Canada has been a major player in videogames since the industry’s infancy. In the early to mid-’80s, Canadian developers created games in their free time while they went to college to pursue more “acceptable” careers. That tradition of quiet innovation has made Canada one of the top three countries in the world in terms of game development.
Canada is now home to nearly 250 game studios, employing upwards of 15,000 people. The slate of developers includes ties to some of the biggest publishers in the industry, like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. But quantity is only one piece of the puzzle, and Canadian developers have proved they can deliver on quality as well. Studios like Edmonton’s BioWare and Ubisoft Montreal are responsible for some of gaming’s most universally acclaimed titles, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and many others.
Despite these huge successes, however, some in the Canadian game industry feel their country doesn’t get the credit it deserves from the gaming media. Among them is Trent Ward, Creative Director at EA Montreal and former Creative Director at Ubisoft.
“I think there are a lot of things being done up here that the general user has no idea about,” Ward says. “Even the big publishers like EA Vancouver and Ubi Montreal have managed to make their successes seem like they come from somewhere else. On the smaller side, there are a zillion independent developers who are doing crazy things that you never hear about. Even when you do, it’s always assumed that it was done in the States.”
On the flip side of the coin are people like A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games partner Joe Bonar. “I think certain developers are likely to get overlooked wherever they are situated,” he says. “Saying that you’re being overlooked because you’re Canadian strikes me as a very Canadian thing to say.”
One thing Canadian developers do seem to agree upon is the fact that it’s nearly impossible to define the country’s games industry as a whole due to the cultural differences between places like Vancouver and Montreal. Nonetheless, Ward sees some key distinctions between Canadian and U.S. development styles.
“Overall, I think that there are great similarities in what the goals are in Canadian and U.S. development. Our cultures are close in many ways, and we grew up playing the same games,” he says. “That said, the ways in which those goals are achieved are often quite different. Canada places a really high emphasis on team development and a lot of different publishers work really hard to try and keep the same groups of people together for long periods of time. This is something I’m really fond of, as it has a tendency to wipe out a lot of the ‘rock star’ crap you run into elsewhere. More importantly, you know the strengths and the weaknesses of the guy who’s sitting beside you.”
This emphasis on slowly growing, unified development teams is one of the reasons why cities like Vancouver and Montreal have become global hubs for game development. But that’s only half the story; for the other half, look at the country’s generous tax incentives for game companies. Depending on the province, many developers are eligible for tax credits of up to 40 percent of labor expenditures, which can dramatically lower a company’s bottom line.
Vancouver and Montreal aren’t the only areas of the country that have benefited from these incentives. Game developers are popping up in provinces not traditionally known as business or technology centers. One of these companies is Other Ocean Interactive, a developer with studios in both Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The company’s studio manager, Deirdre Ayre, says the lack of other established game developers in the area meant they had to cast a wider net during their hiring efforts.
“Speaking from an Atlantic Canadian perspective, the industry is new to the region,” she says. “It’s in its infancy, really, but we have deep experience and talent having recruited all over the world.”
Even though the company has been remarkably successful so far, Ayre says Other Ocean is still struggling to recruit people, despite the low cost of living and tax benefits available to potential employees. “There is tremendous talent throughout our country, but we need more of it,” she says. “The raw talent is here in Atlantic Canada with a strong engineering and creative culture.” However, Ayre acknowledges that these people need mentoring from those with direct videogame experience to really excel.
Recruiting problems in non-hub areas may get easier with the recent closures of studios in places like Vancouver. Bonar estimates that about 850 people in the games industry have recently lost their jobs in the Vancouver area alone, which is about 25 percent of the city’s gaming industry population.
“That’s ugly,” he says. “And companies who are hiring during these tough times just can’t soak up that many people. I do anticipate things picking up again before the end of the year, but between now and then, people are going to leave town to find work elsewhere.”
Troubled economic times have also resulted in another business challenge for Canadian developers – the fluctuating value of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar. “When the [Canadian] dollar is low, it can make developers in Canada tremendously competitive,” explains Ayre. “However, when it starts to rise it can have the reverse effect – particularly if the project is already in development at a price previously thought to be profitable.”
Another challenge facing the gaming industry in Canada is a lack of private funding. While provincial governments have done a good job at creating an attractive environment for upstart and expanding developers, there’s still not a significant amount of venture capital to help these ecosystems continue to grow.
But the horizon isn’t just filled with challenges. Studio closures aren’t unique to Canada, and Ward, who is originally from the U.S., says Canada has a lot to offer those willing to relocate. “As an outsider who’s come in, I think that it’s pretty easy to get used to free health care, amazing park systems, open and polite people everywhere you go and beautiful summers,” he says.
Overall, there’s a strong sense of optimism that Canada will continue to be a development powerhouse, producing top-quality and top-selling games. The coming years look very promising for companies like BioWare and Ubisoft, who are putting out sequels to their most successful franchises. They’re proof positive that there’s enough strength and talent in the Great White North to keep innovating and producing great games for years to come. Let’s just hope the country starts to get more credit for the amazing products it creates.
Nicole Tanner has been working in the games industry for more than seven years. She’s done PR for independent developers and is currently a regular contributor to Green Pixels and Examiner.com.