Two of Toronto's most prominent video-game studios are celebrating anniversary milestones. Though the studios are utterly different in scale of projects and staff, they both reflect the fact that this city makes a lot of video games. And crucially, it's a renaissance that's evolved over the past decade despite a broader dearth of commercial star power on the scene.
"If you grew up in Toronto and you want to make video games," says independent game maker Damian Sommer, who created the turn-based party game The Yawhg, "you have two options: Move somewhere that has big studios, Montreal, Vancouver, St. Catharines. Or two: Just go on your own, lone-wolf it." It's the absence of the big companies that's turning Toronto into a hub for lone wolves.
A community of independent developers, who generally don't work under major commercial publishers or pursuit more artistic exploits, have made Toronto well-known for making more video games than you'd believe. While not all of the games are huge blockbusters, they are coming out at a dizzying rate.
The Yawhg, made by a team of four, wasn't a massive hit, but even its humble success has financially sustained Mr. Sommer since he quit his banking job. Christine Love, who made Analogue: A Hate Story, Daniel Steger, who made Mount Your Friends, and Alexander Martin, who makes a lot of games, one being Starseed Pilgrim, have had similar-scaled successes, netting them captive, paying audiences eager to see what they do next.
Looking over the fray from the top of the industry in Toronto is Ubisoft. Five years ago, Ubisoft, one of the largest game companies in the world, opened a branch in the city, taking over a red brick building on Wallace Avenue, just off Lansdowne Avenue, originally built by General Electric in 1922 before becoming a sock factory. They recently acquired another wing to accommodate the growing staff. They are in the business of non-stop blockbusters.
With much fanfare, Ubisoft's Toronto studio opened in 2010 under an arrangement with the province. With $263-million from Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government, the company promised to have a staff 800 strong by 2020. By the end of 2015, they hired 400 people – the first job in the game industry for about 100 of them, managing director Alex Parizeau said.
"Managing growth and shipping big games, it's complex," he said.
Ubisoft's anniversary party was catered with nice, juicy shrimp appetizers and a custom beer, the label claiming staff had drunk their way through 8,100 litres in its social history. Davenport MPP Cristina Martins attended the party. In a speech, she praised Ubisoft franchises such as Far Cry – in an upcoming spin-off, which the Toronto studio will work on, players will be taken back to the Stone Age – and Just Dance, adding that she's happy the company has brought so many jobs to the area, spurring local development. Later, she also pointed out that the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art is about to relocate around the corner on Sterling Road.
The Canadian centre of commercial game development remains, however, in Montreal, where Ubisoft has been since 1997 and employs more than 2,000 people. In its efforts to fish out some of that strength, the Ontario government also helped with a 2012 expansion of the Oakville office of Grand Theft Auto creators Rockstar, and multiple investments into the now-defunct Silicon Knights of St. Catharines. But big-time video-game developers have shied away from the Greater Toronto Area. Eidos, BioWare and Warner Bros. offices, which can handle the weight of hundreds of young programmers and assure them experience and pay, remain planted in Montreal.
Ten years ago, Nathan Vella co-founded Capybara in Toronto, a studio that began with a flip-phone tie-in to Pixar's Cars. Operating out of a loft overlooking Spadina Avenue, the 23-person team has become a model of success for independent studios – abroad and at home – and an idol for artistically ambitious games.
"In the five years that Ubisoft has been here and growing, helping this city keep some of its talent that the smaller studios couldn't keep, it is interesting that [big studios] haven't followed their example," Mr. Vella said. (For their recent anniversary, the studio hosted about 100 friends at the Drake Hotel with food, drinks and games.)
Capybara started out working on contract for other publishers, including Ubisoft. That was until 2011, when they released the surprise hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, a strange, intimate adventure for tablet devices inspired by Carl Jung's The Red Book and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian.
When it came out – shortly after Ubisoft's arrival in the city – independent games weren't considered a massive part of the industry. Mr. Vella knew the product was a gamble and initially prayed just to break even. (It was partly funded by the Ontario Media Development Corporation's Interactive Digital Media Fund.)
The game sold more than one million copies. Along with the independent blockbuster Minecraft – its Swedish creator, Markus Persson, now owns the second-most expensive mansion in Beverly Hills – these small-studio productions started to crystallize a vision of the future. This year, a game about soccer with cars called Rocket League came out of nowhere to become a hot-ticket item, and a game from 2014 about a haunted pizzeria, Five Nights at Freddy's, still has a devoted following. No one really knows what players want until the developers make it.
Mr. Vella is greatly appreciative of the reputation that Sworcery has earned them to pursue new projects. Capybara is currently developing Below, a muted, aesthetically driven adventure. It has been in development for years; independence means you can be flexible with release dates. Their fans have become vocally impatient, though, and Mr. Vella said he'd much rather that than hear crickets.
The community itself is an indispensable part of game-making in the city. The Hand Eye Society, now a non-profit organization, was established in 2009 to mingle these makers together, once holding regular social events. Having successful members such as Mr. Vella – who, in 2010, co-founded the Indie Fund, an international grant for about two independent games per year – helped attract aspiring creators. It continues to put on gaming events throughout the year such as Wordplay, a one-day event about interactive storytelling at the Toronto Reference Library.
"Toronto is relatively expensive for a corporate entity," said Henry Faber, who runs a co-op space called Bento Miso, which has become a hub for game developers.
It also hosts Dames Making Games, a non-profit supporting women who are interested in making games.
"If you're not here to take advantage of the inherit sharable culture that Toronto has going for it, then you're looking for an insulated headquarters," Mr. Faber said.
"There are cheaper places to do that."