With a high profile indie title, Retro City Rampage, almost out, Vancouver's Brian Provinciano has founded his own company, VBlank Entertainment. After finally gathering the courage to strike out on his own, he says he loves the city and there's nowhere he'd rather be.
"It's a gorgeous city, surrounded by mountains, water and trees," he enthuses. "Everything within the downtown core is walking distance. I've had times where I would work all morning, then go for a run or skate down the seawall, a trail that wraps around the city with the freshest air and nicest view, then return to the office for a second shift. It's a great way to get fresh air while giving your eyes a rest from the screen for a bit to enable working longer days."
He also says that despite heavy losses to Vancouver's industry, he hasn't lost his indie family. One of his fears in going indie was that he'd lose his support network of friends and colleagues, but not only has that not happened, but his network has increased as locals have rallied around an event called the Full Indie Meetup.
The Full Indie Meetup started with two developers, Grey Alien Games' Jake Birkett and Rocket Bear Games' Alex Vostrov, kicking around the idea of a Vancouver indie gathering on Twitter. So many responses came pouring in that the event quickly outgrew its coffee shop venue. 100 indies now meet every month with 50 waitlisted, and Provinciano says the mailing list has about 1000 members in total.
This tight-knit community means layoffs and relocations hit people especially hard, Provinciano says. He believes that these experiences have deepened the community's resolve and given some of his friends that last push of inspiration that's so oftne needed to try to make it on one's own. For his part, he's enthusiastic about what so much talent forged at triple-A studios can contribute to increasing the quality bar for Vancouver's indie games.
However, Provinciano also says he's a firm believer that large studios remaining open is key to keeping Vancouver's indie community healthy, as he himself learned essential core skills through his time at traditional dev jobs, and feels that experience forms an important foundation.
New graduates may not be able to find the triple-A jobs they hoped for, though. Those devs might end up shifting their attention to attainable mobile gaming goals, though, thereby supporting the city's necessary transition to a base in that arena.
There'll be jobs in emerging markets, though: Amid all the closures, the fact that Japanese mobile giant Gree has just opened a new free-to-play studio in Vancouver is a bit of bright news. OpenFeint and Google veteran Steve Lin has been tapped to head the new Gree facility, and says the base of talent available in Vancouver is part of why the company chose it.
"When we looked at where we could find an existing base of talented individuals and a city where we could recruit people to live, Vancouver made the most sense," says Lin. "It certainly helps that it's on the West coast, same time zone and a short flight from our San Francisco North American headquarters."
Lin has observed many smaller studios in the city making the necessary shift from being an outsourced triple-A partner to experimenting with mobile development. "Our office would like to help foster and support that emerging independent development community," Lin says, adding that strong third-party development will be key to the success of an open platform like Gree's.
"One of the main goals for our studio was to minimize the 'landing party' from our home office and hire the vast majority of our team locally," says Lin. "We feel that there is a lot of room to innovate in the mobile/social space, and are looking for game developers in Vancouver to help us take things in new directions... We would hope that our investment in the city demonstrates our belief that the talent in Vancouver can adapt to wherever the market may go."
All told, Vancouver does have significant challenges ahead: getting educated government support, stemming talent drain, supporting up and coming businesses and successfully shifting its skill base away from mid-tier console and work-for-hire, and more to mobile and social development. But a passionate dev community that loves its city, outspoken advocates like Matt Toner, and investment from companies like Gree provide hope that Vancouver can get what it needs to stage a renaissance in the coming years, if all falls into place.
"Vancouver is a beautiful city, where 10 years ago film, TV, and games were up and coming," Matt Toner reflects. "There are enthusiastic people with excellent ideas, and it's worth making a try. If we don't defend the things we love, politics could mismanage us into the Stone Age... We have to stop these guys, and really try to turn things around."