Local studios becoming leaders in growing mobile gaming field

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Ottawa might not be a gaming industry mecca like Montreal and Toronto yet, but the next five years could see unprecedented growth in the category, local insiders say.

Magmic CEO John Criswick.

By Elizabeth Howell

Several factors – including a new gaming development fund, a major annual conference hosted by some of the capital’s leading companies and university and college programs producing talented young minds – are combining to foster a nurturing environment for new firms in the capital.

Still, Ottawa-­based gaming studios are quick to point out it might take a while before the region is viewed as a major player in the field.

“We feel (the future) is pretty bright, but I think the challenge is the rest of the community is still a little bit immature, so it may take some more time to foster and germinate some other companies that are delivering world­-class mobile entertainment,” said Andrew Fisher of Glitchsoft, a 10­-person outfit that designs touch­-based games for mobile devices.

Like any startup community, keys to growth and success include the number of companies being founded, the ease in which those firms can enter the market, the talent pool available in the area and the funding environment. Ottawa may never become a heavyweight in console gaming like Montreal, which boasts companies such as Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, but it can still find its niche as a leader in mobile gaming.

Expertise in that field is exactly why Ottawa has already experienced significant growth in the gaming sector in the past few years, expanding from just four companies to about 30, said Scott Simpson, the CEO of bitHeads and its gaming affiliate, Playbrains.

He added more new companies are on their way.

“There’s a big shift away from bigger console games to more mobile and social stuff, (and) you can see that in Ottawa in the last few years,” said Mr. Simpson. “Right now, you could literally have one guy working in their basement and you could put a game out tomorrow and start generating revenue from that, theoretically.”

Ten years ago, just four companies were creating video games in Ottawa. Artech was founded in 1982, bitHeads started in 1994, Fuel Industries was launched in 1999 and Magmic set up shop in 2000. Along the way, Artech shuttered operations (in 2011) and other smaller companies such as Glitchsoft and Snowed In Studios opened their doors.

Small independent studios typically seek contract work from larger console game companies, or they develop their own titles on the mobile market for smartphone and tablet users, who represent a massive, growing customer base. Mr. Simpson said many of these smaller, niche-­focused studios have entered the business over the past few years, and they’re “very successful.”

Glitchsoft is a strong example of this trend. The company began operations in 2009 with a few industry veterans looking to make an impact in the “mobile touch” space, which caters to iPad game users who want more than a simple iPad app, but a lighter experience than sitting in front of the TV, playing Xbox.

The company achieved major success this year when its He­Man iOS game rated among the top paid apps on iPhones and iPads in the U.S. The studio plans on releasing the game on several Android phones, and its iOS success landed new, high­-profile contracts.

But even a game like He­Man can be expensive to produce. Glitchsoft managed to land venture funding to the tune of just less than $1 million, but many small studios trying to make a dent in the mobile app space find it difficult to attract investors with the current sluggish economy.

Enter John Criswick, the CEO of Magmic and Ottawa’s gaming “godfather.” Mr. Criswick made headlines slightly more than two years ago by organizing the city’s first international gaming conference alongside Mr. Simpson, Mike Burns of Fuel Industries and Jean­-Sylvain Sormany of Snowed In Studios. Its second edition this past April was a huge success.

But Mr. Criswick might be most notable for providing a $4-million gaming fund in late May, designed specifically to help small studios make games that Magmic can publish. It will provide companies with $200,000 to $300,000, with the first companies expected to receive money this fall.

Magmic, which employs about 50 people, has traditionally focused on mobile card and casino games. It is best­-known for creating one of the earliest Texas Hold’em mobile games a decade ago when the poker craze first took off. The company’s game was embedded in all BlackBerry devices, resulting in more than 50 million players.

“Personally, a big part of my motivation as an entrepreneur is to help or to be known to have helped to create a creative industry in Ottawa,” said Mr. Criswick. “The game fund is something that I’m hoping will turn into something very significant.”

It could also help solve one of the main problems Ottawa studios face – attracting the industry’s best and brightest young workers.

Algonquin College and Carleton University churn out upwards of 150 game development grads every year, but there are simply not enough jobs to keep all that new talent in the city.

Industry leaders hope the injection of funding will help change that, so that they can not only attract recent graduates, but can also lure back mid­-career gaming workers who left Ottawa for greener pastures in places such as Montreal and Toronto.

“You need fund money to fuel projects, and projects fuel workers to come in,” said Mr. Simpson. “What John (Criswick) is doing with the game fund is really important because it presents opportunity, which means people will start to do a little bit more speculative development.”

With console gaming production out of reach for most small studios, Ottawa’s gaming sector will most benefit from mobile and social gaming. Mr. Criswick believes the biggest opportunity lies in licensed property that hasn’t gone digital yet, for iOS, Android or even BlackBerry devices.

Meanwhile, Mr. Simpson thinks that creating a universal gaming experience, where buyers can play the same game on their mobile device that they play at home, will be key to the region’s success.

“That’s really where the future is, so somebody can actually keep playing inside the game universe while they’re on the train coming home from work. It might not be the same game, but it’s in the same game universe, so you can stay connected all the time,” he said.

Evan Hahn also thinks Ottawa has “a lot of potential to go further.” He left Fuel Industries more than three years ago and launched Snowed In Studios with a few colleagues. The company has since developed larger console games for big names such as Electronic Arts and Eidos. Now at 14 employees, the local firm is focusing on developing its own titles.

“I think it’ll grow and our gaming conference has built awareness that Ottawa is actually doing things,” said Mr. Hahn. “We have a good mix of companies in Ottawa and a lot of different business models.”

Mr. Criswick said the city still has some hurdles to get over, the biggest being attracting talent, but thinks Ottawa is “heading in a positive direction.”

Glitchsoft’s Mr. Fisher agreed, saying a 200­-person, high­-quality studio like Ubisoft isn’t likely to set up shop in the capital any time soon, but smaller indie developers can hold the key to a sustainable future for the local industry.

“With each subsequent project release with Ottawa companies, you’re seeing larger and larger brands being drawn to Ottawa,” he said. “We’re pretty excited.”

Sidebar 1: Companies at a glance

Magmic Games

Founded: 2000

Employees: 50, peaked in 2008 with about 110

Focus: “CCC”, or casual casino and card games. Also notable for licensed content from Mattel, New York Times, Disney and Rubik’s Cube. Transitioning into a publishing role, especially with new $4-­million gaming fund.

Profitable? Yes.

Growing? Yes.

Funding: Mostly on behalf of CEO John

Criswick, various angel investors and some provincial funding.

Glitchsoft Studios

Founded: September 2009

Employees: 10

Focus: Top­-tier side-scrolling action platformers, for the “mid­-core” audience of gamers. In other words, mobile action-­based app games for users looking for something more than a simple iPad app but something lighter and more on­-the­-go than traditional console gaming. Glitchsoft’s He­Man iOS app rose to No. 1 at the U.S. App Store for iPad apps.

Profitable? Not yet, but expected within the next year.

Growing? Likely, given new contracts recently won.

Funding: Venture capital investment of less than $1 million.

Fuel Industries

(or “Fuel Youth”)

Founded: 1999

Employees: 150

Focus: Global focus, although not in Canada. Fuel Industries also has an office in Los Angeles and focuses on “global youth engagement,” or digital entertainment for brands, on mobile and web. The company has worked with major Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s Europe, Microsoft and Mattel.

Profitable: Yes.

Growing? Yes, “very steadily with trusted clients with multiple-year contracts.”

Snowed In Studios

Founded: February 2010

Employees: 14

Focus: Snowed In Studios is currently in

production of its first game, a PC “building

block RPG (role­-playing game)” named

Windforge for release in late 2013. The studio also offers development support services and for­-hire software development for larger console companies. Snowed In Studios helped develop the critically acclaimed action RPG Deus­Ex Human Revolution for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Snowed In Studios also released Monster Chase, an iOS app based on the board game of the same name.

Profitable? Yes.

Growing? Yes.

Funding: “Around the $200,000­-$300,000 ballpark.”

Playbrains

(part of bitHeads)

Founded: 1995 (bitHeads); 2008 (Playbrains)

Employees: bitHeads has 110, around 30 of which are with Playbrains.

Focus: Casino games and multi­platform

“connected” gaming, whereby the same game experience can be had on different mobile and console platforms.

Profitable? Yes.

Growing? Yes, hired six people in August with plans to grow bigger.

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