Developing Toronto: Building the city’s indie video game landscape

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Gaming, to put it mildly, is big business. With 2.7 billion (and counting) gamers around the world, video games have become the largest entertainment industry on the planet and is forecasted to be worth $256.97 billion by 2025.

As part of this growth, studios such as Ubisoft, Electronic Arts and Rockstar have opened up offices in Vancouver and Montreal helping these hubs become major players in what’s called the Triple-A market, which develops productions with blockbuster-sized budgets.

While Toronto is North America’s third-largest entertainment cluster, with well-established production studios, talent agencies and creatives, the city hasn’t been known for its video game work. But that’s starting to change. After years of struggle, the local scene is beginning to establish a niche for itself. While it might not have the size or scale (or budgets) of the gaming sectors in Quebec City or Vancouver, Toronto is developing a robust indie scene, which makes up 55% of the game industry in Canada. With small teams of talented micro-developers, Toronto game developers are breaking new ground.

A city of community

“The nice thing about Toronto is that there are a lot of video game-adjacent industries, both creatively and technically,” says Adam Clare, the co-founder of Wero Creative. The Toronto-based indie game design company has a unique scale-up, scale-down structure — it only takes on contracted talent to work on projects as they arise. And this bare-bones approach helps them curate the right talent to tackle each project.

Wero launched one of its most successful games in 2019 called Dr. Trolley’s Problem, which gets players to make life-or-death decisions as a mad robot scientist using a classic philosophical challenge. While the game started as a single project for Clare, its success led to more creative projects as well as continuing to support the game itself including seven updates since its launch.

Without the attachment of corporate sponsorship or pressures from stakeholders, indie games have more flexibility in the themes they can choose to explore and how players will interact with them. In the case of Dr. Trolley’s Problem, players are made to quickly self-reflect and test their “moral fiber” while examining their instinct.

Thanks to the 18 post-secondary institutions in the GTA that nurture developers, Toronto has wide talent pool, which helps the community stay nimble and able to jump on trends. Mobile gaming, for instance, continues to see incredible gains, growing more than 12% over the past year.

“In Ontario we only have a handful of big players,” says Clare. “When the mobile boom happened 10 years ago, this is when a lot of these companies popped into existence and found success.”

That incoming wave of mobile developers meant that more support was available for those looking to break into the industry. Alenn Predko, executive director of Toronto gaming not-for-profit Hand Eye Society (HES), says the city is better positioned than many of its North American competitors.

“The community is quite large, with lots of separate groups and subcommunities, which I think is really healthy overall,” says Predko. In addition to HES, DMG, International Game Developers Association Toronto and CanadianGameDevs host workshops, provide resources and connect niche interest industry members to help build their local networks.

Plus, meetups hosted by local organizations, such as Torontaru and Dirty Rectangles, offer both newcomers and seasoned industry experts a chance to catch up on new work being done in the field and get valuable feedback on new projects. “While everything is a bit slower right now during COVID,” Predko says. “The community in Toronto is huge.”

Fighting an uphill battle

While there are many opportunities for kickstarting your game, the city does pose some challenges. Predko quickly rhymes off the issues facing the nascent industry: “Rising cost of living, public health and safety during COVID, loss of connection to the broader community affects everything we do right now.”

There are, however, several organizations working to help alleviate some of those issues. For early-stage founders, the Canada Council for the Arts does provide funding for games not already on the market. Toronto Global also has a series of tax incentive programs for digital media and gaming initiatives. But there’s even more assistance out there to get your game up and running.

“Ontario Creates runs the Interactive Digital Media Concept Definition and Production streams, which are geared toward commercial games. Both HES and DMG run initiatives such as commissioned games, incubators, showcase and speaking opportunities, all sorts of things. Folks should check out Damage Labs from the DMG,” says Predko.

How Toronto stands out

Last year alone, the video game industry in Canada added $4.5 billion to the country’s GDP; a 20% growth over 2017. While Toronto may not have as many notable, in-house companies as Vancouver and Montreal, it is one of the largest entertainment clusters and has attractive media tax credits that rivals many others in the world.

What makes Toronto different is that it doesn’t have as many companies that have claimed a monopoly over the game development market. This gives smaller companies the room to tap into the vast talent pool that is available here, and the community that is always looking out for unique experiences.

“Because Ontario doesn’t have as many big players, people who’re interested in games create their own ways of doing it,” says Clare.

Toronto developers have given us many unique games including the mysterious Below from Capybara Games which combines difficult gameplay with rewarding exploration and gorgeous visuals, and Cuphead, an award-winning co-op game by Oakville-based Studio MDHR drenched in a nostalgic 1930s cartoon aesthetic that has sold over five million copies.

Whether it’s a mobile game, a virtual reality experience or anything in between, Toronto has all the ingredients in place necessary to become a unique gaming hub that doesn’t challenge other markets head-on, but changes the game itself through innovation that can only be born through an open community and daring new ideas.


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