Grey Alien Games and Slick Entertainment. There studios like Slant Six and Hot Head who used to make triple-A games that are now thinking mobile - it's really exciting.

The meet up groups for Full Indie and Vancouver Social Games have waiting lists and they bring up speakers from all over to meet indie devs.

I think we all foster that by keeping communication open and the knowledge flowing. We don't want to have another triple-A studio environment where we are loaded with NDAs and no one is talking to each other.

For East Side Games, we work with indies that are starting out, helping them connect and some even work out of our office. We let our team members work on their own games, we want them to. We try to support the local indie scene as much as possible, because in the end this is the reason it's great to build games in Vancouver.

Indies are kicking ass and taking over. Vancouver is no different.

JK: It's more open and friendly. We go drinking with each other, we hang out, we talk shop...

If someone succeeds it's not a defeat for the other studios, it's an inspiration and something we can learn from. We're not fighting each other for limited publisher dollars or shelf space, there's still enough room for everyone. It's a great feeling to be honest.

You label yourselves as 'Canada's largest indie' and 'not just another social gaming company', so how do you try to stay distinctive?

JN: Our culture is king. We have a very unique culture and team. We have fun - I mean we built and support Pot Farm and we like to say we are fiercely independent.

We love our fans and work with them on building great games. We let people work on their own games. We have our team meetings at the pub, team lunches once a week and soccer games during crunch time. We work and play hard.

But I think the main thing is we are honest and blunt. We share our success and failures with the team, and analytics and planning aren't hidden but shared with the entire team.

We have a number of 'costanza' employees: indies whose contract is up but they still hang out, work part time or stay in touch. It is perfect for crunch times and I don't know many studios that can say this, people just have a great time on some projects and stay in touch to work with us on the future.

I guess the way we remain different is we stay to our indie roots. We fail lots, we ask questions when we don't know and we take risks.

JK: It's a no-bullshit, speak your mind kind of environment; so it really comes from the core of the company. That and a willingness to try things that are new and different, both for ourselves and for the market.

There aren't that many romantic exploration games out there, for example, and it's quite a stretch between that and Pot Farm or Zombinis or NomNom Combo.

The key is that we aren't beholden to anyone. We make the games we feel are right to make, because we think it'd be funny or entertaining (and hopefully it makes business sense too).

Even where we may work with a publisher, it's because we call them up and say "Hey, check out this cool thing we made... what can you do for us?" It's never "publisher X wants a game like this! Let's make it!" We don't do work for hire. We make shit we think is cool.

How do you deal with recruitment?

JN: It's always hard to find people who are amazing and fit into your culture. Vancouver has a tremendous talent pool but we have had team members move across the country to work for us.

As we grow we are looking everywhere for talent. We started last July at 12 people and excluding our 'costanza'-style employees are now close to 50.

JK: I'm constantly showing people around the office and fielding questions from people who are interested in transitioning from console to mobile and social. There's a lot of interest, that's for sure.

Of course, in the end you want to work in an environment where people get along well. In some ways it's more about the fit than anything... as long as you work hard and we get along it'll probably work out.

What should we be looking out from East Side Games next?

JN: Our romantic-adventure game Ruby Skies is coming out really soon. It looks great and not many people are making games like this right now so we are really excited.

Everyone is really pushing for core games, and we are pushing towards richer adventure games with mechanics we find interesting like love. We also are working on another iOS game that is really close to playable called Dragon Up and some super secret stuff I can only tell you about after I've three pints and a whiskey.

JK: Yeah, Josh covered it. Ruby Skies "any minute now" and Dragon Up is the next. We have some back-of-napkin-type designs, and some prototypes in various stage of progress but our big push is to get those two games out.

The great thing about being an indie is that we can pivot (business speech for "change our minds") on games as necessary. Not every idea we start working on is great, but we try to make sure everything we put out is. We have to make sure it the projects have legs to stand on before we talk too much about them.

Thanks to Josh and Jacob for their time.

You can check out East Side Games via its website.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.