Getting into the game

To some eyes, news from the video game industry might not immediately apply to TV and film folk. But with the Canadian province of Ontario poised to become the next major gaming center in the world, opportunities for the country's entertainment industry are only just starting to crop up.
November 25, 2009

To some eyes, news from the video game industry might not immediately apply to TV and film folk. But with the Canadian province of Ontario poised to become the next major gaming center in the world, opportunities for the country’s entertainment industry are only just starting to crop up.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Entertainment & Media Outlook for 2009-2013 states that the Canuck vidgame market grew 24% in 2008 and forecasts that it’ll be one of the fastest-growing media segments through 2013. It’s an even harder industry to ignore when considering the increasing amount of investment dollars that Ontario has started pouring into this sector.

This past summer the provincial government announced it would invest a whopping US$248 million over the next decade to help France-based gaming giant Ubisoft set up a full-on production facility in Toronto. (Ubisoft, for its part, is kicking in US$472 million.) The move is expected to create 800 jobs in the province over the next 10 years. Notably, it’s the first time a major game company will be setting up shop in Ontario and it’s slated to open its doors by the end of the year.

Moreover, at not-for-profit org Interactive Ontario’s third-annual GameON: Finance conference held the end of October in Toronto, Minister of Economic Development and Trade Sandra Pupatello announced that the province is investing an additional US$572,000 in Interactive Ontario. The funds will support a trio of programs designed to help vidgame entrepreneurs by providing marketing and promo assistance, and connecting developers with Canuck and international investors.

Pupatello stated the government is looking to ‘make Ontario a world leader in game development,’ signalling a call for the rest of the entertainment industry to follow.

Worlds collide – -in a good way

‘Convergence [between film, TV and gaming] is the current and next catalyst for growth,’ says Ubisoft Montreal and Toronto CEO Yannis Mallat, an area he and his team have been following closely for a number of years.

As such, Ubisoft established in-house animation studio Ubisoft Digital Arts in 2007 and followed that up with the 2008 acquisition of Montreal-based studio Hybride Technologies. The division is already known for its effects work on major Hollywood blockbusters such as Sin City, 300, the Spy Kids series and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D.

At press time, Ubisoft and Hybride had just released the first of three live-action/CGI short movie episodes of Assassin’s Creed: Lineage on YouTube. Filmed in Montreal, the eps are based on the company’s bestselling Assassin’s Creed franchise, and Mallat says the movie treatment of the established property made perfect sense – as the fastest-selling IP for the company in 2007, it not only appeals to a devout fanboy following, but also to broader audiences with its rich storyline and graphics fit for the big screen.

In October, Ubisoft was scouting locations for its Toronto shop, which will join studios in Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver, altogether employing more than 2,300 creative minds across Canada. Mallat will oversee the Toronto operations, with help from recently appointed MD Jade Raymond, who gained industry cred as a producer on the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

The location’s proximity to the Montreal studio will also help facilitate the exchange of technology, tools and people. Additionally, the Greater Toronto Area boasts a high concentration of graduates from post-secondary studies in fields specific and related to game creation, from computer science and animation to design and engineering, with as yet no major vidgame employer in the region to recruit them.

As a result, much of Ontario’s talent has migrated to areas with flourishing game economies (i.e. Silicon Valley, Montreal and Vancouver), so these new incentives are also part of a greater effort to lure ex-pats back to the province.

Kala Ramachandran, sales and marketing director for Alien Concepts, a 2-D and 3-D digital art and design studio in Toronto, agrees that gaming investment will help animate (sorry) the industry as a whole. ‘I think anchoring the industry in Toronto will bring a lot of those people back,’ predicts Ramachandran. ‘It needs help from the ground up. I see the schools picking up in terms of enrollment. There’ll be more opportunities within the city, so hopefully more students coming out of high school – particularly girls – will consider this a career option.’

Gaming equals jobs

According to the Ontario Media Development Corporation (the provincial agency that supports creative industries through media tax credits and various funds), Ontario’s creative and entertainment sector is the third-largest in North America by employment, behind California and New York, with more than 276,000 jobs.

‘We often joke that if Canada was number three at anything in the world, it would be much more heralded,’ quips Colin Macrea, director of communications at interactive heavyweight Electronic Arts. ‘Video games are an entertainment and technology medium that a certain segment of the population still hasn’t embraced. There are a lot of synergies between film, animation, TV, video games – they’re all entertainment media. And at EA, we’re an entertainment company.’

With studios in Vancouver and Montreal, EA also seems to be keeping its eye trained on the market potential of Ontario – this past summer, it acquired Kitchener, Ontario-based social gaming company J2Play. Macrea adds that the government’s increased investment certainly holds some appeal, though he remains tight-lipped on whether there are any formal plans in place to make a bigger push into the province.

The OMDC’s Interactive Digital Media Fund has been in place for the last four years and provides financial assistance for companies with product ready to go to market. Like Ubisoft, it’s also keeping its eye on the ever-closing gap between TV, film and video games.

‘Convergent content is really taking off in Ontario,’ says Kristine Murphy, OMDC’s director of industry development group. ‘In film and TV – TV in particular – producers are really latching onto and taking advantage of the opportunities of interactive media in this province.’

Murphy points to Toronto-based kids prodco marblemedia as an example of one such company that has moved beyond multi-platform experimentation into serious investment and development. For shows such as Taste Buds, marblemedia has developed a full slate of components, such as interactive cooking demos, games, and other digital manifestations.

The fact that the government is willing to put its weight behind the industry is having a positive effect. Ubisoft is constantly receiving pitches from cities around the world hoping to attract key video game players to develop that segment of the economy. Major publishers generally don’t want to concentrate their activities in one country, but the Ontario government’s participation made the difference.

Ontario’s aggressive play helped create an environment ‘that would make sense for a publisher to establish themselves there,’ surmises Ubisoft spokesperson Cédric Orvoine.

But the opportunities aren’t just there for the Ubisofts and EAs of the world; the government is also helping the notable local little guys. ‘The success those companies have been having…being recognized on a world stage, that has made Ontario a really attractive jurisdiction now for that industry,’ says OMDC’s Murphy.

Murphy lists Toronto-based indie game developer Capybara Games as one bright light as it’s been gaining worldwide accolades for its Critter Crunch title. The downloadable puzzle game has also been winning critical industry acclaim, and just last month was released on Sony’s PlayStation Network (for the PlayStation 3) to rave reviews for its melding of gorgeous art with fun and quirky gameplay.

Capybara president Nathan Vella is pleased with the amount of attention that video games are getting in the province, and is among the number of smaller companies grateful for the government support.

‘There are a lot of indies in the States that get little to no support, and here it definitely makes you a little more willing to take a bigger risk,’ says Vella. ‘The amount of creative and game interest is massive, but the number of opportunities to work in video games is small, especially in Toronto.’

Interestingly, he’s not too threatened at the prospect of a biggie like Ubisoft entering the market. ‘One studio will make a dent in the talent pool, but it’s not going to get rid of it all, that’s for sure,’ he adds. ‘I think that’s a good thing and hopefully people will start thinking of Toronto as a place where good games are made.’

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