It’s All Fun and Games: The State of Our Gaming Industry

Alberta’s video game development sector has been growing steadily since the release of the first commercial game title to be made in Alberta. On September 30th, 1996 a game called “Shattered Steel”, produced by a then little known studio called Bioware, was released, lighting the first spark for what is now a diverse and thriving games industry.

BioWare started out as a medical simulation training software company formed by three doctors and two brothers, but quickly discovered a passion for video games, Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs, and entrepreneurial chutzpah that when combined with the amazing talent they were able to attract from Alberta and beyond, has become an industry icon. For the past 20 years BioWare has grown beyond being “that little startup” and now has offices in Edmonton (Alberta), Montreal (Quebec), and Austin (Texas), employs over 500 people (over 300 of which are based at its HQ in Edmonton), was brought into international game publisher Electronic Arts portfolio, and has a string of internationally respected game titles that has redefined industry and fan expectations of what computer based role playing games are.

The video game sector is now a key pillar in the media production industries in Alberta. The City of Edmonton has recently recognized the vitality of the digital media sector (including games) by including it in the planning of the Edmonton Screen Industries Office, an arms length organization that will replace the now defunct Edmonton Film Commissioner’s Office. As well, the Ministry of Culture has recently added digital media (of which the games industry is a part of) as the fifth pillar of creative industries in Alberta joining film & television, magazines, music, and books. Lastly, the pervasiveness of digital media has been so great that the once named Alberta Motion Pictures Industry Association (the organization that advocates for film and television producers) changed its name to the Alberta Media Production Industries Association.

So, what does this mean? It means that digital media production is being recognized as a legitimate and vital industry and cultural sector. In prior years, digital media was relegated to novelty media, treated as a format for kids and shunted into experimental funding streams or tacked onto existing film or television productions as value add-ons. Today the industry is seen as an integral part of how we consume content in our daily lives for learning, information, and entertainment. More and more effort is being put into supporting interactive digital storytelling through digital media platforms. This means that funding opportunities are growing for productions that are purely digital media storytelling.

And it can’t happen fast enough. Postmedia recently published an article discussing how Albertan video game developers are eager to see tax incentives similar to those being offered in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in order to erode a disadvantage Alberta based producers face and create a level playing field for game developers.

What are the challenges? In the short term, it is vital that we continue to undo the misconceptions of what the digital media industry is and the importance that it plays in the daily lives of people across the globe. It is also vital that digital media companies work to help educate the funding providers on their business practices, production processes, and funding needs. Many of the funding environments fall into either venture capital models where technology ROI (return on investment) are key, or film/TV production models where funds are structured to the financing triggers that exist in film or TV productions. The give and take here is that it will be up to the industry experts to provide valuable information to the funding providers about how the industry works in order to create new funding models that serve today’s digital media ecosystem.

In future posts we will be featuring key players in our games development sector. Over the course of several posts we will develop a detailed picture of the game producers, their supporters, the talent that drives the industry and the business opportunities for investors.

For further reading, the leadership team at GameCamp Edmonton recently published a report on the video game industry in Alberta. It is a comprehensive overview of the industry and well worth the time. Take a look at the 2015 Alberta Video Game Industry Report.

(Special thanks to Logan Foster for the assist on this article.)

Owen Brierley
Owen Brierley
Owen is the executive director of the Edmonton Digital Arts College and past president of Digital Alberta. Owen is also a VJ who specializes in projection mapping and performative video improvisation. Owen splits his time between EDAC, VJing, championing digital media at the civic, provincial and federal levels, and building cool nerd projects with the love of his life, Pam.