Last year was a strange time for video games. The global industry seemed caught in the beginnings of its own #MeToo movement, where toxic work culture, inappropriate behaviours, and poor business practices were suddenly being called to light. Many of these revelations came on the heels of mass layoffs, such as the one carried out by Activision Blizzard against 800 of its staff, though it turns out that even such large dismissals are not as anomalous within the industry as we might think. There’s now an entire website devoted to tracking layoffs from game development studios around the globe: videogamelayoffs.com.
Here in Alberta, the issue wasn’t so much the loss of existing jobs, but the loss of potential jobs.
In late October 2019, the new provincial government announced that it was scrapping the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit (IDMTC), which offered a 25 per cent refundable tax credit on labour costs associated with interactive digital media activities, with an additional 5 per cent designated for employees from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.
For Trent Olster, CEO of Beamdog, a video game development company based here in Edmonton and most known for their release of the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition role-playing game, losing the IDMTC meant major and “immediate” changes — not just for himself, but for all of the province. “When the government officially cancelled the program, all the major studios started re-evaluating growth plans for Alberta,” Olster says in an email.
When the tax credit was initially announced in 2018, Olster says that Beamdog started to see the opportunity for serious growth. “We made a commitment to a new space, moving from 4000 square feet of office to a new space of 11,000 square feet, and we poured all our revenue into growth.” Nor was that office just for looks, before the tax credit was cut Beamdog doubled its number of staff, “hire(ing) up from 24 employees to 53.” Without the IDMTC, Olster says they’ve had to seriously pump the brakes and have “put (their) Alberta hiring down to critical needs only.”
For Jonathan Blackley, president of the MacEwan Game Development Club, the scrapping of the IDMTC is a disheartening waste of collaboration and signals more lost opportunity for game development to diversify the economy. “It was more communication from the government than the industry had ever seen,” he says, adding, “when they were setting up the tax credit, there was a really big effort to make sure that it didn’t just help the big guys.”
In fact, Blackley and his presidential predecessor, Vanessa Capito, were included in consultations alongside staff from smaller indie studios. “There was a lot of effort from the government to meet with all of (us) so they could get that breadth of perspective and get a tax credit in the system that suited the ecosystem as it actually exists,” Blackley says. “If you look at systems that exist in other provinces, they’re actually outdated from what is needed to help grow those industries. While what the other provinces have is better than nothing, the system that we had was really nicely tailored to what Alberta needed.”
According to the numbers, what Alberta needs more than anything is to grow.
Based on information from the Canadian Video Game Industry 2019 survey, conducted by Nordicity and commissioned by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, the prairie provinces only account for 12 per cent of all video game companies in the country. And we aren’t really going anywhere, compared to provinces like Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario, who have seen a combined increase of over 7,000 full-time video game development positions from 2017.
By comparison, our growth has been so small that the survey didn’t consider it worth separating the Prairies from all of Atlantic Canada, and between those two categories, there’s only been a gain of 280 jobs in the last two years. It feels like a sizeable growth when taken into consideration as a single unit, but it isn’t, because those 280 jobs are spread out across seven provinces, each with multiple studios.
Of course, there’s more at stake than simply full-time job openings. As Olster notes, any video game product, whether it comes from a triple-A production studio or an independent, will involve substantial spin-off. “We make use of local resources such as recording studios, voice actors and sound engineers,” he says. Olster goes on to cite a study of the Montreal game development scene where “it was observed that at 3,000 full-time staff, the scene exploded with new companies, new schools, and new supporting companies.”
What this means is that momentum behind video game development doesn’t just stay in the production studios, it expands into various other industries. “The skills we have as an industry will be invaluable to fields like augmented reality, virtual reality, machine learning, and user interface design,” Olster adds.
In addition, video game development can actually be quite lucrative. “Games are the fastest growing entertainment industry, by quite a large rate,” Blackey observes, and Olster adds that video games “surpassed $150 billion worldwide in revenue” last year.
There are over 2.5 billion video game players across the globe, according to Forbes, and those gamers have invested so much money into the industry that video games have exceeded both the film industry and streaming services in terms of revenue. In Canada alone, $4.5 billion was contributed to the national economy as a result of the video game industry.
Given the potential for growth, the obvious demand for product, and the undeniable economic impact, it seems strange that Alberta isn’t doing more to prioritize an industry that can only trend upwards. Blackley suggests that part of this lack of support comes down to residual perceptions about gaming.
“Because they don’t understand our industry, it’s not one they care to support,” he says, further stating: “It is something that is changing, but you’ve only really seen that change in perspective of games (not only) being for kids in the last five to 10 years. Even though the average age of a gamer is 30, there is a disconnect between the government and the actual people in that regard.”
Though the government may not understand the industry, homegrown initiatives like the MacEwan Game Development Club and their annual conference, Press A to Start, really help to build a dedicated and supportive community for those passionate about game development. This community not only strives to help its members build valuable skills and connect them through networking, it also tries to minimize the negative aspect of the industry’s few openings.
“In the local sphere, no, there’s probably not enough room for everybody that goes through our club to get a job,” Blackley admits, “there is a lot of competition … but a lot of people understand that going into this. They’re all in the same boat and struggling together, so … there’s more a sense of building each other up.”
This sense of community and cooperation among the local game development scene is admirable, and this closeness, thankfully, can translate into accountability. “I’ve largely heard more positive things about the working culture here (in Edmonton) than necessarily other parts of the industry,” Blackley says.
It’s an observation Olster echoes. “The toxic work culture issue is reaching a point where the large studios simply can- not hide their behaviour and are called to task accordingly. As an independent studio, we have the choice on how we wish to operate and we have organized the studio around paid overtime when most studios are based on a fixed monthly salary regardless of hours worked. … Our default response to a widespread trend is to bet against it. While some big studios cycle employees hard and fast, we want stable, long-term employees who retain the knowledge from the products they develop.”
Unfortunately, with the video game industry at something of a standstill, there’s no cheat code for landing secure employment in Alberta.
“People are going to make games regardless of where they live,” Blackley says, “it becomes a question of ‘do we want them to live here?’ A lot of folks are now looking at ‘alright, what other province am I going to have to move to?’ because there’s just no work for them here.”
The pattern of moving to find secure employment and success in the field isn’t just isolating, it represents another potential missed opportunity for Alberta’s economy. “That’s the biggest thing,” Blackley adds, “There are plenty of multimillion-dollar games that have been made by one guy, so, you never know if that’s going to be the next hit from that small group of indies.”
And if our developers keep having to move out of province, we’ll never know what kind of impact that game could have in Alberta.