Gaming is a normal part of modern life. A few years ago, video games became the most popular and profitable form of entertainment, and the industry as a whole shows no signs of slowing down. The thing is, people often think about the biggest developers in the world when it comes to gaming, easily forgetting the smaller independent developers out there making engaging content for every kind of gamer.
Uken Games is one of those independent developers that should not be overlooked. Focusing on mobile games—which make up almost 50 percent of the entire games market—Uken has exploded in popularity and size by developing flagship titles such as Kings of Pool and Wild Words while also building true-to-life spin-offs of popular TV game shows such as Jeopardy! World Tour and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Founded in 2009, Uken Games co-founders Mark Lampert and Chris Ye met at a Facebook developer camp. Together, they built a successful Facebook gifting app called Twisted Trick or Treating, which garnered over a million downloads in its first week. That inspired the two to make more games, launching their first one titled Superheroes Alliance later that year. The two remain with the company today, with Ye currently serving as CEO.
Situated deep inside the iconic Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) building in downtown Toronto, the Uken Games office is clearly built by and for gamers. The company moved into the 25,000 square-foot office (designed by Mette) in December 2018, and now the more than 80 Ukenites (as they’re called) use the space to develop, fundraise, socialize, and yes, quiz each other with trivia.
I’ll take dynamic office spaces for $600, Alex.
Game development is a peculiar beast, as it involves a lot of product work from dedicated teams, yet those teams should also be willing to lend their expertise to other groups whenever a challenge arises. That is exactly the mentality at Uken, where several different teams all share an open office space, but come together to solve problems whenever they can.
Wild Words, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Jeopardy! World Tour are the three main games in constant development here, combining for a total of over 10 million downloads, with over two million active players each month. The operations, growth, and platform teams all occupy one side of the office, while trivia, the largest team, takes up the far end. In between those are engineers, designers, data analysts, and more.
“We wanted to create a place where people could gather, share ideas, and be embarrassed about showing off their early work.” – Chris Ye, Uken Games CEO.
The teams here often interact with Sony Pictures, the producers of the Jeopardy! Television show. More often than not, the Sony team will visit Uken to work on ideas and talk about the future of the game, but the Uken team has made the trip to California to better understand the feel of the game they have created. And yes, a few Ukenites have even met the man himself, Alex Trebek.
A smaller group of developers called Uken X act as a prototype group, working on some of the more out-there ideas that could one day become fun and engaging games. As is evident within the Uken X team, creativity is a skill that is valued highly at Uken, along with an appetite to push technical boundaries while still focusing on creating an easy-to-approach and pleasant experience for the end-user.
Every Friday, Uken hosts company-wide demos, where different members of each team sign up to present for five minutes on almost anything. This might include what they have been working on over the past five days, a neat experiment, or even a personal interest. The best part is that it’s not only developers who present—everyone from artists to the growth team needs to stand and deliver, offering a unique perspective into each project and each employee themselves.
“When Mark and I started Uken back in 2009, we would attend these demo camps where we’d gather in a small room of around 30 like-minded people to showcase our new games and apps and get early feedback,” says Ye, Uken’s CEO. “This stuck with us as demos have been a ritual at Uken since the start. We wanted to create a place where people could gather, share ideas, and be embarrassed about showing off their early work in the same spirit as those early demo camps.”
A major Uken milestone occurred in 2018 when Uken sold their game Bingo Pop to Jam City, a smaller company that is a sub-tenant of the office. Other milestones for Uken include a sixth-place ranking on Deloitte’s 2014 Fast 50, and a near-constant presence on Toronto’s top employer list.
An obvious place to focus on for a game company’s culture would be their love of games, but that’s almost secondary here compared to Uken’s love of fundraising. But, of course, Uken will gameify it as best they can. Each year, the company hosts a raffle where team members donate a skill, whether it’s baking, an artist’s commission, or even songwriting, and all of the proceeds go towards Camp Ooch, an organization that gives children with cancer an unforgettable summer camp experience.
Uken also participates in Extra Life, a 24-hour gaming marathon that raises funds for Sick Kids hospital. Fundraisers commit to gaming for a full 24 hours (harder than it sounds) while team members support them by hopping into the game or donating money. When the team is not fundraising, they host annual summer and holiday events as well as team-building events. The annual Hadoukathon (a Street Fighter-inspired hackathon) invites employees to form teams with other people they never work with to build projects that make Uken a better place.
Hadoukathon projects have resulted in entirely new games, a company culture video, and the photo wall, a special spot in the office that features photos of every single team member.
The perks at Uken are nothing to scoff at. Beyond some of the classics such as ping-pong and foosball, there is also a wellness room and direct access to Toronto’s PATH, meaning no need to commute in a blizzard. Uken also offers a device allowance, an RRSP matching plan, a gym subsidy, and more. One of the most interesting things is the app allowance, which lets employees purchase new mobile games for inspiration. What often happens though is a Ukenite will be working on their own game outside of the company, and when it releases, every other employee will show some love and purchase it.
And, of course, there’s the gaming. The office is peppered with references, from meeting rooms named after video game locations like Azeroth and Midgar to in-house designed art that harkens back to the early days of games like Link’s Awakening and Castlevania. One last thing—don’t miss the matches at lunch, where employees will duke it out at games like Smash Brothers and Street Fighter, and the custom-designed table allows for ample audience engagement.
All of that fundraising, developing, and gaming can leave someone pretty hungry. The Great Hall, as Uken calls it, is a 5,000 square-foot social space that includes a kitchen and common areas to eat. Lunch is catered from Monday to Thursday, with hot breakfasts also offered on Wednesdays and Friday. Custom crepes are a favorite amongst the Uken crew.
A well-stocked snack shelf keeps everyone well-fed past 3PM. Choose from roasted seaweed, veggie straws, Pocky, or even Fun Dip, amongst other options ranging from whimsical to downright healthy. And once the clock crawls past 5, a wide range of craft beers and ciders are on-hand to celebrate milestones and demos.
Coffee is obviously vital to the development of a game, and Uken doesn’t play around. There’s a machine that grinds beans fresh for a cup, or a pod machine for those in a real hurry. A wall of over 30 teas will also appease even the most finicky non-coffee drinker.
The Great Hall is separated from the office space, which makes it the perfect place to host events. This is where the weekly demos take place, but also other events including ones from Women in Tech, the Toronto Unity Meetup, and TechTO.