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Love of arcade games sparks venture

biz leader profile: burnaby's very own multi-platform video game developer

It all started in the arcade.

From a three-man operation working out of a basement suite, Burnaby's Hellbent Games Inc. is now a 20-person video game company and authorized developer for the Xbox360, Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS.

Founded in Burnaby in 2006 by industry vets, the group is headed by Christopher Mair, who is also the CEO and creative director of Hellbent. The award-winning company has released five titles since its inception, aimed at children, with all the games - including two Lego games - being rated Everyone or Everyone 10 plus.

"I went into gaming when I was really little," Mair told the Burnaby NOW. "I started playing games when I was six or seven. When games first appeared in arcades, I was about six."

His love of arcade games, such as Space Invaders and Joust, would spark a long-time career in developing video games.

Mair said he broke into the industry in 1995 by putting a first-person shooter game he made in his spare time, on his resume.

"I actually pursued music and writing in school," he said. "But I was making games in my spare time."

When Mair was 10-years-old he won a contest and a comic he drew was published in the Edmonton Journal - and in his write up he said he wanted to grow up and make video games.

"I knew pretty young that was something I was into," he added.

Mair got his first job at Radical Entertainment in Vancouver, which has released major titles such as Prototype, a Hulk game and a few Simpsons games, among others. He then moved on to start the company Barking Dog, which later became Rockstar Vancouver.

"When I first started . I was literally living in the studio. I was there all the time," Mair said. "At Barking Dog and Rockstar we did a lot of overtime hours."

Video game companies are known to pull tons of extra hours, especially as a deadline looms. But at Hellbent, Mair wanted to do it differently.

"We've got some older and younger mixed people here and part of it was balancing health and family lifestyle because I have kids and quite a few people here have kids," he said. "We do some overtime here and there on really important milestones, but not very often.

"We try to keep it very much normal and have time where people are out in the world where they can actually be with their family and meet people."

Hellbent's first project took 16 months to complete, the second one finished in 15 months and the third project took 10 months.

He said his company manages the projects in such a way that they avoid doing too much overtime.

"My wife would tolerate (late nights) when we had no kids," Mair added. "But

now things have changed so much and our lives have changed so much, there's no reason to manage it that way."

Mair said he and his crew also take advantage of Burnaby's trails by going on group runs, and also do a pilates class together every week - during work hours.

Hellbent has made mobile games for Microsoft and throughout Mair's career, he's also worked with Warner Bros., Valve and NASA. He's worked on games such as

Team Fortress Classic and Counter Strike (he made the train map).

For NASA, Mair once worked on a Kinect project for a Mars Rover game and had weekly calls with the space organization.

"One thing about being a designer is when you start a project you start researching like crazy," he said. "I learned how the rover flies through space."

At Hellbent, many things are done in house such as recording music and character voices.

"We're like Swiss Army knives around here," he said. "No one does one job. Everyone does a lot of things. When you're this small, you jump in and do what you need to do."

For those who are looking to break into the industry, Mair advises being social and making connections.

"The biggest thing is to find a way to meet somebody and talk to somebody face to face," he said. "Don't just send out resumes.

"I see hundreds of resumes a week." He said to attend an industry event such as Fan Expo or Video Games Live.

"You're only going to get noticed if you get out there and meet someone," he said. "It's much easier to trust hiring somebody if I've actually talked to them."

Mair said he hires locally, as well. Hellbent will announce what top-secret project they're currently working on a few weeks before E3 in June, according to Mair. E3 is an international trade show for computer and video games, which will be hosted in Los Angeles.

As for Mair's favourite games of all time, he said Joust for arcade games, which he owns, and the original Half Life because it was the first of its kind and revolutionized the way games were made.

Mair and his staff can often be found at the local Costco near Production SkyTrain Station, signing autographs and getting the kids to play their games.

"I think I'm personally responsible for about 500 of them selling," he added.