Vancouver’s got game

It's-a me, East Van hipster!
Are Vancouver's indie studios enough to give the city a One-Up?

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Until a few years ago, Vancouver was undisputedly the main headquarters of video game production in Canada. Blessed with a huge concentration of talented and passionate developers, our own Hollywood North became one of the video game capitals of the world, attracting hundreds of developers and programmers from across the country to work for big names such as Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games, and Activision. Many of these game gurus devoted extra hours to working on pet projects in their basements and bedrooms — these would become some of the first independent games.

However, Vancouver’s video game community has come upon hard times recently. Within a period of several years, Activision, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts all saw major cutbacks and employee layoffs; in 2012, Rockstar Games, creators of the immensely popular Grand Theft Auto series, closed down their Vancouver studio entirely and moved to Toronto.

Thousands of Vancouver developers and programmers suddenly found themselves unemployed, as studios continued to migrate to Toronto and Montreal, where bigger tax breaks are promised for larger publishers. By 2012, many were predicting that it was game over for Vancouver — the mass exodus of developers and companies had hit the community hard, and all that remained were smaller studios working independently from the big boys such as Ubisoft and Warner Bros.

Independent developers are at the forefront of creating new and engaging games which challenge the status quo.

But today, Vancouver is finally beginning to bounce back. Japanese production studios such as Sega and Namco Bandai have begun to open new, smaller studios in Vancouver, citing cheaper, shorter flights from Tokyo and a shared time zone with similar studios in California. Mobile and social media games have found a home among Vancouver’s impressive array of creatives, and several bigger studios have begun to delegate projects to some of Vancouver’s smallest indies, many of whom are making strides on their own through programs like Steam and other online shops.

At the heart of Vancouver’s resurgence is our city’s tight-knit and resilient indie video game community, a group of passionate creatives who’ve kept their heads up and their computers on amidst fears that our city might never win back its former glory. As indies continue to gain wider international audiences and acclaim, Vancouver maintains its position as one of the biggest video game centres in the world — and it’s only getting bigger.

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Independent video games may have only gained a wider following in the past few years, but they’ve been around almost as long as their mainstream counterparts. Early indie developers worked primarily on PCs, and shared their creations through forums and shareware technology. Though new technology for sharing and marketing games on consoles and mobile phones has widened the reach of indie titles, most are still targeted at PC gamers.

Independent games as we know them only really gained a foothold in the latter half of the 2000s, thanks to updated development technology and distribution methods. Some of these games, such as Minecraft and Shovel Knight, have eclipsed most triple-A games in terms of reach and critical acclaim; others remain cult classics, beloved by a small but passionate group of indie game aficionados.

Nowadays, it can be tough to define what an ‘indie game’ actually is — as bigger studios increasingly task smaller groups with designing big ticket games and indie studios balloon in size, the line between the two has begun to blur. Generally, indie video games share an ethos of experimentalism, creativity, and decidedly retro influence; they’re also defined as being in opposition to big budget games like Halo and Final Fantasy.

Whereas indie games are often focused on creativity and engaging players, triple-A games  tend to be more interested in the bottom line, and as a result pool thousands of dollars into development costs and marketing campaigns. Some franchises, like those mentioned above, are wildly successful and prompt seemingly endless sequels; others fail to pay back their exorbitant development costs, causing serious losses for publishers and developers alike.

Like big-budget film studios, game developers like Nintendo and Microsoft usually prefer the safety that comes with producing sequels to already-successful franchises, instead of risking new titles which could lose money. Indie studios, on the other hand, benefit from their willingness to test the waters — for those looking for new and inventive gaming experiences, independent developers are at the forefront of creating new and engaging games which challenge the status quo.

Dr. Kimberly Voll is an instructor at the Centre for Digital Media, one of only two institutions in the country which awards professional degrees in video game development — graduates receive joint diplomas from SFU, UBC, BCIT, and Emily Carr. Apart from teaching, Voll is also an independent game developer in her own right, and one of the organizers of Full Indie, a project which brings together indie developers from Vancouver and elsewhere for monthly meetups.

“I think there are certain spiritual qualities within the independent community, such as being willing to work with one another and being very open,” she says. As a key member of Vancouver’s indie developer community, she’s hopeful that partnerships between smaller indie developers and larger publishing studios will continue to grow. “We’re seeing a lot of big publishing houses sort of tipping their hat, now. Playstation, Microsoft, Nintendo — they’ve all been revamping their independent game development policies.

Recent estimates show that almost 100 indie studios currently call Vancouver home.

“There’s a clear shift in the industry from a few years ago towards supporting independent developers, which is awesome. Part of that is going to mean that some independent developers are going to become more successful.”

This is certainly true for some of Vancouver’s most prominent indie studios. Klei Entertainment’s Mask of the Ninja was one of Metacritic’s top-rated games of 2012; countless other Vancouver indies, such as Towerfall Ascension and Retro City Rampage, have gained similarly positive feedback among indie fans and online gaming magazines. Where our city’s bigger studios have faltered in the past half decade, its smaller ones have steadily expanded, and recent estimates show that almost 100 indie studios currently call Vancouver home.

“I think that we’ve got a lot of things going for us,” Voll says. “Vancouver, specifically, was involved in a lot of the early development of video games as a multi-billion-dollar industry; you know, when you’ve got that history in your blood, it’s a lot easier to kind of attract and get that sort of momentum going. We have one of the largest independent gaming communities in the world. There are literally thousands of us.”

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One of Voll’s Full Indie partners is Alex Vostrov, a prominent and vocal member of Vancouver’s indie community and the brains behind Rocket Bear Games, one of the city’s foremost indie studios. Vostrov’s latest game, Infested Planet, currently boasts a nine out of 10 score from over 350 Steam users.

“It’s interesting how many very successful indies we have here,” he says. “There’s a huge concentration of really awesome people here. Part of the reason I think is just the history of Vancouver as a site of game development.” Vostrov himself worked at Electronic Arts, before leaving to create his own gaming studio — he notes that many of his peers charted similar paths, hopping from studio to studio. “It’s like mountains eroding into sand [. . .] we have this interesting slope, from smaller studios into smaller studios into smaller studios — to the point where there are studios comprised of three people.”

Though many members of the community have chosen to work independently, others haven’t had a choice — jobs in major Vancouver studios have become increasingly scarce, as more studios elect to open their doors in eastern Canada. The reason? Ontario and Quebec offer much bigger tax breaks to bigger studios: 40 per cent and 30 to 37.5 per cent, respectively.

Offering only 17.5 per cent, British Columbia can’t compete, leaving many developers either working independently in Vancouver or migrating to Toronto and Montreal — the former of which has since usurped Vancouver’s unofficial title as video game capital of Canada, itself the third largest video game industry in the world.

Thankfully, the past two years have seen several major developers set up shop in our rainy city. Four of Japan’s biggest studios — Capcom, Sega, Namco Bandai, and Gree — have all opened medium-sized studios in the city within the past two years. Microsoft, on the other hand, has tasked local studio Black Tusk (formerly Microsoft Vancouver) with creating a highly anticipated Gears of War sequel for the Xbox One, lending Vancouver back some of its former prestige.

[Vancouver] has one of the largest independent gaming communities in the world. There are literally thousands of us.

As Vancouver’s video game industry begins to express cautious optimism about its future, its indie community is increasing its scope and forming new connections with local and international talents. Full Indie — run by Voll and Vostrov, along with Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games — hosts monthly meetups of Vancouver’s developers, publishers, programmers, designers, and hangers-on. The meetups regularly attract thousands of RSVPs; the organizers have had to struggle to find accommodations, and September’s meetup saw roughly 250 visitors.

These events usually consist of brief talks from the who’s-who of the community, followed by an allotted time slot for networking and exchange of ideas.

Apart from these monthly meetups, Full Indie hosted a summit in April 2013, which attracted almost 400 people from across North America, to discuss ongoing and future projects and ideas. They also run informal ‘game jams,’ in which developers both amateur and professional are challenged to create and prototype games in just 48 hours.

“Before [Full Indie], very few people knew how many indie developers there were in Vancouver,” says Vostrov, who began the project back in 2011. “I mean, personally, I thought at the first meetup we’d get, you know, 10 people. Because how many people can there be in Vancouver who make indie games? So then 20, 30 people show up, and that was a shock. And it just kept growing after that.”

“It’s a very active community, it’s a very welcoming community, which is fantastic,” agrees Voll. “In today’s day and age, where you’re seeing the shift away from more triple-A production houses, you see the flexibility and the agility of the independent developer with fewer costs [. . .] As well as this community, this willingness to help one another and support one another — it’s just gaining far more traction.”

Though Vancouver’s video game industry still has a long way to go to repair the damage of the past five years, the city’s strong sense of community and creative flair seem to reaffirm that we’ve got an extra life or two in us. The eyes of the gaming world are increasingly focused on Vancouver’s impressive output of creative and boundary-pushing games — it’s only a matter of time before we regain our rightful place among the foremost gaming cities in the world.