And it's not just tax cuts that will help: An infrastructure that enables access to investors and actual startup business advice and counseling would work wonders, Toner believes -- noting many indies establish studios on their dev expertise without necessarily being strong in entrepreneurship. Support in those arenas could pay big returns on a relatively small investment, he suggests.
Toner sees a role in politics as an extension of the systems analysis that game designers already take to. Work with a lobby group didn't go far enough, and he saw friends fail to make an impact through community leadership roles. But the situation could get critical if someone doesn't do something soon, he says.
When he speaks to his former students, most of them have gone to other cities, and those that are still in Vancouver are struggling. "We've got these talented young people and we're training them and then they're draining away. And in the case of Rockstar, we're exporting them."
There isn't even enough data to know how bad things are, but a pulse check seems dire, according to Toner. "For the first time in years, the city of Vancouver is helping to do a benchmark study," he says. "It's appalling the lack of data we've got. But anecdotally, from talking to studio heads in town -- they did a big survey at the [industry's] peak -- I was told we had 60 viable game studios there. Now, there are maybe 20 studios that can meet payroll consistently. If that trend is remotely true, that's terrible."
The local community is tech-savvy, progressive, and ready to help, and so is the city mayor, "one of the guys who gets it," Toner says. They just need the government, which he characterizes as too preoccupied with holding onto power and playing politics, to hear them out.
Meanwhile, the city's local dev culture and priorities have begun to shift in complex ways. "Any time lots of jobs leave a community, the community is hit," says indie dev Shane Neville. "While I haven't seen any other indies directly affected by the cuts, we all see some of our friends moving south to work in the U.S., or east to go to Ontario or Quebec."
And the startup culture that usually sprouts in the wake of layoffs is challenged by what Neville describes as "heated" bidding for what incentives are available. "It used to be that nobody talked about what studio got funding from the Canadian Media Fund, but now every time winners are announced, you hear people congratulating each other or complaining," he observes.
Even though it has a talent base that has expertise in triple-A development, in his view the Vancouver community skews in background toward the work-for-hire games development culture. "With more studios being wholly owned by the publisher, or being start-ups, the service work mentality is a very hard one to be successful with," says Neville.
He also sees the community as being resistant to free-to-play, clinging to dependency on publishers and hesitating to explore new business models crucial to vital communities. And he's also observed another change: Now the priority is budget, not quality.
"At the end of the year, you would see the display cases fill up with awards and plaques. Once the [U.S.] dollar reached parity, there was a lot more focus on getting it done on budget at a lot of the studios," he reflects. "Vancouver studios still make very good games and the occasional hit, but we used to consistently make a lot of great games."