5   +   8   =  

Above: EA Canada

Canada: we’re like a fuzzy hat (read: toque, eh) the USA wears to keep their head warm; sometimes, we feel more like a supplement to American culture and economy than a complement. But, when it comes to videogame development, Canada is a leviathan producing some of the most influential games to date. Of course, a lot is owed to the diverse cultures and the landmark game studios that graciously open their doors here, from EA to Black Tusk, and the subsequent developers whom later branched off into inevitable, independent innovation, to help secure Canada’s place in history as one of the largest game development countries in the world.

It would be an understatement to call 1983 a bad year for the North American videogame industry; the great videogame crash of ’83 marked the beginning of a 97% drop in revenue (from a $3 billion to $100 million industry), and it also marked the second time in only six years that the market had fallen to the perilous depths of the Klaptrap’s jowl. But 1983 also happened to be the year Distinctive Software was founded in the Greater Vancouver area of Burnaby. A survivor of the mid-80’s industry drought, and still striving off Evolution and their racing simulation series Test Drive (as well as contracts to port Castlevania and Metal Gear to PC), Distinctive was acquired by then up-and-coming developer Electronic Arts in 1991 and became EA Canada. The studio now remains as EA’s oldest active studio—and the headquarters for the multi-million dollar EA Sports franchise.

But EA was only the beginning.

27% of Canadian industry is in BC, 22% in Ontario

Canada’s gaming industry in 2015 // Electronic Software Association of Canada

Two former Distinctive Software developers went on to found Radical Entertainment in 1991, a studio which in 1994 was said to be “fast becoming one of the world’s leading [developers]” by the Vancouver Sun. Radical didn’t quite make it to the world stage, but it did forge the industry in Vancouver, the eventual home to Homeworld, Dawn of War, and Company of Heroes developer Relic Entertainment; Barking Dog Studios, the future Bully developer (as Rockstar Vancouver); and Black Box Games, now known as EA Black Box, developer of the Need for Speed and Skate series’; all before the turn of the century. Today, Capcom Vancouver develops Dead Rising, and Microsoft’s Vancouver-based The Coalition is developing the next Gears of War. Few cities in the world have boasted as many AAA studios as Vancouver, in the last twenty years.

Vancouver wasn’t alone for long. Studios began to pop up all across Canada during the mid ‘90s, one of which being a half-dozen nerds in Edmonton who dubbed themselves BioWare. Some games you’ve probably never heard of: Baldur’s Gate (1998), Neverwinter Nights (2001), Knights of the Old Republic (2003), Mass Effect (2007), Dragon Age: Origins(2009)—BioWare did them all in just over a decade. Ubisoft Montreal, developer of the totally underground and not-at-all popular Assassin’s Creed series, saw its beginning in 1997 as Ubisoft Canada. The first in the Unreal series was created in joint by Epic Games (known then as “Epic MegaGames”) with Ontario studio Digital Extremes in ’98. Even Rockstar joined the party with a studio in Toronto in 1999 which would later collaborate on the Max Payne series with Remedy, and on GTA IV with Rockstar North. Games were sending out a resounding boom, and Canada was on the front lines with no signs of lowering its lancers.

Game (year) Developer Sales (copies) Metacritic Score
Evolution (1982) Distinctive Software (Burnaby) 400 000 N/A
Homeworld (1999) Relic Entertainment (Vancouver) 500 000 93
Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000) Bioware (Edmonton) 2 Million 95
Prince of Persia (2003) Ubisoft Montreal 2 Million 89
NFS Most Wanted (2004) EA Black Box (Burnaby) 16 Million 82
Bully (2007) Rockstar Vancouver 1.5 Million 87
Assassin’s Creed 2(2009) Ubisoft Montreal 9 Million 90
Mass Effect 2 (2010) Bioware (Edmonton) 4 Million 96

Despite the exponential growth of the industry through the ‘90s, The Great North was still falling under the radar. A Government of Canada survey in 2001 revealed that nearly one-third (27%) of Canadian households owned a videogame console, yet Nintendo of Canada’s $10 million holiday marketing budget was only a fraction of Nintendo of America’s $75 million. In 2003, Canada was declared the sixth largest player in the industry, and in 2005, it was reported by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) that 35% of Canadian households owned a videogame console (compared to 33% of American households). Even so, Canada fell short of even one-tenth of the 7$ billion in US software sales, and it wasn’t until 2010 that the ESA would finally declare Canada as the third largest games industry in the world.

But the glory didn’t last long. Just two years after earning bronze, the Canadian AAA scene began to stall. Not including countless layoffs around the area, Ubisoft and Rockstar both shuttered their Vancouver studios in 2012, and Microsoft Studios left Victoria the following year. By the end of 2013, the ESA reported the number of companies in Canada had decreased by nearly 5%. Doom and gloom were touted everywhere. Canadian Business said Vancouver’s game development scene was “slowly disappearing,” while other publications and critics called it “in peril” and even “a wasteland.” Even the annual Canadian Video Game Awards packed up and headed to Toronto earlier last year after four years of ceremonies in Vancouver.

Things have picked up this year however, with Gearbox Software opening a studio in Quebec city, and Bethesda setting up shop in Montreal. But, in the shadow of the AAA colossus, it’s been the epitome of the Canadian underdog spirit—independent developers—that has helped keep Canada the third largest games industry in the world.

This article was originally published on cgmagonline.com on December 12, 2014.