The Relocation Game

Is moving across the world for a new job worth it? Four developers who changed countries to change jobs weigh in on the pros and cons as well as reasons for and opportunities presented by the moves they made.

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."

Another perk has been the considerably lower cost of living which, for a recent graduate with a mountain of student debt, has been a relief for Yang.

"I had expected life as a designer in China to be similar to what it is in the U.S. with a fairly routine and set schedule," he says, "especially since I'm working for a U.S.-owned company. But in this job I have no idea where I'll be next week or what I'll be focusing on. There is a tremendous amount of travel; for the first few months here I wasn't even in the same country for more than two weeks at a stretch.

"The time I spend at my own desk compared with the time spent working with local developers on their home turf is certainly disproportionate to my initial expectations. I certainly didn't expect this sort of a lifestyle."

Neither did Claude Langlais, who transferred from Ubisoft Montreal to Ubisoft Singapore two years ago when his employer of slightly more than nine years offered him the title of studio technical director of its then-brand new studio.

A Montreal resident all his life, Langlais admits he wasn't prepared for the climate change -- no winters, no snow.

"That's a big draw," he says, "as is the quality of life which is just amazing. Everything is super-efficient -- especially the public transport system which is very organized and very cheap, the food is incredible, and there's just so much energy in the air.

"Plus, if you are curious by nature, there are many different cultures to be exposed to. For instance, on the weekend, you can fly to Thailand in just under two hours, you can visit the temples in Cambodia, you can take a ferry to some really super beaches.

"Everything is very convenient. And the cost of living is about 85 percent of that in Montreal. The only thing that's more expensive is the lodging -- you pay more but you get more for your money. For instance, I have a condo with a swimming pool and gym."

For Langlais, the challenges have been mostly work-related. In Montreal, his time was spent as a generalist programmer for titles like Donald Duck Going Quackers, then lead programmer for Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and pipeline technical director for Assassin's Creed.

He was just about to start work on Assassin's Creed II when he became aware of the new studio Ubisoft was building in Singapore; Langlais decided it was time for a different kind of experience. He made it known that he was interested in moving and helping grow the studio.

"I needed to step out of my comfort zone in Montreal where I knew all the people, knew all the projects, and I could have kept on doing what I was doing," he recalls. "Instead, I was ready to learn new things, take on new tasks."

The least enjoyable part of the move, he recalls, was the actual move itself -- getting rid of his house and car, packing, and finding a place to live in a new country. "It took a few weeks to settle in and to adapt to a tropical climate," he says, "but this being the games industry, it means I can now go to work in Bermudas and flip-flops, so that wasn't too hard to take."

Langlais showed up a few months before the studio opened, to get the recruiting process started by collecting resumes and scheduling interviews. Everyone needed to get acquainted with everyone else and prepare for the first internal project -- a remake of the old arcade game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

"Luckily, the introduction to the culture hasn't been difficult because it is a very Westernized country," he says. "Everybody speaks English. And when I start getting homesick, there are plenty of opportunities to go back to Montreal to see the guys who are still at the studio and to visit with my family. I've been back three times since I started working here in July 2008."

Ironically, while Langlais moved west from Ubisoft Montreal, Jonathan Kim headed in the opposite direction, moving east to Ubisoft Montreal.

After studying "traditional Disney-style animation" in school in Los Angeles, Kim contributed some animation to Skullgirls, a to-be-released indie fighting game project that is being created by a team of ex-Pandemic staffers. And then he began the hunt for his "first real paying job."

"A friend of mine got involved in a project -- the game Scott Pilgrim -- at Ubisoft Montreal, and he thought of me when they needed someone who could do 2D retro art," Kim recalls. "The next thing you know, I'm up here in Canada as an animator doing cutscenes and drawing concept art and character moves -- and I've been here for seven months now."

While Kim had actually wanted to work at a smaller studio where he could "be a bigger fish in a smaller pond," he was excited about contributing to the game that's based on a movie and comic book license.

"I'm still trying to get used to the weather, having come from LA where it's sunny all the time," Kim confesses. "Being up here in the winter -- in sub-zero weather -- wasn't what I expected. It was a real eye-opener."

That experience -- coupled with his lack of friends in Canada -- may convince Kim to return to LA as soon as the project is completed and do more freelance work there, he says.  

Kim admits he also misses some of his favorite fast-food restaurants. And he credits his not knowing how much French is spoken in Montreal with the culture shock he experienced when first moving to Canada.

"I went to a small market to buy some vegetables and, while they were ringing up my order, they said something to me in French. I was like 'Excuse me?' And they just rolled their eyes and pointed to the total on the cash register. Who knew they would act kind of snobby to English-speaking people?"

He says he's since picked up enough of the language to deal with bank tellers and find restrooms.

On the plus side, he can't get over how easy it is to navigate Montreal with its "sensational public transportation system" and "next to no traffic compared to LA. You can walk from one side of the city to the other in about an hour. Try to do that in Los Angeles."

But working in a large company like Ubisoft takes its toll, he says. "You've got to deal with lots of bureaucracy, lots of politics. I'm not used to that. There's a lot more security being on a large team, which is nice, but, at the same time, this could be a dead-end job unless I keep trying to improve myself."

As a result, though Kim is pondering a move back to the States when his current project is completed, he worries that having been at Ubisoft just over half a year might look bad on his resume. However, he has freelance work lined up in California that he is looking forward to and he is aware that Disney is looking for animators in Texas, which appeals to him.

"My preference is to be where the climate is warm, where I speak the language, and where I can work on a small team which enables me to give lots of input," he says.

But while Kim's experience may not have measured up to his expectations, Mark Cooke, Al Yang, and Claude Langlais all say that if a developer is looking to try something new, they would all recommend considering global employment.

"I'm so happy I had the opportunity to live in Tokyo for two years," says Cooke, who says he has no regrets and moved back to the States after two years solely because of "business reasons" that he prefers not to discuss. "My expectation was that I would learn a lot and grow personally, and both of those things turned out to be true."

He recalls numerous roadblocks, especially the "general distrust of foreigners" that was apparent to him and "can hold you back," but "the opportunity to collaborate with a wide variety of creative individuals made my time in Japan truly special. It's not that those people and opportunities are unfindable in the U.S., it's just that Tokyo is such a creative, vibrant, and internationally active city that the opportunities are more readily available."

He says he would love to live overseas again someday and highly recommends the same experience to others "if you have the will to pull it off. Learning a new language, a new working style, and different approaches to game development and business in general is a valuable opportunity for your long-term career," he says.

Similarly, Al Yang says he couldn't be happier with the choice he made. With eight months in China under his belt, he reports that "the chance for personal growth and development plus the ability to observe and learn all aspects of my field keeps this job extremely exciting and rewarding. I really didn't expect it to turn out this way, but I've been more than pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

He recommends moving abroad, says that "the chance to grow and diversify your skill set is invaluable," but warns that "the first step -- breaking out of your comfort zone and taking the plunge -- is the hardest."

And Claude Langlais -- still at Ubisoft Singapore after two years -- has "no immediate plans to go back. I am really happy to have started this studio and have no regrets whatsoever. I would tell other developers that if you're looking for a new challenge, moving to a new country will do that for you. Of course you can find new challenges at home, but it's not like experiencing an entirely different culture, a different perspective.

"Before moving, however, you might want to research the country and send out some resumes to arrange interviews before showing up. But if you have experience and just feel like coming over and trying your luck, I'm sure there are a few studios that will see you.

"As for me, I can't say what I'll be doing in 20 years," he says, "but the fact that I'm now looking for a house here in Singapore says something about my short-term plans."

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