A missed opportunity

It started with two pieces of software, Evolution and B.C.'s Quest for Tires, and it's now a world-beating industry

The evolution of video games in Canada, part two


Although Quest For Tires, a game based on the B.C. comic strip that put players in control of a caveman riding a stone unicycle, was a big hit for Banks and Butler, it didn't lead to the same sort of industry explosion in Ontario.

The duo started up Artech Digital Entertainment in Ottawa in the early '80s and the company is still going today, making games primarily for the Nintendo Wii. But it was a studio called Gray Matter, launched by games junkie Chris Gray in Oakville, Ont., that became the province's biggest star — at least for a while.

Gray, at the age of 15, created his own game along with fellow designer Peter Liepa called Boulder Dash, which starred a character named Rockford who dug through caves in search of diamonds and treasure. The game was published in 1984 by U.S.-based In Home Entertainment and earned Gray enough money to start his company.

Gray Matter reached its peak around 1995, when it had about 75 employees. The company fizzled shortly thereafter, though, because of a shortage of funding.

"Unless you have a monster hit, you're pretty much hand-to-mouth in terms of project to project," said Gray, who today oversees production at Majesco Games in New Jersey. "You might have one great year, but two years later, you run out of money."

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Gray says British Columbia benefited from a more proactive government that saw the value of offering incentives to video game companies in the form of tax cuts and subsidies. Ontario, meanwhile, was slow in getting to the table.

Despite having a similar historic pedigree as British Columbia, the same wealth of digital media school graduates and the same related film and television production industry, Ontario today has only a small slice of the country's video game employee pie, at 14 per cent.

Denis Dyack, who founded Silicon Knights in St. Catharines in 1992, agrees with Gray and says Ontario has squandered some of its early promise in video games. If there was any upside to Gray Matter's implosion, it's that the provincial government finally took notice of the potential industry right under its nose, he says.

"We were lucky enough to get the ear of the government and talk to them about why we should grow this industry, and they listened," Dyack says.

Ontario has recently started to offer video game companies the same kinds of incentives found in British Columbia — the province last year gave France's Ubisoft $263-million in tax cuts and subsidies to open a studio in Toronto, which the company says will create 800 jobs over the next 10 years.

Many in Ontario's industry expect the province will finally see the same sort of growth that British Columbia did.

"We're going to see some positive things happen in Ontario now," says Dyack. "It's only a matter of time."

A matter of culture

Subsidies were the name of the game in Quebec, which is now challenging B.C. as the nation's largest video game employer. The provincial government kick-started the industry in 1997 by luring Ubisoft to Montreal with hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives. Ubisoft now employs more than 2,000 people in the province.

As in Vancouver, the studio's presence helped create an ecosystem of support companies and design courses at local schools. That also attracted other big studios, with multinationals EA and Eidos following over the past few years, as well as Warner Bros. and THQ setting up shop this year.

Quebec as a whole now accounts for about 5,200 video game employees, or 37 per cent of the country's total.

Many observers say that unlike the largely organic growth that happened in British Columbia, the Quebec story never would have happened without the massive subsidies.

Nathalie Verge, senior adviser for corporate affairs at Ubisoft Montreal, says this is not necessarily the case. Montreal has long been a hotbed of culture and technology, so it's somewhat natural that the city found itself predisposed to video game design.

"To attract new technology companies, you try to find something that mixes well with your culture. That was the first spark," she says. "It grew not just because of incentives, but also because of talent and training and all the peripherals that surround our business."

It's an attitude that is shared by virtually everyone in the industry — that government assistance aside, there's something about Canadians that just makes them naturally adept at creating video games.

Ray Muzyka, who in 1995 founded BioWare in Edmonton with his friends Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip, said Canada benefits from many great universities and affordable access to education. Canada's multicultural nature also means Canadians are influenced not just by the United States, but Europe and Asia as well.

"We absorb those influences from all three directions while still being open," he says. "That affords an opportunity to make products that have worldwide appeal."

Bolton says it's Canada's richness of culture and fundamental freedoms that make the difference. He relates a story of how he was contacted a few years ago by a pair of teenagers in Iraq who had an idea for a video game.

Of course, they didn't have the means to produce it in their home country, so they ended up moving to Canada, where they now work for one of the big companies.

"As a general rule, Canadians are some of the most creative people in the world," Bolton says. "Look at Hollywood or the music industry — it kind of makes sense that we're going to produce some rock stars of the video game world, as it were."


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.