The fourth annual Canadian Videogame Awards hit Vancouver this Saturday and the story is likely to be the same as last year’s: Big, multinational studios are inevitably going to have to share their trophy hauls with tiny, independent developers.
Make no mistake, the big guys are well represented, with 2012 also being a banner year for mega-games produced in Canada. Ubisoft Montreal has nine nominations apiece for its twin blockbusters, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Far Cry 3, while Electronics Arts-owned, Edmonton-based BioWare has six for Mass Effect 3. The nominations are to be expected, to some extent, since the games costs tens of millions of dollars and required teams of hundreds to develop.
Yet, they’re not the most nominated games. That distinction goes to Mark of the Ninja, which is up for a whopping 11 awards, from Vancouver-based indie studio Klei Entertainment. Klei's release, along with Papo & Yo – a game from Montreal-based indie developer Minority Media that has six nominations – is also up against the above trio of big, triple-A blockbusters for the big prize: Game of the Year.
The scenario conjures images of last year’s CVAs, where small Toronto studio Capybara Games took home five awards for its Sword & Sworcery iPad game, thereby tying Eidos Montreal’s haul for its huge Deus Ex: Human Revolution multi-console release. The two developer groups – and games – couldn’t have been more different, but they shared the spotlight as the evening’s biggest winners.
Take last year and this year together and it’s clear that indie studios have arrived – and there’s no surer sign that the video game industry is changing in a big way.
Shaw-Han Liem, co-creator of Sound Shapes – which is nominated in seven categories – says there has been a transformation over the past four or five years. When he first went down to the annual Games Development Conference in San Francisco four years ago, indie games were still a rare curiosity – something that really only weird, artsy people were into.
But with new platforms such as smartphones, tablets and online distribution for PCs and consoles opening up new opportunities for developers, the field has exploded.
“It seemed like there was a disproportionate Toronto crew” at the most recent GDC last month, Mr. Liem says. “The difference in indie games between now and then is like night and day, both in terms of quality [and quantity].”
The new distribution channels are attracting established talent and raw recruits alike. Klei Entertainment, for one, was started by Jamie Cheng, who sold his shares in THQ to self-fund his project. Mr. Liem and his Sound Shapes co-creator Jonathan Mak, meanwhile, bootstrapped their game with a government loan until they had a prototype, which they then successfully pitched to Sony at GDC.
The revolution is both a plus and a minus for Canada. Some of the big producers aren’t changing fast enough to deal with the new reality and are feeling the pain as a result. British Columbia has been particularly hard hit by the foreign-owned publishers closing studios, but the bleeding is now expanding over into Quebec, with EA recently announcing layoffs at its Montreal operation.
At the same time, Canada is well positioned to take advantage of the rise of indie gaming, if the past few CVAs are any indication. Some platform makers are taking note of the shift, which is benefiting indie talents.
Sony, in particular, is putting a heavier emphasis on independent games, both as a differentiating force for its consoles and because the bigger studios aren’t devoting as many resources to its portable Vita console. Many of the best indie games, like Sound Shapes and the GDC grand prize winner Journey – put together by 18 people at Los Angeles-based Thatgamecompany – are therefore popping up on the PlayStation 3 and the Vita.
Mr. Liem and Mr. Mak’s company Queasy Games had about 15 people working on Sound Shapes at the peak of its development. Sony’s Santa Monica Studio helped bring in some big name artists to supply music for the game, including Beck and Deadmau5, and otherwise provided a good deal of moral support.
“There is something genuine in them wanting to bring in cool, weird stuff,” Mr. Liem says. “They definitely seem to have a track record of supporting smaller and unique projects.”
Ultimately, it comes down to the games themselves. If they fail to establish a connection between what the developers were trying to do and what the player feels when playing, then all the budget in the world doesn’t matter.
“In a lot of ways, being part of a big organization and having that kind of money flying around can be a disadvantage,” Mr. Liem says.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story relied on the CVA's somewhat unconventional method for counting nominations for several figures, we have corrected the text to reflect the final nominations.