How Vancouver became a hub for indie video games

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      Vancouver has a lot of feathers in its cap. We’re Hollywood North. We’re packed with incredible animation talent and crawling with spunky tech startups. And, if you pick up a controller, you’ll discover that the city is also home to one of the world’s best indie game scenes. 

      That’s part of what drew American developer Davey Wreden to the city, which he’s called home since 2019. 

      One of the continent’s best-known game auteurs, Wreden became an overnight sensation with the release of his first game, The Stanley Parable. (The experience, which he wrote about on his blog, wasn’t great.) The 2013 story of an office worker grappling with an unreliable narrator, The Stanley Parable is considered a meta-modern masterpiece that became one of indie gaming’s most beloved titles: selling millions of copies, winning countless awards, and garnering shout-outs on TV shows House of Cards and Severance. More than that, the game’s deliberate deconstruction of typical tropes crystallized the self-aware humour and structural subversiveness that’s now woven into much of the indie game scene’s DNA.

      Since then, the notoriously secretive developer has released an Ultra Deluxe version with more content (in 2022), as well as a game about the pressures of making a game (2015’s The Beginner’s Guide). 

      The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe sees players take on the role of a corporate employee interacting with an unreliable narrator.
      Crows Crows Crows

      “There are lots of folks who, if I tell them I work in video games, they’re amazed or astonished, as if I told them I do BASE jumping for a living,” Wreden says. “The reality is, making video games—even the most creatively unique and exciting and fresh and groundbreaking things—it’s all just work.”

      Indie gaming is a broad umbrella. There’s no exact definition for the concept, besides games made without a major publisher. Compared to Triple-A studios like Electronic Arts or Relic Entertainment (both of which have Vancouver offices), indie developers create games with smaller teams and budgets. That can mean anything from a team of dozens—like Crypt of the Necrodancer creators Brace Yourself Games—to a solo developer creating an entire game, complete with art and music, from scratch. 

      In Wreden’s case, he’s done everything from plugging away alone to now leading an international studio called Ivy Road, which he founded alongside American artist Karla Zimonja (best known for her work on 2013’s Gone Home). Having a team has allowed him to let go of the admin work and focus on making games.

      “It freed me up to really just focus more on the actually creative work, just sitting down and trying to make cool content,” he says. “I’m really glad to have the incredible skill sets and talents of all the people I work with now, which I [didn’t] have access to back when it was much smaller team sizes on previous games.”

      Wreden also has game industry folks to thank for this move to Vancouver.

      “I have a lot of friends up here and a lot of people in the community here,” he explains. “Amongst which are the Northways. They were the people who first invited me to come visit here on vacation—I stayed with them back in 2015, and I just fell in love with the city.”

      The Northways—married couple Sarah and Colin Northway, who run Northway Games—started making indie games in the 2000s, while at the University of Victoria. 

      Colin and Sarah Northway have made a career as travelling indie developers, though their roots are in Vancouver.
      Northway Games

      Colin’s 2008 Flash game, Fantastic Contraption, which tasked players with making weird and wacky machines, was what really kickstarted their careers as indie developers.

      “That was the feted year of Flash,” says Sarah, on a video call from Antigua. “You could make games easily, quickly put them in front of anybody on a browser. It was the most glorious time.”

      Back then, Sarah worked in game development in San Francisco, while Colin made “websites for lawyers.” Fantastic Contraption was something he created on the side, but it blew up. The Northways quit their jobs, became indie game developers, and spent the next five years travelling the world while making more little games, like Sarah’s Rebuild zombie apocalypse series and 2012’s Incredipede. 

      The late 2000s and early 2010s were something of a golden age for indie video games, as development tools became easier to use and access. Simultaneously, digital distribution kicked off in earnest: games, especially for consoles, used to have to be bought on physical hardware, but in 2008 Xbox’s Summer of Arcade started promoting select indie titles to wider audiences, while Steam, PC gaming’s biggest digital platform, let developers sell their own indie titles through it around 2012.   

      “We were incredibly lucky with our timing,” Sarah reflects. “A lot of the Vancouver indie developers that we’ve kept in touch with all got started around that same time, where it was this sudden [shift].”

      Eventually, in 2014, the couple decided to settle down somewhere for good—and, with friends and family in Vancouver, it was an easy decision for them. By that time, there was already a flourishing scene of independent game developers here. 

      “Our roommate from Victoria, he started a meet-up in Victoria for indie devs, and when he moved to Vancouver, I think he brought it with him,” Sarah says. “But it was just this really small community in 2010.” 

      She’s referring to Full Indie, the game developer meet-up that was founded by Jake Birkett and Alex Vostrov in 2010, which at its peak counted 5,000 members. The organization held regular indie meet-ups as well as a large annual conference, Full Indie Summit, until Covid brought in-person events to a halt. 

      Full Indie’s new president, Aryo Nazaradeh, took the helm after returning to the city from Toronto in 2022. He was looking to get into game audio and was searching for industry networking events.

      “While Full Indie did originally stop due to Covid, they just never started back up because the people running it didn’t have time anymore,” Nazaradeh says, on a video call from Colombia. When he was looking into organizing meet-ups, Full Indie offered to let him use their email list, and then suggested he take over the role. 

      Meet-ups currently take place at The Gaming Stadium in Richmond, with over 100 people coming every month to show off their games, meet fellow makers, and hear short presentations from folks in the industry. It’s not exactly what it used to be, but it’s a continuation of the collaborative, supportive scene that sprang up from the early days of nerds gravitating towards each other and sharing their experiences with making games from scratch.

      “The people here are really, really passionate,” he adds. “People are really helpful to each other.”

      It’s indisputable that the community is one part of what made Vancouver tick. And, although it’s harder to quantify, insiders suggest that some amount of the initial indie wave may have come from the presence of established studios already in the city.

      Gordon McGladdery, studio director of game audio company A Shell in the Pit, began making sound for games in 2012. (Between A Shell in the Pit and fellow studio Power Up Audio, Vancouver also soundtracks an improbable number of indie games.) In his view, the existing studios contributed to indie talent—whether it was developers coming to look for work; employees being laid off and striking out on their own; or even the cross-pollination of animators moving from television work into game art. Red Hook Studios, for instance, the local team behind the uber-successful Darkest Dungeon, was founded by people with experience working on major games before going indie.

      “There were a lot of big Triple-A studios, and they groomed a lot of very good developers—and then they laid them off, because the bean counters weren’t happy,” McGladdery offers. “So, they started their own things. It was a high density of really talented people working together.”

      While the global video game industry is worth an estimated $347 billion USD, it’s also a volatile one. In 2023, around 10,000 video game developers were cut from major companies, and 2024 has already seen over 8,000 job losses. The indie game market, by contrast, was worth about $2 billion USD in 2020—only a small percentage, but one that is gaining in popularity.  

      Last year, A Shell In The Pit launched its first game—aquarium simulator Fish Game—as part of the company’s pursuit of stability.

      A goldfish flees a piranha in aquarium simulator Fish Game.
      A Shell In the Pit

      “We really work hard on providing stable jobs, so part of stable jobs is providing multiple income streams,” McGladdery explains. “We’re not going to make our money back for a long time, but it has accomplished the goal that we want, which is to be the go-to game in this micro-genre, and people really like it.”

      Another factor that helped change the local game landscape? A little house in Richmond.

      “Indie House is huge in the history,” Colin Northway says emphatically. 

      Indie House, as it came to be known, was a literal house near Steveston that was filled with aspiring game developers. Semi-legendary in the Vancouver video game scene for its tenure from 2012 to late 2016, Indie House served as a hub for electric indie talent, hosting regular social gatherings for residents, friends, and fellow weird game makers. 

      Celeste, the smash hit mountaineering game from Maddy Thorson and Noel Berry, came out of Indie House. So did adventure game Night in the Woods, and Chevy Ray Johnston’s magical role-playing title Ikenfell

      Greg Lobanov, a former resident of Indie House, moved from Philadelphia to the Vancouver suburbs in 2015.

      “Vancouver was where I had the largest community of friends and other game developers that I knew of,” he explains. “It was the place that seemed like the most fun to go to, so that’s where I went, and moved in with my friends in a house in Richmond.”  

      Lobanov started making games as a kid, and had gained some internet buzz from his earlier experiments. More recently, he’s produced musical puzzler Wandersong (2018) and 2021’s Chicory: A Colourful Tale, which scooped numerous Game of the Year accolades from different publications. But, he’s quick to add, “we’re probably the lowest-selling game ever to get an award from those websites.” Now incorporated as Wishes Unlimited, the four-person studio is working on the upcoming volleyball romp Beastieball. 

      Colourful adventure game Chicory was Greg Lobanov's biggest success to date, making multiple Game of the Year lists.
      Wishes Unlimited

      “I felt like I was the young, baby-faced person, always a little bit of a step below everyone around me—which I was excited about, to learn from them,” Lobanov muses. “Now, even though Chicory has done really, really well—when I meet new game developers and a lot of them look up to me, I also know that a lot of my peers have made games that are way bigger than Chicory.” 

      In the almost-decade that he’s lived here, Lobanov has noticed that there’s a continual influx of new talent joining the local indie scene. What started as people moving from smaller cities in BC or Alberta has expanded into much of Canada, and even parts of the US

      “Within Canada, I think anybody who was really good at game development, they eventually all just ended up moving to Vancouver because that’s where everyone else was gathering,” Lobanov says. “When I moved here, I was one of the few not-Canadian people that had moved here, and now there are a lot more expats.”

      The indie scene’s gravity continues to pull people in, and developers continue to find new ways to connect. Nazaradeh is looking into the logistics of bringing back the massive Full Indie Summits; Colin Northway dreams of the city hosting a video game festival; and Lobanov runs a volleyball team of developers. 

      “It’s so natural to build a community here for people to be in a lot of the same spaces,” Lobanov says. “It kind of feels like we’re taking over a little bit.” 

      There are no exact numbers on how many indie game developers there are in Vancouver; or how many have lived here before moving elsewhere; or how many people might, right now, be working on the next big thing. But the excitement is palpable.

      “For indie games, we have become kind of a cultural centre. It’s like a black hole,” Lobanov muses. “I do think Vancouver might be the biggest indie game city on the planet.”