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Leveling Up: Why Odyssey Interactive Chose Waterloo

Odyssey Interactive is growing Waterloo's reputation in the gaming industry. See how Canadian immigration programs played a role in their growth here.

Whether they’re building for a smartphone platform or the next-generation console system, successful video game studios know that the way to win is having a combination of a great game idea, the right talent and the ecosystem to bring it to market.

Richard Henkel, founder of Waterloo-based video game studio Odyssey Interactive, knows this game well. Founded in 2020, Odyssey Interactive builds free-to-play, cross-platform games using its anime-inspired intellectual property. The studio launched its first title, Omega Strikers, in April 2023 to rave reviews from gamers worldwide, including a featured placement in Nintendo’s eShop.

Waterloo Region may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of video game studios – it wasn’t the first place for Henkel either.

Before founding Odyssey Interactive, Henkel lived in Los Angeles and worked at video game studio Riot Games. It was during the renewal process for his visa that he had the idea of moving back to Canada with his young family.

“You hear so many horror stories about the waits for visas. I had been working on a temporary visa and had won a spot in the H-1B visa lottery – but then it was rescinded when the administration changed. I was at a highly reputable company in the games industry in a great role, but my visa situation was unstable,” he said.

With his visa options limited, Henkel and his wife decided to move back to Canada with their three children. He said while having family here was a factor, the ability to attract talent from around the world was a critical factor.

“The games industry is a global industry. We knew that if we wanted to build a team that could make games for people all over the world, we needed our team to be a reflection of that. The immigration process here, in contrast to the United States, was incredible,” Henkel said.

Waterloo EDC connected Henkel with the team at KPMG to assist with Odyssey Interactive’s immigration needs, including work permits for its two American-born co-founders. Henkel said the process surpassed his expectations.

“I just had to say, ‘We want to hire this person.’ They asked me a few questions about the job description, salary and the person’s contact information. They took care of gathering all the necessary supporting documentation and submitted the application. Two weeks later, the visa would be ready and we’d have the team member we needed,” he said.

Odyssey Interactive launched Omega Strikers in April 2023 to rave reviews from gamers worldwide

Odyssey Interactive launched Omega Strikers in April 2023 to rave reviews from gamers worldwide.

A fast and flexible process

Odyssey Interactive has hired and moved needed talent from Brazil, Korea and China. He said the immigration process was easy and is a crucial part of the company’s success.

“We’ve been able to hire people and bring them to Canada with ease. We’re talking about people who are experts in their field and we couldn’t have brought them in if we were in the States.”

“One of our main markets is Korea, and yes, you can work remotely – but our industry is a creative one and is highly collaborative. It’s so much easier when people are sitting next to each other,” Henkel said.

Another advantage for Odyssey Interactive was the ability for employee spouses to obtain a work permit. Henkel’s wife could not work while they lived in the US, which made life difficult for a family of five on a single income.

“It was, ‘Oh, they have a spouse? No problem, pay this fee and they can get a work permit.’ I spent so long in the States fighting for a visa. My wife could never work. There were so many people in the same camp as me and here it’s two weeks to get a visa approved along with a partner work permit,” Henkel said.

“Compared to the US, bringing people [to Canada] is far less expensive, extremely fast and way more flexible.”

Waterloo was “the right choice”

Beyond immigration, Henkel said cost of living concerns were also a factor in choosing Canada and Waterloo Region at the time.

“The comparative cost of living here relative to the US for what you get for your money was just insane. We had a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot apartment with a rent of $3,000 USD – and this was back in 2019. Here in Waterloo, that got us a four-bedroom detached house,” he said.

Henkel and the other co-founders did look at other parts of Canada after they decided to move here. He said Vancouver’s high cost of living and Montreal’s immigration requirements made it a two-way competition between Waterloo Region and Toronto.

“Waterloo was always a consideration because Riot Games had sent me here to recruit interns from the University of Waterloo because they knew the engineering talent here was really strong. “I had started one of the gaming clubs at the University for the game that I ended up working on at Riot. The cost of living and the passion for gaming here made Waterloo the right choice,” Henkel said.

" The cost of living and the passion for gaming here made Waterloo the right choice. "

Richard Henkel

CEO, Odyssey Interactive

Along with Odyssey and a number of other local studios, Waterloo Region is home to three competitive varsity esports teams at Conestoga College, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Late last year, Conestoga College announced that it will open a new, state-of-the-art esports arena in 2025. As gaming and esports continue to grow in popularity, Henkel said Waterloo Region is well positioned to be a major ecosystem for game design, development and publishing.

“One of the things that I’m hoping to be able to do here is help grow Waterloo Region as a gaming hub – and my best way to help is by building a successful company,” he said.

“We’ve raised $80M at this point, but that doesn’t make us successful. We’re focused on taking all the advantages of being here to build something amazing so we can be around for a long time. That’s how we help Waterloo Region grow.”

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