The future of Vancouver’s video game studios

Several Vancouver video game studios have shut their doors, but a new breed is thriving

When Kimberly Voll took on producing Vancouver’s Global Game Jam five years ago, only 25 people showed up. The last jam saw more than 350 packed into the atrium of UBC’s Life Sciences Centre. The annual event brings participants together to make video games in a 48-hour blur. Most of the group never leave, catching naps in sleeping bags, munching on pizza, gathering in clumps to sort out problems in real time. It’s a rush.

There are that many people who are talented enough and eager enough to participate in these kinds of events,” Voll says from her office at the Centre for Digital Media, part of the new media cluster emerging on the Emily Carr University campus recently rebranded The Flats.

The population of tech-savvy creatives in the city has never been higher. Some have experience making games for the larger console publishers (Activision, Disney, Rockstar) that have been lured away by higher tax incentives in Ontario and Quebec. Others are graduates from the big schools (UBC, SFU, and BCIT) or from boutique programs, like the game design diploma from Vancouver Film School and the master’s of digital media offered by Voll and colleagues. In all cases, their job prospects are looking promising — especially with newcomers such as Japanese giants DeNA and Gree, which focus on making free-to-play games for mobile devices, having stepped in.Western operations for both companies are headquartered in San Francisco, but our California-sharing time zone and mature talent pool proved attractive when they considered Vancouver. DeNA, now in Yaletown, opened its studio in 2012; it has 90 staff. Gree, with 20, moved into the Architecture Centre Building the same year. Both studios will grow this year. (A third, Namco Bandai, opened in partnership with the Centre for Digital Media in October but has no titles announced yet.) Steve Lin, GM for Gree Canada, says finding good hires in Vancouver hasn’t been difficult. The quality of the work from local artists, in particular, is very good compared to what is coming out of other locations, thanks to experience creating for TV series and feature films. “It’s part of how they have survived in Vancouver and what they’ve been exposed to.”Kaiser Ng, senior director of operations at DeNa’s local studio, has an “aggressive” plan for his atelier this year.

We’re making so many games that we can’t make everything in-house,” he says. Traditionally in this industry, that might mean keeping work in the Bay Area or farming it out to Southeast Asia, but this work, he says, will be going to city studios and freelancers.

Lin also makes a point of subcontracting locally. “There’s not a lot of triple-A game development going on here,” he says, referring to blockbuster games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, “but a lot of things are still happening.”