Ontario is the third-largest video game producer in Canada, which has 22.9% of all game studios and has annual expenditures of $264 million, according to a 2015 report of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. Courtesy, Sakura Gaming.

Ottawa video game expo, platform for local developers

By Kunqin Wang

The Canadian Videogame Competition & Expo held in Ottawa earlier this month gave small local developers a chance to showcase their work, as they face an uphill battle to gain global success.

The week-long event featured locally developed games alongside international favourites, such as soccer video games Rocket League and FIFA 18, which were part of a tournament with a $2,500 grand prize.

“Ottawa has a bunch of very cool little studios,” said Mike Keogh, co-founder of Breakfall, an Ottawa-based indie developer with just four employees that developed Starwhal, a multiplayer action game that went viral online a few years ago.

“We are here to promote and generate awareness. I’ve met a lot of people locally who’ve heard about Starwhal but they had no idea it was made in Ottawa,” Keogh said.

That lack of awareness is common. Musab Hassan, a player in the FIFA 18 tournament, said he didn’t know so many top-notch games had Ottawa connections.

Canada is the third-largest producer of video games in the world, behind the U.S. and Japan, with 472 active studios and $3 billion annually added to Canada’s GDP, according to a 2015 report of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. Ottawa is currently home to 23 video game companies.

Keogh said there are significant obstacles for small studios.

“This is a very competitive industry,” he said. “It’s very hard to get noticed because so many people are making games. Sometimes the games couldn’t get the attention they deserve.”

Still, he said, social media can help small studios without large advertising budgets promote their games in an effective way.

“The whole industry now is like, ‘Let’s play,’ and people who are playing your games online are watched by huge audiences,” Keogh said.

Snowed In Studios, also based in Ottawa, works on its own games while also partnering with giants like Ubisoft and 2K Games on popular games such as Warhammer 40,000 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

“It’s a great opportunity to meet the gamers from your own city and let them know these cool games are being made,” said Snowed In’s president, Jean-Sylvain Sormany, regarding the event.

Keogh said he thought Ottawa is an underrated player in the video game industry. Although the city is overshadowed by Montreal and Toronto, he said there is still a lot of talent in the capital and a solid record of producing popular games.

“However,” he added, “the outflow of talent is one drawback for small studios. People are coming and leaving regularly because we don’t have so many jobs opening up.”

Three years ago, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson announced that the city would host the Canadian Video Game Awards in 2017 accompanied by a large-scale competition. However, the awards were cancelled in August and the weeklong event, including a small-scale competition, was organized to fill the gap.

Early this year, five local studios, including Breakfall and Snowed In, moved into a collective developer space in Hintonburg called the Capital Game Hub. Sormany said incubation space lets them share resources and collaborate and to help the local industry grow even more.