Vancouver indie development scene has 'sky-rocketed' since 2011

The indie games industry in Vancouver, Canada has "sky-rocketed" since 2011 despite a highly publicized rash of mainstream game studio closures, Whitney Donaldson of The Digital Media and Wireless Association of BC tells Polygon.

Earlier this year, Activision all but closed Radical Entertainment, developer of the Prototype game franchise, when it laid off 89 of its employees. Rockstar later shut down its Vancouver office in July, moving its 35 employees to the publisher's Toronto studio as part of a strategic partnership with the Ontario government. However despite this, says Donaldson, British Columbia has attracted "at least 30" new indie games studios in the last two years. The province is currently home to 85 development studios.

''Vancouver alone has created "over 1,000" new jobs within digital media studios in the past three years.'

Vancouver alone has created "over 1,000" new jobs within digital media studios in the past three years, city councillor Andrea Reimer told Polygon. While a lax provincial tax incentive for the country's game studios has been to blame for the loss of numerous mainstream developers in the area, Reimer states this new creation of jobs and studios is the result of "a variety of recruitment and retention strategies" and not taxes.

The initial growth trajectory of the Vancouver games industry was thwarted in 2008 due to the global economy. The province would go on to implement the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit two years later, which granted a 17.5 percent tax break to digital media companies within British Columbia. But both Ontario and Quebec would later overtake that with individual provincial tax breaks of 40 percent and up to 37.5 percent, respectively.

While the discrepancy in tax breaks is to blame for numerous job losses within BC's games industry, Reimer says these losses represent a small number when compared to the number of studios attracted to the province in the past three years.

'It represents a very small number of lost jobs relative to the numbers we've attracted in the digital media sector over the past three years.'

"One studio announced they are moving their operations to the Greater Toronto area because Ontario is offering a much better tax incentive than British Columbia," says Reimer. "This was a loss of 35 jobs. While regrettable, and in part why we passed a motion at Council calling on the province to act, it represents a very small number of lost jobs relative to the numbers we've attracted in the digital media sector over the past three years.

According to Reimer, British Columbia is experiencing growth concentrated in social and mobile games development as represented by BC-based studios Club Penguin, AirG, A Thinking Ape, Koolhaus Games, Loud Crow and Finger Food Studios. In addition, last year Microsoft announced a Victoria-based studio set up to develop new social titles.

"There have been a couple of other gaming companies that have announced layoffs recently but this is not as a result of government inaction or policy, but rather as a result of lower than anticipated revenues. As you know, the gaming market is pretty dynamic and it would be difficult for government to intervene in market decisions about which products are going to appeal to consumers."

'We should move away from all this regionalism and develop a Canadian digital strategy.'

However, the current state of digital distribution means that now is the time for independent games studios in British Columbia to succeed, according to Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver's female-led independent games studio Silicon Sisters.

"It's a great time to start your own studio because the barriers in bringing products to market are low," Gershkovitch recently told Polygon. "But that's not to say it's easy. It's just possible, whereas before it was nearly impossible because publishers held all the cards, and manufacturing and distribution were barriers. Currently, all that can be done in-house (manufacturing, what's that?!), but there are other challenges, like working with funders and the massive challenge of discoverability."

Gershkovitch added that British Columbia's government must do more than it already has in order to continue to be competitive; However, the future for Canada's success in the games industry is not based on regional competition.

"I think we need to compete with the provinces that are drawing studios away from Vancouver. Actually, I think we should move away from all this regionalism and develop a Canadian digital strategy, which values the digital sector and digital media as an integral current and future economy in Canada. These are great jobs - we should be taking advantage of the excellence we've established and focus on maintaining and growing this sector nationally. It's the future."

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