Located in the temperate Niagara region best known internationally for wine production, St. Catharines is also home to game developer Silicon Knights, currently working on Too Human for release on Xbox 360 under the command of founder and president Denis Dyack.
Despite its significance, few even within the city are aware that St. Catharines features Ontario's largest game developer. After all, the number of staff members of Silicon Knights -- 160 -- pales in comparison to nearby province Quebec's largest, Ubisoft, which has over 10 times as many.
Famous industry firebrand Dyack has his own take on such comparisons. A St. Catharines native, Dyack chose the location based on his own familiarity with the area and a genuine belief in the existence of drawing talent in Canada without needing to be based in a big city.
"I believe that talent is the overriding factor in this industry more than anything else," said Dyack, "and you could really make videogames anywhere. You don't need to be in LA, you don't need to be in San Francisco... Though I know a lot of the industry is based in those sorts of places. But there's a ton of talent in Ontario, great programmers, great artists, and for me, it was just natural to stay here."
"I know the area, and it's an hour's drive from Toronto if anyone wants to go to a really huge city, but at the same time we can enjoy all of the benefits of Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines, all of these places are really fantastic, so, I think it's quite an advantage to be here. We're still the biggest developer in Ontario, despite being based in St. Catharines."
Dyack's local pride extends to the nearby educational facilities. Educated at St. Catharines' Brock University, he said, "We've got the best universities in the world here. I mean, you've got, within an arm's throw, twelve or thirteen universities that are world-class. Toronto, Waterloo, Brock -- one of the fastest growing universities in Ontario -- Western... they're all in Ontario."
However, Dyack was less impressed with the province's failure to stop graduates leaving the province after graduating. "Because all of our universities and colleges are subsidised by the government, what we're doing is training all of these people, educating them, and then they're leaving. We've got to stop that, but the government realises that too. Most people trained in Ontario would like to stay in Ontario, so let's start giving jobs to people here, let's keep it on Ontario and let's stop the brain-drain to Quebec or wherever."
Of course, by choosing to keep Silicon Knights in Ontario since founding the company in there in 1992, the company has not received the same benefits, such as millions in tax credits, that many companies have received for choosing to locate their development in Quebec. When asked if he felt Quebec would a better place to be located for game development, he happily admitted, "Quebec is way better," but went on to discuss Silicon Knights' efforts to work with the provincial government to make game development in Ontario more attractive.
"The subsidies in Quebec are, well, insane," Dyack quipped. "Essentially that's the only reason the studios are so big there. I think that our friends at the provincial government have been making some good forward progress and I think we need to make more, but I'm certainly a big believer in Ontario and I want Ontario to succeed."
Indeed, Dyack argued that the benefits of developing in Quebec were so extreme that they are impossible to sustain, creating a false economy. "Once those subsidies stop, because they can't go on forever -- they've got like, 50, 60 percent of salaries covered, it's really cheap to make games there -- will those business stay there, or will they move out, as they're global and mobile?"
He continued: "It's costing the government a ton of money and the payback is uncertain. I think what our government needs to do is to make smaller steps, maybe not such extremes, but get the companies actually rooted in Ontario, and really see the benefits of a long-term investment here. It really has to be a long term investment in the economy, the growth sector. I mean, video games is one of the fastest growing sectors in entertainment in the world, and we've got to do this kind of thing carefully."