It’s a common problem for companies in large industries: Even if they’re across the street from one another, competing corporate cultures often mean that employees from one shop have little to no contact with the other. This issue is especially problematic for Vancouver’s game industry, which boasts 140 videogame companies and thousands of developers but suffers from a general lack of communal identity. Combine this with the high turnover rates found across the videogame industry, and you end up with an environment where networking is extremely difficult.

Jason Lee Elliott and Su Skerl had this problem in mind when they founded the Artery in 2005. Their goal was to create a reason for people to gather regularly in a casual setting, to mix business cultures, to make long-lasting friendships and to be inspired. Like the chummy sub-cultures that exist within different companies, the Artery is a tight-knit group, but it has the benefit of being open to developers from all over Vancouver.

The founders may have the perfect backgrounds to facilitate creative exchanges across different corporate cultures. Elliott, formerly a lead artist for Konami, instructs at the local Art Institute, teaching art and design. Skerl, on the other hand, worked at a number of Vancouver studios, including EA Canada, Barking Dog (developers of Homeworld: Cataclysm) and Hothead Games (who created Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness) before she began teaching Project Management at the Art Institute, and has leveraged these connections to make the Artery what it is today. ( For example, Hothead Games Creative Director Ron Gilbert, creator of games like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, has acted both as a consultant to the Artery and provided web server support to provide a stable place for the group’s online community.)

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On paper, the Artery is a community mainly for artists and graphic designers. But between the backgrounds of its founders and Vancouver’s videogame industry employing no small amount of the city’s creative force, it’s hard to avoid the influence of videogames and the professionals who create them.

Perhaps the best representation of the Artery is its weekly draw jams, held every Thursday evening at Vancouver bar St. Augustine’s, in which several artists come together to collaborate on a single work or theme. These sessions may have participants pass around a sheet of paper, with each artist contributing details to the final product. Other sessions introduce an overarching theme, such as “clichéd evil super-villains,” and allow everyone to create their own megalomaniacal arch villain to share with the group at the end of the evening.

At any given Artery draw jam, there’s a healthy representation of the game industry, including programmers, designers and producers. In fact, draw jams are fast becoming a fixture in the creative side of the videogame industry as a whole. Elliot noted that game development companies in San Francisco and San Diego are now hosting their own internal draw jams.

The Artery isn’t just for artists looking to enhance their portfolios, though. The community also nurtures an ongoing collaborative game development project titled Hang ’em High. Conceived as a four-player cooperative game set in the Old West, Hang ’em High places players in the roles of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – only in this story, they’re trying to prevent the end of the world rather than hasten it. A team made up entirely of members of the Artery community continues to work on the game both in-person during draw jams and over the Artery’s website, while Elliott oversees the project as its acting Producer and Lead Designer. The game could be the first of many Artery projects, as Elliott still has plenty of dream games to bring to fruition.

For those who might not have time to attend a draw jam or contribute to a project as ambitious as Hang ’em High, the Artery’s website is an important hub of interaction between local developers. It features an online forum for industry chatter, work feedback, contests, idea exchange, networking, socializing and portfolio consultation. The site provides a stable medium of communication for those in the industry, making the Artery unique among other draw jam communities.

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With the recent onset of a global recession, the Artery’s brand of local social networking has become even more essential to both its members and the community at large. According to the June 2009 issue of BC Business magazine, over 800 people in the game development industry have lost their jobs in British Columbia since January of this year. Under these conditions, the Artery isn’t just a place for developers to blow off steam and get their creative juices flowing – it serves as an active forum for local game companies to find prospective employees. The group’s status as a focal point within Vancouver’s game development community has attracted local recruiting companies to draw jams as well – 31337 Recruiters’ president, Jared Shaw, is a regular at these sessions. Given the gloomy economic outlook, groups like the Artery have become even more vital to the well being of the individuals and companies that they serve.

That extra competition hasn’t put a damper on the Artery’s supportive atmosphere, though. The group’s organizers are emphatic that the best way for people to succeed in the game industry is through collaboration, not self-promotion. Says Elliot, “The only way we’ll improve is if we share.”

Murray Chu is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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