The evolution of video games in Canada

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

What started as a pair of small computer programs is now a world-beating industry

Traditionally, the small town of Brantford, Ont. — population: 90,000 and located about an hour west of Toronto — has been known for one thing: it's where Wayne Gretzky was born and raised.

But for the past five years it has been gaining a reputation, in nerd circles at least, for an entirely different reason. Brantford is also home to the Personal Computer Museum, a veritable treasure trove of machinery and software from the past 30 years.

Housed in a white barn-like building that used to serve as a bus maintenance depot, the museum opened in 2005 thanks to the work of Syd Bolton, a former software developer and dabbler in video game design. Bolton bought and restored the building to display his collection of aging machines.

He felt it was important to preserve them so that future generations could remember where their gadgets and computers came from.

"I got to thinking at the time that one day, these machines are going to be gone because people are throwing them out," said Bolton, 39, who now works in IT for a pharmaceutical company. "I wanted to make sure that I captured the essence of what these machines were and all the fun times we had."

The museum was awarded charity status a few years ago and now receives hardware and software donations from all over Canada. Bolton says he has more than 1,000 computers, although he only has enough room to show off about 100.

Even more impressive is his collection of video games. While about 3,000 pieces of software are on display in the museum, most of them games, the basement of his house nearby is a veritable shrine to the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega, Activision and the rest.

It's the largest known collection of video games in Canada. Bolton has almost every game created for the PlayStation 2, all 1,400 of them, and is just six shy of the entire 874-title collection for the original Xbox. All told, he has more than 10,000 video games. Walking into his basement is like strolling into a giant EB Games store.

Not surprisingly, video games are a main attraction of his museum. While the thousands of visitors he's had over the years have been fascinated by his computer and software collections, it's always the games that seem to spark the most interest.

"The games are the things people remember," he says.

The original games

It's fitting, then, that Brantford is home to such a collection because, like Gretzky and hockey, video games are a source of pride for Canada. About 14,000 people here work in video game design, making Canada a global power in the industry, third biggest behind only Japan and the United States.

As far as Bolton knows, the first commercially successful video game created in Canada was either Evolution or B.C.'s Quest For Tires. Both were published in 1983 by Vancouver's Sydney Development Corporation, a project management software company started in 1978 by Tarrnie Williams, a Vancouver native who had spent much of the '70s working for IBM.

Evolution was created by a duo of Vancouver teenagers, Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, while B.C.'s Quest for Tires was designed by a pair of young men, Paul Butler and Rick Banks, in Ottawa. Both teams approached Sydney to publish their games because, as Williams' son says, it was one of the only software companies around.

"It seemed like the best thing to do for a couple of guys with a game," says Tarrnie Williams Jr., who is today the executive producer for EA Sports Active line of games.

Evolution, which was released for home computers, was comprised of a series of mini-games, the first of which had the player control an amoeba. The goal was to move around the screen gobbling up bacteria while coloured germs tried to stop you. If you got enough bacteria, the amoeba "evolved" into the next game, where a frog tried to get at flies while fish tried to eat it.

The player moved through a number of different games until the final evolution — human — was reached.

Williams remembers his father bringing the game home for him to try out on his Apple II computer — as a 10-year-old, he was the perfect play tester. He immediately liked the game but suggested that another level be added; the evolutionary jump from rat to monkey was just too big, he thought.

'There was some sense over time that something special was going on and that there was a vibrant industry forming in Vancouver.'—Josh Holmes, studio creative director at 343 Industries

Mattrick and Sember complied and built another level that cast players as a beaver, a very Canadian addition. The game was published and it quickly sold more than 400,000 copies.

On the backs of their success, Mattrick and Sember formed Distinctive Software, a company that through the '80s grew to become the largest publisher of video games not owned by a console maker, Williams Jr. says. By the end of the decade, the company employed about 60 people, making it a veritable giant in the industry of the time.

Williams Sr. wound down his own company in the mid-'80s and went to work for Distinctive, where he and the founders used to dream about selling their business.

"They always referred to it as the reverse takeover," Williams Jr. says. "They would always say, 'Who's the best person to buy us?'"

Electronic Arts, formed in California around the same time as Distinctive, came calling in 1991. Sember had sold his share of the company to Mattrick in the late '80s and opted for a life in academia, and Mattrick decided to cash in by selling to EA, which rebranded the studio EA Canada.

Things really got rolling after that. In 1992, EA Canada had about 80 employees; by 2000, it had 660. Today, EA employs about 1,300 people in British Columbia and 2,400 across the country.

Mattrick continued to run EA Canada and eventually became head of the parent company's worldwide operations, until 2005. In 2007, he joined Microsoft and is now head of the company's Xbox division.

EA's acquisition also kicked off a host of spinoffs, with a pair of former Distinctive employees starting up Radical Entertainment. A host of others followed, including Relic Entertainment, Barking Dog and Black Box Studios.

Josh Holmes, an obsessed video game player who started as a play tester at EA Canada in 1995, says the main company's rapid growth through the '90s spurred not only smaller studios to pop up, but also an ecosystem of sound and art design firms.

"They really spawned the games industry in Vancouver," says Holmes, who is today the studio creative director at 343 Industries, the Microsoft subsidiary that oversees the Halo franchise. "There was some sense over time that something special was going on and that there was a vibrant industry forming in Vancouver."

Today, British Columbia's video game sector employs about 6,100, or about 44 per cent of the total for the country, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.


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Peter Nowak


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