It would be disingenuous to treat the Canadian video game industry as one that began in splendid isolation, only later being taken over by foreign invaders. In many cases, the rise of the Canadian video game industry in the 90s and early 00’s hinged on the support of these companies entering the Canadian Market. Being from British Columbia, I am well aware of the importance that Electronic Arts plays in the economy of Burnaby, for example. However, many Canadian based developers who are now part of larger American companies did start off as successful companies in their own right; Relic, Radical and especially Bioware are all companies that were successful on their own terms before eventually going for the American merger. By the same token, many studios that are subsidiary to foreign companies have begun to develop their own identities – the Canadian offices of global video game giants EA, Rockstar, Microsoft, Capcom and Ubisoft, to name a few, have all earned themselves recognition for the products they make independently of their parent corporations – if sadly perhaps not enough recognition outside of those who closely follow the industry and keep aware of who actually makes their games.
Mergers with global publishers made sense during these eras. Mostly American (or in some cases Japanese or French), these companies had the edge in the start of the industry, with greater resources and the first mover advantage. Many Canadian studios had talented developers who felt it was in their best interest to get global partners for distribution, as they often struggled to balance costs with sales. On the other hand, there was a healthy innovation community within Canada, particularly in Montreal, that these foreign companies wanted to tap. This lead to the situation of today, where there are essentially two “levels” of the Canadian video game industry – the entrenched large studios that are immersed within the global framework, and the rising tide of independent studios, normally making smaller scale ‘indie’ or mobile games. The assumption has been that the money has been, and will be, within these larger studios. The smaller studios are supported not because they are seen as potentially lucrative, but rather because it is believed that they could not support themselves in the business of creativity without help. They are the small Canadian independent films to the American Hollywood of the global game studios. And yet, the Canadian video game industry is the third largest in the world, behind America and Japan – but it is being treated, both internally and externally, as if it is a bit player in terms of actual cultural impact. Canadian workers make the games, but their foreign producers reap not only the financial rewards, but also the cultural coinage.
This situation parallels many other concerns in other art forms as to the relationship between the American and Canadian cultural landscapes – that being so similar, while also smaller to America, Canada is doomed to be lost in the shadow of its neighbour. This is especially prevalent in discussions about the film industry, but Canada is not nearly the world influencer in film as it is in interactive media. This is something strange, given the wealth of talent outlined above – and also only true if a very “zoomed out” look at the games industry is taken. Indeed, looking at the “video game market” as a whole is something of a fallacy. The consumer markets for games as competitive activities, for games as hobbies and for games as art, while often overlapping, are distinct entities in their own right, and I feel it is an oft repeated mistake to try and view the games industry as a single entity, in the same way, at least in the same way as the film industry. So too, the industry should be seen as occupying different levels, including a growing “indie” game market – traditionally, the “indie” game market referred to those games made for the smallest budgets and teams, but increasingly the divide is more clear in the industry with the “AAA” space and the indie market both growing to encompass most discussion. The importance of this is that the indie game market is where Canada earns much of its respect, with titles such as Don’t Starve, Cuphead and the Long Dark being well received.