Start-ups show that Edmonton's video-game community is a lot more than BioWare.
By Steven Sandor | May 1, 2011
Boulder, Colorado has a population of less than 300,000, but it is creating a high-tech blueprint that Edmonton’s burgeoning video-game design community hopes to follow. Portfolio.com rated Boulder the brainiest city in America. Bloomberg Businessweek (formerly BusinessWeek) rated it as one of the top 10 cities in America for artists. The city is also home to a massive tech and game-design community strengthened by business incubators like Boulder.me, an organization geared toward helping start-ups get investments.
Ken Bautista, CEO of Rocketfuel Games, believes Edmonton can become Canada’s Boulder. The co-chair of Startup Edmonton, a non-profit group that nurtures the city’s burgeoning tech community, Bautista envisions Edmonton as a place where independent studios and game designers can lean on each other for support, inspire more start-ups and become a circuit of industry innovation. Startup Edmonton, like Boulder.me, functions not on government funding, but on the volunteer work and dollars from those in that city’s tech field.
So, in the so-called Rise of the Apps era, with programmers using smartphones, tablets and Facebook as platforms that are far more accessible to independents than traditional gaming consoles, this could be the moment the city’s tech industry becomes as radiant as Boulder’s.
Rocketfuel is part of an emerging community that includes names like Visimonde, Fluik and Empire Avenue. And, while the video-game design giant BioWare remains the big boy on Edmonton’s video-game block, these smaller players may, in the long run, play a bigger role in the diversification of the local economy.
BioWare, which was purchased by Electronic Arts for over $800 million in 2007, isn’t an Edmonton-only company anymore. It has studios in Austin, Tex., Fairfax, Virginia, Montreal and Galway, Ireland. But, as BioWare has grown, so has the number of defectors in the city. “We see ex-BioWare guys starting new companies, and we want them to stay in Edmonton,” says Bautista.
Empire Avenue is a prime example. After developer Duleepa Wijayawardhana left BioWare in 2008, he joined forces with Niall Brown and Michael Mannion. Together they came up with the concept for the virtual stock market game, where players’ share prices are influenced by their activity on other social-media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook. And, they have just introduced a new version of the game to Facebook.
“Part-time turned into full-time pretty quickly,” says Robert Kallir, who came on board to give the programmers business advice, eventually became a shareholder and was appointed the company’s chief operating officer in 2009. “The business plan changed significantly from day one, which is normal for start-ups.”
Empire Avenue’s long-term plan is to make money the same way other social networks do, by giving advertisers the chance to target their audiences. The company now has indexes up on the site, so players can see whose stock is soaring in specific areas of interest. Right now, the company allows people the chance to buy more play money, called “Eaves,” so they can get richer, faster. Currently it’s generating revenue through the sales of Eaves and other virtual goods. “Most start-ups don’t generate revenue at first,” says Kallir.
Rocketfuel is also hitting the mainstream. In 2010, the company entered into a partnership with the Discovery Channel for the Seek Your Own Proof title. The game turns children aged eight to 12 into secret agents looking for clues located at participating museums and galleries. An iPhone app is in the works, where kids will actually be able to play out missions on the museum floors. After one season, the game has 40,000 members, and recently Rocketfuel launched a special version of Seek Your Own Proof for the classroom.
The portability of the game platform could be a key to future success. The characters, graphics and animations on many of these games can be changed, and the program that drives the software can be used over and over for different clients. “If you look at all of Zynga games, the FarmVilles and such, they all work on the same game mechanics,” says Bautista. So, instead of growing crops on a farm, you try and build a city or even form an ancient empire. It means a programmer can churn out multiple games by dressing up the same base program in different clothes.
Game designers are well aware that Facebook and iPads are changing the way we play. We play these games in short intervals, rather than hosting PlayStation 3 or Xbox all-nighters with friends.
“Games like FarmVille are designed to be played a little at a time,” says Ted Bradshaw, CEO at local game company Visimonde, creator of the Rinksters online game. “Someone can water crops during their lunch break. The average time spent on a game like that is about three minutes at a time. But, we are finding that our average session time is 28 minutes.”
Bradshaw knows how to engage kids. In 2002, he co-founded StudentsAchieve Software, which made educational programs for kindergarten to Grade 12 pupils. He sold that company in 2007.
Like Seek Your Own Proof, Visimonde’s Rinksters is a game aimed at children, not the usual teen-to-young-adult demographic that big game companies target. Children enter the Rinksters virtual world, network with other players and earn rewards like hockey sticks, helmets and other winter-related gear. Each player gets the chance to create a private virtual room, which can be decorated with the prizes he or she earns in the game.
“To engage kids you need to entertain them. We need to create an environment with Rinksters where parents are going to say it’s good for my kids or, at the very least, it’s not bad for my kids,” says Bradshaw.
Rinksters has attracted the attention of some professional hockey clubs. Eager to market to a younger demographic, the Edmonton Oilers have already partnered with Visimonde. At two home games last season, 10,000 packs of Rinksters hockey cards were given to fans, encouraging them to visit the virtual world. In January, Hockey Canada came on board, and kids could sport a national-team jersey in the online game. Bradshaw hopes for a wider partnership with the NHL, giving Rinksters license to use all 30 teams and create unique experiences for the kids, like the chance to visit the virtual dressing rooms of their favourite teams.
But despite the positive international attention, investors in the United States are still often surprised when Bautista tells them he’s not based in Vancouver or Montreal. While Edmonton does have exciting start-ups, it doesn’t have a strong reputation. That’s where other cities, especially Boulder, have them beat.
“Edmonton needs to focus on attracting great game designers, writers, directors and producers,” says Bautista. “We can’t be the city to make hard goods, the kind of things we get from China. But there is a lot of power in bringing in the game designers, the brainpower and nurturing their small companies. We need to be teaching people not to be finding jobs, but to be inventing jobs for themselves.
Victor Rubba, president of Fluik – a company which has seen more than two million copies of its games downloaded onto iPads and iPhones around the world – says there are still plenty of financial obstacles for local studios to overcome.
Fluik launched in April 2009, with a game called Pik’s Revenge, where a miner in a far-off planet goes on an interstellar adventure after his world explodes around him. The company created nine games last year, eight of which were released. The company has another hit on its hands with the Airport Madness series, where the gamer tries to manage air traffic, and Gunner Galaxies, the sequel to its successful Gunner game. When a game goes stale, Fluik pulls it off Apple’s virtual shelves and pushes on with the next project. It has four more games in the works, including one that sees the company expanding to Facebook with a title that will have users predicting the outcome of reality-TV series.
But even with the success Fluik has found, Rubba acknowledges the iPhone app market is especially tough. Go to the App Store and you find more than 500,000 items. There are games with lots of what designers call “polish,” along with some raw games that novices created in their dorm rooms. And then there are completely useless games for the first-generation iPhone that no one bothered to remove from the store after the hardware was updated.
“There are not a lot of barriers to entry, so there is a lot of noise,” says Rubba. “There are 500,000 apps out there. If you were to put these into video game boxes, a five-shelf unit would stretch for five miles. So, how do you get found? It’s a huge challenge.”
While Edmonton has a new generation of start-ups, Rubba says, the province has done little to help diversify the economy. Game designers are still the “red-headed stepchild” in a place where natural resources rather than videogame technology have driven the economy. “We did a big push to get people to recognize we actually exist here. I think the struggle is still there. It’s not Edmonton – it’s Alberta [government] . They have huge tax kickbacks in B.C. and Quebec, and we don’t see that here. So, I’m not a crusader for the gaming industry. I sit back and try to do things on my own.” (Even though Rubba talks about sitting back, his company hosted Global Game Jam, a January event that brought together 32 enthusiasts. Participants were split into teams and asked to design a game over the course of the weekend. “We had musicians, artists, programmers and designers – a wide range of people,” he says.)
Kallir understands the struggle game developers have in trying to convince natural resource-crazy investors to take a chance in the tech field. “Finding money is hard as it is. To get funding for start-ups – it’s just not here. We were able to raise money through people who understood the space. I don’t understand why investors aren’t getting it here. The same kinds of things we are seeing in Edmonton may well be happening in other parts of the province. There are very smart people with great ideas who are struggling, because they can’t get funded. We are way too conservative.”
He says the Alberta Enterprise Corporation, a venture-capital fund that invests in early-stage tech companies, needs to become even more liberal. “We need more seed capital,” he says.
But Bautista thinks incentives and tax breaks don’t create a strong community. He believes they create an environment where start-ups are lining up at the trough rather than burning the midnight oil to finish fantastic new games.
In 2009, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced $263 million in incentives to bring French game giant Ubisoft to the province. While other jurisdictions offer incentives and programs for developers, this was a case of a government simply placing the cash on the table. Bautista doesn’t want to see Alberta follow this example.
“It’s a culture of compliance versus hungry start-ups that build real products for real consumers,” says Bautista. If the province decides to compete with B.C., Quebec and Ontario when it comes to subsidizing the game business, he believes the biggest bang for the buck will come from spreading the money around to a lot of smaller studios. It’s better to try and fund the little guy before he grows up.
And Bautista says there’s one advantage Edmonton has over Austin, Silicon Valley, Vancouver and even Boulder: “Good thing about the colder weather is that programmers stay inside and code!”
DESIGNING FOR GAMES FOR CHILDREN
Rocketfuel’s Seek Your Own Proof and Visimonde’s Rinksters both target children, a group outside the usual young-adult-to-30-somethings demographic that the video-game industry usually goes after.
Rocketfuel’s Ken Bautista thinks the gaming industry is entering a renaissance when it comes to educational games. When CD-ROM games ruled the shelves, there were plenty of games for kids that made learning fun: think of the famous Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego? franchise.
But, as the games moved from CDs to online platforms, they dumbed down. The emphasis was solely on mindless fun, not learning. But that is changing. “There is a real push for the educational component,” says Bautista.Making online games for kids isn’t easy.
The games need to be monitored 24 hours a day, to make sure the kids are safe online. Monitors need to be ready to jump in the second they see some strange conduct in the game worlds. “We make judgment calls. Is this the kind of behaviour we want out typical player to represent?” said Visimonde president Ted Bradshaw.
And, programmers need to understand what engages kids – you can’t play with the same set of rules you use to design games for adults. According to Bradshaw, there are four factors in determining whether a child will like the game or not:Children want to express themselves; They want responsibility; They want to take care of things, like the virtual Yeti in the Rinksters game world; Children like to compete and play games; there are mini games within Rinksters‘ world that allow children to pile up points they can use on items, like upgraded equipment.
SELLING AT THE APPLE STORE
The development of games for iPads and iPhones – sold through Apple’s App Store – has gone from niche market to cottage industry.
But, even though Apple has minimal barriers to entry – an indie developer goes through the same approval process as a large company – there is a protocol that needs to be followed before getting a game to market.
“As we evolve, we get better at what we do,” says Victor Rubba, president of Fluik, which has sold millions of downloads through the App Store.
Apple vets all the apps that get sent to it. It’s not a simple case of if you send it, it will be sold. It takes about a week for Apple to get back to a developer. A game can be rejected for a number of reasons; if it alters the programming of the device (“going under the hood,” Rubba calls it), has objectionable content or features wording Apple doesn’t like – don’t use the word “demo” in your game – the game will likely be blocked from release.
A simple matter of language on the icon for Fluik’s latest game, Gunner Galaxies, got the company a rejection letter on its first try to get the game into the App Store. And, because so many games are sent through the system, Apple has a large staff of people who vet the games.
“You are never going to get the same person getting an application from you twice,” says Rubba.
Another trick of the trade is releasing a game on a Thursday, at 6 p.m. MT., so that it will be near the top of the new releases list when it comes out Friday. Studies have shown most game downloads happen on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – so you want the game to be new and notable for a weekend, not for Monday or Tuesday.