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‘The fact that our building doesn’t have our signage on it and stuff – it’s a pretty Canadian vibe,’ says BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
‘The fact that our building doesn’t have our signage on it and stuff – it’s a pretty Canadian vibe,’ says BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

BioWare's 'great Canadian success story' Add to ...

By the playful standards of the video game sector, Casey Hudson’s third-floor office is decidedly understated.

There’s no slide, no pinball machine, no pool table – just a tidy desk with three computer screens, large headphones and, naturally, both an Xbox and PlayStation 3. But don’t confuse minimalism for mediocrity.

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Across the narrow room is a table covered in plaques, trophies and certificates. One, a loose sheet of paper tucked among the pile, names Mr. Hudson Canada’s video game producer of the year.

“We don’t display all our awards because there’s usually not enough space downstairs,” says the 37-year-old, wearing jeans, sneakers and a black V-necked T-shirt. “But these are some of the new ones we have from Mass Effect 3.”

Welcome to BioWare, a crown jewel among a quietly booming Canadian video game industry and the force behind Mass Effect 3, the first smash-hit game of the year. North American consumers snatched up a reported 900,000 copies on its March 6 release, a figure staff say typically doubles when worldwide sales are factored in.

Official figures haven’t been released, but that’s a projected $100-million in global sales on its release, for a game developed by a team tucked mostly onto two floors of this low-rise office building in a south Edmonton hotel.

“Yeah, it’s not very flashy. The fact that our building doesn’t have our signage on it and stuff – it’s a pretty Canadian vibe,” says general manager Aaryn Flynn, 37, one of the many Canadians at the studio’s helm.

BioWare and its 400 or so Canadian employees epitomize the success story several provinces – including Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec – are chasing with a series of tax incentives to diversify Canada’s economy. By its own estimates, the game industry directly employs 15,700 people, rakes in $1.7-billion in annual sales and is projected to grow 17 per cent over the next two years. Mass Effect 3’s success will help drive the growth.

“I think it’s a source of tremendous pride for the whole Canadian industry to have a game like that be so successful,” says Julien Lavoie of Canada’s Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

But the sands are shifting in Canada’s gaming industry, and BioWare isn’t immune. It’s a big-game agency in an era with an increasing focus on simpler games designed for tablets and smartphones; it sits in a province that, unlike many, gives it no subsidies; it just released what was supposed to be the final instalment of its cash cow Mass Effect trilogy (though it is leaving the door open to spinoffs); and, though critics have fawned, the game’s controversial ending has alienated many hard-core fans. But Mr. Flynn plays down questions about BioWare’s future.

“We’re lucky in that we have that critical mass here [to remain stable] But, by the same token, the future is so uncertain,” he says.

Mass Effect 3 was years in the making and has international appeal. It was released in several languages with 3.5 million units shipped in the first week (“I think even oil sands guys would look at it and say, ‘That’s good project management,’” Mr. Flynn says). It allows gamers to control a soldier, Commander Shepard, in an intergalactic battle. Its appeal, gamers say, lies in the rich, intricate story line, strong writing and how a player’s choices change the game down the road.

There are hurdles, however, facing this industry. The first, always, is staffing. Canadian studios are in a global dogfight for talented artists, programmers and writers – an issue exacerbated for BioWare in Edmonton, where employers of all stripes struggle with recruitment. The ESA has also pushed for Canada to fast-track work permits for its sector.

“We’re lucky in that when people apply to us, they’ve at some level mentally gotten themselves over the hurdle of ‘I guess I’d have to live in Edmonton,’” says Mr. Flynn, himself a proud advocate of the city. To cope, BioWare has a satellite production office in Montreal, where it’s easier to recruit staff.

Another issue the industry faces is foreign ownership. BioWare, founded in 1995, was bought by California-based Electronic Arts Inc. in 2008, while Montreal studio giant Ubisoft Entertainment SA is French-owned.

“It’s almost like going back to the time of the Big Three auto makers. We have really significant activity here, but ultimately the companies are foreign companies,” says Nicholas Graham, a professor at the School of Computing at Queen's University in Kingston, who studies video games.

He calls BioWare “a great Canadian success story.”

Finally, the tax incentive issue persists. Alberta has a low corporate tax rate, but its lack of targeted credits “throttle” BioWare, says Mr. Flynn, a programmer by trade.

“I think it’s fair to say the more tax credits we get, the more we can grow in Edmonton,” he says, urging governments to invest in the sector, one that provides high-paying, creative jobs for young workers.

Ultimately, Mr. Flynn says the industry’s best hope for survival in Canada is the quality of smash-hit games like Mass Effect.

“I think it just shows that you can do anything,” adds Mr. Hudson, sitting next to his pile of awards. “You can be the best in the world in industries of all different kinds right out of Canada.”

WHY MASS EFFECT 3 HAS GAMERS EXCITED

Mass Effect 3 was released in several languages.

It has a distinctly Canadian flavour. It opens with Vancouver under attack, the main character’s spaceship is named after the Battle of Normandy and the number 780 (northern Alberta’s area code) appears regularly. Edmonton actors join the likes of Martin Sheen in voicing the main characters and an Edmonton band, Faunts, provides the music for the credits. “We like to use local talent when we can,” BioWare’s Casey Hudson says.

The band didn’t foresee the scale of the gaming industry, and saw traffic to its modest website triple overnight after it was included on Mass Effect 1’s release. “After we did it, we realized it would be a massive opportunity,” Faunts drummer Paul Arnusch says.

The game has also been heralded for its egalitarian values: Players can choose a male or female Commander Shepard (named for the first American in space, Alan Shepard). They choose whether the game has more story, more gunfights, or a mixture. Players can even choose to engage in suggestive relationships with characters of either the same or opposite sex. “We’re trying to provide players with as much choice that matters – critical choice – as possible,” BioWare’s Aaryn Flynn says.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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