Indie Identities: The Rise of Independent Entrepreneurs in Canada

Can indie game developers be entrepreneurs with commercial intents and do meaningful and innovative work? “Absolutely!” says Jason Della Rocca, cofounder of Execution Labs, who looks back at the growth of independent game studios in Canada.

As I write these words, I am sitting in Casablanca having just witnessed a truly emotional moment where a room full of game developers just broke down in tears. During the closing of the first ever game development conference in Morocco, one developer got up and gave a rousing speech on their collective potential to create games that will have an unimaginable impact on the world in 20 years.

Maghreb Game Conference 2016

It was an impactful statement given that the only major studio in the country, Ubisoft Casablanca, had shut down a few months prior, and that most developers largely still consider game creation as a solo hobby rather than a real career with economic potential.

It was an honour to participate in that conference and play a role in pushing that community of game makers forward. Seeing things in such an embryonic state in Morocco stands in stark contrast to how far the Canadian game development sector—particularly the independent community—has come.

As an example, that same day, while browsing Twitter, I saw the post from Montreal-based Outerminds, declaring that their latest game, PewDiePie’s Tuber Simulator, had been downloaded nearly twelve million times in two weeks and now tops the charts.

Of course, not everything is smooth sailing in Canada. The recent closure of Roadhouse Interactive—and the loss of 100+ jobs—reminds us that the global gaming industry is fiercely competitive.

While Morocco has many tangible hurdles to overcome (e.g., developers cannot collect in-app purchases via Google Play due to payment frictions), the lack of entrepreneurship among game developers is their most critical missing ingredient. The same could have been said about Canada’s indie community up to just a few years ago.

I’ve seen the pattern all over the world. The initial pioneers are ‘purists’ driven only by passion and the desire to harness the power of games to express themselves and explore new forms of interaction. I often refer to them as starving artists, who suffer and sacrifice everything for their art. They inspire others to pursue their artistic dreams—largely with no commercial intent or expectations. Then, oops, one of these starving artists ‘accidentally’ succeeds and makes significant revenue. This changes the expectations of some and also opens up the debate as to whether moneymaking artists are still real artists if they are no longer suffering.

This more romantic notion of being an indie developer was spurred on when Canadian developer Phil Fish was portrayed as the stereotypical starving artist in Indie Game: The Movie. It inspired many indies around the globe and framed an identity issue around being a starving artist doing meaningful work versus being a money-grabbing sell-out. It was a binary choice, and you had to choose.

Going back just a few years, I’ve seen first-hand this identity struggle as new independent studios were being built across Canada. On the one hand, the co-founders being driven by their passion to create and express, and on the other hand, the need to be entrepreneurial and savvy at business in order to succeed.

The reality is that it’s not a binary choice. You can be an entrepreneur with commercial intent, and do meaningful and innovative work. In fact, I would argue that it is the only way to truly succeed in today’s highly competitive global game market. These indie entrepreneurs are all around us: from Jonathan Blow (Braid, Witness) to Jenova Chen (Journey, Flower, Flow) to Rami Ismail (Ridiculous Fishing, Nuclear Throne) to Tim Schaffer (Psychonauts). These are just few of the amazing developers who are creating visionary works and doing so as savvy businesspeople with commercial intent.

In Canada, I often point to Nathan Vella as an excellent example of an indie entrepreneur. As the co-founder of Capybara Games in Toronto, he pushes the studio to do amazingly creative work (e.g., Sword & Sworcery was a visual masterpiece that remains to this day one of the best-selling iPad games). And, he is a wicked sharp businessperson ensuring the studio thrives over the long-term.

In Vancouver, Jamie Cheng is another great example: he does meaningful creative work with a deliberate business-focused approach. Klei Entertainment’s success with Don’t Starve is testament to his dedication as an indie entrepreneur.

If the business plan for Canadian indies five years ago was ‘accidental’ (i.e., build something and hope to get lucky), we are now witnessing this much more deliberate and intentional approach—which is a refreshing change. And a shift that is necessary for those who have a desire to build sustainable companies that are capable of creating economic prosperity over time.

(Side note: Being a starving indie-style artist is still valid and great, and speaks to the power of games as a form of human expression. But the chances for starving artists to also ‘accidentally’ become financially successful are infinitely small, and getting smaller by the day.)

It is amazing to see the entrepreneurial spirit alive and kicking among Canadian indies. The level of business acumen is on the rise. The number of events and conferences focused on the business of games are numerous (e.g., GameOn Ventures, Montreal International Game Summit). As well as informal sharing and learning among peers. Regional associations are playing a key role, as are co-working spaces like Gamma Space (Toronto) and GamePlay Space (Montreal) that work hard to ensure there is an entrepreneurial angle to programs.

This is being recognized on a global scale by publishers and platform holders. During a recent visit to GamePlay Space, a team of reps from Steam/Valve said how it was a no-brainer to come to Montreal and spend time with all the city’s amazing indie studios.

Another great example was seeing Guillaume Provost on stage at E3 during Microsoft’s annual Xbox press conference. Showing off their latest game We Happy Few, ranked among the top-10 most buzz-worthy games alongside the latest instalments in legendary franchises like Zelda and Call of Duty.

While We Happy Few is a compelling game that deserves its place on stage, it did not get there by accident. Ask Guillaume about the journey to the Xbox press conference, and he will tell an amazing story of a deliberate marketing and business development strategy crafted for that sole purpose.

In many ways, it feels like Canada’s indie community is just now taking off and positioning itself to kick ass on a global scale. That indie spirit, driven by passion and a desire to innovate, will be critical. But so will entrepreneurial skills and the deliberate choices made with respect to business strategy.

The Moroccans are just now starting to struggle with this question of identity and purpose, and we are lucky that Canadian developers have already struggled through these hurdles. Hopefully we can inspire them, and compete with them side by side in the not too distant future.

Jason Della Rocca
Jason Della Rocca is a game industry entrepreneur, funding advisor, and cluster expert. As the cofounder of Executions Labs, he was a hands-on early stage investor in over 20 independent game studios in North America and Europe. Between 2000- and 2009, he served as the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). As a sought-after expert on the game industry, Jason has lectured at conferences and universities worldwide.
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