This article was originally published on September 9, 2016.
"The kinds of games that BioWare makes are relatively unique in the industry," Aaryn Flynn says, rolling up his sleeves. As a result, people come to Edmonton from all over the world to work for the renowned video game developer.
He sits in a chair that looks straight out of a starship's command deck, in a room with posters and figurines and fan-created art covering the walls. He sits inside a building that looks more parkade than hub for award-winning video game design. He sits in Edmonton's BioWare studio.
"I think the great, world-class studio culture that BioWare has combined with a great city like Edmonton is a good mix," says the studio general manager. "It's not just BioWare you're coming to work for; you're going to be at BioWare in the city of Edmonton with everything the city has to offer too. And I think that's a pretty strong combination."
The origin story for BioWare is perhaps as legendary as the narrative arcs of the company's own games—the year, 1995: three ambitious medical doctors quit their jobs and embark on an epic quest. Their mission, to create some of the greatest video games the world has ever known.
This is the story of how the video game industry changed forever.
To complete this perilous journey, the three companions converted their basement sanctuary into a makeshift gaming studio. They then assembled a team of creative allies and pushed them to the limits of their abilities, leading them to glory on the gaming battlefield. Forced to fight in a world constantly in a state of flux, they had to adapt and rely on their story-driven and risk-taking approach to create some of the world's most critically acclaimed games. This is the story of how the video game industry changed forever. How BioWare's vision to "create, deliver, and evolve the most emotionally engaging games in the world" came to be.
BioWare started making games during an exciting time for the industry. After enjoying a brief comeback due to games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, arcades began to disappear. More and more gamers opted to play arcade-quality games from the comfort of their couches instead of burning through stacks of quarters at standup machines. 8-bit consoles led to 64-bit ones, 2D gave way to 3D, and games like Final Fantasy VII were released on CD-ROM because cartridges just couldn't store their expansive worlds. The late '90s saw the creation of games like Crash Bandicoot and Golden Eye 007. Then in 1998, while programmers worked frantically to inoculate computer systems against the Y2K bug, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, considered by many to be one of the greatest games of all time, was released for Nintendo 64.
Also in 1998, BioWare released Baldur's Gate for PCs to wide critical acclaim. Baldur's Gate took role-playing games to a new level of player engagement with artful and complex storytelling. This new kind of RPG gave players choice like never before: choice of companions, how dialogue progressed, which battles to fight. BioWare's passion for storytelling and for giving players choice continued with the games that followed. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic gave players the ability to choose between the dark side and the light while Mass Effect allowed characters to evolve with a combination of good and evil traits. With Dragon Age, BioWare added severe repercussions to the choices players made—the death of the main character being one of them. The company's dedication to providing real choice to players means that gamers don't simply play BioWare games—they are a part of them.
These new ways of experiencing video games developed because three University of Alberta medical students decided to take a risk and follow their creative passions. Today, there are a bunch of U of A grads working at BioWare.
"I'm one," Aaryn says. "Mark Darrah, the executive producer of Dragon Age is another … we have so many computing science grads here." The multilayered relationship between BioWare and the U of A that exists today started two decades ago when Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip graduated and co-founded BioWare. Today, the university offers a certificate program in computer game development, and the friendly folks at BioWare had a hand in developing the gateway course for the program. In Computers and Games 250, musicians, artists, writers, and computer scientists team up to create narrative-based games using the Neverwinter Nights game engine. At the end of the year, teams from both semesters compete for top honours at the annual awards ceremony. There are several categories, and BioWarians act as judges; they also stop by throughout the year to talk to aspiring game creators about the game design process and what working in the industry is like.
"This is something that not all communities can say they have," explains Neesha Desai, co-founder and chief technology officer at Alieo Games. "Because of the close relationship between the University and BioWare, students at the University can learn a lot about the video game industry, potentially get jobs within an already thriving industry, meet mentors from the company, and see that homegrown success is possible."
Alieo Games is a new example of homegrown success. They create educational games for students of all ages and skill levels. The company has taken home several prizes since it was founded in 2014—most recently, winning the third place prize at the Mitacs Entrepreneur Awards.
"Edmonton," Neesha continues, "has such a supportive entrepreneur community, and because there have been successful games developed here, it means that there are people like Ray Muzyka who are willing to mentor new companies and help them navigate the field."
Since leaving BioWare, Ray Muzyka has mentored and invested in entrepreneurs through his new company ThresholdImpact. Greg Zeschuk has moved on to other passions as well, building community through The Beer Diaries and the new neighbourhood-focused Ritchie Market, which will bring a new brewpub and restaurant, along with other fine local businesses, under one collaborative roof.
The Ritchie brewpub will hopefully be opening its doors and taps during the patio season of 2016. Still, many questions are emerging about Greg's new venture: Will there be video games at the pub? Will there be a bike ride-thru? Will Andrew-David Jahchan, Director and Lead Developer at MADSOFT Games be one of the first in line at the new establishment?
"I enjoy whiskey and wine," says Andrew-David, "with friends while playing video games," his hard to place accent making him sound like he's from Romania, not Quebec, his facial hair reminiscent of the three musketeers.
One for all, all for one could almost be the browser-based game developer's team motto; MADSOFTers support each other and the indie game community in Edmonton as well. One of the company's goals is to foster growth in the video game industry through events like MADJAM—a game jam, open to everyone, where teams are formed, and games are built from the ground up. It's kind of like the U of A's Computers and Games 250 class except that, at MADJAM events, participants only have one week to create a game. At the next MADJAM—which coincides with Extra Life Edmonton's daylong video game marathon to support the Stollery Children's Hospital—MADJAMers will have only twenty-four hours to create their games.
"It's amazing that they build them in such a short amount of time," says Andrew-David. "When I see them, I think, 'Wow, I wish I could build something this creative' … but at the same time I think a lot of other developers look at our projects and it's their aspiration … I inspire them, and they inspire me."
Andrew-David also inspires game developers as a regular speaker at the MADJAM events. He grew up in Montreal, started making games when he was ten—learning from books because he didn't have internet access back then—and relocated his 2008-founded game development company to Edmonton in 2013, moving away from Montreal and Quebec's generous tax credit for video game studios.
"Instead of competing, we help each other. We're all working together."
According to a 2014 report by The Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC)—Essential Facts about the Video Game Industry—Canada has three major hubs for the sector: British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. The main reason: tax credits. B.C. returns 17.5% of salary and wages incurred by local video game companies, Ontario has a 35% tax credit on eligible labour costs, and Quebec 30% (37.5% if there is a French version of the game). These subsidies, which encourage many game studios to set up shop in provinces other than Alberta, helped to create an ultra-competitive and over-saturated video game industry in Montreal. Although many great games have come out of this environment and many more will surely follow, Andrew-David was looking for something more than a subsidy when he decided to relocate the company to Edmonton.
"Montreal is very … it's full I'd say. There are so many indie studios that … it restricts the creativity a little bit by the fact that you have to compete with everyone else," Andrew-David explains. While in Edmonton, "instead of competing, we help each other. We're all working together. We're all doing the same events together. We're all advertising each other's games. We're all talking at each other's events. It's such a tight-knit community and it's a lot of fun to be a part of."
By coming to Edmonton, MADSOFT traded financial assistance for community support, and the company saw the benefits of relocating right away. "The first month we got here, we started growing," Andrew-David explains. "Whether it be other studios or other companies, as soon as they see that someone is trying to do something in Edmonton that's not like what you normally see here … they want to jump on board because it's something new, it's something fresh and it's something that people outside of Edmonton can use to advertise their companies." An example of this is Unity Technologies, the US-based developer of the popular game engine Unity. According to Andrew-David, the rise of initiatives like MADJAM, Game Camp, and Extra Life, made companies like Unity Technologies take notice of the indie game industry here and want to help support it. "Immediately they were on board," Andrew-David says, "spreading the word. They gave us software to give away. So it's really nice to see people outside of Edmonton wanting to support Edmonton."Lead Writer at MADSOFT Games, Corina Dransutavicius, moved with the company from Montreal and now considers herself to be an Edmontonian. "I feel much more at home here than I ever did in Montreal," she says. "When I see success from a game studio here, it's kind of like that's my success too."
Like the co-founders of BioWare, Corina admits that she didn't always want to work in the video game industry: "I wanted to be a palaeontologist; I'm a big dino nerd … What I wanted to end up doing was digging up fossils in the summer and then researching in the winter." Corina gets to indulge in her passion for dinosaurs a little bit in her current role while writing dialogue for Me and My Dinosaur, a puzzle-solving adventure game that revolves around a boy and his pet T. Rex navigating their way through level after level of fantastical environments.
"A good narrative designer," says Corina, seeming to indulge in an existential moment, "strings a player through a game without you ever knowing that you've been strung along … Writing for video games is really different than writing for any other media because you have to take into account player agency, or at least always present the illusion of player agency, so that people feel like, when they're playing the game, they are a part of the story, they have an influence on the story—whether or not they actually have an influence on the story is sort of besides the point, but they need to feel that way."
Poor game design leads gamers toward a sort of gaming existential crisis, evoking questions of What do I do next? What's the point? While good game design gently nudges gamers toward purpose, creative problem solving, and a willingness to keep playing until the end. Designing an environment that encourages aspiring game developers to play and keep playing is just as nuanced, and it takes a lot of time to create.
According to Chris Lumb, CEO of TEC Edmonton, a lot has gone into creating an environment that supports video game companies. City leaders who believe that they have a policy role to play in fostering innovation for one thing, and a unique partnership between the City and one of the largest universities in Canada for another. "The fact that there have been a number of successes throughout the years that we have been able to build on," Chris explains, and that there is "a pretty strong commitment to do things locally" has created some very fertile ground from which burgeoning video game companies can thrive.
Ric Williams, the current Executive-In-Residence at TEC Edmonton, says accessible and really good development tools, like Unity, help a lot too. Also hiring local talent can be cheaper thanks to less competition. The "gaming community is strong here," Ric explains. "Must be those long winter nights."
The long, dark, cold winter nights in Edmonton seem to find many Edmontonians warming their hands in front of glowing displays and developing games while they're at it. Why not, it's right at their fingertips these days. Having former BioWarians like Ric Williams, Trent Oster (founder of BeamDog), John Winski (lecturer for NAIT's games program), and Ray Muzyka step away from the company to help support the video game industry in new and exciting ways also helps.
It all seems to come back to BioWare. Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip created a sort of big bang for the video game industry in Edmonton when they co-founded BioWare. The echoes of that moment are still being felt today. The environment for the video game industry in Edmonton has been growing and evolving since BioWare entered the industry twenty years ago, and it's exciting to think of what's next.
"The technologies we're using now are amazing," says Aaryn Flynn from his captain's chair inside BioWare Studios. "We have just incredible tools that we can use now to bring games to life like never before. It's so vibrant and it's so rich … Games are so pervasive now that it's just a wonderful time to be making games and to be thinking about where the future is. It's very bright for games. Very bright."
The future is bright for the video game industry. From innovations in virtual and augmented reality and multiscreen gaming to global electronic sports events like the annual League of Legends World Championship where teams compete for a $1 million grand prize in front of tens of millions of streaming spectators from around the world.
As ESAC's report points out, Canada's video game industry is the third-largest in the world, contributing over $2.3 billion to the economy annually. And BioWare is a big part of that. The launch of Dragon Age: Inquisition was the most successful in the company's history, selling more than one million copies in the first week. And with the next installment of the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, slated for release in 2016, the future looks bright for BioWare and Edmonton as well. But could it be brighter?
"I think the only thing that Edmonton would need, to really be in the top tier of cities, is a provincial incentive program, the same as so many of the other provinces in the country," Aaron Flynn explains. "Now as the province is able to take a step back and wonder what the future holds for Alberta, I think [it's time for] an incentive program that really grows this global industry and really helps cement it in Alberta and Edmonton especially."
Edmonton has almost everything it needs to level up its video game industry.
Edmonton has almost everything it needs to level up its video game industry: a pool of experienced developers; musicians, artists, writers, and computer scientists graduating from video game design programs; and past successes to draw inspiration from. Only one more ally needs to be recruited. An ally that may hold the key to the industry's continued success. Armed with a subsidy, the Alberta government must join forces with battle-hardened video game developers. Only then can they achieve an epic win for the industry in Edmonton.
With this new subsidy, video game developers won't have to choose between financial assistance and community support. They can have both, and the incredibly supportive and vibrant entrepreneur community will ensure that collaboration prevails over competition.