The video game industry is flourishing in Montréal and a source of great pride for the city, province and country. I interviewed a number of leaders of independent video game studios of all sizes to learn more about what drives this sector and talk about their journey, successes and challenges.
These discussions revealed that technology, in particular, game engines and digital distribution platforms, have had a major impact on the creation of numerous independent studios and the ability to develop and distribute quality games worldwide. They also revealed that, while the gaming industry’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has reached a high level of maturity, the general public is virtually unaware of the extent of outstanding game projects being developed in their city and the size and growth of the global video game industry (it will reach US$108.9 billion in 2017 according to a newzoo.com article). The popularity of eSports has also played a major role in these statistics.
Studios can use software that handles most of the logic and interactions required to provide a 2D or 3D gaming experience, that is, tasks that previously required programmers are now automated. These engines can be combined with complementary technologies, such as ZBrush for 3D sculpting and painting, Maya for animation or Gamesparks/AWS for the infrastructure. As a result, small teams can quickly produce exceptional quality games and focus on the actual game creation process rather than on developing an engine. For example, take a look at the trailers for Sundered (by Lotus Games), a completely hand-drawn game or Mordheim (by Rogue Factor), an adaptation of the cult classic tabletop game.
Sometimes, integrated tools don’t necessarily meet all the needs of a studio, which will then develop proprietary technologies to expand its capabilities. This is the case, for example of Vandal Games, a Montréal studio specializing in multiplayer online games with a web browser, a technology that involved developing features that were not supported by the Unity engine. Other studios, such as Snowed In Studios in Ottawa, developed leading-edge expertise by developing technologies to meet specific needs that native features in existing engines could not.
The most widely used engines are Unity and Unreal. Unity’s numerous advantages include the ability to create and deploy games on more than 25 different platforms (mobile, console, PC, etc.), on the basis of monthly fees per workstation. Unreal’s business model is based on a percentage of sales on game distributions. A complete game can therefore be created on the platform at no cost. But there’s more to this industry!
Digital distribution platforms
New digital distribution platforms and multiplayer games such as XBOX Live, PS Network or Steam have revolutionized the industry. Not so long ago, boxed video games were sold on store shelves, creating a major entry barrier for small studios without access to the major players’ distribution channels. The situation has since changed, with the arrival of platforms such as Steam, since it only takes a few moments for anyone to distribute a game worldwide. And this is happening every day, with an increasing number of games becoming available.
This situation makes life more complicated for independent studios that aren’t able to undertake massive marketing campaigns. It’s not quite back to square one, but the game marketing budget is also a form of entry barrier. High quality games often go unnoticed as a result. Consider for example that 403 games were released on Steam in 2012, and over 6,000 to date in 2017.
Studios must often call on the services of an editor to take over the marketing component for a percentage of the profits. Finding an editor is not so easy however. According to Jean-François Boivin, of Panache Digital Games, the presence of local game editors with more involvement in independent studios would be very advantageous.
What new technological developments can we expect? It’s hard to say. Buzzwords aside, at this time, it does not appear that there will be major upheaval in terms of virtual or augmented reality. On the other hand, artificial intelligence is poised to expand considerably, both for the game mechanics and as a development tool (automation of complex creation processes, behaviour analyses, etc.).
According to Kien-Van Tram, from Vandal Games, progress in AI and the processing of megadata will make it possible to analyze all stages of a product’s life cycle and optimize player acquisition and retention and game monetization.
The main concern is the ability to identify games produced. There is certainly room for innovation in this area.
In closing, I’d like to thank the studios that took the time to talk with me. Their website links are presented below. Take a tour and discover their games!
For more information about independent studios, take a few moments to visit the Guilde des développeurs indépendants de jeu vidéo site (131 members).
Read a 2017 report by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada which provides some interesting facts about the Canadian video game industry.