Canada’s Contribution to the Video Games Industry
Ah Canada, The USA’s little brother that always relies on big brothers protection. The entire country is a giant block of ice as soon as you cross the border. The beer is fantastic, we play hockey all day and drink all night. We play lots of winter sports and own the winter Olympics. But even though we live in giant igloos we still have electricity and internet connections and PC’s and all that fun stuff. We also have dozens of video game developers, many of which develop high profile, award winning, AAA titles. I bet others didn’t know that did you? You did…..well….can you pretend you didn’t and read this article anyway?
All joking aside, Canada has become a little force in the video games industry, with some of the country’s developers delivering many of the big name video game franchises this gen. Some companies are even outsourced to, such as Nintendo using Vancouver’s Next Level Games to develop Luigi’s Mansion 2 for the 3DS.
There are dozens of video game developers in Canada, many are small studios that specialize in ports or assisting bigger studios in development of AAA titles (i.e. Rockstar Toronto helps all bigger Rockstar studios in development, while also porting versions of games to other platforms. Or Ubisoft Quebec helping Ubisoft Montreal in developing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood). Most of the big name developers are located on the west coast of Vancouver (most likely due to EA Canada’s success) and Montreal. Vancouver is home to Capcom Vancouver, EA Canada, Next Level Games, Rockstar Vancouver, Piranha games and many smaller companies. The Province of Quebec is home to Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Quebec, BioWare Montreal, Behaviour Interactive and many others. Canada’s largest city, Toronto, ironically doesn’t have as many big name studios but has many smaller companies that develop mobile games and web-based games. The big name developers in Toronto are Ubisoft Toronto and Rockstar Toronto, and perhaps most famously, Silicon Knights, the developer behind the cult hit Eternal Darkness for the GameCube and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Perhaps the most famous Canadian developer (and the one taking the most heat right now) is the studio from the cold Alberta town of Edmonton, BioWare Edmonton. EA bought them too (it’s like EA is afraid of big Canadian studios being more successful than them and they just buy them out).
This article will focus on the bigger developers in Canada and their contributions to gaming such as big titles, game engines, etc. The main focus will be on the “Big Three”, that is, the three developers who produce AAA titles and don’t work on smaller titles like most other Canadian studios. The “Big Three” are EA Canada, Ubisoft Montreal, and BioWare Edmonton.
Canada didn’t have too many developers in the 80’s and 90’s; Distinctive Software was the largest and most notable, specializing in racing and sports games. Electronic Arts bought the company in 1983 and the studio is now known as the famous EA Canada Studio. The studio responsible for FIFA, NHL, Need for Speed, The Sims, and Medal of Honor game franchises. Not much needs to be said for these companies’ accomplishments. The FIFA and NHL franchises receive numerous gaming awards with each iteration, delivering realistic sports simulations and upping the ante with each version, rather it is new gaming modes, better AI or physics. The Sims franchise has won multiple awards for its attempt at simulating real life. Of all the studios in Canada, this one is the largest, employing over 2000 people, and most successful developers, with a huge studio that has “a motion-capture studio, twenty-two rooms for composing, fourteen video editing suites, three production studios, a wing for audio compositions, and a quality assurance department. There are also facilities such as fitness rooms, two theatres, a cafeteria called EAt, coffee bars, and a video games room.”
Although EA Canada is owned by the American company, EA, it is still the largest and most relied upon studio of the entire EA organization and it lead the wave in video game development in Canada. Many gamers problems with EA stem from the head office in the USA and not the development teams themselves. EA Canada can’t be blamed for DLC, DRM, online passes, etc. This studio delivers yearly quality titles and sets a standard for other video game developers.
Capcom Vancouver used to be Blue Castle Games, a studio responsible for titles such as The Bigs. Founded in 2005 from former EA Games employees, they made one IP and turned it into a cult hit. The Bigs won numerous awards and Blue Castle was voted as best new gaming company in 2008 during the ELAN Awards. In 2008, Capcom bought them out, seeing the advantage of having a developer so close to Japan (Vancouver is mere hours away) and using it as a support studio in the development of the Capcom franchise Dead Rising and its sequel, Dead Rising 2.
Next Level Games was founded in 2002 and has received many accolades in Canadian business, being named one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers and BC’s Top Employers. The studio is a favourite of Nintendo for outsourcing IP’s. Games such as Mario Strikers Charged, Super Mario Strikers, and Punch Out!! were developed for Nintendo by this small little studio. Their next project is another Nintendo IP, Luigi’s Mansion 2 for the 3DS. NHL Hitz Pro, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, and Transformers: Cybertron Adventures round out the studio’s pasts projects that aren’t Nintendo IP’s. Although the studio is third party they have found the most success on Nintendo hardware with their first IP NHL Hitz Pro, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, Ticket to Ride, and Captain America: Super Soldier being the only games that were multiplatform.
Barking Dog Studios was founded in 1998 and was most famous for helping Valve with certain maps in a game called Counter-Strike. You know that game don’t you? Of course you do, it pretty much is the oldest FPS still being played online today. In 2002 they were bought out by Rockstar and renamed Rockstar Vancouver (clever, no?). Their first and only project was a PS2 exclusive game, Bully, a game about a troubled teenager who goes to a boarding school. The game was controversial due to its sexual nature, its exaggeration of bullying, and adult orientation. Nonetheless, it still sold 1.5 million copies and is highly regarded by critics till this day, receiving many 9 out of 10’s scores and being included on the famous list of “1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die”. What is this studio currently working on? They are working on perhaps the most anticipated title of 2012, Max Payne 3. That’s right, this studio has the faith of Rockstar, and the proof is in the fact that Rockstar trusts this studio with one of their biggest IP’s. Max Payne 3 is slated to come out this spring and is expected to be a highly rated game that should sell well.
Slant Six Games was founded in 2005 and is most famous for taking over Zipper Interactive’s SOCOM franchise. All SOCOM’s released on the PSP and PS3 since 2007 have come from them. There most recent title was a controversial one amongst its fans, Resident Evil: Operation Racoon City. They are currently rumored to be working on Star Wars: Battlefront III although this is still just speculation.
Oddly, Canada’s largest Province, Ontario, with about 1/3rd the population of Canada, has a small amount of developers. It has many smaller ones focusing on mobile platforms and web based games. Its most famous studio is perhaps Silicon Knights, located about an hour outside of Toronto in St. Catherines. It is most famous for X-Men: Destiny, Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and Too Human. They are probably even more famous for their lawsuit against Epic Games for their failure to provide a working game engine (according to Wikipedia). The provincial and federal government has granted Silicon Knights over $7 million in funds over the years for hiring new employees, development on a big multiplatform title (which has yet to be released). The grants are due to the importance of the studio in Ontario and its contributions to the community, as well as Ontario’s grants it offers towards the video game industry (Mad Respect!).
Located in a Toronto suburb of Oakville, Ontario they were originally called Rockstar Canada in 1999, until it was renamed to Rockstar Toronto in 2002 as a result of Rockstar buying out Barking Dog Studios and renaming them Rockstar Vancouver. Rockstar Toronto is mainly used as a support team in bigger Rockstar projects. They have collaborated on GTA IV, Max Payne, Max Payne 2, Bully, Manhunt 2 and are currently helping out Rockstar Vancouver with the development of Max Payne 3.
Ubisoft Toronto was opened in 2009 and is one of Toronto’s newest studios, housing over 120 employees. Their first game is to be released this year, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Retribution, a game they are co-developing with Ubisoft Montreal. They are scheduled to work on Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Patriots, due for release next year. Like Rockstar Toronto, they are a developer used for support on bigger titles more than full games.
Eidos Montreal is owned by Square Enix and is known for only one title in their 5 year lifespan, 2011 Game of the Year candidate Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Eidos is a young studio that was just voted by EDGE magazines’ Studio of the Year. Their success has lead to a new studio opening in Montreal, Square Enix Montreal (not the same as Eidos Monteal, keep up will ya?). Gamers should look forward to future titles from Eidos Montreal in the future.
We’ve discussed one of the Big Three developers in Canada already, EA Canada. The second one we will discuss is Ubisoft Montreal. Ubisoft is a company based out of France and the opportunity to open up in a French speaking province of Canada, specifically the second largest French speaking city of the world; Montreal was too good to pass up. There would be no language barrier between France and Montreal. Ubisoft was trying to expand to North America in the 90’s and were eventually convinced by a Quebec lobbyist Sylvain Vaugeois. He knew that the Quebec government was trying to create jobs and multimedia was the way to go (the rise of personal computers and video game console industry was beginning).
The studio opened in 1997 with government funding and the rest is history. It now employs over 1700 employees and is known for the some of the most famous video game franchises of the last 15 years. Listing all games would take too long, so just franchises will be listed. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Series, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six series, Prince of Persia series, Far Cry series, TMNT, Assassins Creed series, Naruto series, Shaun White series, and more. Many of the series have received numerous awards and some are the most famous and best selling third party games of this generation. Ubisoft Montreal is planning on a big year in 2012 with the release of Far Cry 3 and Assassins Creed III due to release this year. 2013 sees the release of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Patriots.
The success of Ubisoft Montreal has lead to a second studio opeining in the province, Ubisoft Quebec, which employes over 300 people and offers support for other Ubisoft studios on bigger projects.
Say what you want about Ubisoft, DLC, DRM, *insert any problem you have with Ubisoft here*, those decisions come from the head office in France, the developers themselves just make the games, and they usually end up making quality games with immersive worlds, stunning graphics, and tight controls.
If the video game industry was like sports, and developers were players, then each big name developer would be like an all-star player. Some are more famous than others. USA has Activision/Blizzard, 2K games, Bungie, Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, etc. Japan has Nintendo, Capcom, Sony, Square Enix. Sweden has EA DICE and Mojang. The UK has Eidos and Rocksteady. Canada has three stars, one of which can be seen as the best in the game at the moment. EA Canada, Ubisoft Montreal, and the Wayne Gretzky/Michael Jordon/Babe Ruth/Diego Maradona of them all, BioWare. (Okay that may be a huge exaggeration but you get the point)
Yes BioWare is the last of the Big Three developers in Canada to be discussed. BioWare is perhaps Canada’s greatest contribution to gaming in general. The company has continued pushing the boundaries with each gaming generation, rather it be complex RPG battle systems, to narrative, to voice acting, to combining all these elements and making it span across a trilogy where all your choices impact the story over the course of three games (insert Mass Effect 3 ending joke here)
Located in the cold ass city of Edmonton, Alberta, the studio opened in 1995 by newly graduated Doctor’s Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip. Their success at their jobs allowed them to combine their funding (about $100, 000) and start their own video game development studio. Their first demo was sent out to 10 publishers, 7 of which returned with an offer. Eventually Interplay financed their next project, and all three owners were fans of pen & paper role playing games. BioWare presented them with a demo called that they liked and Interplay thought it would work well with the Dungeons & Dragons name attached to it. This lead to the birth of BioWare’s first hit, Baldur’s Gate. The rest is history.
After the Baldur’s gate franchise, BioWare moved onto Neverwinter Nights IP and it’s expansion packs. BioWare was starting to game critical success and fame with Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights but it was their next game that caused them to explode into the gaming mainstream. Taking one of the most famous licences of all time; Star Wars, BioWare crafted one of the best RPG’s of all time in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The game included BioWare’s classic D&D battle system, with deep narrative, fully voiced dialogue, expanded Star Wars canon and back-story, along with a new morality system that determined the games ending and gave the player many choices (characteristics BioWare is now known for). The success of KOTOR impressed George Lucas so much that his company LucasArts contacted BioWare in 2005 to develop on MMO based on KOTOR. That MMO became the recently released Star Wars: The Old Republic for the PC. After the development of KOTOR, BioWare split into two teams. One was for the MMO, the other was for development of the Mass Effect trilogy. In 2007, the Mass Effect series was born, followed by Dragon Age a year later.
In October of 2007, EA bought out BioWare (omg they bought out ANOTHER successful Canadian video game developer?) lead to the opening of BioWare Austin and eventually BioWare Ireland, BioWare Montreal, and BioWare San Francisco. BioWare now employs over 800 people and is one of the most famous and respected video game developers in the world, winning many awards for their games, business practices, and financial success. They won Spike’s VGA award for best studio of the year in 2010, they are named as one of Alberta’s top employers (in Alberta, you either play hockey, dig in the oil sands, or develop for BioWare so take that award with a grain of salt /joke) and ranked as one of Canada’s fastest growing companies.
Their franchises are some of the top rated and consist of Baldur’s Gate series, Neverwinter Nights series, MDK2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect series, Dragon Age series, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare Edmonton is currently focused on DLC for Mass Effect 3, and developing Dragon Age III. BioWare Austin is handling most of SWTOR. BioWare Edmonton assisted BioWare Austin in SWTOR and Dragon Age II, but is mostly focused on the Mass Effect Trilogy. BioWare now has a strong publisher to back it up (EA) and with their combination, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the gaming industry with industry leading AAA games being the norm.
So basically, gamers should thank Canada for these game franchises:
- Mass Effect
- Assassin’s Creed
- Eternal Darkness
- Prince of Persia
- Splinter Cell
- Deus Ex
- Max Payne 3
- Punch Out!!
- Luigi’s Mansion 2
- Dragon Age
- Star Wars: The Old Republic
All jokes and bragging aside, Canada may be a small country with development being small during the 80’s and 90’s, but the country has expanded in game development rapidly in the last decade and has spawned some of the most successful IP’s this gaming generation and should continue to add awesome video games to the market. New studios are being opened up constantly, especially in the Vancouver and Montreal areas. The new Ubisoft Toronto studio is state of the art and Montreal is getting a new Square Enix studio this year. Big game companies like Nintendo, Capcom, and Rockstar enjoy doing business with Canadian developers and have faith in them by allowing them to develop big name IP’s for them. Here’s to Canada!!!
Other Notable Canadian Development Studios