Call of Duty: Gamers Get Inventive

I t’s early yet, so Soho Billiards isn’t busy, even though it’s a Friday afternoon in Yaletown. Two middle-aged men—a bit old for the place—rack ’em up in one corner. Across the room, a group of developers from a nearby Web-design company gang together some tables. Even so, they have to lean over the scattered pitchers and playing cards to make themselves heard above the shouts and the music.

Sitting a few tables over is the organizer of this weekly gathering of members of Vancouver’s beleaguered video-game industry. When the companies that make video games need staff, it’s Jared Shaw they turn to. And when those same companies lay off staff—as they’ve been doing in recent months—it’s Shaw’s company, 31337 Recruiters, they ask for help in placing the newly unemployed.

Shaw, a boyish 32 in jeans, T, and sneakers, keeps these Friday get-togethers informal because he doesn’t want people feeling like it’s “a big recruit fest.” But with the recent layoffs—no one is releasing stats, but Shaw puts the number of unemployed at about 800, some 20 percent of the industry workforce—any gathering of the clan can’t help but feel a bit like a job fair.

A job is certainly on the mind of Chris Concepcion, a 3-D modeller who’s just arrived from Australia. Concepcion had been working for a large developer/publisher down under, heard that the Vancouver scene was vibrant, arranged a working visa, and hopped on a plane. “I guess,” he says with a wry laugh, “I jumped the gun.”

Video games have quietly become a bigger entertainment business than music or movies. A year ago, for example, Grand Theft Auto IV earned $310 million on its first day of release; The Dark Knight,by comparison, brought in an opening-weekend box-office record of $158 million. Locally, there are about 50 studios dedicated to creating game software for computers, for mobile devices such as the iPhone, and for the five gaming consoles: Sony’s PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3, Nintendo’s DS and Wii, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The industry estimates its contribution to B.C.’s GDP at two percent. The people in this room, and their colleagues elsewhere in North America, are responsible for generating $2 billion a year in Canada and $21 billion in the U.S.

Until late last year, they were run off their feet. But publishers, hit hard by the recession and rising development costs, have been reducing expenses. Last summer, Radical Entertainment—best known for its Simpsons, Hulk, and Scarface games—laid off half its staff, about 100 people, in a restructuring that resulted from the merger of parent Vivendi Games with Activision. In January, Disney Interactive’s Propaganda Studio (Turok) let an estimated three dozen people go and Nexon North America closed its 90-staff Humanature Studio, which was working on small online games under the free-to-play model. All this came on the heels of news that Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest video-game companies, was abandoning a plan to open a facility in Yaletown and was closing the downtown location of its Black Box studio. EA, which develops the NHL, FIFA, NBA, and now Need for Speed titles at its Burnaby Campus, said that by April it would reduce its worldwide workforce by 10 percent.

At an earlier industry night, this one at a downtown restaurant, the faithful gathered to support the launch of the Vancouver chapter of Women in Games International. The place was standing-room-only. A Rock Band competition—girls versus guys—helped keep proceedings light. (And loud.) Screens filled with avatars drumming, strumming, and singing along with the tunes were a reminder of how visually sophisticated today’s games are.

Despite the importance of animation and visual effects to games of all genres, though, the artists who create other worlds, photorealistic representations of this world, and virtual actors seem to be the first affected when times are tough. Artists make up nearly half of a development team; there are simply more of them at risk when the cuts come down.

An artist bouncing along to the music confirmed that his ilk are the first on the chopping block every time cutbacks roll around. “It’s always the way,” he said with a sigh. The jobs of software engineers, who do all the programming for the games and bend technology to their will, are less tenuous. A university degree in computer science buys some stability in the industry because there are not enough programmers to go around. An engineer at Soho confesses that he’s already been collecting offers, despite having been out of work for only a few days. Experienced game designers, who are responsible for establishing the high-level rules and risk/reward patterns for games, are also in demand. Even so, game designer Emmet Blake is looking for work. “Six, eight months ago I was getting calls from recruiters asking me to move,” he tells me. “Where are they now?”

An Irish expat, Blake has friends in the business who are looking to Montreal, the States, and beyond for work and says that, for some of them, panic is starting to set in. He himself isn’t going anywhere, he says, and gamers generally share his optimism.

Jared Shaw, ever the promoter, says that most everybody has a positive outlook. There are projects in preproduction that will soon move into full-scale development. “In the next couple of months, they’ll need to staff up.” Sure, games can be planned with teams of as few as 20 people, but a triple-A video-game title for a major console requires a team of up to 100. And when three or four games move into production, a good number of those 800 unemployed could be rehired. “That’s the stupid thing,” says a producer. “They’re going to fire all these people. Then they’re going to go, ‘Oh, shit, we need to hire all these people.’ ”