Manitoba Boasts More Talented Game Developers Than You May Think

I had the opportunity in early January to spend two fast-paced days in Winnipeg, meeting some of Manitoba’s leading game developers. My host for the trip was New Media Manitoba (NMM), the province’s interactive industry advocacy group.

My role with NMM is to assist their member companies in making key business connections at the forthcoming Game Developers Conference. I’ve been in a similar role for Ontario for the last three years as well. In both cases, the goal is to set up one-on-one meetings between the province’s studios and many of my own publisher and first party connections, as well as hosting an invite-only networking dinner at the show.

But in the weeks leading up to GDC, my mandate is first to get to know Manitoba’s game development talent and my January trip gave me some great insight into what this region has to offer. Two days of zipping back and forth to studios across Winnipeg in my host’s Smartcar, all the while girding myself against the cold—”It’s actually much warmer than last week!”—gave me what wound up being a crash course on the area’s game development sector.

Apart from the financial incentives of locating an interactive studio in Manitoba (a 40% labor tax credit, versus BC’s 17.5%, for example), the Winnipeg region also has two major universities feeding talent into the developer ecosystem: the University of Manitoba, and the University of Winnipeg. And despite the lack of an Electronic Arts or Ubisoft spinning off startups, there is a good number of high-potential small to medium game studios in the region.

The largest games studio in Winnipeg is Noah-Decter Jackson’s Complex Games, a 30-person outfit located on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Complex is hard at work on their own IP, an iPad game called Iron Skies, as well as getting set to launch a new mobile title with one of Canada’s largest broadcasters. Some of their previous titles include Epic Win (iOS), Wee Curl (Wii) and Battle Bears (iOS). The company works out of a converted storage unit, which is just a bit more charming than it sounds, but definitely makes Noah’s funding go much further than it would in Vancouver or Toronto.

Cogmation Robotics, a games studio founded by robotic engineers, is on the verge of launching the officially licensed Lego MindStorms simulation to the educational market. A software-based MindStorms comes at a much lower cost to educators and gives every kid in the classroom access to the same parts. It’s an “of course” sort of product that’s very exciting, but not the full extent of Cogmation’s efforts either—the studio is also working on a consumer robotics game for iPad.

Zenfri, headed up by Cory King, the company’s “chief executive artist,” is hard at work on a very ambitious augmented reality game called Clandestine Anomaly. Zenfri won $250,000 worth of CMF Experimental funding in the summer of 2012 and has begun using that investment to develop their IP, a project that will eventually span multiple platforms and an incredibly large universe.

Kal Shariff’s Project Whitecard is a online and mobile game dev studio partially funded by NASA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Whitecard’s primary project, Starlite, is an iOS space adventure that teaches math and science in a narrative-driven game environment. Shariff is a gifted networker and has brokered numerous partnerships in his efforts to take his games to market, in addition to speaking at TEDx Winnipeg.

The province also sports some world-class support services for game developers. In particular, I visited Dacapo, an audio production studio that is as professional as any outfit I’ve ever seen. Clinton Skibitzky, owner of Dacapo, tells me his studio boasts their own database of 140 non-union voice actors they call upon to do any project with a VO component.

No respectable indie game dev launches without a video trailer, and to that end Kert Gartner has perfected the art. Kert’s done promotional videos for Canabalt 2p, Hundreds, Spirits, Jack Lumber, Offspring Fling and more, generating hundreds of thousands of views for his clients. Nearly every element of his videos are done by him and his crew, all for a very reasonable price. I left convinced I’d use Kert’s services for my own product, PlayRank.

Rounding out Manitoba’s vibrant scene is a collection of early-stage game startups such as Brett Gale’s Playhouse Entertainment, Evodant, Electric Monk and Dark Spark. Anyone wishing to meet more of Manitoba’s leading digital talents could attend the monthly Secret Handshake meetup, which often attracts up to 150 creative professionals from interactive and beyond.

In short, Manitoba looks like it will be a more than viable destination for games companies in the coming years. While the industry there would benefit from a large game developer or publisher taking up residence, it could also improve via the addition of game-specific higher education programs. While there I saw progress toward both possibilities, giving me every reason to believe we’ll be hearing much more about Manitoba game developers in the near future.