Game developers chart a new course

· The Pulse

Edmonton's gaming scene owes much to trailblazer BioWare, but the next generation of developers is doing things differently.

"I think BioWare has really been the foundation on games here in Edmonton and Alberta," said Derek Kwan, president of Interactive Arts Alberta. "I think without BioWare we'd be close to Calgary, (which has) a pretty strong indie scene. But Edmonton's game-dev community is probably around twice the size of Calgary's."

Kwan's non-profit organizes the annual Game Discovery Exhibition (GDX), which next takes place from July 19 to 23 at NAIT and K-Days. Among the speakers is Trent Oster, who was at BioWare in its earliest days but left in 2009, two years after the company was acquired by AAA gaming corporation Electronic Arts (EA).

"Electronic Arts is an interesting animal once you understand it. It has a fundamental need to generate money on a fairly short-term basis," Oster told Taproot. "They need to make a lot of money to pay all the bills, because they've got thousands of employees."

Founded in Edmonton in 1995, BioWare had its first smash success with its second game, Baldur's Gate, in 1998. Success continued, and Elevation Partners bought BioWare in 2005, then sold it to EA in 2007. BioWare is today best known for its original series Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, plus licensed work for entertainment properties like Star Wars.

BioWare put Edmonton on the map as a market where ambitious game development was possible. But today's developers don't necessarily want to follow in that company's footsteps. Not even Oster, as it turns out. He said he wanted to spend more time on games he felt were more daring, to take greater risks that yielded greater rewards. He co-founded Beamdog in 2009 alongside fellow former BioWare employee Cameron Tofer for two main reasons.

"One of them was creative agency, being able to make products that are stimulating and interesting to us, and ones that we believed were ahead of where the market was going," Oster said. "The other part of it really came down to the financials. When you're at a big company, you're taking the risks. If the game screws up, you could get fired. Why not get the rewards that go along with that? Because you're taking most of the risk, the creative and career risk, just assume some of the financial risk (as well)."

Beamdog began by developing and publishing expanded and enhanced versions of MDK2 and Baldur's Gate, titles previously handled by BioWare. In 2022, the studio reached a milestone by releasing an early access version of its first game based on original intellectual property: MythForce, which is set to be released on Sept. 12.

"We thought that being able to build a game that was very quickly visually differentiated from other video games was of great value. So when you look at MythForce, it's obvious it's not Call of Duty, it's obvious it's not Assassin's Creed. It's something different. And that visual identifiability was very important to us," Oster said.

Two young people hold video-game controllers and react to what's on the monitor while others and watch inside an exhibition hall.

Attendees at GDX 2022 were captivated by the exhibition's indie game programming. This year's edition will be three times the size. (Jerry Jin/Jin Media)

Aspyr, an American game developer owned by Swedish holding company Embracer Group, bought Beamdog in 2022. Oster is navigating the acquisition differently than he did when BioWare became part of EA.

"We're in a curious space because we were fully independent, but now we're owned by Embracer (Group). So we're part of a larger conglomerate, but at the same time, we retain a lot of our independence," Oster said. "The easiest way to be AAA is to say, 'I don't care how much this costs, this is exactly what we're doing.' And I think our approach to it is much more, 'Here are two things that really matter to us, and we will spend what it takes to accomplish these two things, but (for) everything else, we need to be very cognizant of where that budget is and where we're spending our effort and our time and our money.'"

Oster's bet on himself appears to be paying off. Dean Roskell, another BioWare alumnus, hopes to see similar success by also standing out from the pack with his studio Iron Goblin.

"I'm in this industry because I'm passionate about creating great things," Roskell told Taproot. "There are games out there that are not being created yet, and not being played yet."

Roskell spent five years with BioWare starting in 2011. He too felt the corporate structure wasn't the right fit, and believes major studios spend too much effort chasing trends at the expense of high-quality, original content. He founded Iron Goblin in 2020 in an effort to do things his own way.

"I feel very confident about my ability to design a game, (but) I've got to learn how to do the business side," he recalled thinking at the time. "(I'm leaving) deals on the table where I don't feel it would be right for the studio."

Iron Goblin's first game remains something of a secret as Roskell sorts out the business end, but he did say it will belong to the massive market share of fantasy role-playing games based on Dungeons & Dragons.

"I think the mechanical and the thematic side of Dungeon & Dragons have been captured extremely well over the years," he said. "But I think the sort of emotional problem-solving feel of personal creative and personal expression elements are the bits that are more lacking in video games right now."

Roskell credits BioWare with being "the foundation" of why "there's an industry at all" in Edmonton. Originally from the UK, Roskell made Edmonton home specifically to work at BioWare. He said most people who left BioWare during his tenure ended up leaving the city as well, but he saw a reason to stick it out.

"I think there's the capacity within Edmonton, with maybe a bit more growth, for there to be about 10 really good studios here," he recalled thinking when he quit. "Meaning studios that have the capacity where somebody can apply that for a job."

Oster and Roskell weren't the only ones to see potential in gaming entrepreneurship when their time at BioWare came to an end. New studios spawned by former staff run the gamut from hyper-indie operations like Copychaser Games, which is planning to release Times & Galaxy in 2024, to big studios like Inflexion Games, which is working on Nightingale, one of this year's most hotly anticipated games.

GDX puts spotlight on local indies

Kwan and his team are actively monitoring the growth of the gaming in industry Edmonton and the rest of the province, and hope to reflect it in their GDX programming.

"GDX is actually Canada's largest indie gaming festival by attendance. And it's larger because Alberta's games industry is getting bigger," Kwan said. "We really want to make sure that people know and understand that games aren't just about the big blockbusters, but that the experience of games can be super, super wide."

The conference portion of GDX runs July 19 and 20 at NAIT's Productivity and Innovation Centre. It will feature a keynote from Oster on burnout, a panel with Beamdog's human resources director Kara Brown on empowering women in games, guest speakers from Montreal and New York City on building an indie gaming community, discussions on AI, and more. Tickets are available now.

The exhibition component takes place from July 21 to 23 at the Edmonton EXPO Centre and is open to all who purchase K-Days admission. Kwan says it will be three times the size of last year's exhibition, and will include a "steampunk-themed speakeasy," the opportunity to play indie games and meet developers, and more.