As Saskatchewan’s tech sector heats up, entrepreneurs are looking for their opportunity to cash in. Tech startups here are shaking up industries from healthcare to microbrewing, marketing to staff scheduling, food delivery to sports management and everything in-between. There is another segment in the province’s tech sector looking for its day in the sun—video and mobile game development.
In 2018, the global video game market was expected to be worth approximately US$115 billion and projections see industry revenues passing $138 billion by 2021.1 According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, the gaming industry adds a whopping $3.7 billion to Canada’s GDP annually.2 Across the country, there are 596 active studios producing games providing 21,700 direct jobs.3 Canada is home to many well-known game publishers and studios, including Electronic Arts, Gameloft, Relic Entertainment, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony Interactive Entertainment. Edmonton is home to BioWare, and Winnipeg recently saw the opening of Ubisoft’s newest studio. So, how can Saskatchewan entrepreneurs join this fast-growing, lucrative industry?
Kai Hutchence has much to say on the subject. Hutchence hails from Saskatchewan, and spent many years working in game development in Ontario. He is now back in Regina, and ready to build the game tech industry locally. “Gaming is a talent-driven industry, and Saskatchewan has the raw talent needed for it,” says Hutchence. “The trick is finding people with industry experience to guide young companies, and build the infrastructure needed to grow and sustain the industry long-term.” He says that the industry needs experienced project leads that have worked in game studios to help guide local talent from their idea through to commercialization. “There are many people working in their basements on their own game ideas,” says Hutchence. “What they need now is experienced people to help them polish the idea and take it to market.”
Hutchence is working hard to build the industry and cultivating the local talent. He’s launched his own gaming company—Massive Corporation Games Studio—and has organized events around Regina for aspiring game developers to network and learn. He sees opportunities for many different people in the industry—programmers, artists, musicians and project managers. “A successful game needs more than just a developer,” says Hutchence. “It needs great artwork, great sound, and someone leading the project to make sure it all comes together.” He sees the need for a non-profit association to give the industry a voice, and to represent entrepreneurs and talent in the space. “We see the beginnings of a gaming hub here, with my company, Bitcutter Studios here in Regina, and Noodlecake in Saskatoon. The talent exists. Now we just need to harness it and push it forward together,” says Hutchence.
Noodlecake Studios in Saskatoon also has a lot to say about the video and mobile game industry in the province. The independent game studio got its start in 2011 and found success with its first game, Super Stickman Golf. It was acquired by a Chinese firm—ZPlay—in 2017 and continues creating and publishing games on multiple platforms today. The company has had many offers to move to a larger centre—Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and California—but has chosen to remain where it began eight years ago. Their success hasn’t come without facing some challenges, however.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is provincial support in what we are doing,” says Ryan Holowaty, Head of Marketing and Business Development at Noodlecake. “There are some programs on a federal level to assist in game development but if you look across Canada, most provinces offer grants and incentives for game development.” The game development industry requires travelling to conferences and showcasing at various events like PAX or e3. Holowaty says that without financial aid, these things can become extremely costly. Also, the development itself is risky. “It is a very high-risk industry that is more in line with film than it is with traditional tech development and as such finding aid to hedge those bets is hard,” he says.
However, Holowaty sees opportunity for the industry to grow in Saskatchewan. There are benefits to be found in the province. “Cost of living and access to talent easily stand out. In today’s digital age, there is no requirement to be in the (Silicon) Valley anymore when it comes to working in tech,” says Holowaty. “I can easily hop on Skype and have a meeting with someone in San Francisco and not have to worry about trying to keep up with the insane rent costs. As well, the University of Saskatchewan has some great computer science programs, some of which are specifically tailored to game development and the quality of programmers available is top notch.”
For aspiring local game developers, Holowaty has some advice. “Just make something and release it. Then do it again. And again, and again,” he says. “Most studios never have a hit with their first title. Launching a game and having a failure is ok and to be expected. Most studios that come out of nowhere with a big hit have been making games for five to 10 years. You just never heard of them until now.” He also says that new game studios should focus on new markets. “Mobile game development has become crowded and if you do not have that locked in, you might be underwater before you get going,” says Holowaty. “However, markets like Nintendo Switch or even some of the newly announced platforms like Snap Games or WeChat Mini games have much less competition and is where a lot of indie developers are headed.” Plus, game developers need not focus on just the Canadian market. Noodlecake’s largest player base is in China, followed by the United States. “Canada represents a small percentage of our players, maybe less than five per cent,” he says.
Like Hutchence, Holowaty sees the need for this small industry and its aspiring talent to come together. “Meet ups and game jams are a great way. Sometimes people have no idea the cool things that are being done in our province because everyone is too humble to talk about them,” he says. “And, lobby your local politicians and join the various tech advocate groups in the province. Hopefully one day the local governments will realize how much revenue games can bring into the economy and start to support it more.” Holowaty knows the potential found in Saskatchewan. “It would be great to establish more studios working on cool projects to make the province more of a hub for games and not just a fly over province to get to B.C. or Quebec. As game development tools become more and more accessible and students go through the programs at the university, hopefully that will create a wave of new developers looking to build games and studios,” he says.
1Value of the global video games market from 2012 to 2021, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/246888/value-of-the-global-video-game-market/
2,3Strong Video Game Industry Central to Canadian Tech Ecosystem – New Report, Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), http://theesa.ca/2017/11/01/strong-video-game-new-report/