The Gamasutra-attended closing keynote of the 2010 Montreal International Game Summit was a spirited panel discussion between the heads of four new Montreal studios -- BioWare Montreal, Funcom Montreal, WB Interactive Montreal, and Trapdoor.
The four studios are in very different spots -- but have all put down roots in the largest city in Quebec. Though Premier Partners' Jason Della Rocca served as moderator, the floor was quickly opened to questions from the audience of students and professionals eager to pick the brains of the assembled studio leadership.
The participants were Yanick Roy of BioWare Montreal, Miguel Caron of Funcom Montreal, Martin Carrier of WB Games Montreal, and Ken Schachter, founder of new independent developer Trapdoor.
While Roy praised the "energy" and "buzz" of the game developer-filled town, Schachter said that it's tough to get established in a city so full of major studios. Finding resources is hard, and the first priority is to "build new IP and get our brand out there."
"We need people with the outlook that Ken has, independents. They're also great for the fabric of the industry," said WB's Carrier.
A major point of discussion at MIGS is the current tug-of-war between traditional console games and platforms like Facebook or iOS. Roy thinks that it's a matter of playing to your studio's strengths rather than chasing the market.
"People want to determine if it's black or white... triple-A, or free to play and digital... The part that we play in EA's portfolio is the triple-A games, the more expensive bets. That's really what we bring to EA as a company."
"At the same, time EA has been very vocal about how much they are shifting their investment. They're all viable, we need to make sure we bring to the plate is what we are best at. The kind of studio we are building here in Montreal is what BioWare is best at."
However, though WB publishes major console releases, that's not the route the company is going with its new Montreal studio. "We've decided to not go the triple-A route and go away from boxed products and into XBLA, PSN, [light persistent world]... delivered direct-to-consumer... a better scale that will give us more latitude as far as creativity... taking risks. That's going to breed innovation in the games we're going to make," said Carrier.
Trapdoor will also be an all-digital studio, Schachter said. "My belief is a little bit more long term, that studios can be born and stay in these spaces... XBLA will morph into this larger ecosystem, so our challenge is to get into that space and make a name for ourselves while there only a couple hundred titles coming out and then grow."
Innovation at Studio Scale
Spry Fox's David Edery asked the panel what the large studios would do to avoid being late to the game on emerging platforms -- as they were with Facebook and iPhone, among others.
Carrier said he doesn't mind being "fashionably late," as his parent company's brands can be relied on for success in a competitive market. "When you are talking about WB, you're talking about the power of brands... that opens a lot of doors."
Caron thinks that innovation can be either a risk or an opportunity -- and quite difficult. "It's very hard to forecast entertainment; innovation makes it even harder. It makes it even a bigger bet without enough background information to make sure our bet is the big one."
Roy believes that independents will always get there first, since they can absorb risk much easier than a studio producing games that cost tens of millions of dollars. "It's a huge company, so if you want to bet the farm on a new trend that is unproven, the farm is really big... new independent developers will join the party."
Schachter thinks Montreal is too major studio-focused, with talent "ping-ponging" between the different publisher-owned studios. "There needs to be more young indepoendent talent striking out on their own."
He also believes Trapdoor has "no choice" but to innovate, given its newcomer status. "We have to get up there and say 'look at me'. It's not worth it to start a new studio and do something average. Our first product is coming out next summer, it's our first console title, and we have to go all out."
While Caron thinks that his company's new title, The Secret World, is highly innovative -- lacking class structures as in other MMOs, for example -- he's at a loss when it comes to the bigger picture. "If you ask me how that it will evolve, I will say I have no clue."
Roy thinks balancing the evolution of BioWare's games is tough -- but the company is finding ways to do it. "The games we do require a lot of content and historically are very expensive to do... With time we find ourselves competing with FPSes now. Players expect the same level of quality in everything they have. We still have to balance how much content we put in our games with the level of quality our players expect.
"The flipside of this is that the definition of role playing games has changed over time... ... a lot of the challenge is in many ways helping people to move away from what their definition of an RPG is and exposing them" to what the genre has become this generation, he said. This evolution of the genre to a broader appeal "allows us to balance the ever-increasing expenses that are going into producing so much content for our games."
And when it comes to innovation, BioWare's products may not be truly groundbreaking in the way indie titles can be, but Roy "would argue that a lot of games we do innovate within the context of their genre."
Schachter believes that innovation is cultural -- contrasting Apple and MS. Neither hurts for monetary resources or engineering talent, but only one is producing consumer products that are trendy and desirable at present.
He also thinks it's "crazy" that "certain large studios in town will stop employees from working on personal projects at night or on weekends... you want to encourage people to work on their craft and get better."
And in terms of founding an indie, he's concerned primarily with follow-through, not run-up: "I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks is not necessarily ideas... there are tons of talented people in Montreal, tons of ideas... [but] ideas aren't really worth anything, what's worth something is the final product."