Hit video games help revive lagging industry in Vancouver
If there’s been one overarching theme in Vancouver’s video-game industry during the past couple of years, it’s been layoffs. As recently as the spring, Radical Entertainment and Slant Six Games shrank in size, adding to the stress of a sector that has suffered numerous job cuts and studio closures since the fall of 2008.
But that may be about to change. In the remainder of 2010 and early 2011, Vancouver developers are set to release some of the year’s biggest, and best, games. While these upcoming titles—from Blue Castle’s Dead Rising 2 to Rockstar Vancouver’s Max Payne 3, expected to land in 2011—were in production during the slump, the fact that they weren’t cancelled indicates that the local industry is rebounding strongly.
As always, EA Canada, the Burnaby studio of video-game giant Electronic Arts, is working on the latest iterations of EA Sports’ signature franchises. FIFA Soccer 11, NBA Elite 11, and NHL 11 will be released in September and October. EA Canada is also preparing the exercise game EA Sports Active 2 for a November 16 debut, and is crafting its next boxing game, Fight Night Champion, set for release in 2011.
But EA has shifted its business priorities to meet new market realities. Recent video-game sales figures indicate that a smaller number of titles are accounting for the lion’s share of revenues. That’s why, according to Pauline Moller, the Burnaby-based senior vice president and chief operating officer of EA Sports, the company has chosen to reduce the number of games it publishes, focusing instead on “fewer, bigger hits”. The industry has become a “hit-driven business”, Moller told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Also busy during the slowdown was Relic Entertainment, a THQ-owned studio in downtown Vancouver. In March, it released Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising, a game in the Warhammer 40000 franchise. In early 2011, two more titles in that series—Dawn of War II: Retribution and Space Marine—will ship. In September, the studio’s free massively multiplayer on-line game, Company of Heroes Online, will launch in North America.
General manager Jonathan Dowdes-well said by phone that Relic is the only THQ-owned developer that makes real-time strategy games, which is one reason his studio has been able to weather the storm of the past two years. He called Space Marine “the big, risky next move for us”, but reasoned that Relic’s portfolio makes it a “smarter play” to develop the game.
Not all studios have had the same amount of support. Independent developer Slant Six Games is rumoured to have had a project cancelled by a publishing partner.
Ken Rosman, Radical’s new studio head, noted that the developer’s February layoffs were a result of parent company Activision’s efforts to streamline its internal development into single-team studios. Previously, Radical had been working on two or three games at a time. The shift, Rosman said by phone, is part of an effort to “make better games”. Radical is working on a new project, but no details have been announced yet.
“Games are expensive, and consumers can’t afford to buy as many games anymore,” Rosman said, citing research conducted by Activision. But the publisher is “certainly a believer in the Lower Mainland as a viable development space”, he noted.
Activision is also working with Yaletown’s United Front Games on True Crime: Hong Kong for release early next year.
The Walt Disney Company is committed to B.C., according to Dan Tudge, vice president of Disney Interactive Studios and general manager of Vancouver’s Propaganda Games. Disney also owns Kelowna-based Club Penguin, a virtual world for kids, and in April launched the Pixar Canada animation studio in Gastown.
On the phone from his office, Tudge said that Propaganda has grown significantly in the past year because the studio has been working on games for two of Disney’s flagship properties. Tron: Evolution, featuring a story that bridges the 1982 and 2010 films, will be released in November, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned, a role-playing game based on the first three films but possessing its own story line, will appear in early 2011.
According to Wil Mozell, general manager of BigPark, Microsoft is also bullish on Vancouver’s game-development prospects. BigPark, which is set to put out Kinect Joy Ride on November 4, became a division of Microsoft Game Studios in 2009. In an interview at BigPark’s downtown studio, Mozell said the city’s style is “all about showing results”.
“We want our results to be the thing that defines our purpose,” he said.
In addition to acquiring BigPark, Microsoft has enlisted Hanno Lemke, one of BigPark’s founders, to set up a second office to work on a new project. In a phone interview, Lemke said that Microsoft has been impressed with the products that have come out of Vancouver and is “committed to the talent that’s in the city”.