Toronto, Ontario is home to a remarkable assemblage of independent game developers, most of who work alone or in small groups, driven by a passion for their art and free from the compromises so often associated with corporate life. We asked Nathan Vella of Capybara Games and Raigan Burns of Metanet Software to help us take the measure of Toronto's game development geography.
Do It Yourself
"So far there isn't a big studio presence here, especially since Pseudo shut down," Burns told us. "Koei's around and there's a branch of Rockstar out beyond the suburbs. There are other companies, but they tend to be located outside of Toronto for economic reasons. And they're less fun," he added. "Other than that, it's mostly small or medium-sized groups, focusing on PC and mobile rather than console. There are a lot of people making games though."
Vella agreed, telling us, "There is a virtual ton of talent in Toronto, but the fact that there is almost no large-scale game development in Canada's largest city is one of the major reasons why the indie scene does so well. You have a massive talent pool of people who really want to be game developers with nowhere for them to work. In our case, we did the only thing we could -- start our own company and make an opportunity for ourselves."
Capybara Games, the developer of Pillowfight and Critter Crunch, had its origins on the Toronto IGDA forum. "At the time there were lots of people in Toronto who loved and wanted to make games, and almost no gaming companies in the city for them to work for. After the thread on the forum, we started meeting at our local IGDA chapter meetings, then moved to meeting at a crappy bar every Monday for beer and game development talk. From there, we decided to try our hand at making our own games," Vella told us.
"We all had other fulltime jobs in enterprise software or television or something else remedial, and would work evenings and weekends developing Super Shove It and S.M.A.B.U.," Vella said. "We got our first deal developing Cars for Disney/Pixar. We quit our day jobs, got an office and started making games for a living."
Metanet Software is also one of Toronto's many self-starters. Comprised of Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, Metanet used Flash to create the freeware gem N in 2005. As N's audience grew, Metanet made the decision to keep itself small and manageable by partnering with Slick Entertainment to produce an expanded version called N+ for Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and Xbox Live Arcade (see the postmortem in the September 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine).
Help From Above
The Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC), an agency of Ontario's Ministry of Culture, plays a significant role in the Toronto arts scene by providing local book, film, and music producers as well as game developers with grants and tax incentives.
"The OMDC has made a huge difference for us -- both in terms of helping us get our ideas off the ground through financial and business support, as well proving to us that the Ontario government actually cares about the videogame industry," Vella told us. "Their funding also helped us get ideas off the ground that never would have seen the light of day had we needed to go through the traditional publisher green light route."
"However, it's not like they simply hand out money -- it's a highly competitive pitch-like process. The upside, and reason that the OMDC does make a big difference, is that they treat us indies on equal footing with the larger more established companies when it comes to competing for grants," Vella added.
"Metanet would probably not be around if it wasn't for their support -- the OMDC allowed us to afford to go to GDC when N was in the IGF!" Burns told us.
Perhaps more than anything, Toronto benefits from having a community of developers who are committed to helping each other out and are determined not to allow their nascent scene to fizzle. The Toronto Independent Game Development Jam (TOJam) organized by Jim McGinley of Big Pants Games (Hold me closer, Giant Dancer) brings together local developers to collectively bash game ideas into complete form over three days of intense coding.
TOJam has seen the emergence of a number of developers who have gained a wider recognition since. Jonathan Mak of Queasy Games created TOJam Thing at the 2006 event and has since released Everyday Shooter for PlayStation 3 and Windows. Shawn McGrath of ][ (right square bracket left square bracket) whose game Chain3 is currently available for iPhone, built the award-winning a game about bouncing at TOJam 2008. Now in its fourth year, the next TOJam is set for May 2009.
The Artsy Games Incubator is another significant boost to Toronto's indie scene. Headed by Jim Munroe, the creator of Everybody Dies, along with help from Metanet and Queasy Games, the Artsy Games Incubator provides a guided framework for creating independent games. Operating as a combination lesson plan, manifesto, and hands-on workshop, the Incubator has helped bring to fruition such games as Benjamin River's Snow and Miguel Sternberg's Night of the Cephalopods (see Game Career Guide 2009).
"The Toronto scene is a pretty tight community," Vella said. "We help each other out where possible, mostly just through having a network of talented and successful people to talk games with. The success of local indies really fuels the scene and help us all believe that we can be successful as independent developers in Toronto. Honestly, it's hard not to be encouraged by games like N+ or Everyday Shooter getting the recognition they deserve."