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When job-hunting gets tough, the tough get going. Many Americans move to domestic hubs of game development activity like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But the more adventuresome sometimes consider leaving the country for opportunities they may not feel are available closer to home.
Mark Cooke, for instance, left the San Francisco Bay Area for employment in Japan; Al Yang departed Southern California for China; Claude Langlais, a Montreal native, now calls Singapore home; and Jonathan Kim found Montreal to have jobs that weren't available in Los Angeles.
Each of them has a different story to tell -- and a different take on whether they consider their decisions to have been the right ones... or ones they've come to regret.
Take Mark Cooke, who grew up in San Francisco and did summer internships at LucasArts, Imagine Media, and Digital Eclipse (now part of Foundation 9) before graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science.
Right out of the chute, he was hired by Nihilistic Software in Novato, CA where he worked on third-person action games as a programmer, designer, and project manager.
But Cooke got the itch to try something completely different and see the world: "It wasn't because I disliked my work -- on the contrary, I quite enjoyed it," he recalls. "However, Japan is the source of many legendary games, and I wanted to experience firsthand how development practices there differed from the U.S."
However, when he saw that almost every company's job application was in Japanese, he got the hint -- game developers in Japan weren't looking for people like him with just a single course in Japanese at Berkeley under his belt.
As luck would have it, he stumbled across a recruitment Web page in English which, Cooke surmised, meant that Tokyo-based Grasshoper Manufacture would consider hiring someone from overseas. He was right; after being offered and accepting a job as a programmer, he applied for a work visa which arrived in just a few months. Cooke moved to Tokyo in 2007.
What he found was a system in which Japanese publishers were often willing to take more creative risks than their U.S. counterparts, to fund games that he considered to be more experimental.
While Cooke was able to find employment without being a native speaker, it soon became clear that he'd need to speak, read, and write Japanese in order to overcome communication barriers. He remembers enjoying the challenge of the learning process.
"But being in a country where I knew no one and surviving the inevitable loneliness was difficult," he admits. "I knew the feeling would pass as I quickly built some friendships, but initially it was depressing.
"Luckily I was living in west Shinjuku at the time -- a 10-minute walk from the busiest train station in the world -- and so there was plenty to see and do. There are certainly downsides to living in an overpopulated mega-city but those were minor compared to all of the interesting things going on."
Cooke's stay in Japan lasted exactly two years; in 2009, he moved back to the States. Was his time there all he thought it would be? We'll get to that shortly.
Meanwhile, Al Yang has been at THQ China for nine months now, a move that required little or no research since THQ offered him the job as a designer in its MMO department there right out of graduate school. While at USC's graduate interactive media program, he'd interned at such companies as Square Enix, Sierra Online, and Blizzard -- all in Southern California -- and the opportunity to move overseas was "super intriguing" to him.
"Not only did I look forward to creating some exciting games at THQ China," he says, "but China seemed to me to be the Wild West of the games industry. Luckily, the language barrier was not an issue."
But, he says, his decision was shocking to his family and friends, especially to his father, who is an immigrant from Taiwan. "I remember him questioning me: 'Why would you go and work in China when your parents worked so hard to come to the U.S.?'"
As he recalls, the logistics of moving -- and then setting up a daily routine again -- were probably his biggest hurdle. He had to travel light, getting rid of everything that wouldn't fit into three suitcases and, since his game systems took up one of those, that didn't leave much room in the other two. He also had to consider healthcare, visas, finding a place to stay, and so on.
"It's hard to imagine how difficult it is to break out of the comfort zone you've established over the years," Yang explains. "Once in China, it was only me -- no family, no friends. I had to start over completely with no frame of reference on what the 'new norm' is supposed to be. Everything was an adventure -- for better or worse -- from grocery shopping to figuring out whether my game systems would explode if I plugged them directly into the wall."
At work, he saw a huge disconnect in thought processes between himself and his co-workers who, he says, are professionals at taking a good game and analyzing it meticulously to determine how to replicate it locally.
"What I've found is that while they're excellent at pinpointing what is good about a game, why it's good is often lost to them," he says. "Explaining the 'why' to them in a way they can understand has been quite an effort and something that really helps train my communication skills."