Mobile game startup boss set own bar

Social networking concept, acquisition of Japanese skills all part of ownership challenge


David “DC” Collier, 44, from Britain, could not speak a word of Japanese when he first came here seven years ago.

Not only has Collier, president of mobile phone game company Pikkle, become conversant in Japanese, but he conducted e-mail correspondence with The Japan Times in Japanese and reads game-related blogs in Japanese. He credits his ability to owning a company.

“You can live in Tokyo without speaking Japanese, but it is very difficult if you set up a venture company,” he said. “Very few employees can speak English in my company.”

Collier is now into learning the “emoji” (picture language) that Japanese youngsters use in mobile text messages. One of his favorites is an airplane mark followed by the hiragana “ku,” meaning “hayaku” (quickly.) “These emoji are fascinating. I’d like to learn a lot more of these.”

Perhaps it is the industry he’s in. His career dream of creating games for mobile phones naturally placed him in Japan, which sits at the cutting edge of games and other applications for cell phones.

He wasn’t interested in creating games like “Final Fantasy” with cutting-edge visual quality for Sony’s PlayStation 3 or Microsoft’s Xbox 360. His company makes what he calls social network mobile phone games, including one in which friends care for and breed fish.

The key to success in social network games is having an original idea, whereas traditional video games like “Final Fantasy” and “Call of Duty” depend more on technology to enhance graphic quality, Collier said in explaining why he prefers the route he has taken.

“I founded Pikkle to create the next wave of social entertainment — social networks with a game flavor,” he said.

CyberAgent Inc. and Mixi Inc., the operator of Japan’s top social networking site, Mixi, invested in his company.

Born in London, Collier has always been interested in games. “London is a historic city, but I thought Tokyo is a future city. I wanted to come to Tokyo because it is the world’s center of games and science fiction,” he said.

Shortly before the Internet bubble burst in late 1990s, Collier moved from Europe to San Francisco to form a company to create Web games. He met his future Japanese wife at a company-launch party in San Francisco.

Around the time when the Internet bubble burst, he sold his company to software firm PacketVideo Corp. and began working for the acquiring company in 2001 and was transferred to PacketVideo’s Japan unit in 2002.

“Mobile phone technology was still taking forever to happen in the U.S. Meanwhile in Japan, PV’s main client, DoCoMo, was doing all kinds of cool things. I decided to move to be in the heart of things,” Collier said. After changing jobs from PacketVideo to Namco, he established Pikkle in 2005.

“I love making games because I can realize my idea quickly. It’s really fun,” he said. “Architects, for example, have to wait for a few years to see tangible results of their ideas.”

Having set up venture companies in London, San Francisco and Tokyo, he considers Japanese to be the most conservative about startups. He said he has a hard time finding good people for his company here.

“Japanese don’t want to quit after entering large companies. In San Francisco, those working for large companies are considered lacking the ability to work for venture companies,” he said.

“It’s not only during the Internet bubble era. San Francisco is a magnet for people with entrepreneurial spirit.” London’s venture community is also bigger than Tokyo’s, he added.

“When I showed a Namco business card, everybody in Japan would say ‘Namco sugoi! (Namco is a great company!)’ With Pikkle’s business card, everybody says ‘What is Pikkle?’ “

Large companies like Namco hire many foreigners and he had many to hang out with, he said. Now he is in a completely different situation, where most of the business language in and outside Pikkle is Japanese.

And he enjoys it. His passion for learning Japanese made him launch the grammar learning Web site www.jgram.org/ as a hobby.

However, his Japanese wife, whom he met in San Francisco, is not much help, as she still speaks English to him. “She says she cannot change the language she has been using to speak to me,” he said.

On a typical day, Collier is at work by 11 a.m. after conference calls to the U.S. West Coast. At night, he either goes out for socializing after 7 or 8 p.m. or works until late, he said, adding that his wife typically gets home from work between 9 and 10 p.m.

“Running a startup in a foreign country is a challenge, but seems to be paying off so far,” he said.