Gree’s Big Office Fills Small Screens

GREE San Francisco

Mobile gaming company Gree mixes Japanese and San Francisco start-up culture


By Hayden Dingman

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he view from Gree International Inc.’s newly expanded kitchen includes enormous windows that overlook AT&T Park. San Francisco is a city made up of beautiful vistas, but the one claimed by the mobile and social game maker still manages to awe. Perhaps more interestingly, at just the right angle the view also takes in the office of Gree’s primary Japanese competitor, DeNA Co. Ltd. No surprise. This is San Francisco, one of the largest U.S. hubs for the $67 billion videogame industry and its rapidly growing $7.5 billion mobile-game sector.

Mobile and social gaming have boomed ever since the original iPhone’s release; since Zynga’s “FarmVille” demonstrated that people enjoy playing with friends; since “Angry Birds” proved enormous demand for games anyone could play on a phone for short durations. Today, it seems every high-profile mobile and social game developer has a Bay Area presence including Zynga Inc., Paris’ Gameloft, Kabam Inc., DeNA and Gree.

It’s surprising Tokyo’s Gree waited until 2011 to enter the Bay Area considering founder Yoshikazu Tanaka’s love of the region. “All of the meeting rooms back in our Tokyo headquarters were named after Bay Area cities and landmarks,” said Gree Chief Executive Naoki Aoyagi.

[quote]“All of the meeting rooms back in our Tokyo headquarters were named after Bay Area cities and landmarks.” Gree Chief Executive Naoki Aoyagi.[/quote]

Back in Japan, Gree is massive, a cultural touchstone on par with Zynga in the United States. Still, success in Japan doesn’t guarantee U.S success, at least in video games. In the ’90s, Japanese game developers like Square Enix Co. Ltd. excited American consumers. As the U.S. game industry expanded, however, it separated from Japan. While exceptions exist (particularly Nintendo), modern American and Japanese game design tends to differ, meaning popular Japanese games don’t always translate into American sales and vice versa.

Tokyo’s Square Enix solved its problem in 2009 by acquiring British publisher Eidos Interactive, gaining a foothold in Western game development. Recently Gree followed suit, purchasing American studios OpenFeint, Funzio and App Ant Studios then incorporating the talent into its Bay Area operation.

All that talent—programmers, server engineers, writers, artists—takes space, prompting Gree’s move to San Francisco from Burlingame shortly after the 2011 OpenFeint acquisition. Gree asked San Francisco’s Quezada Architecture and San Francisco’s BCCI Construction Co. to combine the best of Gree’s Japanese culture and the San Francisco start-up ethos. This principle drove the construction (and later, expansion) of Gree’s 65,000-square-foot office, adapted from a cold shell at China Basin’s 185 Berry St. on the border of tech-heavy South of Market Street and the booming Mission Bay.

The result is “a blend of Western and Eastern ideals,” said BCCI Vice President Dominic Sarica—more reserved than the “everything goes” playground of Zynga, while still resembling a start-up space. “There are expectations when you’re competing against Facebook and other gaming companies for the same pool of talent,” Sarica said.

On the other hand, “It was very important for us to keep the fundamental design of the office similar to that of our Tokyo headquarters—no walls, for open communication and to foster creativity; lots of bright sunlight and a modern, clean look,” Aoyagi said.

The entire center of Gree’s office stretching a city block consists of abundant meeting rooms and lounge spaces for the studio’s assorted development teams. The space’s outer edges hold row upon row of counters and benches. Here sit more than 400 employees, averaging around 150 square feet each: less than the traditional 250 square feet per worker but more generous than the 100 square feet that some companies currently allot.

The office is dominated by “pervasive white walls, crisp, smooth glazed openings and exposed, polished concrete,” consistent with the modern look of Gree’s Tokyo office, said Quezada’s Edward Tingley. Here and there, however, a bit of color—a green wall, a red couch—makes the place feel more welcoming. This is unique to Gree San Francisco. It’s “a bit of local taste,” said Aoyagi, designed to put San Francisco’s top talent at ease. As Sarica said, “Here in the U.S., we need a little pop of color.”

Photography by Bruce Damonte, courtesy of BCCI Construction

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