There are many reasons to relocate to a new country, especially if you’ve got your eye on one of the global locations that are video game development hotbeds. But does the thought of a far-away land with a different language, culture, and climate sound a bit… well… crazy?
Rest assured that it’s not at all crazy. In fact, it might also be the most rewarding and educational experience of your life.
We spoke with two brave souls who made the leap: game designer Brad Lansford, and game programmer Steve Vallee. Let’s find out why they did it, and why you should do it too.
Brad Lansford moved from Seattle, Washington, USA to Warsaw, Poland. He had 12 years of game dev experience when he relocated. He’s currently a Senior Gameplay Designer. Native language: English.
Steve Vallee moved from Quebec City, Canada to Seattle, Washington, USA. He had just 6 months of game development experience when he relocated. He’s currently a Senior UI/UX Engineer. Native language: Canadian French.
Why did you decide look for game jobs outside of your own country?
Brad: I was in a position in my life where moving to another state, or even another country, was alluring on several levels. I expanded my searches to the cities and studios that would push my career and life experiences drastically forward. I wanted to shake my life up in an exciting way that would give me a profound experience in and outside of the studio. What better way to do this than relocate to another part of the world I’ve never lived before? I couldn’t think of anything better than leaving the area I lived in since I was born.
Steve: It really came down to necessity. Unless you live in a city with plenty of available jobs in the video game industry, and short of starting your own indie studio, relocating to a power hub like the Bay Area or Seattle might be someone’s best option.
Ironically, I grew up only a couple hours away from Montréal, nowadays known as one of the world’s premiere video game epicenters. But back in the late 1990s it wasn’t, and Ubisoft only recently opened a studio there.
I would have probably taken the easy road back then, and stay in Canada, if Montréal had been as big as it is right now. But considering I’m a happy Seattle resident now, it definitely was a blessing in disguise, and forced me to take a big risk I now I’m glad I took.
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How did you choose which country and city to move to?
Brad: It was the project itself that interested me the most. I’m a hardcore fan of the original pen and paper role playing game and Blade Runner is my favorite film. Secondly, I came for the country and city itself. I had yet to travel to Europe and this was an opportunity I knew would change my life forever.
Steve: Out of the three options I had in front of me, Seattle was actually the one I was least interested in, originally. Not speaking much of English at all, and having grown up on the East coast, the idea of relocating to the West Coast seemed dreadfully scary and unnecessarily risky.
I first got in contact with a studio in Toronto and one in New York, but after both successful interviews I had hesitations. Something didn’t quite felt right for me with either studio. Just as I tried to make my mind between the two, I was contacted by the studio in Seattle, and the manager there – Steve Ettinger – inspired so much confidence and made me feel so welcomed that it quickly became obvious this was the right fit for me.
I guess the lesson here is, oftentimes, for major life-changing decisions, it’s just better to follow your gut feelings instead of the safer, calculated road.
Do you remember how you felt just before the move?
Brad: Absolutely. I know many folks that have never left their hometown, let alone their state. The weeks preceding the move left me feeling anxious while the future ahead was exhilarating. I threw a massive party to see my family and friends before I left the country for an undetermined period of time. The mood in the air was electric and seeing all of the smiling faces helped remind me that I would not have any trouble starting a new social circle on the other side of the planet.
Steve: Strangely, as soon as I made my decision, all the dread went away, and I just couldn’t wait to get there. My wife shared the excitement as well. I left my job a few weeks ahead so we could pack our apartment in a van (sending it on a two-week trip across the continent), and explore my wife’s college options.
The sheer terror of the whole relocation really only came back when I was on the plane, and I heard the pilot announce we were about to land in Seattle. I looked out the window and I became livid. “What the hell have you done? This is never gonna work, and you’ll have to move all of your stuff back! You can’t even speak English for crying out loud!”
Thankfully, that feeling went away in a matter of days. And it is impressive how quickly you can become more comfortable, if only just minimally at first, in a foreign language when you are completely immersed.
How did your family feel about your decision?
Brad: Every single person, especially my family, was tremendously supportive of my decision. This aided in reinforcing my already confirmed commitment and alleviated some of my fears of leaving so many wonderful people behind. I didn’t have to convince or reassure my family that I was making the right decision.
Steve: My parents were ecstatic about it, and I could definitely feel their sense of pride. Of course, that wears out eventually, and quickly enough they start asking when you’ll move back – even if you repeatedly tell them it’s probably never. I made a point of always going back for a couple of weeks at least every Christmas holidays. Now that they own an iPad, we can FaceTime anytime they feel like it – technology really is an amazing thing when you live so far away from your family.
How did you adjust to the new language and culture?
Brad: Adjusting to a new culture and country isn’t a simple process. When you’re on vacation in another country, your time there is limited and you’re most likely in a tourist town where many locals speak decent English. Two weeks is one type of adventure, while two years is entirely different!
I started learning the Polish language after my first Skype interview so I already had some basics down by the time I set foot in Europe. But I quickly learned I would need to vastly expand my understanding of the language after my first attempt to use it with a local. Only about half of the residents here speak any English at all, and mostly only people under the age of 30. Most public service employees do not speak any English at all. Be prepared for this possibility.
Steve: When I left my job in Canada, I was told the three stages many immigrants feels in their adoptive country, and they pretty much happened to me over time. First, your new country is just amazing. Everything is better. Everything is perfect. There’s even an urge to compare and put down your home country.
Then, a few years later, comes the homesickness. That new country isn’t that great after all. It even kind of sucks, right? I really miss that comfort food from home. Some people may flinch at this point and decides to move back. I almost did myself, it was tempting.
But it goes away, and eventually your views become more balanced and nuanced. You have a clearer balance of the pros and cons of both sides of the fence, and if your adoptive country/city truly is a good fit, it is where you’ll feel at home.
Did you already have a job offer in the new country before you moved?
Brad: I accepted the position before I relocated. Unless you already have a work visa, obtaining a job in another country on a travel visa could be extremely difficult.
Steve: I did, and I can’t begin to understand how someone could do it otherwise. I’ve known a few friends who tried to make it in the US by simply going there in the hope of finding a job. It’s incredibly difficult, and without a company to officially sponsor you for a work visa, it makes things even more difficult.
Here’s an important detail to remember: being an immigrant is an extra hassle for an employer. There’s the work visa to deal with, the uncertainty of being able to renew said visa, the moving, a language and cultural barrier, etc. For a company to prefer you over someone readily available locally, you need something extra. You need to be worth the extra impediment. Maybe a very specific set of skills that are sought-after. In my case, it was 8-bit assembly programming, a position the studio in Seattle had struggled for months to fill. Nowadays, it could be a specialization in shader coding, or a valuable experience in Client/Server infrastructure for instance.
How did you learn about the legal requirements, paperwork, visas, etc.?
Brad: I had to do none of this research on my own. My new company’s Human Resources group was helping me from afar before I relocated and even after I arrived. They’ll assist you with obtaining your work visa, reimburse you for some or all of your moving costs, and provide you housing for the first month after you arrive.
Steve: Internet is your best friend, hands down. Most working visa applications and other immigration procedures are fairly easy to take on by yourself.
Only one time have I dealt with an immigration firm, for my Green Card, and it ended up being my worst experience of all. If I could go back in time, I would simply do it myself. Now some people may have more complicated situations than mine, and immigration firms are probably not all as bad as the one I got stuck with. But the processes are easier than you think, if English is not a barrier, and have time to do your own googling.
What are the best and worst parts of living in a foreign country?
Brad: The best part of living abroad is all of the new travel opportunities that will open up for you. You’ll meet folks from all over the world and all walks of life, which is not an experience you’ll have if you stick to a single country, let alone a single city.
The worst part of living aboard can be the varying salaries due to the cost of living and currency exchange rates. Depending on where you go, this can go in your favor or against you so be forewarned that if you send money back to your home country, it may not go far. In addition to this, you will not be putting any money into your 401(k) or your retirement plan. I highly suggest you attempt to negotiate a salary that will help offset this loss from your paychecks and work out a way to counter the loss of 401(k) matching. Use this fact as leverage to reach an agreement on a number that works for you and the studio.
Steve: One of the worst part in moving to a foreign country, in many cases, are the significant others not being able to get a work visa of their own. My wife back when I moved to Seattle was able to get a student visa to pursue her Masters degree, AND a special work visa to teach French classes as a Teaching Assistant (TA), ending with a small salary and a career of her own.
Not every significant other can be that lucky, though. In many (most?) cases, they can only live with their spouse, but are not allowed to work whatsoever. One option would be volunteering, as a good way to stay busy while developing a social circle. But having your spouse in a potential career dead end could be a major issue, and something to weigh carefully before moving.
What do you miss the most from your home country?
Brad: There are a lot of simple comforts and social norms I miss from the United States. An amusing one for me is this: The first Dairy Queen in the city just opened about 30 minutes from my flat so I’m having a Blizzard this weekend. I never thought I would ever be this excited for a small cold treat I would rarely eat when there was a Dairy Queen only 10 minutes away back home. I also miss all of the teriyaki restaurants in Seattle. All of them.
Would you recommend relocation to a new country for other game devs considering it?
Brad: Yes, without a doubt. If you’ve been itching to fly somewhere exotic or new, this could be the chance you’ve been seeking.
The best advice I can give is to do your research on the company, country, culture, and language you will be immersing yourself into once your feet touch new soil. Flex your Google-Fu and ensure you understand the differences in the cost of living at your potential relocation destinations. Most importantly of all: speak with any colleagues you know that are currently or have previously been working and living out of your home country. These individuals will be a superb resource for you to tap when it comes to some of the broader and finer elements of life abroad.
Steve: I absolutely recommend it. It’s one thing to visit a foreign country while on vacation, but to live there is a whole different level of life experience. Even if it’s for a couple of years only, and even if it doesn’t pan out in the end, these are truly unique, enriching experiences. Especially if you are in your 20s with no family in tow, then you have no excuses. Go get that job in Malta, Tokyo, wherever!
What tips do you have for somebody moving to a new country to get a video game job?
Brad: You need to keep an open mind and be patient to the social situations in everyday life that you are not accustomed to or things you would consider to be rude. I approached this with a mindset focused on empathy of others seeing me as a foreigner in their country. There are unspoken rules you may not be at all aware of and these will simply be topics locals won’t even think are all important enough to tell you – but they may very well be. Occasionally, you might upset a random local because of your limited language understanding if you move to a capital or metropolis. Be polite as possible and don’t let it get to you. You’re still learning.
Also, I have some tips on learning a new language:
- Take language lessons as often as you’re able with your personal schedule. Most large studios will provide free lessons at least once a week.
- If you can afford a private language instructor, do it! If you can’t but you’re single, try dating a local. They’ll be more than excited to share their native tongue with you. No pun intended!
- Install a language learning or flash card application on your phone to keep yourself fresh and expand your vocabulary every day.
- Once you start learning words, phrases, and proper grammar, what you know will jump out of conversations you overhear in the office, on the street, and everywhere. Each time this happens or you’re able to quickly reply without using your native language, you’ll know you’re making progress.
- When the new language starts showing up in your dreams, it has now become a part of you. Keep it up!
Steve: Make sure to fly to your new country a few days ahead of starting your new job. Settling some of your stuff, relaxing and walking around the neighborhood is a fun part of the experience. And believe me, you will remember these first few days for the rest of your life.
Other than that, there are great resources now that weren’t available back then. For instance the Meetup.com website allows you to meet locally with groups of people sharing a common interests in all sorts of topics and hobbies. You can even find groups of people from your home country with whom you can get information and support, and benefit from their own experience.
If your adoptive country are the United States, make sure to get yourself invited to a Thanksgiving dinner. You’ll probably get to eat some of the most delicious comfort food you ever had.
Do you think you’ll stay in your new country for many years?
Brad: I plan on staying here longer, until I enter a situation where I desire to move again. Afterwards, I see myself either returning to the States or becoming a citizen of another country. If I return to the States, it will be because of the benefits I still have as a US citizen when it comes to my long term future.
Steve: My original intent was to stay a couple years in Seattle, learn English, get the whole video game thing out of my system, then come back home to Canada. Fifteen years later I finally decided in taking the jump in getting my US citizenship.