The Pacific Rim is home to a number of unique game industry clusters and Vancouver in British Columbia joins California and Washington as a major center of gravity for development talent. For almost three decades the Vancouver scene has been dominated by Electronic Arts' massive EA Canada facility and Radical Entertainment's productive studio.
However, in recent years the city has supported a healthy ecology in which the big studios have acted as proving grounds for ambitious developers who have gone on to create numerous start-up companies of their own.
Much of Vancouver's current development landscape is fed by streams of influence that stretch back to 1982 and the founding of Distinctive Software. Distinctive was formed by Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, and was closely associated with the publisher Accolade during its early years. Initially working on a number of PC ports and action games, the studio soon distinguished itself by creating the first entry in the long-running Test Drive series in 1987. Over the next several years Distinctive continued to hone its racing game expertise with the subsequent releases of The Duel: Test Drive II, Grand Prix Circuit, and Stunts.
In 1991 Distinctive joined Electronic Arts, becoming the publisher's first studio acquisition. Renamed EA Canada, the studio was a cornerstone of EA's rapidly growing dominance in sports games. In 1994 EA Canada partnered with Road & Track magazine to produce The Need for Speed for Trip Hawkins' 3DO dream machine. The game took advantage of the new hardware, to raise the bar for future racing sims by including realistic car handling and careful attention to engine sounds, along with race commentary and video clips of its exotic cars in action.
In addition to the Need for Speed series, EA Canada has gone on to produce a variety of sports titles for Electronic Arts including SSX, the NBA, NFL, and FIFA Street series, among others. After leading EA Canada, Mattrick went on to become the president of EA's worldwide studios before moving on to Microsoft in 2007.
Veterans of EA Canada have formed the basis of many smaller Vancouver area studios. Members of Propaganda, the creators of the new Turok, accrued years of experience at EA Canada before starting their own studio. The staff at Deep Fried Entertainment, A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games, Jet Black Games, and Koolhaus Games, have all spent time at EA Canada as well.
Radical Entertainment, creator of Prototype, has a long history in Vancouver game development. Since the studio's founding in 1991, Radical's strategy of developing sure-fire licensed titles such as The Simpsons Road Rage and Scarface: The World is Yours, along with original IP like Dark Summit has enabled it to grow into a major employer of Vancouver game development talent.
Rockstar Vancouver, maker of Bully, began life as Barking Dog Studios in 1998. Founded by developers from Radical, Barking Dog created several games including Homeworld: Cataclysm and Global Operations. Take-Two Interactive bought the studio and brought it into the Rockstar family in 2002. The studio is currently at work on Max Payne 3.
Another Radical alumnus, Martin Sikes, left in 1998 to start Black Box Games. Four years later the studio joined EA Canada and created Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. Black Box took the series in new directions with Need for Speed Underground, Need for Speed Carbon, and Need for Speed ProStreet.
Spun off as an independent EA studio in 2005, Black Box gave the skateboarding genre a much-needed shot in the arm with the release of Skate three years later. Although Black Box remains an individual entity within EA, the studio has since been moved back into EA Canada's facilities in a cost saving effort. Sikes went on to help form United Front Games in Vancouver before passing away in 2007.
Specialists in real-time strategy, Relic made a strong debut in 1999 with the release of Homeworld. The space combat game took the somewhat moribund genre in creative new directions with a true 3D environment and a minimalist, hard-science aesthetic that emphasized fire and movement over resource farming. Homeworld also featured a sophisticated visual design that harkened to the great work done by European science fiction illustrators of the 1970s.
Following their acquisition by THQ in 2004, Relic released Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and two years later brought the critical smash Company of Heroes to market. Former Relic staff members have since split off to form Smoking Gun Interactive and are currently at work on an unannounced project.
Little Studios, Big Projects
In addition to the major studios of Vancouver, a plethora of smaller studios have found a home in the area. While they may not have the three and four digit staff numbers of the big studios, their projects are no less impressive.
Hothead Games is reinvigorating the adventure game genre with the episodic Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. The studio is also at work on Ron Gilbert's upcoming DeathSpank. Ironclad Games, the co-creator of the real-time strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire, is located in nearby Burnaby. Blue Castle Games, which developed the sports titles Front Office Manager and The Bigs, is currently at work on Dead Rising 2 for Capcom.
As part of the Foundation 9 family of studios, Backbone Entertainment maintains a studio in Vancouver. Next Level Games created Super Mario Strikers and Mario Strikers Charged for Nintendo. Slant Six Games has taken over the SOCOM franchise for Sony and is currently at work on SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3. Threewave Software began by creating a Capture the Flag mod for Quake and has since provided multiplayer content for a variety of high-profile shooters including Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Doom III: Resurrection of Evil, and Army of Two.
By supporting such a range of development activity, both on a large and small scale, Vancouver is well positioned to influence the game industry throughout the 21st century.