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BCBusiness extends our congratulations to Next Level Games, winner of the Best Companies to Work for in B.C. 2007 (Top Companies with More Than 100 employees category).

Five minutes after getting off the elevator at Next Level Games, I’m sitting in a kitchen with a pregnant woman, a brown dog and a naked woman. And lots of twenty­something men on leather couches. “My husband is out of town and I can’t walk the dog, so I brought him in,” Grace Kim, the company’s marketing director, explains. And it’s Tuesday, so there’s life drawing for the artists “to keep them sharp.” Around the corner, aliens and giants stare out from hundreds of monitors, while mostly 20- and 30-year-old men gather in the cubicle-free, warehouse-sized office to discuss them intently. (Only the “loud ones” have offices, explains Kim; it’s not a hierarchy thing.) Kim, 34, has been here for two years. She explains the company is a work-for-hire shop that makes such computer games as Super Mario Strikers and Spiderman: Friend or Foe for publishers that include Sony Corp., Nintendo and Activision Publishing Inc. As Kim walks through the two floors of the Yaletown office with its 110 employees, Sam, the dog, trails behind quietly. “The idea is you’re an adult here. If your dog is yappy, you won’t bring him in,” Kim explains. That’s the draw for her, possibly along with what she says are the best maternity benefits in town. While other gamers have checklists of perks, like rooftop hot tubs, she says she’d rather have a workplace that really does value people and work/life balance. I’ve heard the buzzwords before, but after a couple of hours I notice the office is empty and I realize that at Next Level it’s more than just talk. “I play soccer and basketball in the park most days at lunch. And I go under the Cambie Street Bridge and breakdance – it’s always dry there,” says Rory Doyle, 28, an environment artist who’s been here three years. No one tells him when to be back after lunch – he just knows he has to get his work done. “If someone is working late, we view that as a problem with management,” says Kim. That attitude appealed to Mike Inglehart, 32, a game director who often worked 14- to 16-hour days – the industry standard – for his previous employer. “At most places,” he says, “you have to fight execs who say things like, ‘Put this in; my eight-year-old son wants it,’ and it never works for the game.” He nods toward his team and says they have total creative control here. Inglehart plans to stick around at Next Level since there’s plenty of support to move up and lots of training. Plus, he adds, when he had a “family issue” a couple of years ago, the company flew him home, gave him a paid month off and didn’t deduct vacation time. “You remember that,” Inglehart notes. “If someone is unhappy, you lose five per cent of their effort, then 10 per cent, then more. Why not get 100 per cent?” asks Edoardo de Martin, 38, the creative director. He created what became the most successful game ever at his previous company, then almost left the industry. He’s here to “right the wrongs” he’s seen elsewhere. “Critics might say we aren’t pushing hard enough, but we know it works better this way both for people and the game quality,” he says. De Martin spends 80 per cent of his time “coaching,” not “managing.” He talks to game leaders about the specific creative conflicts, personality issues or strategy questions that have come up. The rest of the time, he’s walking around talking to people – and only sends emails to confirm what’s been said. On my way out, Kim, Sam and I walk by Nelson Garcia, 33, a concept artist who’s back from breakdancing and is sketching characters in pencil. He says the vibes here are the best in town, which means he can focus on the serious business of play. Back to Best Companies to work for in B.C. 2007