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Vancouver studios shift to developing mobile games, lobbying government

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Vancouver, British Columbia, has suffered from something of a game development exodus in recent years, as big studios have left town for better tax breaks, but remaining companies like Slant Six Games are responding by lobbying the government for similar financial support and making mobile games, reports The Vancouver Sun.

Independent studio Slant Six previously developed console and handheld games for major publishers such as Sony Computer Entertainment (SOCOM series) and Capcom (Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City). But the company has had trouble competing with other studios in discussions with publishers for development deals, officials told the Sun, and the studio turned to mobile development last year after being forced to cut its staff to 75 from a peak of 150.

According to Brian Thalken, founder and executive director of Slant Six, and game director Tuomas Pirinen, companies in Vancouver are losing out to other studios in eastern Canada because provinces in that region offer more lucrative deals in the form of tax breaks for new video game studios. And publishers with studios formerly located in Vancouver have closed those offices or reduced their size and headed east to save money — Activision laid off 89 employees when it essentially shuttered Radical Entertainment last year, while Rockstar Games moved its 35 Vancouver employees to Toronto last May.

Because it's cheaper for companies to start and run offices in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, studios located there can offer cheaper rates on production costs to publishers. "We get outbid and the work goes to the eastern provinces, therefore the jobs go to the eastern provinces," said Thalken. In November, Slant Six chief financial officer Lance Davis estimated that approximately 1,400 game development jobs had left Vancouver since 2008.

"We're not looking for handouts; we're just looking for a level playing field"

It's not just companies like Slant Six that are suffering, Thalken argued; Vancouver as a whole is worse off, he said. "We are losing our people, we are losing our tax base — these are highly educated, talented people and jobs that are going away."

Studios left in Vancouver are taking a twofold approach to the problem.

Companies including Slant Six are working with DigiBC, a trade association representing British Columbia's digital media and wireless industries, to attempt to lobby the provincial and federal government for incentives like tax breaks, which would help attract talent to the province and keep jobs there. "We're not looking for handouts, we're just looking for a level playing field," said Pirinen.

Vancouver-based studios are also transitioning to developing mobile games, in the hopes of reinvigorating game development in the city. According to Pirinen, "We have seen a groundswell of mobile development come."

Slant Six has already seen some success with a free-to-play title called The Bowling Dead (screenshot above), a zombie bowling game that Activision picked up for publishing on the iTunes App Store last November. An Android version will be available soon, according to Slant Six.

"We are adjusting to a shift in the industry," Pirinen said.

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