Calgary targeting video game sector for growth

Calgary targeting video game sector for growth
A request for proposals issued last week by Calgary Economic Development seeks a firm that can develop a “video game and immersive technologies strategy” for the city. The project will involve working with Calgary’s tech sector and post-secondary institutions to identify ways to build and grow a thriving game design industry locally.

Video game design is a multibillion-dollar industry globally and Canadian cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal already boast hundreds of studios (including big names like Ubisoft in Montreal and EA in Vancouver). Edmonton is home to BioWare, which was created by two doctors in 1995, bought by EA in 2007, and still employs over 300 people in that city.

Calgary has, so far, lagged behind. The most prominent company working in the video game space in this city is New World Interactive , the award-winning developer of the multimillion-selling Insurgency franchise. The company, which is based in Denver, set up a studio in Calgary earlier this year but employs under a dozen people there — though it has plans to expand.

Still, Luke Azevedo, Calgary Economic Development’s film/television and creative industries commissioner, said there is plenty of potential here. He added the Calgary Game Developers Association has 850 members and the city’s community of technology startups has grown substantially in recent years.

“We have a fairly robust ecosystem here right now, it’s just not very well identified,” Azevedo said, adding Calgary’s low cost of living and abundance of affordable office space could make it attractive to established gaming companies looking to set up satellite locations.

Luke Azevedo, commissioner of Film, Television and Creative Industries for Calgary Economic Development. Ted Rhodes Ted Rhodes / Calgary Herald

Keith Warner, president of New World Interactive, said quality of life and affordability were definitely factors in his decision to choose Calgary, as was the city’s $100-million economic diversification fund . Warner and his partners at Thin Air Labs have applied to that fund (the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund) in hopes of getting a grant that would help them develop a Calgary-based incubator program for startup video game design companies.

Warner said until the local gaming industry reaches a critical mass of companies, it will be difficult for New World and other studios to attract employees with the necessary skills and training.

“Our biggest challenge is recruiting,” he said. “I think part of the problem is if people come here and things don’t work out, where do they go? There’s no other company.”

The digital media tax credit, brought in under the NDP government, helped to make Alberta a more attractive place for investment in the video game field by offering a 25 per cent tax credit for labour costs in the sector. However, that program has been placed under review by the current UCP government and its future is uncertain .

“Right now, we’re all on pins and needles a little bit about that tax credit,” Warner said. “It’s pretty important to us, because it allows me to leverage up my wages without compromising the business model. And to draw somebody from Vancouver, I’ve got to incentivize them.”

Robert Andruchow, art and design department chair at MacEwan University and a board member with Digital Alberta, said education and training is another piece of the puzzle. While Alberta’s post-secondary institutions have well-recognized computer science and art and design programs, there is no dedicated video game development degree program in this province. (The University of Calgary does offer a concentration in computer game design within its computer science degree program.)

“Calgary could encourage post-secondary institutions to find a way to create more substantial game design or game art programming … but that’s not something that happens overnight,” Andruchow said.

Still, while Calgary may find it difficult to compete with the likes of Montreal or Vancouver in attracting video game companies and talent, Andruchow said this city does have its own potential.

“There is room for growth,” he said. “Calgary is a major centre and should have the capacity to have the start of a gaming industry.”
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