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Japan's fastest-growing game publisher isn't who you'd think


Sony's PlayStation Vita may still be brand new, and Nintendo's Wii U has yet to even hit store shelves, but Japanese developer/publisher/social platform GREE doesn't need a new console. Or any console, for that matter. Its platform is virtual, and its growth strategy is extremely aggressive. "We're hiring more than 30 people a month," GREE's US CEO (and international CFO) Naoki Aoyagi told us in an E3 2012 interview.

Those "more than 30 people a month" are filling not only GREE's 1,000-person-plus Japanese offices, but also its "almost 400 people" San Francisco-based office. "And we already also have some people in China (around 50 people). And 50 people in South Korea," Aoyagi said. That kind of growth is rare, especially during an international economic downturn. And it comes at a time when both Nintendo and Sony are seeing year-over-year revenue declines – even while new hardware from both manufacturers heads to market.

"Nintendo, they ship 200 or 300 million [units] for each platform. But I think it's gonna be more than double or triple in terms of the market size," Aoyagi told us. He spoke to the difference between GREE's focus on "smartphones, tablets, probably in the future Android TV or Apple TV" versus that of Nintendo and Sony. "On smartphones we can have access to South America, or East Asia, or the African market, or the Russian market. So it's gonna be much bigger than the consoles."

Aoyagi argued that, beyond the social platform approach, GREE is a much younger company than Sony (founded in 1946) or Nintendo (founded in 1889), having started in 2004. In this sense, he believes GREE doesn't suffer from an entrenched, traditional-style corporate culture. "I think that makes a big difference in corporate culture ... And we are hiring aggressively, especially in the US. So I think that makes a big difference compared to Sony or Nintendo." By personal comparison, Aoyagi answered all our questions in fluent English – a marked change from the vast majority of Japanese developers/publishers we interview.

Despite rapid expansion being a potential pitfall for such a young company, Aoyagi said that the company's turnover rate is "single-digit (five or six percent)" across the past "several years," and that he personally interviewed the first 200 or so employees at GREE's SF satellite. "I'm sure we face a challenge because of rapid growth. But I think we've been managing those kind of growing pains very well in the past two years. The last two years we've hired 1,000 people."

In an industry with cyclical, annualized layoffs that's constantly asking itself "what's next," hiring 1,000 people and using technology most of us already have can seem like revolutionary ideas. But – for now, at least – it seems to be working for GREE.

GREE's first North American-developed game, Zombie Jombie, launched earlier this year on iOS.

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