Seattle-based Big Fish Games spawns Vancouver studio

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      Opening the door to Big Fish Games’ new studio in Yaletown, Peter Anderson revealed a virtually empty space with exposed brick walls and wood beams. Just four people work in the loft-style office, which opened in early September.

      Within six to eight months, the Seattle-based company, which bills itself as the largest distributor of computer games on the Web, plans to have more than 25 designers, programmers, artists, and software engineers toiling above the corner of Mainland and Helmcken streets. Eventually, Big Fish could employ about 45 people in the 4,000-square-foot office, the first it’s established outside of the United States.

      In an earlier conference call from the company’s headquarters, Anderson told the Georgia Straight that the diverse skills of Vancouver’s workforce and the city’s closeness to Seattle led Big Fish to expand north of the border. It also didn’t hurt that Vancouver is already home to a number of video-game developers and publishers.

      “There’s a very strong artistic community in Vancouver,” Big Fish’s vice-president of human resources said. “There’s the film industry. There was a number of cross-disciplinary areas that are very attractive to us for Vancouver.”

      Established in May 2002, Big Fish distributes a new downloadable PC game and a new on-line game every day on The Web site boasts over one million downloads per day and 25 million unique visitors each month. (Today’s new release for Windows, the puzzle game Musaic Box, can be played free for one hour and bought for US$19.99.)

      As a studio, the company develops 20 to 30 so-called casual games each year, including those in the Azada, Hidden Expedition, and Mystery Case Files adventure-puzzle series. It recently released its first game for the Nintendo DS, Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir, as well as its first iPhone game, Hidden Expedition: Everest.

      “If you define it from the perspective of the IP [intellectual property] or the content, casual is defined by stress-relieving, rather than stress-inducing; meditative; relaxing; providing a player with a sense of accomplishment,” Jeremy Lewis, president and chief executive officer of Big Fish, said in the same conference call. “If you define it from the perspective of the consumers’ behaviour, it is anything but casual. We have people who are on our site six to 15 hours a day, and we have other consumers who are on our site for 20 minutes a day.”

      Big Fish’s customers are primarily women aged 30 to 55, according to Lewis. He noted these casual gamers have a mean household income of about US$65,000, and an average of two dependents at home.

      In the Yaletown office, Anderson said that, fittingly, Big Fish hires more women than many other game companies. He noted that, while the industry average is around 11 percent, women compose more than 30 percent of the company’s over 300 employees, and roughly half of its game-development and software-engineering staff.

      “We’re an exceptionally diverse organization, both from a gender and ethnicity perspective,” Anderson said.

      In September, the privately held company announced it had raised US$83.3 million in common-stock financing from three venture-capital firms—Balderton Capital, General Catalyst Partners, and Salmon River Capital. The cash will be used for international expansion.

      With Big Fish already distributing games in multiple languages on its English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish portals, and now recruiting game developers and software engineers in Vancouver, Lewis said the company has much more in store for the global casual-game scene.

      “We have a brand-new series that we’re launching in Q1 that has not been revealed yet,” Lewis said. “But it’s based upon a completely novel mechanic that the world has never seen before, as far as we know.”