'Boom' in N.S. video game industry a boon to province

The video game industry in Nova Scotia is bringing millions of dollars into the province's economy but for many people, the industry is flying under the radar.

'We want young people to stay and build a life in Nova Scotia,' says business development spokesperson

Most of the video games made in Nova Scotia are for smartphones and tablets, like Alpha Dog Games' MonstroCity Rampage, seen here. (Alpha Dog Games)

Video games are turning computer code into cash for developers in the province. But the games are still largely an invisible export, says one industry insider.

Darryl Wright, managing director of Gogii Lighthouse Studios Inc., said the video game industry goes unnoticed by many Nova Scotians because the industry doesn't boast about itself.

"We launch title after title, and the marketing for us — it only matters that our users know about it," said Wright. 

"It's not really the kind of thing where you put out, you know, an ad in the Chronicle Herald that you just launched your app because we'll get 100,000 users anyway because of the marketing we do through Apple or through our partnerships with other companies. It's a very international industry."

Darryl Wright is the managing director of Gogii Lighthouse Studios Inc. (Submitted)

The industry puts millions of dollars into the provincial economy each year and is continuing to grow. 

There are now 20 studios in the province making video games, four of which opened last year, according to Nova Scotia Business Inc. The provincial Crown corporation is focused on business development and has been working to attract video game companies to the province.

About 300 people are employed full time in the industry, said Laurel Broten, the president and CEO of Nova Scotia Business Inc. 

Wright said most of the studios in the province are looking to hire new workers. 

Fish Tycoon 2 is one of Gogii Lighthouse Inc.'s recent games. (Gogii Games )

Many of those jobs pay between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, according to Shawn Woods, the founder of Alpha Dog Games and a director with the Interactive Society of Nova Scotia. The society was set up in October to advocate for video game development and to foster collaboration in the local industry.  

The games produced in Nova Scotia are mainly for the mobile market and are played on smartphones and tablets. The games, like Alpha Dog's MonstroCity Rampage, can be found on Apple's iTunes store and Google Play and have been downloaded millions of times. Hothead Games' Mighty Battles has been downloaded more than five million times. 

Hothead Games' Mighty Battles has been downloaded more than five million times. (Hothead Games/Twitter)

All of those downloads and in-app purchases translate to big bucks for Nova Scotia. In order to understand that financial impact you have to look at statistical data for the computer systems design and related services sector.

The video game industry is lumped into that sector along with any industry that writes, modifies or tests software and hardware. The sector also includes companies that do website development and on-site management of computer and data processing facilities.

Shawn Woods is the founder of Alpha Dog Games and a director with the Interactive Society of Nova Scotia (Submitted)

The latest export numbers from 2014 show the entire sector had more than $230 million worth of interprovincial exports and more than $50 million worth of international exports, according to Thomas Storring, director of economics and statistics at the province's Finance Department.

"It is a sizable export, particularly as it is a service export. It's quite sizable relative to the other service exports," said Storring.  

Virtual Villagers 2 is another game created by Gogii Lighthouse Studios Inc. (Gogii Games)

Still, the sector can't touch the economic impact of other industries, such as the tire industry, which exported more than $1 billion worth of product in 2014, or the fishing industry, which exported $800 million in crustaceans that same year.

But the video game industry in the province is continuing to expand.      

Peter Jones has seen that first hand. The producer with Hothead Games has worked in the local industry for 18 years.

Jones grew up in Nova Scotia, and never expected to be able to find work in his home province.

Across the country, the video game industry employs roughly 22,000 full-time workers, according to the Entertainment Association of Canada. (Alpha Dog Games)

He said there are still only two big companies making video games in the province — HB Studios and Ubisoft, which have 80 and 39 employees respectively. But there's been a big growth in smaller studios with only a handful of employees.   

"Certainly we've seen a boom probably in the last five to seven years from that perspective. So it's been a bit of a slow buildup but there seems to be some growing momentum with the number of companies that are setting up shop in Nova Scotia," said Jones.    

Peter Jones is a producer with Hothead Games in Halifax. (Submitted)

Those companies are being drawn to the province for a number of reasons, including a low cost of living, access to new university and college graduates to work in the field and a handsome tax credit. 

The digital media tax credit allows companies to get credit for costs directly related to the development of video games. Businesses can get back 50 per cent of labour costs for workers in the province or 25 per cent of their total expenditures made in Nova Scotia, whichever is smaller.

Broten, with Nova Scotia Business Inc., said ultimately what is good for the video game industry is good for the province, despite the industry being a bit "hidden away."   

Laurel Broten is president and CEO of Nova Scotia Business Inc., a provincial Crown corporation. (CBC)

"We're trying to make sure we bring it out into the open, telling the stories of the great companies that are here in Nova Scotia," said Broten.  

"We want young people to stay and build a life in Nova Scotia and these are great jobs that they can do that."

About the Author

David Burke

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David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.

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