Toronto’s indie gaming scene levels up
This piece was first published in the Globe and Mail in November 2010.
The office of Drinkbox Studios in downtown Toronto smells like boys.
Unsure whether they should be offended by this observation, two thirtysomething company executives shuffle into an annex of their one-room office space to discuss the progress their 11-strong, all-male crew is making on a much anticipated video game due for release in the new year.
The two-year-old independent gaming company is one of dozens bolstering Toronto’s international reputation as a hotbed of innovation and creativity, as developers, artists, musicians and film wonks cultivate a community here that is the envy of North America.
“As a ‘scene’…Toronto is second to more-or-less basically none,” says Brandon Boyer, the chairman of the Independent Games Festival and a former editor of celebrated tech site, boingboing.net.
Some of the best-known figures in the indie game scene call Toronto home, he adds.
“As the core of a tight-knit games community, there’s almost nothing like it anywhere in North America.”
No longer the quarter-gobbling cabinets seen in arcades of yore, today’s video games now furnish virtually every home and have given rise to passionate subcultures.
Halo 3, for example, grossed $300-million in its first week, more than most blockbuster films.
Toronto’s strength lies in its indie gaming scene – the city has the highest concentration of small studios in the country.
Indie games showcase original work that has not been influenced by the market forces to which corporate studios are beholden.
Though Montreal and Vancouver have traditionally served as the corporate hubs of the country’s gaming industry, output from Toronto’s small, tight-knit community is now attracting attention from larger companies.
“There are a lot of smaller, independent game producers in Toronto. There’s incredible creativity in this city,” said Danielle Parr, the executive director of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC).
“Coupled with tax incentives which make it a more attractive place to invest, it’s definitely got a huge potential.”
In 2008, Ontario was home to 90 of the country’s 247 gaming firms – or 36 per cent of the national total,
according to a study by ESAC – the most recent data available. By comparison, British Columbia and Quebec came in at 21 and 28 per cent, respectively.
Already, corporate game-development giant Ubisoft has moved in. Although it has long worked out of Montreal, last year it opened an office in Toronto, committing to employing 800 people within 10 years.
The pool of talent which companies such as Ubisoft can draw from is large and active.
Mr. Boyer says he has been most impressed by groups like Toronto’s The Hand/Eye Society.
Founder Jim Munroe is widely credited for helping to co-ordinate the efforts of hundreds of Toronto gamers to develop edgy content.
One of The Hand/Eye Society’s latest projects, The Torontron, is a retro arcade cabinet that showcases new video games created by local developers.
Constructed in the garage of a local engineer, The Torontron was featured at this year’s Nuit Blanche. It is on display at the TIFF/Bell Lightbox on King Street and will be available for play on Nov. 13 and 14 at Gamercamp – a conference celebrating emerging Toronto talent as well as indie games being made here.
“We are doing something that’s innovative in the medium,” says Mr. Munroe.
With a shift in local opportunities on the horizon, indie developers such as members of The Hand/Eye Society or the boys back at Drinkbox are well- positioned to enjoy lucrative careers in game development without leaving the city.
Graham Smith and Ryan MacLean, who, along with Chris Harvey, founded Drinkbox Studios Inc., said that while they had personal reasons to start their business in Toronto, the Ontario tax credit was a lure.
And there are advantages to working in a close-knit industry like the one here: Access to video-game-industry figures – from those at other startups to corporate-studio bigwigs – at local bar nights and informal gatherings has contributed to their success in developing a PlayStation 3 downloadable game.
Also, in the two-plus years since they started the company, they have been able to discuss best businesses practices over beers with buddies who are technically their direct business competitors, Mr. Smith said.
Mark Rabo, who along with Jaime Woo founded the annual Gamercamp conference, is pleased that Toronto’s indie gaming scene is starting to be recognized as a seminal force.
“It’s very rare that there’s this kind of community around games in a city,” says Mr. Rabo.
“In much the same way music hubs like Seattle and New York were really important places for the growth of the music movement, so is the independent games scene for the growth of an independent games movement.”
How far Toronto’s indie game developers take their craft remains to be seen, but one thing’s certain: The next level and its rewards are lurking just around the corner.