Ottawa-based Canadian Gaming Expo finds growth in inclusivity

A gamer pivots to hit  virtual target at CGX 2017
A gamer pivots to hit a virtual target at CGX 2017. (File photo by Craig Lord)

Since taking over Capital Gaming Expo in late 2016, new owner Jillian Mood has made a lot of changes.

For one, it’s growing. The first year after taking CGX over from former owners Ottawa Geek Market, Mood’s conference of Canadian gaming industry speakers and expo of local indie studios and retailers garnered 4,000 attendees to the Nepean Sportsplex over an April weekend.

Another big change has been the name, from Capital to Canadian Gaming Expo. With the new title has come a national mandate: the expo has since spread to Canadian gaming hubs such as Montreal and Halifax.

Despite the traction across Canada, Mood says Ottawa will “always be home,” with CGX preparing for its return to the capital later this month.

This year, with a new, more central home at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre, CGX will be even bigger. On June 23 and 24, the conference will welcome developers from some of this past year’s biggest gaming breakout hits such as Cuphead and Fortnite. The expo will feature 100 local studios and interactive booths including an escape room themed around Ottawa’s own inky indie success, Bendy and the Ink Machine.

Add to that huge brands such as Disney, Geek and Sundry and Twitch sending speakers and lending their support, and suddenly the first year’s event, which ran in the middle of a community hockey rink, seems quaint compared to today’s production.

“That was our first event, and it feels like we’ve done 10 years of work,” Mood says with a bit of disbelief at the lineup her team has brought together.

Difficulty setting: hard

It’s a small team – just five or six full-time staff plus a few contractors and volunteers come event-day – with big ambitions. CGX is just one event run out of the Mood Foundation, an umbrella organization that also produces game jams, hosts mentor lounges, provides indie studios with HR services and more. Mood herself also runs Girl Force, which introduces young girls and non-binary individuals to the skills needed for a career in the industry, and organizes regular meetups for game developers in the city to connect.

Jillian Mood
CGX owner Jillian Mood.

“We’re a small team, but we’re working our butts off,” she says.

What motivates Mood and her team is a mission to improve and connect local gaming scenes with Ottawa first and foremost.

“In Ottawa, when I had first moved there, the local industry wasn’t really communicating. There were a lot of missing things,” Mood says.

Since that time, she’s been a driving force behind a number of the game jams and meetups. Mood Foundation joined with a number of other local studios last September in a collective Hintonburg space where a number of events in the local gaming scene are now held.

The Foundation hasn’t taken any external funding to finance any of its numerous initiatives, Mood says. She and her husband Mike – also the developer behind the aforementioned Bendy series – have spent a great deal of their savings on the events they put on, even going as far as to put up some of CGX’s out-of-town indie studios in hotels.

“We have put a lot of our money into this. It’s a philanthropic mission for us,” she says.

Inclusive mission

A core tenet of CGX and Mood’s work in general is inclusion and diversity in Canada’s gaming industry. Mentor lounges at CGX events routinely feature female or trans-identifying game developers, and talks at the conference are aimed at helping developers build inclusive studios.

This focus on positive leadership and diversity is something that Canada “really, really needs,” Mood says, and she’s even turned it into a selling point for event organizers to partner with CGX.

The Mood Foundation has built up the connections and expertise to bring inclusivity-minded programming and speakers to events; the team was even at the annual E3 conference in Los Angeles last week – the world’s biggest gaming expo – hosting a CGX mentor lounge. The team has brought similar programming to events in New York and even Sweden in recent months.

Of course, this presents a difficult question for the Ottawa-based team: if CGX is going global, is it time for another name change?

Not necessarily, Mood says. Organizers seem to be interested in bringing in a distinctly Canadian company to put on programming, with the country’s industry having apparently built a strong international brand for itself.

“The whole world seems to be welcoming us into the events,” Mood says.

“I think we’re going to keep the name.”