Snowed In Studios game for new partnerships with corporate giants

Jean-Sylvain Sormany
Jean-Sylvain Sormany is CEO of Ottawa's Snowed In Studios. Photo courtesy Snowed In Studios

When Snowed In Studios opened a second office in the city early last year, executives at the Ottawa game development company predicted the fast-growing firm would be at 300 employees within five years.

Now, they concede they’ll probably be wrong.

“We think that’s a conservative target, actually,” says senior producer Nigel Franks. “We are anticipating that number is probably going to go up. The only restriction on our growth right now is the speed of hiring.”

As business problems go, it’s a pretty good one to have. It’s also a recurring theme at Snowed In, which has seen its headcount balloon from 30 less than three years ago to more than 120 today.

And that number is poised to rise dramatically over the next few months. Earlier this month, the company launched a new studio, Scarab Games, aimed at luring Fortune 500 brands into the gaming space. 

Chief executive Jean-Sylvain Sormany says he expects the new venture to employ as many as 100 developers within a year. 

“This is the next step for us,” he says. 

Scarab’s mission is to develop games that incorporate major global brands into gaming storylines in a way that’s subtle yet instantly recognizable to the playing audience ​– for example, a space-themed title could feature lunar vehicles that resemble trucks from a well-known automaker.

'Ubiquitous' branding

As Franks points out, corporations from soft-drink giants to electronics manufacturers have been paying to have their products prominently showcased in films and TV shows for decades. Scarab plans to take the strategy to another level.

“We’ll basically brainstorm an entirely new and unique story for this particular brand,” Franks says. “We’ll end up working the brand in so that’s ubiquitous inside the actual game play. It’s not the kind of thing where it’s punching people in the head.”

Snowed In is partnering with local ad agency Neptune, whose clients include Coca-Cola, Disney, McDonald’s and Microsoft to pitch the idea to corporate boardrooms across North America. Customers will likely split sales revenues with the studio or work out a fee-based agreement, depending on the circumstances.

Franks says Snowed In is already in talks with “a well-known Fortune 500 company” to develop a multi-year gaming franchise. While he concedes that the idea of designing an entire game around a single corporate client’s brand might seem a little unorthodox at first, he says there’s method in the firm’s madness.

"We can make a compelling, amazing game experience out of anything. I don’t care if it’s stock trading."

“We can make a compelling, amazing game experience out of anything,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s stock trading. It’s essentially going to be a new revenue stream for that brand that they hadn’t previously considered. There’s a viable business in there.”

Sormany says the cost of investing in a video game is dwarfed by the amount of money corporate behemoths such as Coca-Cola or General Motors shell out for traditional global ad campaigns. It might take a bit of convincing, but he thinks clients will soon be lining up to get in on the action.

“There are a lot of companies that want to be the go-to brands for the next generation,” Sormany says. “We want to make them realize how great this is as an investment.”

Snowed In, which was acquired by Irish gaming giant Keywords Studios in a $4-million deal three years ago, has become a leader in the capital’s tight-knit gaming community. The company has teamed up with some of the biggest players in the business, including Electronic Arts, on a slew of high-profile projects that have helped make it a powerful force on the local scene. 

Sormany, a 2017 Forty Under 40 recipient, believes the firm has a responsibility to nurture a new crop of gaming entrepreneurs who will push the local sector to new heights in the same way that Shopify alumni have incubated a flood of nascent e-commerce ventures.

“We hope that Snowed In Studios will become like this giant tree that will eventually spawn smaller studios,” he says. “It will take some time. We think we can really help continue growing this (industry) in the region.”