Got game

A LOOK AT OT­TAWA’S GROW­ING MO­BILE GAM­ING SEC­TOR

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Contents - BY JOSEPH CZIKK

Ot­tawa might not be a gam­ing in­dus­try mecca like Mon­treal and Toronto yet, but the next five years could see un­prece­dented growth in the cat­e­gory, lo­cal in­sid­ers say.

Sev­eral fac­tors – in­clud­ing a new gam­ing de­vel­op­ment fund, a ma­jor an­nual con­fer­ence hosted by some of the cap­i­tal’s lead­ing com­pa­nies and univer­sity and col­lege pro­grams pro­duc­ing tal­ented young minds – are com­bin­ing to foster a nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment for new firms in the cap­i­tal.

Still, Ot­tawa-based gam­ing stu­dios are quick to point out it might take a while be­fore the re­gion is viewed as a ma­jor player in the field.

“We feel (the fu­ture) is pretty bright, but I think the chal­lenge is the rest of the com­mu­nity is still a lit­tle bit im­ma­ture, so it may take some more time to foster and ger­mi­nate some other com­pa­nies that are de­liv­er­ing world -class mo­bile en­ter­tain­ment,” said An­drew Fisher of Gl­itch­soft, a 10-per­son out­fit that de­signs touch-based games for mo­bile de­vices.

Like any startup com­mu­nity, keys to growth and suc­cess in­clude the num­ber of com­pa­nies be­ing founded, the ease in which those firms can en­ter the mar­ket, the tal­ent pool avail­able in the area and the fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Ot­tawa may never be­come a heavy­weight in con­sole gam­ing like Mon­treal, which boasts com­pa­nies such as Elec­tronic Arts and Ubisoft, but it can still find its niche as a leader in mo­bile gam­ing.

Ex­per­tise in that field is ex­actly why Ot­tawa has al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant growth in the gam­ing sec­tor in the past few years, ex­pand­ing from just four com­pa­nies to about 30, said Scott Simpson, the CEO of bitHeads and its gam­ing af­fil­i­ate, Play­brains.

He added more new com­pa­nies are on their way.

“There’s a big shift away from big­ger con­sole games to more mo­bile and so­cial stuff, (and) you can see that in Ot­tawa in the last few years,” said Mr. Simpson. “Right now, you could lit­er­ally have one guy work­ing in their base­ment and you could put a game out to­mor­row and start gen­er­at­ing rev­enue from that, the­o­ret­i­cally.”

Ten years ago, just four com­pa­nies were cre­at­ing video games in Ot­tawa. Artech was founded in 1982, bitHeads started in 1994, Fuel In­dus­tries was launched in 1999 and Mag­mic set up shop in 2000. Along the way, Artech shut­tered op­er­a­tions (in 2011) and other smaller com­pa­nies such as Gl­itch­soft and Snowed In Stu­dios opened their doors.

Small in­de­pen­dent stu­dios typ­i­cally seek con­tract work from larger con­sole game com­pa­nies, or they de­velop their own ti­tles on the mo­bile mar­ket for smart­phone and tablet users, who rep­re­sent a mas­sive, grow­ing cus­tomer base. Mr. Simpson said many of th­ese smaller, niche-fo­cused stu­dios have en­tered the busi­ness over the past few years, and they’re “very suc­cess­ful.”

Gl­itch­soft is a strong ex­am­ple of this trend. The com­pany be­gan op­er­a­tions in 2009 with a few in­dus­try vet­er­ans look­ing to make an im­pact in the “mo­bile touch” space, which caters to iPad game users who want more than a

“Per­son­ally, a big part of my mo­ti­va­tion as an en­tre­pre­neur is to help or to be known to have helped to cre­ate a creative in­dus­try in Ot­tawa.” – John Criswick, CEO, Mag­mic

sim­ple iPad app, but a lighter ex­pe­ri­ence than sit­ting in front of the TV, play­ing Xbox.

The com­pany achieved ma­jor suc­cess this year when its He­Man iOS game rated among the top paid apps on iPhones and iPads in the U.S. The stu­dio plans on re­leas­ing the game on sev­eral An­droid phones, and its iOS suc­cess landed new, high-pro­file con­tracts.

But even a game like He­Man can be ex­pen­sive to pro­duce. Gl­itch­soft man­aged to land ven­ture fund­ing to the tune of just less than $1 mil­lion, but many small stu­dios try­ing to make a dent in the mo­bile app space find it dif­fi­cult to at­tract in­vestors with the cur­rent slug­gish econ­omy.

“We have a good mix of com­pa­nies in Ot­tawa and a lot of dif­fer­ent busi­ness mod­els.” – Evan Hahn, co-founder,

Snowed In Stu­dios

En­ter John Criswick, the CEO of Mag­mic and Ot­tawa’s gam­ing “god­fa­ther.” Mr. Criswick made head­lines slightly more than two years ago by or­ga­niz­ing the city’s first in­ter­na­tional gam­ing con­fer­ence along­side Mr. Simpson, Mike Burns of Fuel In­dus­tries and Jean-Syl­vain Sor­many of Snowed In Stu­dios. Its sec­ond edi­tion this past April was a huge suc­cess.

But Mr. Criswick might be most no­table for pro­vid­ing a $4-mil­lion gam­ing fund in late May, de­signed specif­i­cally to help small stu­dios make games that Mag­mic can pub­lish. It will pro­vide com­pa­nies with $200,000 to $300,000, with the first com­pa­nies ex­pected to re­ceive money this fall.

Mag­mic, which em­ploys about 50 peo­ple, has tra­di­tion­ally fo­cused on mo­bile card and casino games. It is best-known for cre­at­ing one of the ear­li­est Texas Hold’em mo­bile games a decade ago when the poker craze first took off. The com­pany’s game was em­bed­ded in all Black­Berry de­vices, re­sult­ing in more than 50 mil­lion play­ers.

“Per­son­ally, a big part of my mo­ti­va­tion as an en­tre­pre­neur is to help or to be known to have helped to cre­ate a creative in­dus­try in Ot­tawa,” said Mr. Criswick. “The

game fund is some­thing that I’m hop­ing will turn into some­thing very sig­nif­i­cant.”

It could also help solve one of the main prob­lems Ot­tawa stu­dios face – at­tract­ing the in­dus­try’s best and bright­est young work­ers.

Al­go­nquin Col­lege and Car­leton Univer­sity churn out up­wards of 150 game de­vel­op­ment grads ev­ery year, but there are sim­ply not enough jobs to keep all that new tal­ent in the city.

In­dus­try lead­ers hope the in­jec­tion of fund­ing will help change that, so that they can not only at­tract re­cent grad­u­ates, but can also lure back mid-ca­reer gam­ing work­ers who left Ot­tawa for greener pas­tures in places such as Mon­treal and Toronto.

“You need fund money to fuel projects, and projects fuel work­ers to come in,” said Mr. Simpson. “What John (Criswick) is do­ing with the game fund is re­ally im­por­tant be­cause it presents op­por­tu­nity, which means peo­ple will start to do a lit­tle bit more spec­u­la­tive de­vel­op­ment.”

With con­sole gam­ing pro­duc­tion out of reach for most small stu­dios, Ot­tawa’s gam­ing sec­tor will most ben­e­fit from mo­bile and so­cial gam­ing. Mr. Criswick be­lieves the big­gest op­por­tu­nity lies in li­censed prop­erty that hasn’t gone dig­i­tal yet, for iOS, An­droid or even Black­Berry de­vices.

Mean­while, Mr. Simpson thinks that cre­at­ing a univer­sal gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, where buy­ers can play the same game on their mo­bile de­vice that they play at home, will be key to the re­gion’s suc­cess.

“Right now, you could lit­er­ally have one guy work­ing in their base­ment and you could put a game out to­mor­row and start gen­er­at­ing rev­enue from that, the­o­ret­i­cally.” – Scott Simpson,

CEO, bitHeads

“That’s re­ally where the fu­ture is, so some­body can ac­tu­ally keep play­ing in­side the game uni­verse while they’re on the train com­ing home from work. It might not be the same game, but it’s in the same game uni­verse, so you can stay con­nected all the time,” he said.

Evan Hahn also thinks Ot­tawa has “a lot of po­ten­tial to go fur­ther.” He left Fuel In­dus­tries more than three years ago and launched Snowed In Stu­dios with a few col­leagues. The com­pany has since de­vel­oped larger con­sole games for big names such as Elec­tronic Arts and Ei­dos. Now at 14 em­ploy­ees, the lo­cal firm is fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ing its own ti­tles.

“I think it’ll grow and our gam­ing con­fer­ence has built aware­ness that Ot­tawa is ac­tu­ally do­ing things,” said Mr. Hahn. “We have a good mix of com­pa­nies in Ot­tawa and a lot of dif­fer­ent busi­ness mod­els.”

Mr. Criswick said the city still has some hur­dles to get over, the big­gest be­ing at­tract­ing tal­ent, but thinks Ot­tawa is “head­ing in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion.”

Gl­itch­soft’s Mr. Fisher agreed, say­ing a 200-per­son, high-qual­ity stu­dio like Ubisoft isn’t likely to set up shop in the cap­i­tal any time soon, but smaller in­die de­vel­op­ers can hold the key to a sus­tain­able fu­ture for the lo­cal in­dus­try.

“With each sub­se­quent pro­ject re­lease with Ot­tawa com­pa­nies, you’re see­ing larger and larger brands be­ing drawn to Ot­tawa,” he said. “We’re pretty ex­cited.”

PHOTO BY COLE BURSTON

Left: Gl­itch­soft’s team (from left) of Bin She, Vic­tor Chui, Shan­tille But­ler, Vanni LoRig­gio, Josh Brodie, Eric Dal­rym­ple, Tim Sandwell, Ian An­der­son, Josh Philips, and (seated) An­drew Fisher and Wes Tam de­signs touch-based games for mo­bile de­vices.

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