Interactive Ontario CEO Ian Kelso hopes that this year's Toronto-based Ontario Game Summit is "only the first," -- and it kicked off auspiciously.
Gamasutra attended a keynote by IGDA executive director Jason Della Rocca, who brought a broad swath of passionate recommendations to the table on how to build a stronger regional development community -- suggestions that were far divergent from the oft-touted government incentive discussion.
Introducing his talk with an image of "one of the leading lights" of the Ontario game development industry, Denis Dyack -- who has expressed interest
in the concept of game development clusters -- Della Rocca explained that people interested in the Ontario games industry specifically might have noticed the recent layoff
of 26 staff from Silicon Knights.
Despite this, says Della Rocca, "What we’re seeing is a massive increase in headcount," according to numbers from the Game Developer Census 2008, where Canada's 17 percent growth rate outpaces the U.S.'s 12 percent.
Of course, part of the reason for layoffs like those at Silicon Knights is that the headcount requirements of any video game production is fluid across development -- naturally, fewer employees are needed during pre- and post-production compared to the full production stage.
"But in most game development companies, their overhead is set at the highest point," said Della Rocca. "By maintaining the highest number of staff, you get inefficiency at the sections of the ‘curve’ where you don’t need all these people, and let them go."
"So what’s been happening in this industry is the 'budging up' of these cycles, where you aim to have enough projects scheduled that they each reach the peak of their production in a cycle -- that’s why, in many cases, you have these massive studios like Ubisoft [in Montreal]
so they never reach the valleys of the curve."
Typically, says Della Rocca, people think of that these cyclical development clusters as working all within one company -- "but you can mimic these same efficiencies across clusters if you make it easy for people to shift between companies within the cluster," he says.
"Maybe Denis didn’t want to get rid of those people, but it would have been much easier if there was an efficient way for them to move to another company." And, Della Rocca notes, Montreal in particular has come under fire for not making it easy -- for example, Ubisoft, with a large base there, has non-competition clauses.
Collaboration And Creativity
As an example of why collaboration strategies are essential, Della Rocca pointed to changing position of the Japanese games industry within the global market, arguing that while "once dominant," it's now having trouble keeping pace -- and according to many (including Square-Enix's Yoichi Wada
) the lack of sharing between companies is to blame.
"An example of what makes the ideal video game cluster is a collaborative environment," he said, "but don’t think of your region as a closed environment that collaborates internally -- but one which can collaborate actively across the globe."
Considering the changing face of the industry, Della Rocca referenced Nintendo’s television advertising which uses stars including Nicole Kidman.
"One of the biggest challenges we’re going to have is creating games for Nicole Kidman," he joked. "Where would you start? We’re not creating games for ourselves anymore. Traditionally, we talk about hardcore gamers and casual gamers, but it’s more nuanced than that."
Della Rocca used this example to criticize the games industry’s tendency to think of itself within "a box." "Madden
goes in that box, Halo
goes in that box, but there’s so much more going on out there," he said, listing everything from advergaming to free-to-play MMOs as examples of many potential avenues on offer to developers who don’t try to stay within the "mainstream".
"A successful cluster won’t put all of its eggs in one box," Della Rocca argued. "It’ll investigate all of the potential for original development, even though that takes risk. One of the things that I tell governments who are trying to move their games industry forwards is not to put the money into things that were going to done anyway."
Talent and Culture
Over the past few years, Della Rocca said, hobbyist and student developers -- such as the creators of Counter-Strike
-- have shown a "massive convergence" between professional and "amateur" talent.
"The better clusters that I’ve seen are the ones that embrace that convergence and have more holistic views of who has the talent," he said.
The points Della Rocca emphasized most was that governments ought not to think of gaming as simply an economic opportunity -- "embrace games as a culture, not just an economic engine" -- and for developers and trade bodies to ensure that they put their efforts into creating balanced clusters.
"I got into a shouting match in the UK with some people from their trade body who spend all of their time trying to get tax credits from the government that they themselves admit will never happen," lamented Della Rocca.
"I told them they were crazy; they could be spending all of that effort on other concepts that could directly improve their industry."
Della Rocca concluded with examples of regions which he felt had been at least partially successful with clustering, including Singapore -- "I was impressed with their high degree of sharing, not just within Singapore but with other South-East Asian countries"; Montreal, "everyone focuses on the tax example, but there’s a lot more to it than that"; and Austin, where "there isn’t a huge amount of help from the government, so it really is about working together."
"There really are a lot of good examples out there, but there’s no guarantee if you just copy and paste what one region did that it will work for yours."