A Look at the Rise of Edmonton’s Gaming Industry

From BioWare to Improbable, Edmonton’s gaming industry has seen a lot of growth over the last decade.

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

When BioWare started making computer games in 1995, Greg Zeschuk was a newly practising doctor. He and his co-founders, Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip, were on a shoestring budget, so, when it came to finding space to work, the trio took the most pragmatic approach — they set up shop in a cramped room in the basement of Zeschuk’s home.

“The ceilings were so low, Ray would hit his head on a regular basis,” laughs Zeschuk. “But we had space, and we had power, so we made it work.”

It was in that basement they started developing what would become their first game, Shattered Steel, which was created jointly with the Calgary-based Pyrotek Studios and released in 1996.

By that point, BioWare needed more room, so the company moved into the second floor of a building off 109th Street and 88th Avenue, out of which cycling company Redbike now operates on the ground level.

“It’s been renovated since, but at the time it was really run-down,” says Zeschuk, who now runs Blind Enthusiasm Brewing Company and Biera, both of which can be found in Ritchie Market, which he also owns. “There were only four plugs in the wall, so the power would go out all the time. There were about 20 of us at the time, and we all had to turn on our computers in a specific sequence to avoid blowing the circuit breaker for the whole building.”

After six months of frustration, BioWare moved to a location on Whyte Avenue for a few years, eventually landing in a building on Calgary Trail and 45th Avenue, where it remained for over 15 years. Over that time, it released some of the most successful games of all time, such as 1998’s Baldur’s Gate, a smash hit which was credited with saving the role-playing game genre, which later included BioWare games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and, more recently, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises.

Never did Zeschuk, who retired from the gaming industry at the end of 2012, think that the company he started out of his basement would one day occupy three stories in a downtown skyscraper.

Last fall, BioWare moved into a custom-built 75,000-square-foot space in the EPCOR Tower. Aside from the ability to comfortably house its existing 300 employees, the space will allow the company to continue to expand in the coming years.

Its amenities are abundant: In addition to the traditional features, the new office boasts audio recording rooms, an arcade, quiet rooms for employees to take breaks, and a motion-capture studio.

Gaming giant Electronic Arts purchased BioWare in 2007 in a whopping $860 million US deal, but BioWare has continued to operate in Edmonton since being acquired by the California-based superdeveloper, maintaining its roots in the community and its identity.

Although Zeschuk left BioWare almost eight years ago, he’s glad that the company has chosen to reinvest in Edmonton, and downtown in particular.

“I know someone who works at BioWare who decided with his wife to sell their house in Summerside and move downtown,” he says. “There’s a lifestyle factor involved that I think appeals to a lot of the employees who work at the company, and I think it will help them lure talent from elsewhere. It makes the prospect of moving to Edmonton a lot more attractive, especially to young professionals.”

But BioWare isn’t the only gaming company that has recently moved into a new office in town.

England-based technology startup Improbable opened a branch in Edmonton in the fall of 2018, led by Top 40 Under 40 alumnus Aaryn Flynn, former general manager at BioWare who worked at the company for 17 years. Over a third of Improbable Canada’s 70-plus staff is made up of former BioWare employees, and its office in the historic Metals Building is just a few blocks away from BioWare’s new space.

Improbable is known for its SpatialOS, a cloud platform for online games. It allows developers to leverage the cloud to help make their games run faster, look better and feel more realistic. Improbable’s Edmonton team is hard at work on a currently untitled role-playing game that utilizes the SpatialOS platform.

It was the creation of the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit by the provincial government in 2018 — which offered a 25 per cent refundable tax credit for labour costs — that helped convince Improbable to open an office in Edmonton.

“The door really swung open for investment when the tax credit was brought in,” explains Flynn, who is now general manager, North America, at Improbable. “At the time I was looking to start my own studio here in Edmonton, and Improbable got really excited about the prospect of creating their own games. I was really impressed with their technology, so we were able to come together and start a team here.”

According to Flynn, there are a number of factors that make Edmonton a desirable location for game developers to plant their flags — like the post-secondary institutions that provide new grads, and the city’s multicultural scene. As of 2019, Edmonton was tied with Winnipeg for fourth place among Canadian cities for the most video game companies, following much larger scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, according to Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC).

There are currently 55 companies involved in the gaming industry in Alberta.

“There’s a lot of talent in this city, both technical and creative,” he says. “And there are also favourable economics, like a reasonable cost of living compared to a city like Vancouver or Toronto. Not to mention Edmonton’s revitalized downtown, where a lot of the people who have joined our company from out of town have settled.”

The growth of Edmonton’s gaming industry over the last decade is part of a larger national trend. According to a Nordicity analysis of the Canadian video game industry from 2017, more than 40,000 people were employed on a full-time basis in the video game industry in 2017, up 11 per cent from 2015. In 2017, the video game industry contributed more than $2 billion to Canada’s GDP, as reported by Nordicity.

To help incubate this growth, Alberta’s NDP introduced the digital media tax credit in 2018, but, after just a year, the UCP ended the program, much to the outspoken frustration of companies in the industry.

With the removal of the tax credit, there are fears the Alberta scene might stagnate compared to other provinces, like British Columbia and Ontario, where tax credits and other incentives still exist.

“It was super disappointing to see the tax credit discontinued,” says Flynn. “When you look at the level playing field it made for our business and many other businesses in Edmonton, it made a lot of sense. I think its removal means that we’re less likely to be on any game development or any other creative endeavour’s radar for growth. The business case for growth has become that much more difficult when you can receive great support in other provinces.

“But we’ve got a great blueprint here, we’re happy with the team we’ve assembled, and we’re excited about what we’re building. We’re just one part of a community that together is building a new culture in Edmonton. It’s satisfying that other people are starting to see what I’ve seen in Edmonton for the past 30 years.”

This article appears in the June 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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