Gaming summit wrestles with keeping runaway-train of an industry on track

Gaming summit wrestles with keeping runaway-train of an industry on track

Creativity, talent shortfalls among growing catalogue of challenges in booming global industry

Curt Cherewayko- Business in Vancouver

Digital media programmers, designers and producers from across North America and Europe met in Vancouver last week for an inaugural two-day International Game Summit organized to address a host of challenges in what has become a thriving global industry.

In the past three years, the number of game development companies in Canada has tripled to more than 300. That rapid growth has forced gaming companies to grapple with such issues as shortfalls in talent, training and capital.

“Each company is so busy, that it’s important to have an event that unites all of them under one community, one banner,” said Trevor Sones, director of industry and government for Reboot Communications, which organized the summit.

He said the approximately 80 gaming technology studios in Vancouver want to continue to expand, but staffing shortages and a dependence on publishers is limiting the pace of growth.

“If you’re a game developer, you can design the greatest game, but you need a publisher to bring it to market,” he said.

Vlad Ceraldi sat on one of two management panels at the summit and discussed the hurdles to game publishing and financing.

As joint CEO of Hothead Games, he knows first-hand the challenges of trying to raise capital and find a distributor.

Traditionally, game developers must prove their ability and the concept of their game to a publisher to get game distribution. Hothead is relatively unusual in that it sought out private financing and now publishes its own titles, Ceraldi said.

“We think that now is the time where young, smaller, dynamic companies can make some great content and sell it direct to customers,” he said.

He also addressed spiralling industry costs. Development budgets and staff sizes, he said, are growing tremendously.

Companies are consequently taking fewer chances and focusing on developing proven licences, such as sequels, sports games and games connected to movies. Ceraldi said that sticking with guaranteed winners can erode innovation and creativity.

And that’s why it’s key to cultivating creativity and education, said Fan Trust Entertainment Strategies president Catherine Warren.

“One of the reasons that Vancouver is so hot now and so successful in this area is that we have these amazing programs like Emily Carr that allow these big companies like Electronic Arts, like Radical, to source great talent that understand the relationship between creativity, technology and business,” said Warren, who sat on a management panel at the summit.

A day before the conference, Electronic Arts announced that it will donate $1 million to B.C.’s masters of digital media program, which is scheduled to start in September. Graduates of the program will receive a master’s degree under an alliance of Vancouver’s major post-secondary institutions: UBC, SFU, BCIT and Emily Carr.

On the first day of the summit, New Media BC president Lynda Brown and Next Level Games CEO Douglas Tronsgard announced the creation of a digital entertainment task force made up of representatives from the gaming, music, film and television industries that will address the challenges of training, intellectual property creation and competitiveness.

The task force, headed by New Media BC, will work with the Ministry of Economic Development and the Ministry of Tourism, Sport and the Arts.

“It’s extremely hard to recruit people right now in Vancouver. That’s a big change,” said Warren. “Four years ago, there were a lot of people out of work in both the creative and the technology professions.”

Development companies employ more than 49,700 people in Canada, and computer and video games sales set a new record in 2006, reaching 933 million, said the NPD Group.

According to the market research firm, U.S. retail sales of video games generated revenue of close to US$12.5 billion in 2006, exceeding the previous record of US$10.5 billion set in 2005.

Howard Donaldson has been involved in organizing the summit since 2005, about the same time he started Propaganda Games.

Canada, and particularly Vancouver’s gaming industry will stay strong, said Donaldson, as long as it continues to cultivate creative talents. He said attendance at the conference, which saw about 350 attendees this year, could double next year, as new issues come up.