Major Game Developers Are Incubators for Vancouver’s Growing Indie Scene
Author's Note: This was a feature I wrote in the Spring of 2016 for one of my university classes. I was unfortunately never able to get it published but wanted to post it here to share with everyone. It was written with a general (non-gaming) audience in mind. I've adjusted a few minor details to take into account the time that has passed since I originally worked on it.
It’s a sunny day in the fall of 2014. A welcome reprieve from the typical grey and rain that Vancouver, British Columbia is known for. Joe Van Zeipel, slim and with his short brown hair combed to the left, is bathing in the sunlight of the morning. In that moment he realizes, “This is happening.” It’s finally time for him to quit his job at the largest video game developer in the city, Electronic Arts Canada.
He meets for lunch with his friend and colleague Clint Jorgenson. For seven years the two have worked together on some of EA’s biggest games including Skate 2, Skate 3, and the surprise hit Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Jorgenson is taller than Van Zeipel, with wild fiery hair spilling out from underneath his trucker hat. He isn’t surprised by Van Zeipel’s realization. It’s something they’ve been talking about and planning for four years.
With no reason to keep it a secret that they’re leaving together, the following January they walk into their manager’s office at the EA campus to give their notice. The facility houses over a thousand people, and even has its own soccer pitch, indoor basketball court, and not one, but two Starbucks coffee shops. EA is a heavy hitter in the industry, commonly referred to as a Triple-A developer. Their games sell millions of copies and have budgets that rival Hollywood movies. It’s the type of studio that most artists and programmers would kill to work at. Van Zeipel and Jorgenson however are chomping at the bit to get out. It’s time for them to turn their back on everything they’ve accomplished. And just like that, weeks after giving notice at the start of 2015, the two have joined the growing list of Vancouver developers quitting Triple-A studios to try and make it in the city’s growing indie scene.
EA Canada's Vancouver campus
Video games in Canada are big business. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) found that in 2013 video game development contributed $2.3 billion to the country’s GDP. In 2015, that contribution had ballooned to $3 billion. That 31% increase puts even the country’s total growth of 8% over the same period of time to shame. The game development industry continues to expand as video games have never been easier to make. Development tools are accessible to not just Triple-A studios now, but anyone with an internet connection. Software to build video games, such as the Unity engine or the Unreal engine, are now free and used by teams both big and small alike. In fact, Van Zeipel and Jorgenson are using the Unreal engine for their new game project, which is the same engine being used in Microsoft’s Gears of War 4. That game, developed by Vancouver’s The Coalition, is the latest installment in a series that has sold over 22 million copies to date, and according to Microsoft, has surpassed $1 billion in revenue for the company. Whether it’s a team of hundreds or only a team of two, the tools remain the same. But just making a game is only part of the process. Getting it out to the world is just as critical of a step. The debut of Apple’s App Store in 2008 and the Google Play Store later that same year helped democratize publishing around the world. Valve’s platform Steam is the largest digital distributer of PC games in the world and has been a home to indie games since the early 2000s.
More and more, developers and game designers are forgoing traditional forms of publishing and finding success on their own. These growing ranks of indies are being spearheaded by creators and developers that have left the Triple-A world behind. So what drives developers like Van Zeipel and Jorgenson to forsake the security of jobs at these larger, successful companies? If we look at the development scene in Vancouver as a case study, we may start to find some answers.
Almost every successful independent studio in Vancouver was started by someone who came from a larger developer. Klei Entertainment is best known for its survival adventure game, Don’t Starve, and its latest strategy hit, Invisible, Inc. Klei’s founder Jamie Cheng got his start at Relic Entertainment. Before Chris Bourassa founded Red Hook Studio and launched the gothic horror game Darkest Dungeon with his partner Tyler Sigman, he had worked at Propaganda Games and had freelanced for Microsoft, EA, Relic, and more. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak from Blackbird Interactive boasts a senior staff that is comprised almost entirely of ex-Relic and EA members. Van Zeipel and Jorgenson’s new studio, Righteous Hammer Games, adds to that growing list.
Vancouver has a long history of video game development. In 1982, Don Mattrick founded Distinctive Software before it was acquired by EA in 1991. The newly formed EA Canada has been a mainstay in the city ever since. Through the 90s and 2000s Vancouver became the centre for video game development in Canada with the establishment of studios such as Radical Entertainment, Disney’s Propaganda Games, Rockstar Vancouver, and Ubisoft Vancouver. The industry hit hard times after the global financial crisis in 2008 and suffered a number of moves and closures. Radical Entertainment went through layoffs in 2012 and is no longer making its own games. Propaganda Games was shuttered by Disney in 2011. Rockstar and Ubisoft Vancouver were both lured to Ontario with better tax incentives than on offer in BC. Since that rocky period, the industry as a whole has begun to stabilize, in part from the boom in independent and smaller developers.
Before finding success with Darkest Dungeon, Chris Bourassa had gotten used to the fruits of his labour turning to ashes in his mouth. “I was working as a concept artist at Propaganda on Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned before it was cancelled. It was hard. We were six to eight months from being done. I got laid off and my first kid was born a week later.” Bourassa would go on to work in broadcasting and freelanced as an artist and art director for a number of years before forming Red Hook Studios with his partner Tyler Sigman. “I’ve always wanted to try and do new and interesting things,” says Bourassa. “I knew what a studio job looked like at a larger studio. I knew what freelance looked like, what broadcast looked like. I wanted to test myself. See if I had the chops. I wanted to have that autonomy.” Darkest Dungeon is a new spin on the dungeon crawling genre, with fear and stress being a core mechanic, but it can still be considered somewhat niche. If Bourassa had stayed at a larger studio, this idea may have never seen the light of day. “Those ships turn slow,” he says with regard to Triple-A developers. “They have lots more to lose and are risk averse. Being minimal, you can be more agile and self-deterministic.”
Darkest Dungeon was an instant success. Bourassa and Sigman turned to the crowd funding platform Kickstarter with a simple goal of $75,000. They finished that campaign with over $313,000 and 10,000 backers. To date their game has sold over 900,000 copies on Steam. Data website Steam Spy tracks and estimates sales numbers on the PC platform, and in 2015 reported that the average game sells only 32,000 units on Steam. To say that Darkest Dungeon has been a success would be a gross understatement. Red Hook Studios has become the poster child for indie success in Vancouver. That success is something a lot of developers are hoping to emulate. What was the key to Red Hook’s good fortune? “The game is a very different take on something familiar,” says Bourassa. “It’s relatable, but fresh.”
That same sentiment is something Van Zeipel and Jorgensen are hoping to capture with their first independent game, Solitairica. “Solitaire’s been relegated to … something grandmas play. That’s bullshit,” says Jorgenson. “Everybody played solitaire when they were a kid. Everybody’s messed around playing solitaire at work.” Jorgenson describes their new game as an RPG battle system with solitaire as its foundation. “We’re definitely doing something that no one has done. Our art direction and our audio direction are not following any trends. We’re kind of bringing our own style into things.” When describing their implementation of the Unreal engine to create Solitairica, Van Zeipel seems confident. “We have the tools available to make an experience that rivals some of those bigger games.” With just the two of them at Righteous Hammer Games, taking their strategy meetings in Jorgenson’s living room, Van Zeipel describes it as, “a band coming together, rather than an assembly line.” But how did they end up here, tackling their own project?
Much like Bourassa, Jorgenson wanted to prove that he and Van Zeipel could do it. “Create an entire game. Concept. Art direction. Every inch of it in our vision and have it turn out to be something great.” Both felt their skills were beginning to stagnate. The hybrid nature of their backgrounds, technical and artistic, didn’t allow them wiggle room within a larger organization that focused on specialization. “I just didn’t have a clear shot forward in the Triple-A big studio structure,” says Van Zeipel. “I didn’t fit in one of their nice little egg cartons. I just found I was hitting a ceiling and my ways forward weren’t exciting at all.” Jorgenson adds, “Being multi-disciplinary at EA you just constantly feel bad about it or something. You’re made to feel inferior about it and then moving into the indie world it’s the total opposite. You’ve got this super power. The fact that we both can just code, do art, do a handful of things … it’s critical.”
Along with growing creatively and exploring new opportunities, developers usually leave Triple-A studios for the simple reason that they are burned out. The chief culprit for burnout is the game industry’s notorious “crunch,” or overtime. Often new, young developers come into game studios all guns blazing. They’re excited and thrilled to be there and don’t hesitate to put in long hours working on their projects. When Van Zeipel started at EA in 2008, “I just had a lot of energy, because this is my first game, this is my first chance. I didn’t have any attachments. I could sink 16 sometimes 18 hours of my day into just one project.” Jorgenson’s first game at EA was 2004’s Def Jam: Fight for New York. “I basically worked 80 hour weeks every week. I loved every minute of it. No one had to tell me to, I was just so passionate and so stoked to be working at a games studio.” But as developers spend more time in the industry and begin to have families, the effects of crunch start to bleed into their private lives.
“It certainly puts strain on relationships,” says Van Zeipel. “When it got pretty bad on Skate 3 I was getting home at 9 or 10 o’clock. You’re trying to decompress, but there’s drunk people yelling on the other side of the SkyTrain and you just can’t find a zone to relax. You come home and you’re this bundle of latent tension and stress energy and your partner definitely feels that.”
Sean Sherwin worked at EA Canada for 12 years on a number of the same projects as Van Zeipel and Jorgenson. Currently he’s a Senior Level Artist working on Gears of War at The Coalition. He remembers, “My hardest one was on the Skate franchise. Our first one. I think we crunched for eight months. I was building portions of the city over the Christmas holiday at my parents’ house.”
As horrific a practice as crunch sounds, most developers will admit that if it is not being utilized as an exploitive practice by the studio, it is just a part of finishing any project. “You have a hard deadline you’re committed to. And it’s not changing,” says Jorgenson.
Chris Bourassa has experienced a number of intense crunches in his time in the industry, but what about when he and Sigman were working outside that system, on Darkest Dungeon? “With your own project, company, it’s almost unavoidable. I don’t think I could have stopped myself even if I’d wanted to. There was so much at stake and so much riding on it,” admits Bourassa.
Christi Rae is the Development Director for Capcom Game Studio Vancouver. She has worked as a project manager and director for EA, Propaganda, and Relic and has been in the industry since 2004. She concedes that some overtime is unavoidable in this line of work but that more often than not, overtime “is a result of bad management.” For a senior manager like Rae, ensuring that a project is delivered on schedule and on budget are of the utmost concern. But not, she says, to the detriment of her teams. “We’ve done our death marches. I’ve seen divorces due to work. It’s important that we hold each other accountable.”
Leaving Triple-A may have been a much needed shift in career paths for both Van Zeipel and Jorgenson. There is, however, no promise of success and the pressure is on to perform. Sean Sherwin doesn’t seem worried for the two. “Those guys are a perfect example of two people with big skillsets that can do all the stuff they need to do to make a game with just the two of them. They’re great.” Luckily for Van Zeipel and Jorgenson, it has never been easier to develop and self-publish a video game. With that in mind, Sherwin says, “I think that’s why there’s such a huge independent growth in Vancouver. People just see ‘oh I can get two guys together and we can form a company in our spare time if we want to and make a game.’ With the App Store and Google Play it’s easy to publish. You just chuck it up on the store and see what happens.” But finding not just an audience, but the success to stay afloat in a cutthroat market is another thing entirely.
“As a company, I think our strength is going somewhere … where people aren’t going,” Van Zeipel says. “That’s a philosophy that extends to our art. We’re trying to find something that’s unique and identifiable. I think the more that we try and grab on to that uniqueness, the better we’ll be able to weather the storm … and how we stand out. So we’re hoping that our uniqueness is our selling point.”
Without the backing of a major studio or publisher, Van Zeipel and Jorgenson will have to hope their dedication to their craft and their faith in their project is enough to carry them through. Whether Solitairica is a hit or not, they seem happy with the decision to strike out on their own. “Working for yourself is pretty addictive,” says Jorgenson. “Once you work for yourself, the thought of working for someone else… it just hurts to even think about it.”