As those of you who follow us on Twitter will be well aware, DigiBC hosted a town hall meeting Tuesday night for the BC game development community. It was encouraging to see such an excellent turnout for the event, and kudos to Whitney and Carly for putting the event together. The evening featured a panel of local creative devs with Lance Davis taking on the role of moderator. Opening remarks for the evening were presented by Rick Griffiths, Audit and Assurance Group partner with PwC. I will touch on only a few of the highlights from the evening, simply because the conversation moved quite quickly and because we did tape the event. The video is now available and embedded below; I have also pulled many of the tweets into a board on Storify.
If you are reading this, then I’ve hit the Publish button – otherwise I will continue to add thoughts and edits endlessly, because there is so much to say and so much to do in regards to BC’s industry. A disclaimer to get out of the way first and foremost: I know I digress often – that is how my thought patterns work. As I said to Scott while writing this missive, people who know me know that this is how I write – I can be writing along with one thought, when I get a shiny new thought flashing through – but the message contained within does not change – we all need each other if we want to see the development community in BC grow and survive – and the same could be said for the national industry. It is not my intention to offend anyone or point fingers at any person specifically. It is my intention to get you all talking and thinking about what transpired at the meeting on Tuesday night, because I fully intend to do what I can to keep BC’s creative industry sector working and successful. How about you?
Lance Davis and Rick Griffiths opened the evening by providing a base for the night’s topic with some background numbers and statistics in regards to global internet usage as it pertains to wireless, wired and console access as well as how the video game industry compares to others in this province. Rick also provided a brief comparison of BC, Ontario and Quebec in regards to product, talent and studios. I feel that this was a good way to begin the dialogue, as it shows to many who may not have been aware just how those numbers have, do and can play a very important part in showing where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we can go. Again – once the video is uploaded (it was supposed to upload overnight but the upload failed for some reason known only unto YouTube) you will all be able to listen to what everyone had to say.
Before I continue, I do want to note who was on the panel and them for their participation, as well as thank the evening’s sponsors: Vancouver Economic Commission and Microsoft Studios.
- Wil Mozell, Microsoft Studios
- John Lutz, Electronic Arts
- Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, Silicon Sisters Interactive
- Matt Toner, Zeros 2 Heros Media
- Kenny Huang, Blue Bat Games
- Julian Ing, Eruptive Games
- Moderator: Lance Davis, Slant Six Games
When I first launched Village Gamer back in 2008, I had already been holding many conversations with whomever would listen about how I, as a veritable outsider, saw the video game development industry in this province, and I identified a few key points. My main frustration at that time was that I felt very few were listening, and I believe that I am not the only one with such memories of trying to deal with what is still perceived as “the old guys’ club” that is the game development industry, and indeed, some of our trade-related associations fall into that trap as well. Last evening, for really the first time, I felt a weird vindication – like someone had been listening, and now the light has gone on – and the dialogue has started on what BC’s developers need to do to move forward – and I say BC’s developers because we all need to remember that not all of the province’s studios in Vancouver. Believe it or not, there is a world outside of the big city.
Getting back to what I saw from local industry – everyone was busy doing what they did best – creating properties that engaged and entertained the gaming masses, but doing it alone, in their private silos, only coming together to bemoan the state of the market or the latest downturn. There was very little unity and very little interaction with the end user – the people who provided the sales dollars to fund current and future projects. Since that time, we have seen sectors of the game development industry begin to get together to share experiences and help each other – groups like Full Indie and Vancouver Social Games are flourishing, but there is still such a very long way to go. One of my main observations has been the difference between the development cultures in Vancouver and Toronto, which is another point I have raised repeatedly. Vancouver’s development community has grown up in the Triple A sector, one whose mantra has often been “thou shalt not discuss anything with anyone at any time.” Meanwhile on the other side of the country, Toronto’s development community has grown up Indie, only recently dipping its toes into the world of Triple A foreign-owned big house development. Those indie developers learned early on that inter-house co-operation and collaboration provided their best chances at survival.
Then we have the trade associations. New Media BC warped into a merger with BC Wireless, and it was pretty well downhill from there for a few years. With the changing of the guard at DigiBC and with the addition of the BC Interactive Task Force, perhaps there is some hope. Whitney and Carly definitely have their work cut out for them trying to improve DigiBC’s brand – and it may in fact be time for another complete rebranding. Much damage has been done in the short time that New Media BC ceased to exist, but to be fair, I think that people need to put the past in the past and be willing to work with the association to move forward. Communication will be key.
Unfortunately, DigiBC is not the only association with problems. Our local SIGGRAPH chapter – for all of the great events it brings, and the hard work that was done in winning the SIGGRAPH expo for the city – is very much a closed group. Our IGDA chapter also has challenges – mostly people power and organization – not for lack of trying – the attempt at reviving IGDA Vancouver is ongoing. There are all of these splinter groups that should be working together; granted, each association has its own bylaws and fees, but there is no reason why they cannot all sit at the same table and be all-inclusive to those in industry who want to join and become pro-active – and who do not necessarily live in Vancouver, Metro Vancouver or even the Lower Mainland. There needs to be transparency in all of our associations if they want people to join and become involved again – do not treat your members like lemmings and mushrooms.
As per the usual cycle, the recent downturns in BC’s industry has seen an influx of smaller indie houses popping up, and while the meetup groups have opened the doors to communication, it is a challenge for years of ingrained “you shall not discuss” mentalities to wash away overnight, and this is where the biggest challenge rests, followed closely by industry association support, government interest and startup funding opportunities. While there has been some positive industry press coverage from outlets such as the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight, not many of the buying public really understand what game development is all about because they don’t watch shows like Electric Playground or Reviews On The Run. They don’t read sites like ours or Canadian Online Gamers or TechVibes. They see the press coverage about studio closings and controversial game content. They see the coverage whenever there is a crime committed somewhere in the world and immediately people want to know if the playing of violent video games had a hand in it, but how many really know about the contribution our game developers have made, and still make, to the global culture and the tech world at large?
These are some of the areas that were poked at last evening, with many excellent suggestions made, issues identified and a feeling that maybe now the BC industry can unite itself and work with its industry association on becoming the force it is meant to be (watch the video for full conversations). Going back to my mention of the “old guys’ club” – we cannot ignore the values and experiences the city’s development industry has gained from the legacy studios – the ones who put the Triple A stamp on Vancouver all those many years ago when the game industry was but a dot on the economic map. Without their pioneering the way and building the industry outwards with each cycle of lay-offs and downsizing, we wouldn’t have the foundation that we do today – it is an unfortunate reality that the majority of the legacy studios are no longer locally owned, and as was pointed out at the opening of the Town Hall, there exists a very real “build a company and sell it” mentality that should be looked at more closely.
As Victor Lucas pointed out last night, our developers should be damned proud of what they do and the contributions they make to society, but you all need to learn to speak up and be heard – be heard by the government, the investors, the educators, the buying public and those who dismiss you as nothing more than toy makers. I know different. Victor knows different – many of your local media personnel know different – but how easy do you make it for us to talk about you and what you do? Certainly there needs to be that barrier of confidentiality as you work on proprietary IP projects, but if we industry insiders don’t know what you’ve done or what you’re doing, how do you expect anyone else to know and understand? You need to speak to the public more often than to build hype for an upcoming release. How interactive are you with your end users? Do you use social media to your advantage? What is your product support like? We have a project that has been in development for over a year that will help you achieve some of the above, but we need serious web coding help we can’t afford, so we are slowly working out the problems on our own. We’re only one year behind schedule. Maybe we’ll be ready next year. We are not in a position to incorporate, thereby being able to apply for Canada Media Fund programs, and we can’t afford the project rates offered by the Centre for Digital Media or BCIT, so we muddle along as best we can – the same as many of you.
Speaking of affordability and growth, there was extensive talk during the town hall about the benefits and pitfalls of tax credits – the fact that they are there (or not there), the fact that one size does not fit all, their merit and their hindrance. Some tax credits work, some do not. Some feel that they need to be bigger, some do not. I personally feel that the best mix may be a combination of startup programs from all levels – within industry itself, within the investment community, government and the public. We are a creative group – why can we not work together to find a creative solution that is scalable and beneficial to many, instead of to the “privileged few” who always seem to be feeding from the trough, for the lack of a better term – and that is not really how I want to phrase the meaning I am trying to convey, but the right words are out in orbit somewhere. More caffeine.
It will be no easy task to bridge the gap between “The Mother Ship” as many have referred to EA Canada, and the other Triple A houses owned by foreign publishers, and the localized independent community. The same could probably hold true for those independent house developing licensed IP as opposed to proprietary IP – but a bridge must be found and solutions to problems faced by BC’s development community found. When it’s all said and done, I am still a veritable outsider, and I readily admit I do not know about all the ins and outs of the industry, and I certainly cannot keep up on the interchanges going on between industry here, in Toronto, Quebec or elsewhere in Canada. I can only relay what my observations are, and what my take-away from last evening was. There will always be regional interests at the heart of the matter, but we have to unite not only our local communities, we have to unite as a country.
One of my marketing mantras when promoting the Canadian digital media industry sectors is that I would love to see the outside world outsourcing to Canada. I would love to see our own industry outsourcing to itself whenever the need arises. I have, at times, been criticized for having a site named Village Gamer when it’s not just about games. It did start out that way, but I got so frustrated trying to source out news to post every day that I branched out – and looking back, it was the right thing for me to do because now if you are reading this site correctly and making use of the information I share, you will sit back and say “wow, I didn’t know there was a Canadian company doing that” or “gee, that was made in Canada?” – why ARE you contracting with outside companies when we usually have the resources right here at home? Are you doing your part to support your own community as both a business and a consumer? Yes, I will admit, I am a “buy local” kind of person. Very few of the games I play are developed outside of our borders, and the one MMO-RPG PC game I do play was developed in Seattle, and Canadians are employed by that particular studio. In case you didn’t know – I am a core console gamer first, followed by handheld, followed by mobile, followed by PC.
So, going back to the original thought I started a few minutes ago – what will happen if and when the possibilities and realities of tax credits, grants and subsidies goes away? Will this industry be able to stand on its own? It’s a competitive world out there. Have you positioned your company in such a way that your product is a valuable commodity to the buyers of the world? We are experiencing a minor hiccup in BC that could easily turn into a major eruption if this industry does not mature and open its doors to change. You all need to embrace each other – as much for your similarities as for your differences. We need to work with government and financiers not only for the financial and economic challenges we are facing, but also for the talent shortfall so many of you spoke about at the meeting. People are once again leaving BC for other parts. Creative talent is a mobile asset; the government made an announcement today about enhancements to education in regards to trade. Will any of those enhancements apply to education and training in the digital media or technology fields or will it all go to traditional careers in the service, building and resource fields? Are we remembering to work with other creative sectors and associations? Game development is not the only industry in this town. As digital entertainment and interactivity melds and molds itself into a transmedia sector, it is probably a good idea to have a few friends in those other sectors. Just sayin’.
The previously-posed questions I asked in the above paragraph opens the door to another point – if the legacy studios in Vancouver gave us the talent and training to move onward in the indie world, what is the indie world going to leave as its legacy? You have so much to offer – not just to the end user, but to the future generations of creatively technical minds. This goes beyond working with the post secondary schools – this goes to our high schools and even our elementary schools. What can industry do to catch those young people before our industrial revolution style of education drains the creativity out of them? Are you taking opportunities to participate in school events? Are you talking to government about the need for more diversity in the career programs offered at our schools – one program that is a huge success is the Digital Media Academy at Argyle Secondary in North Vancouver. Every single secondary in the province should have this style of program available. Not every student is cut out for a traditional career, so why are we only offering those types of programs? Has there been any kind of dialogue begun with the Education Ministry? Are there programs in place in our post-secondary schools to teach the teachers of future generations – are we giving those who aspire to teach the tools they need to keep up with a rapidly changing world and to inspire the talent currently working its way through kindergarten and the primary grades? What are we doing in the here and now to prepare our kids for the knowledge and creative-based careers that are available to them?
We have to find a way to make this community accessible to one and all – and I am speaking about the industry beyond the borders of downtown Vancouver. Be inclusive – there are great things going on around this province. There are programs in other regions that work. Not everyone can make it to downtown Vancouver for an 8 a.m. seminar. Not everyone can make it to downtown Vancouver for an afternoon or evening event, either. Not everyone can afford to attend conferences and seminars or join a trade association or special interest group or go on trade missions in foreign countries. The barriers to entry in regards to product and market may be lower than it used to be, but what are the barriers to involvement? The key to this province’s success is going to be in unity and inclusion for the whole province, not just those in the downtown core. It is going to be in all of the associations and programs working together whenever possible, in the pooling of resources, in the making light of a huge task with the help of many hands through communication and organization.
The development industry needs to stop hiding and wringing its hands. I have seen what the people in this industry can accomplish when they come together, and no one can convey what is needed with the proper insights better than those of you who work in the industry. I can observe, I can hold conversations, I can promote what you do, but I cannot speak to the every day inner workings of what you need to grow and thrive. BC has so much potential to be on top as a creative hub – you used to be number one, and you can be again. Do not let the momentum of Tuesday night’s conversation go silent. It is not going to be easy. It is not going to happen overnight or even over a fortnight. It is going to take effort, it is going to take co-operation and the leaving of egos at the door. It is going to take changing your ways – to become outspoken extroverts who have every right to shout to the world that you are here (insert Horton Hears A Who scene here) and that you matter. You matter to the economy, you matter to the entertainment world, and you matter to the global community. Now what are you going to do about it?